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1: 1512-1561. Early Spanish Adventure

Introduction || 2: 1550-1558. Villegagnon >>

Towards the close of the fifteenth century, Spain achieved her final triumph over the infidels of Granada, and made her name glorious through all generations by the discovery of America. The religious zeal and romantic daring which a long course of Moorish wars had called forth were now exalted to redoubled fervor. Every ship from the New World came freighted with marvels which put the fictions of chivalry to shame; and to the Spaniard of that day America was a region of wonder and mystery, of vague and magnificent promise. Thither adventurers hastened, thirsting for glory and for gold, and often mingling the enthusiasm of the crusader and the valor of the knight-errant with the bigotry of inquisitors and the rapacity of pirates. They roamed over land and sea; they climbed unknown mountains, surveyed unknown oceans, pierced the sultry intricacies of tropical forests; while from year to year and from day to day new wonders were unfolded, new islands and archipelagoes, new regions of gold and pearl, and barbaric empires of more than Oriental wealth. The extravagance of hope and the fever of adventure knew no bounds. Nor is it surprising that amid such waking marvels the imagination should run wild in romantic dreams; that between the possible and the impossible the line of distinction should be but faintly drawn, and that men should be found ready to stake life and honor in pursuit of the most insane fantasies.

Such a man was the veteran cavalier Juan Ponce de León. Greedy of honors and of riches, he embarked at Porto Rico with three brigantines, bent on schemes of discovery. But that which gave the chief stimulus to his enterprise was a story, current among the Indians of Cuba and Hispaniola, that on the island of Bimini, said to be one of the Bahamas, there was a fountain of such virtue, that, bathing in its waters, old men resumed their youth.(1) It was said, moreover, that on a neighboring shore might be found a river gifted with the same beneficent property, and believed by some to be no other than the Jordan.(2) Ponce de León found the island of Bimini, but not the fountain. Farther westward, in the latitude of thirty degrees and eight minutes, he approached an unknown land, which he named Florida, and, steering southward, explored its coast as far as the extreme point of the peninsula, when, after some farther explorations, he retraced his course to Porto Rico.

Ponce de León had not regained his youth, but his active spirit was unsubdued.

Nine years later he attempted to plant a colony in Florida; the Indians attacked him fiercely; he was mortally wounded, and died soon afterwards in Cuba. (3)

The voyages of Garay and Vásquez de Ayllón threw new light on the discoveries of Ponce, and the general outline of the coasts of Florida became known to the Spaniards.(4)

Meanwhile, Cortés had conquered Mexico, and the fame of that iniquitous but magnificent exploit rang through all Spain. Many an impatient cavalier burned to achieve a kindred fortune. To the excited fancy of the Spaniards the unknown land of Florida seemed the seat of surpassing wealth, and Pánfilo de Narváez essayed to possess himself of its fancied treasures. Landing on its shores, and proclaiming destruction to the Indians unless they acknowledged the sovereignty of the Pope and the Emperor, he advanced into the forests with three hundred men. Nothing could exceed their sufferings. Nowhere could they find the gold they came to seek. The village of Appalache, where they hoped to gain a rich booty, offered nothing but a few mean wigwams. The horses gave out, and the famished soldiers fed upon their flesh. The men sickened, and the Indians unceasingly harassed their march. At length, after two hundred and eighty leagues (5)

of wandering, they found themselves on the northern shore of the Gulf of Mexico, and desperately put to sea in such crazy boats as their skill and means could construct. Cold, disease, famine, thirst, and the fury of the waves, melted them away. Narváez himself perished, and of his wretched followers no more than four escaped, reaching by land, after years of vicissitude, the Christian settlements of New Spain. (6)

The interior of the vast country then comprehended under the name of Florida still remained unexplored. The Spanish voyager, as his caravel ploughed the adjacent seas, might give full scope to his imagination, and dream that beyond the long, low margin of forest which bounded his horizon lay hid a rich harvest for some future conqueror; perhaps a second Mexico with its royal palace and sacred pyramids, or another Cuzco with its temple of the Sun, encircled with a frieze of gold. Haunted by such visions, the ocean chivalry of Spain could not long stand idle.

