Setting the stage: The early Spanish Period in Florida 1565–1763
By Judith A. Bense
Featured image above: An artist’s rendering of the landing of Don Tristan de Luna at present-day Pensacola in 1559.
Florida was home for thousands of years to Indigenous people who hunted, fished, and raised crops and their families along its waterways. Evidence of their communities are preserved at Crystal River near Homosassa, Lake Jackson Mounds in Tallahassee, and the Bickel Mound Site near Bradenton.
But the way of life of Native Americans on the Florida peninsula would inexorably change with the arrival of the Spanish. Soon after Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492. Ponce de Léon in 1513 led the first of three early explorations of Florida by Spain, followed by Pánfilo de Narváez in 1528 and Hernando de Soto in 1539 to 1540.
Settlement came later: Ponce de Léon made the first attempt in 1521 near Charlotte Harbor. In 1559, Tristan de Luna Arellano brought 1,500 colonists, soldiers, and Aztec Indians to develop a port town on Pensacola Bay, but a hurricane struck the settlement, Santa María de Ochuse, soon after Luna’s party arrived, sinking six ships loaded with food and supplies. Storm damage doomed the enterprise, and two years later it was abandoned. In 1565, Spain established a different stronghold when Spaniard Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine.
At its peak, Spanish Florida extended west to Mexico and north to the Carolinas. Between 1526 and 1704, Spain established at least 146 missions, mission centers, and native villages – 128 in what is now the state of Florida and 18 on the Georgia coast. But Florida was simply too large for the Spanish to protect. Spain lost the Carolinas and Georgia colonies to the English in 1633 and 1670 and the Louisiana colony to the French in 1682.
Concentrating on the peninsula, the Spanish used missions and converted Native Americans to colonize Florida, supplying St. Augustine with Native American-grown food and labor. With the expansion of the British trading business out of the Atlantic colonies, Native American slavery exploded in the Southeast. Armed, interior Native American groups sold captives taken in intergroup battles to traders in Charleston as slaves for the British Caribbean plantations.
Native American armies, such as the Yamasee and Westo, allied with the British and began attacking the Spanish missions at the turn of the 18th century for prisoners of war to sell.
The British also attacked St. Augustine in 1702, but the stone fort built in 1695 protected the population. The missions were easy targets for the slave raiders, as Native Americans were concentrated and unarmed there, because the Spanish would not give them weapons.
By 1704, the missions were under such vicious attack the Spanish abandoned them, and the Native Americans fled to north and east Florida. The area between Pensacola and St. Augustine emptied of Indigenous people. It is estimated thousands of mission Native Americans were captured and sold into slavery, and thousands more headed north with the British into the interior. Hundreds of other refugees fled to the fortified Spanish settlement of St. Augustine or the newly founded presidio – or fort – at Pensacola.
For more than 70 years, historians and archaeologists have studied missions, associated small forts, and, of course, St. Augustine itself. Archaeology at mission sites has revealed a standard pattern of a church often with crowded floor burials, a convento – or residence – for priests and friars, and a living area for Native Americans. The largest – San Luis de Talimali in Tallahassee – has been reconstructed based on historical documents. It is open to the public.
St. Augustine’s stone fort, Castillo San Marcos, is today a national monument. St. Augustine is the focus of ongoing studies. Much of the 18th-century town has been reconstructed and houses museums, restaurants, shops, and hotels.
In 1698, towards the end of the mission period, both the French and Spanish had eyes on Pensacola Bay for its new deep water port. The Spanish quickly built a military installation there, Santa María de Galve, on a bluff overlooking the entrance to Pensacola Bay. They built a wood stockade fort, San Carlos de Austria, and about 400 soldiers and mestizos, of Spanish and Indian descent, were sent there from Mexico. British-led Creek armies attacked, trying to drive the Spanish out of Florida.
In 1719, Spain’s French allies in Mobile became enemies, attacking with warships and a Native American army. The Spanish retreated to St. Joseph Bay and built a presidio, San José de Panzacola, near the bay entrance. In 1722, the Spanish returned to Pensacola Bay after it was handed back to them by treaty. They constructed another presidio, Isla de Santa Rosa, on Santa Rosa Island near the entrance to Pensacola Bay. Eight hurricanes blasted this presidio in 30 years. After the final one levelled the community in 1752, the Spanish moved it to the mainland, where downtown Pensacola is today.
The Spanish abandoned San Miguel when the British took over Florida and forced the Spanish and Catholic Indians to leave. All four presidios are documented and studied by scholars, as are the remains of two forts, scores of buildings – such as hospitals, warehouses, churches, barracks, and private residences – and thousands of artifacts and documents.
The British split Florida into two colonies – East Florida and West Florida – separated by the Apalachicola River, with West Florida Escambia River Styx River Blackwater River Perdido River Perdido BayBig Lagoon Escambia Bay Pensacola Bay Santa Rosa SoundEast Bay Big Coldwater Creek Big Juniper Creek Blackwater River extending to the Mississippi River. In Pensacola, the capital of West Florida, the British improved the Spanish fort and created a grid of streets and lots that continues today.
The British brought a mercantile economy, developing lumber and brick industries and a lucrative Native American trade in deerskins. Pensacola was bustling, with new businesses selling goods and the military constructing new fortifications.
The extensive British trade system resulted in a boon for archaeologists since the materials left behind are distinct from that of the Spanish, especially ceramic wares and bricks. Much remains of the British period: buildings, including military structures and residences, and the remains of several fort walls and the surrounding moat. The foundations of the town fort, expanded three times, lie just beneath the surface of downtown Pensacola. Its two parade grounds are intact and in use as city parks.
After the Spanish general Bernardo de Gálvez defeated the British at Mobile and Pensacola, West Florida was ceded back to Spain in 1781 and remained so for the next four decades.
Dr. Judith A. Bense is a historical archaeologist specializing in Spanish West Florida and the author of four research books and two for the public. She is University of West Florida president emeritus and anthropology/ archaeology professor emeritus. During her 40 years at UWF, she established the anthropology/archaeology program, including the statewide Florida Public Archaeology Network. Bense continues to conduct research, including a soon-to-be-released new synthesis of the Presidio Period (1698-1763).
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