The Spanish had found in Pedro Menendez de Aviles the patient adelantado needed to develop a lasting community on the Florida peninsular. In the important early years, Menendez personally developed the struggling settlement at St. Augustine and since he could keep the position for as long as he wished, he provided the continuity the colony needed.

Menendez's first goal after the defeat of the French was to gain the friendship of the native Floridians. After years of mistreatment by conquistadores, the Indians had reason to fear the European settlement. In the winter of 1566, Menendez took a small fleet around the state. He had two motives. First, his son had been shipwrecked in the Gulf and hoped to find him. Second, he wanted to sign the first treaty ever made with the Calusa. He was successful in the latter goal when the Calusa accepted a trade of Spanish gold and sailors for more useful cloth and trading items. The Spanish, of course, had more than religious and cultural conversion as goals in their Indian policy. The Indians would provide a free labor supply to grow crops and raise livestock for the coastal settlements.

Within two years Menendez fortified the Atlantic coast line. He constructed stone forts at St. Augustine and San Mateo (Fort Caroline) and wooden outposts at Santa Elena and San Felipe in present-day South Carolina. He built watchtowers at Cape Canaveral and Biscayne Bay to locate endangered treasure ships and pirate vessels. The entire system provided the Spanish gold fleets with the added protective barrier against coastal raiders.

Despite Menendez's coastal plan, Florida was still a dangerous frontier outpost. When the adelantado visited Spain to recruit settlers, a revengeful French trader named Dominic de Gourgues, with the help of the Timucuans under a revengeful Saturiba, attacked and destroyed San Mateo.



Florida was part of the huge and complex Spanish mercantile empire, regarded with jealousy by the rest of Europe for its size and wealth. Florida was a Royal colony like all Spanish colonies. Florida was the lawful property of the Spanish Crown and all appointments and decisions belonged to the King, his advisors, and the Council of the Indies in Havana. The Council also served as Supreme Court in legal disputes. To improve shipping, the Council set up the House of Trade (Casa de Contratacion), which financed all missions and handled the gold fleets.

In 1570, the Spanish Empire was divided into two districts, New Spain (Mexico) and Peru, each with a viceroy selected by the king. Florida was a province of New Spain, an area encompassing Mexico, Central America, Venezuela, and the Caribbean Islands. With such rich colonies in the system, the viceroy regarded Florida as an impoverished backwater not worthy of great financing nor promotion.

The Council was convinced only that Florida was of strategic military importance, as a front door (with Cuba) to the Gulf of Mexico. Menendez' hopes to develop a plantation economy was generally ignored by the Council. and it was up to Menendez to interest investors in such projects.


The Governor of La Florida was responsible for the welfare of all the colonists. Havana was three sailing days away. Yet La Florida maintained the northern flank of protection for the great Spanish gold fleets. In was thus logical that all of Florida's Governors, including Menendez, had a military background or previous colonial experience.

The Governor of Spanish Florida served as general of the army, chief justice of the court, business manager for the colony's budget, diplomat to the Indians, welfare agent to the poor, construction engineer for the colony's defenses, and religious leader. Such power could have become dictatorial if the Spanish had not developed clever procedures to oversee colonial officials.

By Royal edict, Florida Governors served five years if they came from Europe and three years if they came from another colony. It was, however, not usual for governors to waits several years for their replacements to actually show up.

Governors were required to post one-half of their earnings in bond in Spain to pay any heavy fines imposed for incompetence. Although Mennedez's successor, son-in-law Hernando de Mirando, was removed from office, Florida had a long history of dedicated leaders. There was little corruption, because they all feared the residencia. Near the end of a term of office, the Crown sent an undercover agent to evaluate the Governor and the colony. The recommendation from this visita was final.


The Castillo de San Marco, St Augustine 1672-1696


The Governor's first duty was to protect St. Augustine. The construction of forts was the most costly item in the colonial budget. The Indians could be bribed to remain peaceful, but English seadogs and pirates plundering individual Spanish ships along the Florida coast would not be tolerated.

In 1586, the year after the English attempted to start a colony on Roanoke Island (North Carolina), an English fleet under the infamous Sir Francis Drake attacked St Augustine and burnt down most of the houses. This humiliating setback convinced the Spanish to finance a massive fort, Fort San Marcos. The fort did not prevent the city from later burnings, but at least the townsfolk had a place to flee.


Few Florida governors were politicians in a giant bureaucracy, but they were required to administer the law of the Council of the Indies and resolve only petty problems without the consent of the outside. St. Augustine was a military outpost and 70% of the populace was on the Royal payroll. Still, town ans sword politics was a serious concern to most Governors.. To improve matters, a town council or junta of town and military leaders helped solve problems. Unfortunately, most of the village, from guardian of the convent to harbor master to auxiliary bishop was on the Governor's payroll.

The Spanish bureaucracy always buried Governors in paperwork. The autocratic, centralized Spanish system kept St. Augustine supplied with dispatches and edicts. Spain assumed that Florida could carry out a law originally designed for Argentina. With no audiencia, or civil court, the Governor was frequently required to settle minor disputes. An infantry officer was appointed to serve as defense attorney.


In 1579 the Spanish Crown took over the financial support of Florida when no rich nobleman could be located. The Governor was still responsible for the economy, but others made the key rules. Florida could not do business with the nearby English colonies nor could English merchants visit St. Augustine. Florida would never show a profit.

The cost of Florida was paid to the Governor in the form of an annual subsidy or situado. The salaries of every public employee (maybe 90% of the populace) had to come from this subsidy. The Viceroy of New Spain paid the situado until 1714, when after years of complaint of slow service, the annual payments became the duty of the rich Mexican mining town of Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles. The Mexicans were more reliable than the Viceroy, but many bad things could happen to a ship sailing from Veracruz to Havana to St. Augustine.