Hernando de Soto was the companion of Pizarro in the conquest of Peru. He had come to America a needy adventurer, with no other fortune than his sword and target. But his exploits had given him fame and fortune, and he appeared at court with the retinue of a nobleman. Still, his active energies could not endure repose, and his avarice and ambition goaded him to fresh enterprises. He asked and obtained permission to conquer Florida. While this design was in agitation, Cabeca de Vaca, one of those who had survived the expedition of Narváez, appeared in Spain, and for purposes of his own spread abroad the mischievous falsehood, that Florida was the richest country yet discovered. De Soto's plans were embraced with enthusiasm. Nobles and gentlemen contended for the privilege of joining his standard; and, setting sail with an ample armament, he landed at the bay of Espíritu Santo, now Tampa Bay, in Florida, with six hundred and twenty chosen men, a band as gallant and well appointed, as eager in purpose and audacious in hope, as ever trod the shores of the New World. The clangor of trumpets, the neighing of horses, the fluttering of pennons, the glittering of helmet and lance, startled the ancient forest with unwonted greeting. Amid this pomp of chivalry, religion was not forgotten. The sacred vessels and vestments with bread and wine for the Eucharist were carefully provided; and De Soto himself declared that the enterprise was undertaken for God alone, and seemed to be the object of His especial care. These devout marauders could not neglect the spiritual welfare of the Indians whom they had come to plunder; and besides fetters to bind, and bloodhounds to hunt them, they brought priests and monks for the saving of their souls.

The adventurers began their march. Their story has been often told. For month after month and year after year, the procession of priests and cavaliers, crossbowmen, arquebusiers, and Indian captives laden with the baggage, still wandered on through wild and boundless wastes, lured hither and thither by the ignis fatuus of their hopes. They traversed great portions of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, everywhere inflicting and enduring misery, but never approaching their phantom El Dorado. At length, in the third year of their journeying, they reached the banks of the Mississippi, a hundred and thirty-two years before its second discovery by Marquette. One of their number describes the great river as almost half a league wide, deep, rapid, and constantly rolling down trees and drift-wood on its turbid current.

The Spaniards crossed over at a point above the mouth of the Arkansas. They advanced westward, but found no treasures,—nothing indeed but hardships, and an Indian enemy, furious, writes one of their officers, "as mad dogs." They heard of a country towards the north where maize could not be cultivated because the vast herds of wild cattle devoured it. They penetrated so far that they entered the range of the roving prairie tribes; for, one day, as they pushed their way with difficulty across great plains covered with tall, rank grass, they met a band of savages who dwelt in lodges of skins sewed together, subsisting on game alone, and wandering perpetually from place to place. Finding neither gold nor the South Sea, for both of which they had hoped, they returned to the banks of the Mississippi.

De Soto, says one of those who accompanied him, was a "stern man, and of few words." Even in the midst of reverses, his will had been law to his followers, and he had sustained himself through the depths of disappointment with the energy of a stubborn pride. But his hour was come. He fell into deep dejection, followed by an attack of fever, and soon after died miserably. To preserve his body from the Indians, his followers sank it at midnight in the river, and the sullen waters of the Mississippi buried his ambition and his hopes.

The adventurers were now, with few exceptions, disgusted with the enterprise, and longed only to escape from the scene of their miseries. After a vain attempt to reach Mexico by land, they again turned back to the Mississippi, and labored, with all the resources which their desperate necessity could suggest, to construct vessels in which they might make their way to some Christian settlement. Their condition was most forlorn. Few of their horses remained alive; their baggage had been destroyed at the burning of the Indian town of Mavila, and many of the soldiers were without armor and without weapons. In place of the gallant array which, more than three years before, had left the harbor of Espiritu Santo, a company of sickly and starving men were laboring among the swampy forests of the Mississippi, some clad in skins, and some in mats woven from a kind of wild vine.

Seven brigantines were finished and launched; and, trusting their lives on board these frail vessels, they descended the Mississippi, running the gantlet between hostile tribes, who fiercely attacked them. Reaching the Gulf, though not without the loss of eleven of their number, they made sail for the Spanish settlement on the river Pánuco, where they arrived safely, and where the inhabitants met them with a cordial welcome. Three hundred and eleven men thus escaped with life, leaving behind them the bones of their comrades strewn broadcast through the wilderness. (7)

De Soto's fate proved an insufficient warning, for those were still found who begged a fresh commission for the conquest of Florida; but the Emperor would not hear them. A more pacific enterprise was undertaken by Cancello, a Dominican monk, who with several brother ecclesiastics undertook to convert the natives to the true faith, but was murdered in the attempt. Nine years later, a plan was formed for the colonization of Florida, and Guido de las Bazares sailed to explore the coasts, and find a spot suitable for the establishment.(8) After his return, a squadron, commanded by Angel de Villafane, and freighted with supplies and men, put to sea from San Juan de Ulúa; but the elements were adverse, and the result was a total failure. Not a Spaniard had yet gained foothold in Florida.

