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Early Florida

The First Floridians
The Timucua and the Apalachee
People of Southeastern Florida
People of Southwestern Florida
La Florida
Ponce de León in Florida
Narváez in Florida
Cabeza de Vaca
The Conquistadors
The Travels of De Soto
De Luna's Attempt to Settle Florida
The French in Florida
Founding of St. Augustine
The French Are Defeated
Menéndez Rules La Florida
Early Days in St. Augustine
Settlements and Missions
Spain Loses Its Hold on Florida

The First Floridians
People have lived in Florida for a long time. The earliest human artifacts that archaeologists have found in Florida date from almost 10,000 years ago. Early native Floridians were nomads. They drifted throughout the region, moving with the seasons and following their food supplies. Using weapons made of stones, bones, and ivory, they hunted the giant mastodons and mammoths as well as smaller animals.

In time, Native Americans learned to grow their own food. They began to build permanent homes and villages near rivers, lakes, or along the sea. They established a system of trade and religious and political centers.

When European explorers first came to Florida in the 1500s, Native Americans had developed a way of life that was suited to their environment. Abundant resources combined with a mild climate made it possible for the people to live off the land.

Prehistoric Florida

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The Timucua and the Apalachee
The Timucua (tim•uh•KOO•uh) and the Apalachee (a•puh•LAT•chee) were both farming peoples who settled in villages. These peoples farmed the rich lands of North Florida, growing corn, beans, pumpkins, and vegetables. The farmers first cleared the land by burning the brush. They used hoes to prepare the soil. They used pointed wooden tools, called dibble sticks, to make a hole in the ground. Then they planted the seeds in the hole. The Timucua and the Apalachee were also skilled hunters. They used clubs, spears, and bows and arrows to kill their game. They used pine wood for their slim, fast canoes.

The Apalachee built mounds and used them as religious and political centers. The mounds at Lake Jackson Archaeological Site near Tallahassee were built by ancestors of the Apalachee.

The Timucua lived in large circular houses with palm-thatched roofs. Frequently, they built a wall of tall wooden poles around their villages for protection against attack.

Like most Native Americans, the Timucua had no written language. A Spanish priest, Francisco Pareja (pah•RAY•uh), traveled to the Timucuan villages in the 1590s. Father Pareja wrote down the language as it sounded to him. His work provides one of the first records of the language of a people in North America.

French explorer Jean Ribault (ZHOHN •ree•BOH) who encountered Timucua people in the 1560s described them as “gentle, curious, and of a good nature.”

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People of Southeastern Florida
The Ais, Jeagas, and Tequesta were among the Native American peoples who lived along Florida’s Atlantic coast. The Ais lived near the Indian and St. Lucie Rivers. They fished in the rivers and in the Atlantic Ocean. These Native Americans were the first to clash with Juan Ponce de León’s soldiers during his first expedition to Florida.

The Jeagas (YAY•gah) inhabited present-day Palm Beach County. Jonathan Dickson, who survived a shipwreck on the coast near Jeaga land in 1698, described them as “fierce and bloody.” The Jeagas depended on the sea for food.


The Tequesta (teh•KES•ta) lived in southern Florida from Pompano Beach to the Florida Keys. Their main village was located near the mouth of the Miami River where it flows into Biscayne Bay. They did not grow crops, but they did gather berries, palm nuts, and other wild fruits. They also hunted and fished in the rivers and ocean.

People of Southwestern Florida
The Calusa inhabited the area from Tampa Bay south to Cape Sable and east to Lake Okeechobee. They were the largest and most powerful Native American group in southern Florida.

The Calusa built many mounds in the Charlotte Harbor area. Parts of Calusa mounds remain on many shores across their former range, including at Marco, Punta Rassa, and Sanibel. Over many years, the Calusa built an artificial island, now called Mound Key, near modern-day Fort Myers Beach. Like the Tequesta, the Calusa did not grow crops. They fished, hunted, and gathered plants, fruits, and nuts.

The Tocobaga lived in small villages in the Tampa Bay area. They fished, hunted, and gathered wild plants and nuts. Many other Native American groups lived in the Tampa Bay area.

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La Florida
The first Europeans to explore and settle what is today the United States were Spanish explorers. In 1513, Juan Ponce de León sailed with three ships from Puerto Rico to investigate rumors of a land to the north. He landed near present-day Melbourne on the peninsula’s east coast. Ponce de León found a land full of blooming wildflowers and fragrant plants. He named the land, which he thought was a large island, “La Florida” since it was Easter. This religious holiday is known as Pascua Florida or “Flowery Easter” in Spain.

Ponce de León in Florida

Ponce de Leon

After clashing with Timucua and Ais, Ponce de León sailed south to the Keys discovering the Gulf Stream. Rounding the tip of Florida, he landed in the Charlotte Harbor area on the Gulf coast. After a brief battle with the Calusa, Ponce de León returned to Puerto Rico.

