This Date in Native History: On April 2, 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon landed on the southeastern coast of Florida, claiming the territory for the Spanish crown and forever changing life for Florida tribes.
Ponce de Leon served as governor of the Spanish colony of San Juan (modern-day Puerto Rico). There, he was known as a conquistador with a reputation for taking Natives as slaves, said Jerald Milanich, emeritus professor of archaeology at the University of Florida.
“He found Indians in the Caribbean and was not a nice person,” Milanich said. “He did not hesitate to do whatever he wanted in terms of cruelty to conquer the Native people.”
In 1512, Ponce de Leon received a royal contract that gave him three years to look for a fabled island north of the Bahamas. Believing he would find wealth—or the rumored fountain of youth—Ponce de Leon organized a crew and sailed north in March of 1513.
He made landfall on April 2, likely near present day St. Augustine, though no records of the expedition exist and the exact location is unknown, Milanich said. Most historians cite second-hand records that surfaced about 90 years later.
“We know he landed somewhere on the east coast then traveled down the coast,” Milanich said. “It took him so long to get to the Florida Keys that one would think he explored on the way. He was battling the current and he probably went ashore several times to see what was going on, to get fresh water and fire wood, to let his horses exercise.”
Ponce de Leon’s first sighting of the Florida coastline was during Easter Holy Week, or the Feast of Flowers. The holiday and the natural beauty of the land prompted him to name it La Florida.
But hundreds of tribes and thousands of villages already existed in Florida. Ponce de Leon twice encountered indigenous people on the east coast, where he likely took captives to serve as guides and to get information, Milanich said.
By some estimates, Florida was home to as many as 300,000 Natives. The only identifiable tribe that played a documented role was the Calusa, a now-extinct tribe that Ponce de Leon encountered on the southwest coast.
“It must have been a spectacular town,” Milanich said of the Calusa village. “Canals led into the center of town. You could get on a canoe and go into the village.”
History accounts claim the tribe was hostile toward European explorers and settlers, said Willie Johns, a historian for the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The tribe had a chief, a complex government and a warrior class, and it thwarted Ponce de Leon’s efforts to infiltrate.
“They were civilized, really,” Johns said of the Calusa. “They weren’t hostile, just defending their homeland against the invaders.”
The Calusa proved to be a match for the Spaniards, Milanich said. They refused to cooperate and early attempts at nearby settlements flopped.
The tribe had relative wealth, however, Milanich said. It lived off the bounty of the sea, harvesting enough fish to support a large population. Yet when Ponce de Leon did not find the material wealth he was looking for, he traveled further north.
Eight years later, in 1521, Ponce de Leon returned to the Calusa village in another effort to establish a Spanish colony. When the Calusa attacked, Ponce de Leon was hit with an arrow and suffered a mortal wound. He died in July of 1521, in Cuba.
Although Ponce de Leon was unsuccessful in conquering the Natives, his discovery led to the 16th-Century Spanish invasion, Milanich said.
“If Ponce did nothing else, he alerted other Spaniards, especially navigators, that here was a land,” he said. “He was the opening of the door, a microcosm of the invasion of the Americas by the Europeans. He was the beginning of the end for hundreds of thousands of Indians.”
Within 80 years of Ponce de Leon’s landing, much of the indigenous population had succumbed to slavery, disease or death in combat, Johns said.
“The effect of disease and warfare is that today we don’t even know who the Calusa were,” he said. “It was a culture that was totally devastated for progress. Before Ponce, there were eight groups of aboriginals. They all had their own distinct languages and cultures. None of them remain.”
This story was originally published April 2, 2014.