Unknown to the Indians of Florida, their destiny was being determined by political and economic forces taking place across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe. At the end of the fifteenth century, thousands of daring adventurers would be crossing the ocean to conquer within a few centuries what had taken the Indians thousands to years to inhabit.

This "Age of Exploration" was fostered by the development of maritime technology and the belief in an economic philosophy called mercantilism which decreed that a nation that was not self-sufficient will be dominated by its neighbors. The discovery in 1492 for another hemisphere by Christopher Columbus shfted the need to travel west to the Americas as the focus. European lands located on the Atlantic like Spain, France, and England could now avoid middlemen like the Arabs and Italians to reach the spice and gold of the Far East.


The conquistadors of Spain who ventured into the lands of the Indians were motivated by many forces. The discovery of gold in Mexico and Peru convinced thousands of impoverished Spanish peasants to join the military. Men fropm wealthy families also joined the cause of exploring the New World. Under the rules of primogeniture, younger sons of the nobility would not inherit much of the family estate, but leading a successful colonial mission could give you the funds to build a castle.

Others sought glory and fame, now that the wars with the Moors were over. Only in the New World was there the opportunity for quick advancement in the Spanish military and diplomatic careers.

Finally, there were those who came for spiritual reasons. They were more than just the priests and church leaders. Catholic Spain had a strong missionary zeal, for they had engaged the Muslim infidels for four centuries. The eternal blessing of God would be earned by converting the Americas into Catholic lands.


JUAN PONCE DE LEON who is acknowledged as the discoverer of Florida. Since there existed two ancient maps showing the southern helf of Florida which predate Ponce de Leon's trip to Florida, he did not discover Florida but verified it was part of North America.

The grandson of a famous war hero, Ponce de Leon was trained to be a soldier and public servant. This indicates he was not a man of wealth despite the notability of his family background. When the Moors were defeated, the opportunity for financial advancement shifted to the exploration of the New World. His relatives perhaps got the landlumber on Columbus' huge second voyage. He may have returned to Spain but soon went to Hispaniola with newly appointed governor Nicolas de Ovendo. He defeated the Indians and was given land for a plantation on Hispaniola (Dominican Republic). His duty to serve Spain would end his retirement. Columbus had been made adelantado (military governor) for life, but upon his death, Spanish authorities refused to grant such privileges to his son Diego. The Crown selected Ponce de Leon to colonize Puerto Rico, a task he accomplished with just a few troops and one greyhound who scared the natives.

Ponce de Leon - The First Attempt to Colonize Florida

Meanwhile, Diego Columbus had taken his claim to the courts in Madrid and won his rights. Ponce de Leon was removed from office and felt his good name had been damaged. He was married with three kids and the owner of a succesful farm, but felt he had been dishonored by his removal of office. Not wishing to serve Diego, Ponce de Leon obtained title to explore the Upper Bahamas and areas to the North. Ponce de Leon was not the real discoverer of Florida - it was shown on two maps prior to 1513, but no one knew if it was a huge island or part of North America.

In March of 1513, Ponce de Leon sailed into the Bahamas headed toward Florida, then considered by slave hunters and fishermen to be a large island. If Florida was not an island in the Bahamas, Ponce de Leon could probably develop it without the interference of Diego Columbus. He was seeking a spiritual rebirth and a return to his status as a great leader with new honors , not a physical rebirth with some wonder water. Although many included the King believed in a Fountain of Youth, Ponce de Leon did not even mention such a place in any of his reports. Later Spanish historians noted Ponce de Leon's quest for the fantastic spring, but none of his writings discuss the Fountain of Youth.

On Easter Sunday, March 27, 1513, his crew sighted land, probably Abaco Island. Six days later he reached the Florida coast and sailing northward to land from Melbourne to St. Augustine. He named the place "Pescua Florida", "the place of flowers," perhaps in honor of Easter Sunday. On the return voyage he encountered Indians near Jupiter Inlet and charted the important features of the Florida East Coast. He rounded the Dry Tortugas to explore the Gulf of Mexico and entered Charlotte Harbor.

He realized that Florida was more than a large island. He saw the chief Calusa village near Mound Key and discovered this tribe was unfriendly. He selected Estero Island to repair his vessel and escaped as bands of Calusa descended on the intruders.