King Ferdinand of Spain was very pleased with Ponce de León's adventures. The king appointed Ponce de León as the governor of Florida and asked him to set up a colony there.

In 1521, Ponce de León returned to Florida with 200 settlers. He hoped to establish a settlement near the area where he had clashed with the Calusa. Again his soldiers were attacked by the Calusa. Many Spaniards were killed, and Ponce de León was seriously injured by an arrow. He died a few days later in Havana, Cuba.

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Narváez in Florida
Spain spent many years trying to conquer and settle the region. The lands that the Spaniards called La Florida stretched north from the Florida peninsula to Canada and west to Mexico, then called the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

In 1528, Pánfilo de Narváez (PAHN•fee•loh day nar•VAH•ays) tried to plant a colony on the Florida peninsula. Landing in the Tampa Bay area with about 400 soldiers and settlers, Narváez ordered his ships to meet him farther north along the coast. He then marched inland with 300 soldiers and 40 horses. Suddenly, the Apalachee attacked the expedition.

Cabeza de Vaca
The Spanish soldiers tried to fight off the attacks. Running out of food and unable to find his ships, Narváez realized that their only chance at survival was to try to reach Mexico by sailing across the Gulf of Mexico. The Spanish killed their own horses and used the hides to build boats. They used their shirts and trousers to build sails. Their escape plan might have worked if Mexico had been as close as they thought.

Sailing from near present-day St. Marks, the Spaniards began their voyage. Not long afterwards, all but two boats sank at sea with their crews, including Narváez. Eventually, the two remaining boats wrecked off the coast of Texas at Galveston Island. The Spaniards were enslaved by Native Americans and began to die one by one, until there were just four.

Eight difficult years later, these four survivors made it on foot to Mexico. One of the survivors, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (AHLovahr NOOonyays cahoBAYosah day VAHocah), wrote a book describing his amazing adventures in Florida and Texas. The book, called La Relación, published in 1542, became a best seller. Cabeza de Vaca wrote that his reputation as a medicine man able to cure the sick helped him survive:

"The cure was by making the sign of the cross.… [We prayed that] God in His mercy made well those we were trying to cure. Afterwards, they treated us well and gave us food, hides, and other things…."

Another survivor was the enslaved African Estevanico. Later, he helped lead expeditions into the American Southwest. He was captured and killed in a Zuni village in New Mexico.

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The Conquistadors
Many expeditions followed. The men who led these expeditions were called conquistadors, or conquerors. They came to the Americas

"to serve God and his Majesty, to give light to those men who were in darkness and to grow rich as all men desire to do."

Hérnan Cortés was a conquistador who invaded and conquered the Aztec Empire in Mexico. Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro defeated the Inca Empire and claimed most of South America for Spain.


The Travels of De Soto
The governor of Cuba, Hernando de Soto, wished to match the feats of Pizarro and Cortés. He received the king's permission to explore and settle Florida. After leaving the leadership of Cuba's government in the hands of his wife, de Soto began his travels. De Soto and his group of 600 soldiers and 12 priests landed in Tampa Bay in May 1539. Like Narváez, he marched north.

De Soto set up a winter camp in present-day Tallahassee. For the next four years, de Soto's soldiers traveled 4,000 miles exploring parts of 10 present-day states. De Soto died from a fever along the banks of the Mississippi River in 1542. Eventually, his soldiers sailed down the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico until they reached a Spanish settlement in Mexico. Only 311 had survived. Although de Soto's mission was regarded as a failure, the expedition brought back valuable information about the waterways and landscape of the region.

De Luna's Attempt to Settle Florida
Years passed before the next Spanish effort to settle Florida. Spain planned to establish a colony on the Gulf coast. Then, the expedition would establish an overland route to the Atlantic. The expedition's leader was Tristán de Luna y Arellano. Unlike previous expeditions that had sailed from the Caribbean islands, de Luna sailed from Veracruz, Mexico. He landed in Pensacola Bay in the summer of 1559. Almost immediately, a devastating hurricane struck the area, killing many and destroying much of de Luna's fleet and the expedition's supplies. After many hardships, de Luna returned to Mexico.

The French in Florida
France had also noticed Florida's strategic location. Spanish treasure ships, loaded with silver from Central America, sailed the Gulf Stream along Florida's Atlantic coast on their way to Spain. If the French could settle Florida, they could capture the rich cargo of the Spanish ships. In 1562, Jean Ribault sailed to the St. Johns River near present-day Jacksonville. He claimed Florida for France and built a stone monument as proof of the French claim to the land. René de Laudonniere (lohodonoyair) led a second expedition into the area in 1564. They wanted to establish a colony for Huguenots, or French Protestants. Because of persecution under Catholic King Henry II, many Huguenots were fleeing from France. They wanted to build a colony where they could worship freely.

