The sixteenth century dawned auspiciously for Spain. After eight hundred years of warfare with the infidel usurpers of the Peninsula, the last Moslem stronghold had fallen; and, through the union of Aragon and Castile, all Spain was united under one crown and lifted to the peak of power in Europe. To the world about her, Spain presented the very image of unity, wealth, and power, adamantine and supreme.
But image of serene absolutism is always a portent of calamity. There followed a period of brilliant achievement abroad, while the prosperity of the nation at home steadily declined. Taxation was exorbitant. Industry declined because of the lack of skilled workers, for the expulsion of the p2Moors had robbed Spain of artisans and pastoral laborers. The nobles and gentry were swordsmen, crusaders, and spoilers of the Egyptians — made such by centuries of war with the Moors — and they held all labor and trade in scorn.
Each year, more of the gold which annually poured into the Emperor's lap must needs be poured out again for products which were no longer grown or manufactured within the realm. Gold was the monarch's need; gold was the dazzling lure which the warrior nobles of Spain followed. There were no longer Egyptians at home to spoil. To the New World must these warrior nobles now look for work for their swords and for wealth without menial toil or the indignities of commerce. Only on that far frontier could they hope to enjoy the personal liberty and something of their old feudal powers, now curtailed by absolutism at home. Irked by restrictions and surveillance as well as by inaction or poverty, these sons of the sword sought again on this soil the freedom which was once the Spaniard's birthright.
Adventure, conquest, piety, wealth, were the ideals of those Spanish explorers, who, pushing northward from the West Indies and from the City of Mexico, first planted the Cross and the banner p3of Spain in the swamps of Florida and in the arid plateaus of New Mexico. The conquistadors who threaded the unknown way through the American wilderness were armored knights upon armored horses; proud, stern, hardy, and courageous; men of punctilious honor, loyal to King and Mother Church, humble only before the symbols of their Faith; superstitious — believing in portents and omens no less than in the mysteries of the Church, for the magic of Moorish soothsayers and astrologers had colored the life of their ancestors for generations.
Part pagan, however, the conquistador was no less a zealous warrior for Church and King. His face was as flint against all heretics. He went forth for the heathen's gold and the heathen's soul. If he succeeded, riches and honor were his. Hardship, peril, death, had no terrors for this soldier-knight. If he was pitiless towards others, so was he pitiless toward himself. He saw his mission enveloped with romantic glory. Such men were the conquistadors, who, after the capture of the Aztec capital in the summer of 1521, carried the Spanish banner northward.
While Cortés was still wrestling with the Aztecs, Spanish expeditions were moving out from the West Indies — Española (Hayti), Cuba, Porto p4Rico, and Jamaica. These islands are well called the nursery of Spanish culture in the Western Hemisphere. By 1513 there were seventeen towns on Española alone, in which the life of Old Spain was reproduced in form, though reflecting the colors of savage environment. Mines were worked by enslaved natives; grain was sown and harvested, cotton and sugar-cane were cultivated. The slave trade in negroes and Indians flourished. Friars cared for the souls of the faithful. The harbor winds were winged with Spanish sails, homeward bound with rich cargoes, or set towards the coast of the mysterious continent which should one day disclose to the persistent mariner an open strait leading westward to Cathay. In the midst of the crudities of a frontier, hidalgo and official of Española lived joyously and with touches of Oriental magnificence. Gold! It lay in glittering heaps upon their dicing-tables. It stung not only their imaginations but their palates — so we learn from the description of a banquet given by one of them, at which, to the music of players brought from Spain, the guests salted their savory meats with gold dust. Is it to be marveled at that men of such hardy digestions should have conquered a wilderness bravely and gayly?
p5 Among these romantic exiles at Española was Juan Ponce de León — John of the Lion's Paunch — who had come to the island with Columbus in 1493, as a member of the first permanent colony. In Ponce's veins flowed the bluest blood of Spain. His family could be traced back to the twelfth century.