It would be eight years before Ponce de Leon could get funding for a second trip to Florida. Hernando Cortez had conquered the Aztecs and Spanish interests shifted to Central America. Ponce de Leon was able by 1521 to get only small financing.

In the winter of 1521, Ponce de Leon headed for Calusa Territory with a 500 man force, including Florida's first priests, farmers, and artisans. They landed on the Gulf beaches between Charlotte Harbor and Estero Bay. His goal was to establish a permanent colony in South Florida.

The choice of location proved weak. Requiring food and fresh water, Ponce de Leon led some troops into the dense coastal forest for a spring. Suddenly, the conquistadors were ambushed from all sides by Calusa warriors. The European weapons were rendered ineffective by the close combat. Ponce de Leon was pierced in the thigh by a reed arrow.

The soldiers carried their wounded adelantado to the ships. The colonists agreed to return to Cuba and evacuate the project. Ponce de Leon promised to return, but his health deteriorated and he never saw his discovery again.


Florida was visited by other explorers, but the lack of visible rewards discouraged attempts at settlement. In 1516 Diego Miruelo mapped Pensacola Bay. Alonso Alvarez de Pineda, a survivor of an ill-fated landing in Calusa country in 1517, traveled the Florida shore to the Mississippi River, verifying Ponce de Leon's claim Florida was not an island.

In 1520, another merchant in search of Indian slaves for Caribbean mines, Vasquez de Ayollon, mapped the Carolina coast. Spain claimed the entire region as part of Florida.


The wealth of Mexico inspired many explorers, but none more seriously than PANFILO DE NARVAEZ. Narvaez was a veteran Caribbean soldier who had been hired by Spanish authorities in 1520 to overthrow Hernan Cortes' tyrannical rule. Cortes captured Narvaez and imprisoned his would-be conqueror for three years. Upon his release, the one-eyed soldier sailed to Madrid to obtain a grant to colonize the Gulf Coast from northern Mexico to Florida,

It was at the Spanish court where Narvaez met a devout nobleman named Cabeza de Vaca, who wished to duplicate the exploits of his grandfather who conquered the Canary Islands. The red-haired conquistador hired de Vaca as a partner and together in 1527, landed north of the mouth of Tampa Bay with an armada of five ships and 400 soldiers.

At a nearby Indian village, the explorers discovered some crude gold ornaments. Infatuated with the idea of uncovering another Mexico, Narvaez seized as hostage the regional Indian leader Ucita. When the chief wouldn't reveal the source of the treasure, undoubtedly the result of long range trade, Narvaez chopped off the Indian's nose. Ucita made up a story about the great wealth of the Apalachee.


The Ruthless Narvaez Had Five Ships and Over 400 Soldiers

Against de Vaca's judgment, Narvaez ordered his ships back to Cuba, while the rest of his forces headed northward in search of gold. The Narvaez expedition would ruin Spanish-Indian relations for decades. They left behind a legacy of violence and trickery. In the Tallahassee Hills, Narvaez would find only farming villages.

Narvaez's fleet returned to Tampa Bay, but found no sign of the expedition which was still marching along Apalachee territory. They ended their search and returned to Cuba, where Narvaez's wife hired a group of sailors to find her husband. It was this rescue party that discovered what they believed was a message on a reed on a deserted beach. A young Sevillian Juan Ortiz went to retrieve the message and was captured by the Indian trap.

Ortiz claimed he was brought to Chief Ucita to be executed, but rescued by the daughter's chief in a scene which preceded the famous Pocahontas story. In fact, many believe John Smith "stole" the Ortiz story to tell of his great dealings with the Indians in Virginia, since the Pocahontas legend was written four years after the Indian woman's death. While Ortiz was fighting to survive, Narvaez was wandering Panhandle Florida in search of treasure. Narvaez finally returned to the Gulf at St. Marks and, assuming Mexico to only be a few days journey to the west, constructed five long canoes. They sailed as far as the Texas coast where a storm capsized the boats.

Narvaez drowned. Cabeza de Vaca and four other survivors reached an Indian village where they resided for two years. In was not until July of 1536 and six thousand miles that de Vaca reached Mexico City to report the fate of Narvaez' 280 man mission into Florida.

DeSoto's Greed Sent Him on a Wild Trip Across The South


Cabeza de Vaca became a living legend among Spanish administrators in the Caribbean and no one listened more intently than HERNANDO DE SOTO, a wealthy captain from Pizarro's Inca conquest. He petitioned Spain to become Governor of Cuba and adelantado of La Florida.