With the help of Timucuans, the French built a triangle-shaped garrison, or military fort, along the St. Johns River. The colonists named the outpost Fort Caroline. Almost immediately, the colonists faced problems. There was not enough food and many did not like their leader. Some colonists stole boats and set sail in hopes of seizing Spanish treasure ships. The growing threat from the French spurred the Spanish to take action.

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Founding of St. Augustine

St. Augustine

The king of Spain, Felipe II, believed that the French were trespassing on Spanish land. The idea that Protestants had built a colony in Florida angered him. The king decided to put an end to the French colony.

The king ordered his finest admiral, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (muhoNENodez dayoah veeoLES), to drive out the French. He appointed Menéndez governor of Florida and told him to set up a permanent settlement there. Menéndez sailed with 500 soldiers, 200 sailors, and 100 settlers and landed in the Timucuan village of Seloy.

On September 8, 1565, Menéndez founded the settlement of San Agustín (Saint Augustine). Menéndez celebrated a mass giving thanks to God for a safe journey and invited the Timucua to share the food of the colonists. This feast of Thanksgiving was celebrated 56 years before the Pilgrims' Thanksgiving. St. Augustine became the oldest permanent European settlement in the United States.

The French Are Defeated
Meanwhile, Ribault had sailed south to attack St. Augustine, but a sudden storm pushed the French ships past St. Augustine's harbor. Many of the ships crashed south of the harbor on the Atlantic coast.

Realizing that the French had left Fort Caroline unprotected. Menéndez seized the opportunity to attack. Menéndez captured the fort and ordered all French to be put "to the knife" except for women, children, and Roman Catholics. Menéndez renamed the fort San Mateo, which is now Jacksonville.

Menéndez then searched for the shipwrecked survivors. He found them 15 miles to the south of St. Augustine. Menéndez put the prisoners to death, again sparing only the women, children, and Catholics. From that time, this site location was known as Matanzas, the Spanish word for "slaughter."

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Menéndez Rules La Florida
Over the next decade, Menéndez ruled the eastern part of the United States as governor of La Florida. In addition to St. Augustine, Menéndez founded another settlement, Santa Elena, at present-day Parris Island, South Carolina, and named it the capital of La Florida.

Menéndez also began to set up Catholic missions. The first, Nombre de Dios (Name of God) was located a few miles north of St. Augustine. Other missions and forts soon followed. These included San Mateo (modern-day Jacksonville), Tequesta (present-day Miami), Santa Lucía (St. Lucie County), San Antón (Mount Key near Ft. Myers Beach), and Tocobaga (Tampa). Menéndez also founded missions in Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia. Shortly before his death in 1574, Menéndez wrote a letter from Spain to his nephew stating that

"After the salvation of my soul, there is nothing in this world I want more than to be in Florida, to end my days saving souls."

Early Days in St. Augustine

Castillo de San Marcos

As the northernmost garrison of Spain's empire in the Americas, St. Augustine was very important to the Spanish treasure fleets. The garrison provided protection and the "last stop" for the ships that sailed from the Americas to Spain. Colonization in Florida grew very slowly, however. Through most of the first Spanish period (1565-1763), Florida had to depend on financial help sent from the government in Mexico City.

Colonization was also slowed by the English. English pirates seized the Spanish treasure ships and staged attacks on St. Augustine. In 1586, Sir Francis Drake looted and burned St. Augustine to the ground. In 1668, the English pirate Robert Searles plundered the settlement. Protection was needed and Queen Mariana of Spain approved construction of an enormous stone fort. Completed in 1695, the new fort was named Castillo de San Marcos. When British forces attacked St. Augustine in 1702 and 1740, the town's residents took refuge inside the walls of the Castillo.

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Settlements and Missions
In 1698, Spanish colonists established a settlement in Pensacola. Like St. Augustine, Pensacola was also the target of raid and attacks, by French forces as well as British.

Two miles north of St. Augustine, the Spanish built a fort and settlement in 1738 for runaway slaves from the British colonies. They were freed and given self-rule. The small village was called Ft. Mosé, and it became the first free African settlement in North America.

By the mid-1600s, the Franciscan missionaries had established 31 missions in present-day Florida and five along Georgia's coastal islands. Approximately 26,000 Christian Native Americans lived either in or nearby these missions. In each mission, a handful of priests taught religion, arts and crafts, farming, cattle raising, and reading and writing to Timucuans and Apalachees.


Spain Loses Its Hold on Florida
These successful missions would have a tragic end. Between 1702 and 1704, the English governor of South Carolina, James Moore, sent forces to attack and burn the missions. Thousands of Apalachees and Timucuans were captured and sold as slaves. A few escaped and others moved to St. Augustine.

Spain entered the Seven Years' War (in North America it was called the French and Indian War) on the side of France. In 1762, the British captured the city of Havana in Cuba. When the peace treaty was signed, Spain was forced to give up Florida to the British in exchange for Havana.

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