Rumors of gold drew Ponce to Porto Rico (1508), which island he "pacified," after the very thorough Spanish manner, sharing the honors of valor with the famous dog, Bercerillo. This dog, according to the old historian, Herrera, "made wonderful havock among these people, and knew which of them were in war and which in peace, like a man; for which reason the Indians were more afraid of ten Spaniards with the dog, than of one hundred without him, and therefore he had one share and a half of all that was taken allowed him, as was done to one that carried a crossbow, as well in gold as slaves and other things, which his master received. Very extraordinary things were reported of this dog."1
Ponce was made Governor of Porto Rico, but was almost immediately removed, as the appointment had been made over the head of Don Diego Columbus, Governor of Española. Thus dispossessed of office, Ponce sought fame, and wealth, and p6perpetual youth, perhaps, in exploration. "It is true," writes Herrera, the royal chronicler, "that besides the principal aim of Juan Ponce de León in the expedition which he undertook, which was to discover new lands, . . . another was to seek the fountain of Bimini and a certain river of Florida. It was said and believed by the Indians of Cuba and Española that by bathing in the river or the fountain, old men became youths." What more was needed to fire the blood of an adventurer like Ponce, who already possessed influence and a fortune? Nothing, as the event proved. By means of his friends he obtained a patent from King Charles (1512), later Emperor Charles V, authorizing him to seek and govern the island of Bimini, which rumor placed to the northwest.
What Ponce hoped to accomplish in the enterprise, and also the aims of his brother conquers, can be gathered from his patent. If Ponce was an explorer and adventurer, he, like the others, hoped also to be a colonizer, a transplanter of Spanish people and of Spanish civilization. Whoever fails to understand this, fails to understand the patriotic aim of the Spanish pioneers in America. The Catholic monarchs were a thrifty pair, and they made the business of conquest pay for itself. The p7successes of men like Columbus and Cortés played into their hands. Every expedition was regarded as a good gamble. The expenses of exploration therefore were charged to the adventurer, under promise of great rewards, in titles and profits from the enterprise, if any there might be. Under these circumstances the sovereigns lost little in any case, and they might win untold returns. And so with Ponce. By the terms of his grant he was empowered to equip a fleet, at his own expense, people Bimini with Spaniards, exploit its wealth, and, as adelantado, govern it in the name of the sovereign. In keeping with the method already in vogue in the West Indies, the natives were to be distributed among the discoverers and settlers, that they might be protected, christianized, civilized, and, sad to say, exploited. Though the intent of this last provision in the royal patents of the day was benevolent, the practical result to the natives was usually disastrous.
With a fleet of three vessels, on March 3, 1513, Ponce sailed from Porto Rico and anchored a month later on the coast of the northern mainland, near the mouth of the St. John's River. Here he landed, took formal possession of the "island," and named it La Florida, because of its verdant beauty p8and because it was discovered in the Easter season. After sailing northward for a day, Ponce turned south again. Twice in landing on the coast he and his men were set upon by the natives. On Sunday, the 8th of May, he doubled Cape Cañaveral, called by him the Cape of the Currents; and by the fifteenth he was coasting along the Florida Keys. The strain of romance in these old explorers is well illustrated by the name which Ponce, seeker of the Fountain of Youth, gave to the Florida Keys. "The Martyrs," he called them, because the high rocks, at a distance, looked "like men who were suffering."
Ponce sailed up the western shore of the peninsula, perhaps as far north as Pensacola Bay, before he again turned southward, still unaware that Florida was not an island. Anchored off the southern end of Florida, he allowed himself to fall into a snare set for him by natives. These natives told an interesting story. There was nearby, they said, a cacique named Carlos whose land fairly sprouted gold. While Ponce and his officers were drinking in the splendid tale, the Indians were massing canoes for an attack on the Spanish ships. Two battles followed before the painted warriors were driven off and the Spaniards sailed homeward p9without either a sight of gold or a taste of the magic spring. But his voyage was not fruitless, for on the way back to Española Ponce made a valuable find. He discovered the Bahama Channel, which later became the route for treasure ships returning to Spain from the West Indies. It was to protect this channel that Florida eventually had to be colonized.
Ponce proceeded at once to Spain, where he "went about like a person of importance, because his qualities merited it." From the King he received another patent (1514) authorizing him to colonize not only "Bimini," which one of his ships was said to have discovered, but the "Island of Florida" as well. Just now, however, renewed complaints came in of terrible devastations wrought upon Spanish colonies by the Caribs of the Lesser Antilles. Ponce was put in command of a fleet to subdue these ferocious savages, and his plans for Florida were delayed seven years.
