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European Contact

In the sixteenth century, Spanish shipwrecks, with their bounty and the explorations of Ponce de León and Pedro Menéndéz de Aviles brought both prosperity and ruin to the indigenous people of Florida. Exotic materials such as iron spikes, olive jars, and glass bottles were greeted with awe and given great value by Florida’s natives. A controlled trade emerged by the mid-seventeenth century after the Spanish introduced Catholic missions in the northern half of Florida and turned the people there into the primary labor force for construction, agriculture, and domestic service; the People of the Water in the south were largely untouched by these early Christianizing missions. Now the traditional trade activity included glass beads, copper bells, and other trinkets. However, rum brought ruin and chaos, and eventually European diseases such as smallpox, measles, and influenza which wiped out thousands of people. The Belle Glade Culture was extinguished by the mid-eighteenth century.

Menéndéz was successful in creating the first European-Indian alliances in Florida, temporarily ending the execution or capture of thousands of shipwrecked Europeans. Yet as late as 1743 the People of the Water ransomed shipwrecked Europeans. As allied English and Creek adventurers increasingly conducted forays from the Carolina and Georgia colonies into Spanish Florida, it is believed that the last of the Belle Glade people fled these far-penetrating English-Creek raids, seeking refuge in the Keys, and were eventually transported to Cuba by a sympathetic Spanish governor. By 1763, it is believed that Lake Okeechobee was void of the People of the Water who had held sway there for three millennia.

The Belle Glade people had very little, if any, contact with 16th and 17th century Europeans who did not penetrate that far inland in south Florida. By the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the Belle Glade people had more contact with the Spanish through trade and visiting St. Augustine, and migrations to Cuba on board Spanish ships. Early European contact was mostly with those tribes that lived along the coast including the Calusa, Tequesta, and Jeaga. The lake inhabitants most likely saw captured Europeans held by the coastal tribes such as the Calusa who captured Hernando d’Escalante Fontaneda, a teenage Spaniard held for 17 years. There were other Europeans held captive, including Juan Ortiz. Ortiz landed at Tampa Bay in 1528, a member of the Pánfilo de Narváez’ expedition. Ortiz was later captured and tortured by the Tocobaga chief Hirrihigua (it may have been Ucita) who had his nose cut off on orders issued by Narvaez. Ortiz was repeatedly saved by the chief’s daughter Ulele until one day when Ortiz was going to be executed by her father. Ulele help Ortiz escape to a neighboring village where Ortiz lived for about ten years until he was rescued by Hernando de Soto. Ortiz joined de Soto’s expedition as an interpreter but died during the group’s travels.

Hernando d’Escalante Fontaneda survived his 17-year captivity with the Calusa. About 1549 Fontaneda was shipwrecked along Florida’s coast during a storm. He, his brother, and the other passengers and crew were captured by the Calusa. Except for Fontaneda, all the others were sacrificed. He would come to learn several Indian languages and travel throughout Florida while a prisoner. At about age 30, Fontaneda was rescued by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who would use Fontaneda as an interpreter. After serving Menendez, Fontaneda wrote his memoir (1575) detailing his life with the Calusa Indians.

In his Memoir, Fontaneda talks about Lake Okeechobee and the people living there.

…the territory of Carlos, a province of Indians, which in their language signifies a fierce people, they are so-called for being brave and skillful, as in truth they are. They are masters of a large district of country, as far as a town they call Guacata, on the Lake of Mayaimi, which is called Mayaimi because it is very large. Around it are many little villages… On this lake, which lies in the midst of the country, are many towns, of thirty or forty inhabitants each; and as many more places there are in which people are not so numerous. They have bread of roots, which is their common food the greater part of the time; and because of the lake, which rises in some seasons so high that the roots cannot be reached in consequence of the water, they are for some time without eating this bread. Fish is plenty and very good. There is another root, like the truffle over here, which as sweet; and there are other different roots of many kinds; but when there is hunting, either deer or birds, they prefer to eat meat or fowl. I will also mention, that in the rivers of fresh water are infinite quantities of eels, very savory, and enormous trout. The eels are nearly the size of a man, thick as the thigh, and some of them are smaller. The Indians also eat lagartos (alligators) and snakes, and animals like rats, which live in the lake, fresh-water tortoises, and many more disgusting reptiles which, if we were to continue enumerating, we should never be through.

