European Discovery & Settlement in South Florida (1500-1819)
The white man's first contact with this Eden was in 1513 and 1521 when the fierce Calusa twice drove off the Spanish caravels of Ponce de Léon. Had he succeeded in landing his 200 settlers, the lower Gulf Coast might now contain the oldest city in the United States, predating the founding of St. Augustine by over 40 years.
At first the Calusas enslaved shipwrecked Spanish, French and English, but the ships and guns of sovereign nations, of the pirates, the outlaws and the slave traders of the Florida keys, gradually diminished their numbers. By 1800 after Florida had been ceded to Great Britain then returned to Spain, the ancient Calusas had virtually disappeared.
The first Europeans arriving in Florida encountered a thriving population of at least five separate Indian tribes. South Florida was then home to approximately 20,000 Indians -- the Tequesta in southeast Florida, the Mayaimi near Lake Okeechobee, and the Calusa in the southwest.
While searching for the legendary Fountain of Youth, Spanish adventurer Ponce de Léon discovered Florida and charted the Keys, which he named Los Martires (The Martyrs), for their twisted shapes and dangerous coastlines known to cause many shipwrecks.
When Ponce de Léon approached southwest Florida with three caravels, he and his ships were repelled by the hostile Calusa. The natives tore away the Spaniards' anchors and cables and attempted to board one of the vessels.
Ponce de León again tried to colonize the southwest Florida coast. Accompanied by two-hundred people, fifty horses, and numerous beasts of burden, the Spaniard was repelled and mortally wounded by native Indians. The Spaniards pushed on to Havana.
Spanish teenager Hernando D'Escalante Fontaneda was shipwrecked on the east coast of Florida and spent the next seventeen years as a captive of the Tequesta. His memoirs provided one of the earliest accounts of the south Florida natives.
Explorer Hernando de DeSoto led an expedition to Caloosahatchee region of southwest Florida, in search of a route to the Mayaimi Lagoon (Lake Okeechobee).
Spanish Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés sailed to the southwest coast of Florida to make peace with the Calusa. He succeeded in saving several Spanish captives and eliciting an agreement from the Calusa chief to convert to Christianity. To strengthen Spanish influence in the region, Menéndez built numerous small forts along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of lower Florida. He also sent missionaries into the Calusa and Tequesta. Menéndez instructed the captain of the fort in Calusa country to look for a waterway to Lake Mayaimi by means of which communication might be established between the two coasts.
Menéndez de Avilés established the first European mission on the Miami River's north bank in 1567. Concerned with coastline defense, Menéndez also built a watchtower at Biscayne Bay to sight endangered treasure ships and pirate vessels. Within a short time, hostile Indians and mosquitoes drove away the Spanish explorers.
Bands of Creek Indians from Georgia and Alabama began settling in Spanish Florida. They were joined by runaway slaves from the southern states. The Europeans named this combined group of people "Seminole", meaning "runaway".
Tequestas and Calusas began to feel the decimating effects of slave raids and European diseases. By 1800, the people of the Glades were reduced to a handful of survivors.
Timeline prepared by Gail Clement, University Librarian, Florida International University