Meanwhile other expeditions from the West Indies found Florida to be part of the mainland. By 1519, indeed, the entire coast of the Gulf between Yucatán and Florida had been explored and charted, thus ending the Spanish hope of finding there a strait leading westward to India. Chief p10among these explorers of the Gulf was the good pilot Pineda, agent of the governor of Jamaica. He mapped the coast of Amichel — as the Spaniards called the Texas coast — and was the one to discover the mouth of that large river flowing into the Gulf which he named the Espíritu Santo, but which we know today as the Mississippi. This was twenty-two years before De Soto crossed the Father of Waters near Memphis. Amichel was a wondrous land, indeed, according to the reports dispatched to Spain by Pineda's master. It had gold in plenty and two distinct native races, giants and pygmies.
At last Ponce returned to his task. On February 10, 1521, at Porto Rico, he wrote to King Charles: "Among my services I discovered at my own cost and charge, the Island of Florida and others in its district . . . and now I return to that Island, if it please God's will, to settle it." According to Herrera, the rare old chronicler, it was emulation of the conqueror of Mexico that aroused Ponce to make this venture. For now "the name of Hernando Cortés was on everybody's lips and p11his fame was great." In February, then, Ponce again set sail, with two ships, two hundred men, fifty horses, a number of other domestic animals, and farm implements to cultivate the soil. By the King's command, monks and priests accompanied him for missionary work among the natives.
Ponce landed on the Florida coast, probably in the neighborhood of Charlotte Harbor, where, on his earlier voyage, the natives had regaled him with fables of the golden realm of Carlos, the cacique, and had attacked his ships. Since then slave-hunting raids along their coast had filled these warlike, freedom-loving Florida natives with an intense hatred for Spanish invaders. Hardly had the colonists begun to build houses when the Indians set upon them with fury. The valiant Ponce, leading his men in a counter attack, received an Indian arrow in his body. Some of his followers were killed. This disaster put an end to the enterprise. Ponce and his colonists departed and made port at Cuba, having lost a ship on the way. A few days later Ponce died from his wounds, leaving unsolved the mystery of the Fountain of Youth. Over his grave in Porto Rico, where his body was sent for burial, his epitaph was thus inscribed:
Mightier in deeds than in name.2
So perished the discoverer and first foreign ruler of Florida, as many another standard-bearer of the white race on this soil was to perish, from the dart of the irreconcilable Indian. The conquest of the Aztecs, living in permanent towns, proved comparatively easy for Cortés, with his superior means of waging war; but the subjection of the northern tribes, who had no fixed abodes, who wandered over hundreds of miles in hunting and war, was another task. Europeans began the conquest of America by seizing the Indians and selling them into slavery. It is an oft-repeated boast that tyranny has never thrived on American soil, but it is seldom remembered that the first battles for freedom in this land were fought by the red natives.
Meanwhile a new star arose to beckon explorers northward. A new region had been discovered up the eastern coast by adventurers who were spying about Florida while Ponce was absent at the Carib wars. Chief of these interlopers was Lucas p13Vásquez de Ayllón, an oidor, or superior judge, of Española, who took into his service one Francisco Gordillo and sent him out to explore. Gordillo met in the Bahamas a slave hunter named Quexos, and the two joined company. Thus it happened that in June, 1521, about the time that Ponce was driven from Florida, these two adventurers landed in a region, called Chicora by the natives, which seems to have been near the Cape Fear River on the Carolina coast. After taking formal possession of the country, they coaxed one hundred and fifty of their red-skinned hosts on board and sailed away to sell them in Santo Domingo. This time a rude shock awaited the slave hunters. When they reached the capital they were ordered by Governor Diego Columbus to set the Indians free and return them to their native land. Don Diego deserves remembrance as a liberator.
Among the captives, however, there was one whom the Spaniards detained. They baptized him Francisco Chicorana, and Ayllón took him as his personal servant. Francisco was a choice wag. Doubtless because he desired to be taken home, he employed his time and talents in regaling his captors with romances of Chicora. He was taken by Ayllón to Spain, where two famous historians, p14Peter Martyr and Oviedo, got from him at first hand and preserved for us these earliest tales of Carolina.