That name, as the Spaniards of that day understood it, comprehended the whole country extending from the Atlantic on the east to the longitude of New Mexico on the west, and from the Gulf of Mexico and the River of Palms indefinitely northward towards the polar sea. This vast territory was claimed by Spain in right of the discoveries of Columbus, the grant of the Pope, and the various expeditions mentioned above. England claimed it in right of the discoveries of Cabot; while France could advance no better title than might be derived from the voyage of Verazzano and vague traditions of earlier visits of Breton adventurers.

With restless jealousy Spain watched the domain which she could not occupy, and on France especially she kept an eye of deep distrust. When, in 1541, Cartier and Roberval essayed to plant a colony in the part of ancient Spanish Florida now called Canada, she sent spies and fitted out caravels to watch that abortive enterprise. Her fears proved just. Canada, indeed, was long to remain a solitude; but, despite the Papal bounty gifting Spain with exclusive ownership of a hemisphere, France and Heresy at length took root in the sultry forests of modern Florida.


(1) Herrera, Hist. General, Dec. I. Lib. LX. c. 11; De Laet, Novus Orbis, Lib. I. C. 16 Garcilaso, Just. de la Florida, Part I. Lib. I. C. 3; Gomara, Ilist. Gin. des Indes Occidentales, Lib. II. c. 10. Compare Peter Martyr, De Rebus Oceanicis, Dec. VII. c. 7, who says that the fountain was in Florida.

The story has an explanation sufficiently characteristic, having been suggested, it is said, by the beauty of the native women, which none could resist, and which kindled the fires of youth in the veins of age.

The terms of Ponce de Leon's bargain with the King are set forth in the MS. Gapitnincion con Juan Ponce sobre Biminy. He was to have exclusive right to the island, settle it at his own cost, and be called Adelantado of Bimini; but the King was to build and hold forts there, send agents to divide the Indians among the settlers, and receive first a tenth, afterwards a fifth, of the gold.

(2) Fontanedo in Ternaux-Compans, Recueil sur la Floride, 18, 19, 42. Compare Herrera, Dec. I. Lib. IX. c. 12. In allusion to this belief, the name Jordan was given eight years afterwards by Ayllon to a river of South Carolina.

(3) Hakinyt, Voyaqes, V. 838; Barcia, Ensayo Cronológico, 5.

(4) Peter Martyr in Hakinyt. V. 333; De Laet, Lib. IV. c. 2.

(5) Their own exaggerated reckoning. The journey was prohably from Tampa Bay to the Appalachicola, by a circuitous route.

(6) Narrative of Alvar Nuñez Cabeca de Vaca, second in command to Narváez, translated by Buckingham Smith. Cabeca do Vaca was one of the four who escaped, and, after living for years among the tribes of Mississippi, crossed the river Mississippi near Memphis, journeyed westward by the waters of the Arkansas and Red River to New Mexico and Chihuahua, thence to Cinaloa on the Gulf of California, and thence to Mexico. The narrative is one of the most remarkable of the early relations. See also Ramusin, III. 310, and Purchas, IV. 1499, where a portion of Cabeca de Vaca is given. Also, Garcilaso, Part I. Lib. I. C. 3; Gomara, Lih. II. a. 11; De Laet, Lib. IV. c. 3; Barcia, Ensayo Cronológico, 19.

(7) I have followed the accounts of Biedma and the Portuguese of Elvas, rejecting the romantic narrative of Garcilaso, in which fiction is hopelessly mingled with truth.

(8) The spirit of this and other Spanish enterprises may be gathered from the following passage in an address to the King, signed by Dr. Pedro do Santander, and dated 15 July, 1557:-

"It is lawful that your Majesty, like a good shepherd, appointed by the hand of the Eternal Father, should tend and lead out your sheep, since the Holy Spirit has shown spreading pastures whereon are feeding lost sheep which have been snatched away by the dragon, the Demon. These pastures are the New World, wherein is comprised Florida, now in possession of the Demon, and here he makes himself adored and revered. This is the Land of Promise, possessed by idolaters, the Amorite, Ainalekite, Moabite, Cauaauite. This is the land promised by the Eternal Father to the faithful, since we are commanded by God in the Holy Scriptures to take it from them, being idolaters, and, by reason of their idolatry and sin, to put them all to the knife, leaving no living thing save maidens and children, their cities robbed and sacked, their walls and houses levelled to the earth."

The writer then goes into detail, proposing to occupy Florida at various points with from one thousand to fifteen hundred colonists, found a city to be called Philippina, also another at Tuscaloosa, to be called Cxsarea, another at Tallahassee, and another at Tampa Bay, where he thinks many slaves can be had. Carta del Doctor Pedro de Santander.

Introduction || 2: 1550-1558. Villegagnon >>