In the spring of 1539, he sailed for Tampa Bay, leaving his wife as Governor of Cuba. With seven vessels, six hundred soldiers, three Jesuit friars, and several dozen civilians, he fully intended to start a settlement. On May 25, he landed near Tampa Bay, probably in the mouth of the Manatee River. He sent out his cavalry to contact the neighboring Indian tribes.

At a village called Hirrihigua, the Spanish met Ucita, the noseless victim of earlier Spanish cruelty. The cacique led DeSoto to a nearby village where he found Juan Ortiz, alive after twelve years with the Indians. DeSoto recruited Ortiz as an interpreter and guide.


Historians have debated the route of DeSoto along Florida's Gulf Coast for years. While many state DeSoto landed in Manatee County, where the National DeSoto Memorial is located, others like Donald E. Sheppard, believe DeSoto landed in Charlotte Harbor.

Like Narvaez before him, DeSoto was so attracted to the tales of rich Indian villages to the North, he deserted all plans to establish a real colony. He sent the fleet back to Cuba and left only a base camp on the Manatee River. With an army of Indian prisoners as guides and a herd of hogs for food, DeSoto's army marched inland from the marshy coastline. Still, it was summer and the mosquitos and heat penetrated the armored woolen uniforms. At Ocali, they found a Timucuan village notable only for its agriculture.

The Timucuan convinced DeSoto to visit the Apalachee in the Tallhassee Hills. By capturing local leaders, the Spanish reached the Apalachee where corn and shelter were common. By now, the greed for wealth was the major motive for the conquistador.

In the spring of 1540, DeSoto's forces with their herd of hogs headed northwestward into Georgia, never to enter Florida again. For the next three years, DeSoto would explore the frontiers of Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi. At Guachoya (Ferriday) in Arkansas, the great soldier died of the fever. Juan Ortiz would later drown. Only a few of DeSoto's troops survived the long journey.


Not all Florida missions were economic in scope. The Government of Mexico financed a mission by FATHER LUIS CANCER, a Dominican priest. In 1549, Father Cancer, three other missionaries, and a Christianized Indian maiden named Magdalene arrived on the beaches outside Tampa Bay. Considering the Indian's previous experiences with white men in this area, it was a poor choice of location.

Cancer left two men and Magdalene on the beach while he searched for safe harbor inside the bay. When he returned he spotted only the Indian girl on the beach. Despite warnings by the crew, Father Cancer elected to go ashore. He was quickly surrounded by Indians who clubbed him to death. The survivors of the party returned to Mexico to quell any future missionary proposals for Florida.


In 1559 Don Luis Velasco, Viceroy of Mexico, decided that a Florida settlement on the Gulf was essential in helping shipwrecked sailors and discouraging French trading visits. He chose a wealthy, religious, but temperamental soldier named TRISTAN DE LUNA to establish a colony.

With an enormous force of thirteen ships and 1500 soldiers, de Luna landed at Pensacola Bay. Velasco's choice of leader proved unworthy. Leaving the ships in the Bay for two months while he explored the region. He sent his aide Villafane to the Atlantic Coast to erect a colony rather than consolidating his efforts. A storm destroyed five of his ships.

With water-logged supplies, de Luna turned to the nearby Nanipacna Indians along the Alabama River for food. The local Indians, remembering DeSoto stayed away. The colonizing effort was replaced with a desperate need to stay alive. After a winter of near starvation, the settlers tried to plant crops on the sandy coastal soil and gave up. The expedition was canceled.


In 1992 a team from the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research found the remains of a Colonial Spanish ship in Pensacola Bay. The ship may have been one of de Luna's 1559 ships destroyed in a storm.


The disastrous results at Pensacola disillusioned King Philip II of Spain. He was one of the few men in Madrid who understood that Spanish settlements in Florida would discourage English or French activities against the Spanish gold flotillas in the Gulf of Mexico.

Between 1513 and 1560, the Spanish had failed to construct a single town in La Florida despite numerous expenditures. Experienced soldiers like Narvaez and DeSoto had chosen treasure for settlement.

On September 23, 1561, the monarch reluctantly announced that Spain was no longer interested in promoting colonial expeditions into Florida. For all practical considerations, the Spanish seemed willing to let Florida to fall into obscurity.