According to Francisco the natives of Chicora were white, with brown hair hanging to their heels. In the country there were pearls and other precious stones. There were domesticated deer, which lived in the houses of the natives and generously furnished them milk and cheese. The people were governed by a giant king called Datha, whose enormous size was not natural but had been produced by softening and stretching his bones in childhood. He told, too, of a race of men with inflexible tails, "like the tailed Englishmen of Kent," says the Spanish humorist. "This tail was not movable like those of quadrupeds, but formed one mass, as is the case with fish and crocodiles, and was as hard as bone. When these men wished to sit down, they had consequently to have a seat with an open bottom; and if there were none, they had to dig a hole more than a cubit deep to hold their tails and allow them to rest." If any one be disposed to doubt these stories let him ponder well what Peter Martyr says: "Each may accept or reject my account as he chooses. Envy is a plague natural to the human race, always seeking to depreciate and to p15search for weeds in another's garden. . . . This pest afflicts the foolish, or persons devoid of literary culture, who live useless lives like cumberers of the earth."3
Encouraged by these yarns, in 1523 Ayllón obtained from Charles V the desired patent to Chicora, the land of the Giant King. As in the case of Bimini, the project was a gamble, and, like Ponce, Ayllón put up the money. Chicora was not the sole objective. Ayllón was to continue his explorations north for •eight hundred leagues, or until he found the strait leading westward to Asia, which, if found, must be explored. Of the lands discovered he was to be adelantado, or governor. He was to have for himself in full ownership an estate •fifteen leagues square — a round million acres. He was to take with him, at the royal expense, friars to convert the Indians, and, in view of the sad results in the islands, Indians were not to be parceled out or forced to work. Experience was having its effect on the royal policy.
Three years passed before Ayllón was ready to take possession of his domain, but in the interval further explorations along the coast were made by his pilot Quexos, who brought back glowing p16reports of gold, silver, and pearls. And at the same time Esteban Gómez, a pilot who had been with Magellan — and had deserted him — came out from Spain, looking for the northern strait, and sailed the American coast between Nova Scotia and Florida. Thus, by the year 1525, Spanish navigators had explored the entire shore line from Cape Breton to Cape Horn.
At length, in July, 1526, Ayllón sailed from Española with six vessels carrying five hundred men and women from the islands, some black slaves, eighty-nine horses, and other equipment for the colony. It was a force larger than that with which Cortés had invaded Mexico. There were also three Dominican friars; for, wrote the King, "Our principal intent in the discovery of new lands is that the inhabitants and natives thereof, who are without the light or knowledge of the faith, may be brought to understand the truths of our Holy Catholic Faith, that they may come to a knowledge thereof and become Christians and be saved, and this is the chief motive that you are to bear and hold in this affair."4
p17 Ayllón anchored his ships at the mouth of a river, probably the Cape Fear, which, with romantic optimism, he named the Jordan. In making port he lost one of his ships with its cargo, and this led to the construction on the spot of an open boat with one mast, to be propelled by both oars and sail. Here we have the first shipbuilding of record in the United States. From this place exploring parties went out by sea and others pushed a short way inland. A misfortune now befell Ayllón. His interpreter, the romancer, Francisco Chicorana, seized the opportunity so long waited for and deserted to his people. Ayllón was thus unable to talk to the Chicorans and convince them of his friendly intent. This region, however, about a dangerous harbor, looked uninviting, and no more was needed than the news of a pleasanter land, brought by returning explorers, to start Ayllón and his colonists southward. Down the coast they all went to the mouth of the Pedee River — the Gualdape, Ayllón called it — and there began the settlement of San Miguel de Gualdape.