Menendez had hoped Florida would become an agricultural empire, but the Spaniards stayed along the coast where the soil was sandy. Florida produced the same crops as Cuba, Hispaniola, and Mexico which meant that investment from outside sources never developed. The Indian missions provided vital food supplies.

The most successful farms were developed by Franciscans around the missions in the fertile Alachua and Apalachee regions. The missionaries sold fruits and cotton to St. Augustine. A few civilians began a successful lumber industry along the St. Johns River. Naval products, such as tar, pitch, resin, ship masts, and wood pegs, were shipped to the Atlantic Ocean. Others tried to raise cattle on the Alachua prairie.

In the 1740's Spanish authorities set up a trading firm, the Royal Havana Company, to promote trade and scare off English merchants. The Company did not offer local farmers a price competitive to English merchants in the Carolinas so the project never materialized.
The Florida missions were important to Spanish colonialism. It was up to the mission system to placate the Indians and to develop a profitable trade. To the Spanish Catholic church, it was their destiny to convert all the native Americans.

Menendez was a religious zealot, but he was also obligated to develop a mission system. As a Crown colony, the Governor paid each incoming friar three reales (37c) per day, with additional funds for clothing, shoes, and supplies.

The first mission contract was held by the Jesuits who extended their activity from the three villages of St. Augustine, San Mateo, and Santa Elena, to four coastal forts, on Biscayne Bay, Charlotte Harbor, Tampa Bay, and St. Lucie Inlet. In 1572, the Jesuits withdrew because they lacked the manpower to serve all the migratory Indian tribes. It was no coincidence that when Menendez died, he was buried in the habit of a Franciscan priest.

The Franciscan order took over the contract and arrived in 1593 under Father John de Silva. They started at St. Catherine's Island (Georgia) as their headquarters, because the neighboring Guale Indians were congenial and influential. Time and distance allowed the missionary priests complete independence to operate their system.

Convert-making was a slow process. The Indians had to reside near the wooden mission to study the theology of the Church by lecture and rote memory. The Franciscans often adopted Indian customs to survive. The missionary priests always felt the Church in St. Augustine received money at the expense of the mission system. At its zenith 20,000 Christianized Indians lived around the missions, but this number was perhaps one-tenth of Florida's Indian population when Ponce de Leon arrived.

This conflict within the Church was often between friars born in the New World, the Creoles, and priests raised in Spain, the Peninsulares. The native-born priests ran the missions and resented interference from the Diocese of Cuba and Madrid in India policy. They converted to phonetics many Indian languages to construct Indian Bibles. Ironically the books survived while the tribes and native languages did not. Florida was such a small colony and the risks of ocean travel so dangerous that only two bishops from Cuba visited Florida, and none came to the mission system.

When conflict with English farmers drove the Franciscans out of Guale Territory, they moved their center to the Tallahassee Hills, home of the Apalachees. The military built a fort near Tallahassee called San Luis and bolstered the fur trade. Soon, an extensive missionary system stretched along the Florida Trail from St. Augustine to the Apalachicola River. Only the intrusion of English settlers could destroy the zeal of the Franciscans.



Spain had ignored the Gulf coast because the Spanish gold flotilla sailed along the Atlantic coast. The Spanish in the 1690's discovered that the French had sailed down the Mississippi River in search of warm water ports for its Canadian fur trade. The French would, therefore, cut off La Florida from the New Spain (Mexico).

In 1698, the Council of the Indies sent Andres de Arriola to Pensacola Bay to set up a colony there. The construction of Pensacola did not scare off the French who created Mobile in 1702 and New Orleans in 1718. Serious conflict was prevented when Spain decided to allow France two ports provided no French warships would be allowed in the Gulf.


England, not France, was Florida's greatest threat. Since the start of South Carolina in 1658, English settlers began to invade Florida's mission system. St. Augustine was raided in 1665 and 1668. In 1686 Cuban naval units unsuccessfully attacked Charleston.

Since the Spanish Crown refused to arm the Catholic Indians, the Governor of Florida was helpless to rescue the gradual destruction of mission system. Queen Anne's War (1701-1714) marked the decline of Spanish influence in North America. Governor James Moore of South Carolina brought an army of 1200 militia against St. Augustine. They destroyed the village and destroyed all neighboring missions.

St. Augustine survived this invasion, but Moore sent Yamasee and Chisca Indians into the Tallahassee Hills to destroy the missions there.Spain could not rebuild the missions, which by 1655 had grown as some seventy friars converted 26,000 Indians.By 17ll, there were just twenty friars and 400 active converts, most outside St. Augustine.

In 1733, the English founded Georgia and the situation deteriorated again. Governor James Oglethorpe organized a huge colonial militia to destroy St. Augustine. The Spanish could only retreat into their massive fort and wait for a rescue fleet from Havana. The Spanish sent a fifty-six ship invasion force against Georgia, but in the Battle of Bloody Marsh, the English stopped Spain's last attempt to defend Florida with an offense.


For two hundred years Spain ruled Florida. There was little to view by the 1750's. St. Augustine remained a small garrison town of two thousand soldiers and settlers. The most prosperous merchants were those who operated food services for the troops. On the Gulf side, Pensacola was barely more than a few wooden houses and a fort. The mission system was in ruins.

The greatest weakness of Spanish Florida was its inability to attract families to live there. The rules of Spain forbade the immigration of non-Catholics and any trade with English America. Spaniards refused to settle in Florida. Investors felt their money would be better spent in Cuba and Mexico.

This was Spanish Florida, obviously under-populated and underdeveloped. Its cultural and economic contributions limited to a few places. This would not have been a dangerous situation if the growing English colonies would not be so close and prepared to one day overrun the Florida peninsula.