These Indians occupy a very rocky and a very marshy country. They have no product of mines, or thing that we have in this part of the world. The men go naked, and the women in a shawl made of a kind of palm-leaf, split and woven. They are subject's of Carlos, and pay him tribute of all the things I have before mentioned, food and roots, the skins of deer, and other articles.

Fontaneda’s description of the lake area is one of the earliest on record.

Both Fontaneda and Ortiz were lucky to survive. Most Europeans that shipwrecked along south Florida’s coast were executed. Others Spaniards who came to Florida as part of expeditions died from illness, starvation, warfare with the native tribes, or drowned.

Result of European Contact
Several other attempts were made to colonize Florida but it was not until 1565 when Pedro Menéndez de Avilés successfully founded St. Augustine that the Spanish gained a foothold in Florida. Though he attempted to establish Spanish forts and missions in the territory of the Tequesta (Miami) and the Calusa, they were failures. The Spanish mission system, in the territories of the Timucua and Apalachee, that extended from St. Augustine to the Florida Panhandle was successful.

In the 18th century, raids by the British and their Indian allies from Carolina and Georgia destroyed the missions in north Florida. Incursions further south drove off most of the indigenous people. A Spanish report from 1711 stated that a Spanish ship transported 270 Florida Indians to Cuba. The group included people from “Calos, Jobe, Cancha, Muspa, Rioseco, and from the Mayaimi of Lake Okeechobee.” The Spanish came to know the Belle Glade people as the “Mayaimi.” By 1763, a remnant of indigenous people that included about 80 families had gathered in the Keys and were picked up by the Spanish and taken to Cuba when the Spanish turned Florida over to the British. However, it is suspected that a few groups of Florida Indians remained in the Everglades and possibly joined with the Seminoles when they arrived in south Florida.

The native Floridians ruled Florida for thousands of years. Like other indigenous populations in the Americas, European warfare, intertribal warfare, slavery, and disease killed many of them. Disease alone wiped out whole villages before any European set foot in that village. In the 1700s the people that would become known as Seminoles and Miccosukees entered Florida from the Creek Tribes of Georgia and Alabama. By the 1830s, the empty homeland of the south Florida tribes would become the new home of the Seminoles and Miccosukees.

Native Towns from Fontaneda’s Memoir
Fontaneda provided a list of towns or villages by name, however, he did not provide the location of these places. (List of names from Indians of Central and South Florida 1513-1763 by John H. Hann)

Tanpa [this maybe the root of the modern day name of Tampa]
Cutespa [located on Lake Mayaimi (Lake Okeechobee)]
Tonsobe [located on Lake Mayaimi (Lake Okeechobee)]
Tauagemere [located on Lake Mayaimi (Lake Okeechobee)]
Yobe [This could be Hobe or Jobe, the village at Jupiter Inlet]
Mayaimi [located on Lake Mayaimi (Lake Okeechobee)]
Enenpa [located on Lake Mayaimi (Lake Okeechobee)]
Abalachi [this maybe the Apalachee of Florida’s Panahndle]
Tocobaga [THis tribe lived in the Tampa Bay area]
Guarungube [Maybe in the Keys]
Cuchiaga [Maybe in the Keys]
Tequesta [Thier main village was at the mouth of the Miami River, Miami]
Jeaga [This tribe lved along coastal Palm Beach County]

To Learn More:
Fontaneda's Memoir

Juan Ortiz and Princess Hirrihigua - St. Petersburg, Florida,

John E. Worth, “Fontaneda Revisited: Five Descriptions of Sixteenth-Century Florida,” The Florida Historical Quarterly, 73 (3): 339-352. Online edition at

Hernando d’Escalante Fontaneda. Memoir of Do. d'Escalante Fontaneda respecting Florida : written in Spain about the year 1575. Translated from the Spanish with notes by Buckingham Smith. Rev. Miami: University of Miami and the Historical Association of Southern Florida, 1944.

John H. Hann. Indians of Central and South Florida 1513-1763. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003.

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