But the settlement quickly came to grief. The blasts of an exceptionally cold winter struck down many of the colonists. Provisions gave out. The settlers were too weakened by exposure and disease p18to catch the fish which abounded in the river. Ayllón himself sank under the hardship and privation; and, on St. Luke's Day, October 18, 1526, he died. Quarrels ensued among the survivors. Mutineers under an ambitious officer imprisoned the lieutenant who succeeded Ayllón in command; and, in return, negro slaves rose and fired the house of the usurper. Indians, encouraged by the domestic imbroglio, made attacks and killed some of the Spaniards. It was now resolved to abandon the colony and return to Santo Domingo. About a hundred and fifty enfeebled and destitute men and women set sail in midwinter, towing after them the body of their dead commander in the one-masted craft he had built. As they made their slow way homeward, seven men were frozen to death on board one of the ships. The icy winds and sea, which lashed the small vessels about and took the lives of these emaciated sailors, took also their toll of the dead. The boat bearing Ayllón's body was swept away; and, weighted full with water, it sank, says Oviedo the historian, in "the sepulchre of the ocean-sea where have been and shall be put other captains and governors."
The Northern Mystery was still unsolved, and it was not long before another attempt was made to settle Florida. The enterprise was undertaken this time by Pánfilo de Narváez, the same Narváez who in 1520 had been sent to Vera Cruz to arrest disobedient Cortés, and had lost an eye and suffered captivity for his pains.5 Narváez was a native of Valladolid, of good blood and gentle breeding. He had taken part in the conquest of Cuba. He is described as a tall man of proud mien, with a fair complexion, a red beard, and — since the encounter with Cortés — one eagle eye. His manner was diplomatic and gracious and his voice resonant, "as if it came from a cave."6 He had acquired wealth in the New World (and a reputation for keeping his money) as well as sound fame as a soldier, for he was said to be "brave against Indians and probably would have been against any people, had ever occasion offered for fighting them."7
In June, 1527, Narváez sailed from Spain with six hundred colonists and a number of Franciscan p20friars. Among his officers was Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, of whom more anon. Narváez's patent gave him the country from the Río de las Palmas to the Cape of Florida, and thus made him heir to part of the land — as well as to the misfortunes — of Ponce de León. His misfortunes began in the West Indies. At Santo Domingo a fourth of his colonists deserted; and two ships which he had sent to Trinidad, with Cabeza de Vaca, were wrecked in a hurricane. The fears thus spread amongst his company forced him to remain at anchor until the passing of winter. The spring of 1528 saw his expedition, its personnel now reduced to about four hundred, on the way. Strong winds from the south drove his ships to the Florida coast and on Good Friday he landed at Tampa Bay. There he found a village, from which the natives had fled at sight of his sails. And in one of the deserted houses he saw a faint glint of the hope which kindled the heart of every explorer — a small golden ornament dropped in the flight.
Before this tenantless village Narváez unfurled the royal standard and recited a proclamation prepared by learned jurists of Spain wherewith to acquaint the Indians of the King's lands with the new estate. But the natives ignored its benign p21provisions and plain warnings. They returned next day and "made signs and menaces, and appeared to say we must go away from the country." Narváez, however, having come as the servant of the Crown and to fill his own coffers, was in no mind to retreat. Somewhere in that wilderness there must be gold. What was that yellow-gleaming ornament he had found? Indeed, there was a land to the north, named Appalachen, teeming with gold; so the natives said. He decided to send the fleet up the coast, to find a good harbor and there await him. He and his officers with their wives, the friars, and the colonists, would press inland to seek Appalachen. In this decision Narváez ignored the advice of Vaca, who said that they and their ships would never meet again, and the warnings of one of the women. This woman had foretold in Spain many of the circumstances of the voyage and now declared that horrible disaster would befall the inland explorers; for so had a Moorish soothsayer in Castile prognosticated. This sibyl and the other wives insisted on going with the ships. The voyage having begun, they immediately took to themselves new husbands, knowing, by the Moor's prophecy, that never more should they salute their lawful spouses.
p22 Narváez's company, now reft of its women, comprised three hundred men, including five priests and forty officers and soldiers in armor, mounted upon armored horses. Led by the standard-bearer, this shining host plunged into the Florida wilds. Crossing the Withlacoochee and Suwanee Rivers, they passed from a fairly open country into dense forests. Their food gave out and they nourished themselves and their horses as best they could on the shoots of young palm. Men and horses were exhausted from hunger and fatigue and galled from the heavy armor, when at last on St. John's Day (June 24, 1528), they reached Appalachen, near the present Tallahassee in northern Florida. But golden Appalachen proved to be only a town of forty clay huts, occupied then by women and children; for the men were away on the warpath. The Spaniards took possession of the town and fed on maize for twenty-five days, obliged occasionally to do battle against the returning warriors. Excursions into the surrounding country, attended by skirmishes, convinced Narváez that there was no great and rich city there which might answer to the false description given him of Appalachen. "Thenceforth were great lakes, dense mountains, immense deserts and solitudes." So Narváez and p23his company turned south again and westward in the hope of finding their ships. After nine days' difficult march they came upon Auté, another deserted Indian village, where again they found food. They reached the sea at last at Appalachee Bay.
