De Soto and Vitachuco

The Florida Indians

Few portions of the Western Continent have witnessed such scenes of barbarous warfare between the natives and European adventurers, or between subjects of contending nations at the East, as the long, low peninsula, which lies at the southern extremity of the Atlantic seacoast of the United States. Its whole history is strangely romantic, and might well tempt us away from our subject, were there room to chronicle all the interesting details of its discovery, conquest, and settlement.

Ponce De Leon

The first picture presented to our minds, when we turn back to these early times, is of Juan Ponce de Leon, governor of Porto Rico, led by Indian fables in 1512 to search amid the low islands of the coast for a fountain that should bestow perpetual youth; landing upon the green and flowery shores, and bestowing upon the country its pleasing and musical appellation. All of North America, to the northward and eastward of Mexico, went by the name of Florida, before English settlements were made upon the coast. Failing in his first search, Leon undertook a second expedition into the unknown world, in hopes of finding mines of the precious metals, but was killed in a fight with the natives.

Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón

Lucas Vasquez De Ayllon
Lucas Vasquez De Ayllon

The perfidious Luke Valasquez de Ayllón, in 1518, visited the coast to the northward of Florida, to procure gold and slaves. The kindly natives, whom he tempted on board, were shut under hatches, and conveyed to Cuba. Returning again to the country, he and his party were justly punished for their treachery, nearly all of them being slain by the inhabitants, who, mindful of former injuries, rose upon them unawares, after putting them off their guard by demonstrations of friendship. Those who had been carried into servitude mostly perished, some by voluntary starvation, and others from grief and despair.

The Indians of Florida are represented by all early historians as a high-spirited and courageous race, showing considerable skill in agriculture, and exhibiting marks of far greater civilization than those of the North. It seems not improbable, judging from their traditions, appearance, and customs, that they, as well as the Natchez, had emigrated from Mexico, perhaps at no very remote period. They resided in towns and villages of considerable extent, and showed a degree of resolution and desperate valor, in defending their homes against the murderous Spaniards, which has seldom been equaled. Unappaled by the terrible execution of the unknown weapons of their enemies, who, mounted upon horses (hitherto unknown in the country) and clad in defensive armor, presented a novel and unaccountable spectacle to their wondering eyes, they disputed the invaded territory inch by inch.

Like most of their red brethren, they could not long brook the indignity of slavery; the proud spirit of the Indian can never, like that of the African, be so humbled that his race can continue and multiply in servitude.

The old Portuguese narrator of De Soto’s conquest, speaking of the Indian slaves of Cuba, says that their custom was to hang themselves, to escape the toil and degradation of working the mines. He tells of an overseer in the service of Vasco Porcalho, (afterwards De Soto’s lieutenant-general,) who, “knowing the Indians under his charge had resolved to hang themselves, went and staid for them at the place where they intended to put this dismal resolution into execution, with a rope in his hand: he told them they must not imagine that any of their designs were hid from him, and that he was come to hang himself with them, that he might torment them in the other world an hundred times more than he had done in this.” His expedient had the desired effect upon their superstitious and credulous minds, and, giving up their purpose, they returned submissively to their tasks.

Pamphilo de Narvaez, in April 1528, with a commission from Charles the Fifth to conquer and take possession, landed four hundred men and forty or fifty horses at East Florida. Penetrating the wilderness, they crossed the country to Appalache, sometimes experiencing kind treatment from the Indians, at other times in danger from their attacks. Finding no gold, and but little provision at this town, from which they drove out the inhabitants on their first arrival, the Spaniards shaped their course to the south towards Aute. Tormented by hunger; beset by hidden foes; disheartened by the terrible difficulties which beset their path, from the almost impassable natural conformation of the country; and worn out by incessant exertion, Narvaez and his men reached Aute only to “find it burned and deserted by its inhabitants.

Many of the party having already perished, the rest, hopeless of making further progress by land, set to work to construct boats in which they might reach a port of safety. “With singular ingenuity they prepared tools from the iron of their accoutrements; and, with no further materials than were furnished by the productions of the forest, and the manes, tails, and skins of their horses, five small boats were built. They embarked and set sail, but nearly all perished either by famine or by the dangers of the sea. Only a handful of the number were ever heard from, among whom was Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. With only four companions he kept on his course to the West, and, after years of peril, hardship, and servitude, reached the Spanish settlements of Mexico.

Fernando De Soto

The next Spanish expedition to Florida was of far more importance and interest than either that had preceded it. The celebrated Fernando de Soto, after acquiring an immense fortune as a companion of Pizarro, at Peru, was moved by the restless spirit of adventure to undertake a more complete examination of the New World opened to Spanish cupidity and curiosity.

From the Conquest of De Soto to the year 1818

We can but briefly touch upon the incidents of Florida history for nearly two centuries after De Soto s invasion. The French Huguenot refugees, who settled upon St. John’s River in 1562, found the natives placable and generous. Although their kindness was but ill reciprocated by the colony, no very serious difficulties occurred between the two races. The power and self-confidence of the Indians had been broken, and their numbers greatly reduced, by the desolating ravages committed by the Spaniards.

In the brutal and murderous wars between the French and Spanish colonies, which succeeded the new attempts at settlement, the Indians, although they took no conspicuous part, were occasionally involved in hostilities. The most important era in the native history of this period is that of the establishment of a regular missionary system of instruction.

