The Conquistadores: God, Gold and Guns In La Florida

Pedro Menendez de Avils

Spain colonized Florida beginning in the 16th century with a brutal military presence, and the establishment of “The Mission System.”
Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida

The Spanish history of Florida begins even before Columbus made his initial voyage in 1492, for it was in that year that the Spanish, under the rule of  Ferdinand and Isabella, expelled the last Muslim stronghold from the Iberian Peninsula, forced Jews to convert to Catholicism or leave the country, enabled the Inquisition, and financed the first of Columbus’  three voyages. The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, divided the entire world into Spanish and Portuguese zones for colonization. This created an enormous push for the kingdoms of Europe to begin a competition to colonize the Western Hemisphere, Africa, and Asia.

By 1513 Balboa established that another ocean (Pacific) lay beyond the lands named after Amerigo Vespucci, who proved that Columbus had reached an unknown continental land mass that still bears his name.

The Portuguese colonized Brazil early on, but by the time St. Augustine was established in 1565, Spain had colonized South America as far south as portions of present day Argentina, and all of Central America, Mexico and a swath of North America that stretched from Baja California all the way to La Florida. The adventures and misadventures of the Spanish in Florida set off a chain of events that shaped modern day Apalachicola’s existence.

The Conquistadores were absolutely ruthless in their colonizations. After centuries of war and ethnic cleansing of the Moors, who had previously invaded and conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula, the focus of Spanish existence became the taming of the New World, and importing its gold.

In the process, native populations were decimated. In 1492 it is estimated there were 50 million inhabitants of North and South America.  The Conquistadores brought with them diseases for which the native population had no immunities. Those Old World diseases, coupled with the Conquistadores’ talents for genocide and atrocities, killed off an estimated 80% of the native population of the Western Hemisphere by the end of the American Revolution.

During the period between 1500 and 1560, explorers like Juan Ponce de Leon, Hernando DeSoto, Pánfilo de Narváez and others who were sent by Spain neglected settlement, concentrating instead on a search for gold and glory.

One such Conquistador, who figures prominently in local history, Pánfilo de Narváez landed near Tampa Bay in 1527 with five ships and 400 troops. Finding crude gold ornaments amongst  the natives, de Narvaez kidnapped their leader Ucita. When Chief Ucita refused to disclose the source of these trinkets, the Spaniard cut of Ucita’s nose. To save himself and his people, Ucita fed de Narváez a fanciful tale about the great wealth of the Apalachee.


Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida

Pánfilo de Narváez sent the fleet back to Cuba, and headed out overland for the Tallahassee Hills where he found native farming villages instead of gold. This expedition left a legacy of violence and distrust that would poison Spanish and Indian relations for decades. Eventually, de Narváez made his way to the mouth of the St. Marks River, constructed boats and set sail for Mexico thinking he was only days away from Mexico. Shipwrecked near Texas in a storm, it wasn’t until 1536 that survivors made it to Mexico City with the tale of Pánfilo de Narváez’s demise.

By 1559 when Tristan de Luna arrived at Pensacola Bay with thirteen ships and 1500 soldiers with orders to establish a permanent settlement, Spanish Florida was in a bad way. The failure of the de Luna expedition caused King Philip II to issue a proclamation rejecting further attempts to colonize the Gulf Coast of Florida. This emboldened the French Huguenots to challenge Spanish sovereignty over Florida. The French foray lead to the unanticipated founding of St. Augustine in 1565, which is now the longest inhabited settlement in North America. The Spanish stayed in Florida another two hundred years.

They were not uneventful years as the French came down the Mississippi River establishing Mobile in 1702 and New Orleans in 1718, effectively cutting off overland access from La Florida from New Spain (Mexico). Queen Anne’s War (1701-1714) proved Spain’s major undoing in Florida when Carolina Governor James Moore sent a force to destroy St. Augustine which was largely effective. Settlements around the Tallahassee Hills and the Spanish mission system came under repeated attacks. The Spanish crown failed to provide adequate defense of the territory, refusing even to arm the thousands of Indians they had converted to Catholicism.

In 1733 the British established yet another colony in the Americas called Georgia, and Governor James Oglethorpe sent a force to St. Augustine with the intent of destroying it once and for all. The 1739 offensive consisted of seven British Navy ships, regular army troops from South Carolina and Georgia, as well as militia volunteers, approximately 600 Creek and Uchise Indians, and around 800 slaves.

Spanish Governor Manuel de Montiano’s forces included regulars, inhabitants of Ft. Mose (a settlement of former slaves who escaped plantations) and a band of Seminoles under the command Francisco Menendez. The British were forced to retreat to Savannah, but the end of Spanish rule in Florida became a foregone conclusion.

Captain George Washington in the French and Indian War. Painting by Junius Brutus Stearns, circa 1850. Courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Captain George Washington in the French and Indian War.
Painting by Junius Brutus Stearns, circa 1850. Courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Less than twenty-five years later, in 1763, Britain had defeated France and Spain in the French and Indian Wars. A treaty was signed in Paris in February of that year in which the three countries ceded and exchanged colonies as distant as the Philippines and the Caribbean. Spain ceded all of Florida in exchange for Havana, Cuba which had been lost to the British a number of years earlier.

King George III issued a proclamation in October of 1763 on the governance of the various colonies it now held. Florida was divided into east and west. The area from Lake Ponchartrain to the Apalachicola River became West Florida, and everything east of the Apalachicola River became East Florida.

The stage had been set for Panton, Leslie & Co., land grabs of epic proportions, and the Forbes Purchase.

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