But there was no sign of the ships. The ships, in fact, had sailed away to Cuba. Yet the sea was their only hope; so they determined to slay their horses for food and to build a fleet of horsehide boats in which to escape to Pánuco (Mexico) which was thought to be close by. Little did they dream that it was •over a thousand miles away.
There was only one carpenter in the company. They had, says Vaca, "no tools, nor iron, for forge, nor tow, nor resin, nor rigging." But necessity is the mother of invention, and Robinson Crusoe could scarcely have done better himself. Bellows were contrived from wooden tubes and deerskin. Nails, saws and axes were made of the iron from the stirrups, crossbows, and spurs. Palmettos were used in place of tow. From the pitch of the pines a Greek made resin for calking, and the boats were covered with horsehide. Ropes and rigging were made from palmetto fiber and horsehair, sails from the shirts of the men, and oars from young savins. While the boats were building four p24journeys were made to Auté for maize, and every third day a horse was killed for food. The skins of the horses' legs were removed entire, tanned, and used for water bottles. In the course of this work ten men were slain by Indians, and forty others died from disease and hunger. At last five boats were completed, each •twenty-one cubits long. By the 22d of September the last horse was eaten, and on that day two hundred and forty-two men set sail in those five frail craft of horsehide, not one among them knowing how to handle a boat. In memory of the diet of horseflesh they named the harbor where they embarked the Bay of Horses.
Rowing along the coast, occasionally passing a village of fishermen — "a poor miserable lot," says Vaca — at the end of thirty days they were detained at an island by a storm. Next day they had a battle with some Indians near a large inlet, perhaps Pensacola Bay. Three or four days farther west a Greek and a negro went ashore for food and fresh water and never returned.8 Farther along the coast they came to the mouth of a large river, no doubt the Mississippi. The combined strength of its current and of a storm which now arose was p25so great that the flotilla was driven far out to sea, and the boats became separated and were never again all together. It is known, however, from Vaca's narrative that they again drew in to the shore. Three of them, Vaca's boat and two others, were wrecked, on the 6th of November, on an island — Galveston Island, or one near it, by Vaca named Malhado, or Misfortune. Another boat, carrying the commissary and the friars, was wrecked on the mainland farther west.
One of the five boats yet remained afloat, the commander's own. Narváez bore on westward, hugging the coast. One day he descried on land some of the castaways of the fourth boat which had been wrecked, making their way painfully on foot. He landed some of his own crew to lighten his boat and proceeded by water, while the destitute band with the friars marched slowly along the shore. At evening he hove to, after ferrying the pedestrians across a bay that cut off their route, and landed the rest of his people. Dropping a stone for anchor, Narváez then prepared to spend the night in his boat with his page, who was dangerously ill. But a wild wind came down with the dark and swept his frail craft out upon the deep. And Narváez followed Ayllón to "sepulchre in the ocean-sea."
1 Lowery, Spanish Settlements, p133.
2 Lowery, Spanish Settlements, p158, quoting Shea's translation in Winsor, Narrative and Critical History of America, vol. II, p234.
"Mole sub hac fortis Requiescunt ossa Leonis
Qui Vicit factis Nomina magna suis."
Lowery, Spanish Settlements, p160.
4 De Orbe Novo (ed. by F. A. MacNutt) vol. II, pp258-59.
5 Lowery, Spanish Settlements, p162. From Shea's translation in The Catholic Church in Colonial Days, p105.
6 See The Spanish Conquerors, in this Series.
7 Lowery, Spanish Settlements, p174. Both quotations from Bernal Díaz, repeated by Lowery.
8 Eleven years later De Soto found the Greek's dagger in the possession of Indians near Mobile Bay.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
The Spanish Borderlands
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 2 Apr 16