Missionary Operations By The Spaniards

The central point of these operations was the convent of St. Helena, situated at St. Augustine. Don Pedro Menendez de Avilla, the Spanish governor who founded this town, and who had been commissioned by the king of Spain to spread the Catholic religion among the Indians, was indefatigable in carrying out his sovereign s intentions. The success met with by the ecclesiastics sent forth among the various tribes, is astonishing. In the wilder ness of central Florida may still be seen the ruins of buildings erected by their means for religious exercises. Their efforts were not confined to the vicinity of the colonies: emissaries penetrated the western forests, even to the Mississippi; and amid the rough mountain districts of the north, they were to be found living with the Indians, and assiduously instructing them, not only in their religious creed, but in language and useful arts.

The Spanish influence might perhaps have been maintained over the Indians during the existence of the colony, but for the jealous suspicions of Cabrana, who was made governor in 1680. He put to death the principal chief of the Yamasees, or inhabitants of East Florida, upon an accusation of having given aid and comfort to the English settlers on the St. John’s, then called May River. The consequence of this act was a long and troublesome war.

Moore’s Invasion Of Florida

The unfortunate Indians were for many years after this event made the tools of the hostile European colonies: first in the French and Spanish wars, and afterwards, in 1702 and 1704, when Governor Moore, of South Carolina, invaded Florida.

In the northwestern districts of the peninsula dwelt the Appalachees; the rest of the country was inhabited by the Yemasees. These two nations had formerly been upon terms of the bitterest enmity, but had been reconciled by the mediation of the Spaniards. Moore, followed by a considerable body of English, and a large force of Creek Indians, ravaged nearly the whole country, beginning at Appalachee, and proceeding southeasterly to the Atlantic seaboard. He carried away many Indians of the, conquered tribes to the English plantations as slaves.

After a long period of hopeless and profitless warfare, in which they had nothing to gain by success, and by means of which they were disabled from agriculture and deprived of a settled abode, the scattered remnants of the Indian tribes gradually took up their quarters in the heart of the country, and farther towards the south. In the latter part of the eighteenth century they acquired the name of Seminoles, said to signify ” wanderers.”


In the year 1792, an unprincipled adventurer from England, named Bowles, made strenuous attempts to excite the hostility of the Indians against the Spanish settlers. Failing in a direct attempt to plunder an Indian trading-house on the St. John’s, and finding himself abandoned by his associates, he betook himself to the Creeks, married a woman of that tribe, and persuaded the Indians that the store of goods which he had attacked belonged rightfully to them. He met with considerable success in deceiving the simple-minded natives, and, assisted by several chiefs of the Creek nation, he got possession of the fortress of St. Marks. Delivering himself up to riot and drunkenness, with his followers, it proved no difficult task for the Spanish troops to retake the fort. Bowles was allowed to escape, but was afterwards delivered up by his Indian allies, and taken to Cuba a prisoner. The Seminoles were partially involved in the wars of 1812 and the two succeeding years, when the Americans invaded Florida. Their chief leaders were King Payne and his brother, the noted Boleck or Bowlegs. Having done no little damage by burning buildings and plundering the plantations in their vicinity, they purposed to march northward, but were engaged and routed nearer home, by General Newman, with a body of troops from Georgia. This force having crossed the St. John’s, marched into Alachua, and encountered Payne within a few miles of his head-quarters. The Indians fought bravely, but could not resist the superior skill of the whites. Payne was killed, and his men were driven off in the first engagement; but they rallied, and returned to the attack with redoubled energy. They possessed them selves of the body of their chief; and afterwards, surrounding the American forces, kept them in a state of siege for a number of days, imperfectly protected by a structure of logs.

After this period, and previous to the cession of the Floridas to the United States, the affairs of the Seminoles and their American neighbors were unsettled, and some bloody scenes were enacted. Fugitive slaves from the adjoining states found a secure asylum among the immense wilds of the marshy and uninhabited territory of the Floridas, and conflicting claims of Indians and whites respecting Negroes long after formed a fertile source of quarrel and complaint. Some of the Seminoles became possessed of large numbers of slaves, holding them by undisputed title.

Defeat Of The Seminoles By General Jackson

In the month of March 1818, General Jackson, with more than three thousand men, over one half of whom were Creek warriors, marched into West Florida to punish and check the ravages of the Seminoles. With little opposition from the inhabitants, the towns surrounding the lake of Miccosukie were destroyed, and much booty, in corn and cattle, was secured. The Indian villages upon the Oscilla and St. Mark’s Rivers, known as the Fowel towns, met with a similar fate. St. Mark s was soon after occupied by the invaders, and, in the ensuing month, the great body of the Seminoles, aided by large numbers of negroes, was defeated on the borders of the Suwanee, and several hundred were taken prisoners. The rest fled into East Florida.

Brownell, Charles De Wolf. Indian Races of North and South America: Comprising an account of the principal aboriginal races; a description of their national customs, mythology, and religious ceremonies, the history of their most powerful tribes, and of their most celebrated chiefs and warriors; their intercourse and wars with the European settlers; and a great variety of anecdote and description, illustrative of personal and national character. Hartford, Conn., Chicago,E. B. & R.C. Treat; [etc., etc.]: Hurlbut, Scranton & Co. 1864.

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