Discovery and Exploration of the Sunshine State

By Herbert Eugene Bolton, 1918

Luis de Moscoso

By the mid 1500s Spanish interest in Florida had been aroused by the journey of Cabeza De Vaca, who had explored part of the area in April 1528. Though only four of the 600 men of the expedition survived, their tales of the people and resources aroused the interest of Spanish authorities. This interest was quickened to a lively heat when, late in 1543, Luis de Moscoso Alvarado and the remnants of Hernando De Soto’s band, at last, straggled into Mexico City. It would appear that hardships and failures could not impair a Spaniard’s ability for story-telling; for Moscoso and his tattered comrades were soon spinning for others the golden web of romance in which they themselves had been snared. Glowing pictures they gave of the north country, especially of Coosa (in Alabama), where they had been well fed and where one or two of their number had remained to dally with Creek damsels. The Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, ambitious to extend his power into the Northern Mystery, at once offered to finance an expedition if Luis de Moscoso Alvarado would undertake it. But, while Moscoso’s zeal for golden Florida might inspire his imagination to dazzling flights of fancy, it was inadequate to stir his feet one step again in that direction. So, Mendoza’s project came to nothing.

It was noticed that the Mexicans valued highly some of the fur apparel brought back by Moscoso’s men. And the next year in 1544, two Spanish gentlemen sought from the King the right to conquer Florida, for the purpose of bringing deer skins and furs into Mexico, as well as in the hope of discovering pearls, mines, and whatever other marvels had embroidered Moscoso’s romance. But, the King refused their petition. In his refusal, he was influenced in part by religious and humane motives. Despite the presence of priests and friars, the various expeditions to the north thus far had taken no time from treasure hunting to convert natives or to establish missions. The Church was now considering the question of sending out its own expedition to Florida, unhampered by slave-catching soldiers.

Perhaps this idea of conquest by the Cross, unaided — and unhampered — by the sword, was born in the mind of Fray Luis Cancer, a devout and learned Dominican. Fray Luis was living in the convent of Santo Domingo in Mexico City not long after Cabeza De Vaca and Luis de Moscoso Alvarado arrived with their wonder tales. The account of the hundreds of savages who had followed Vaca from village to village must have moved the good friar’s heart with zeal and pity. And, he can have been no less stirred by the tales told by Moscoso’s men of the gallant butchery their swords had done — of the clanking chains that made music on the day’s march, and the sharp whisper in the night of the flint, as it pressed against an iron collar. Fray Luis desired to see all heathen made free in God’s favor. The oppression his countrymen practiced upon the natives filled him with horror. As a missionary, first in Espanola and then in Puerto Rico, he had seen the hopelessness of trying to spread religion in territories which were being swiftly depopulated by ruthless conquerors. He had therefore gone to Guatemala, to the monastery of Santiago whose head was the noble Las Casas. At that time, one province of Guatemala was known as the “Land of War” because of the ferocity of its natives. Las Casas had influenced the Governor to forbid that territory to Spaniards for five years. Then, he had sent Fray Luis, who had meanwhile learned the language of the natives, to the chief to request permission for the monks to come there. With his gentle words, Fray Luis took also little gifts, trinkets, mirrors, and beads of bright colors such as would delight the Indians.

He made so good an impression on the chief that the permission he sought was readily given. And, in a few years the Land of War became the Land of the True Peace — Vera Paz — where no Spaniards dwelt, save a few Dominican friars, and where, at morning and evening, Indian voices chanted the sacred songs to the accompaniment of the Indian flutes and drums which had formerly quickened to frenzy the warriors setting out to slaughter. And, for this spiritual conquest, Fray Luis had received the title of Alferez de la Fe, Standard Bearer of the Faith.

But, Fray Luis was not content to eat the fruit of his labors in Vera Paz. The Standard Bearer would push on to another frontier. He went to Mexico City in 1546 because he would find the latest reports of newly discovered countries. Here, Fray Luis heard the stories which had been told there by Cabeza De Vaca and Luis de Moscoso Alvarado and resolved to bear his standard to Florida.

European explorers arriving in the new world, William H. Lippincott

European explorers arriving in the new world, by William H. Lippincot.

He found willing comrades in three monks of his own order, Gregorio de Beteta, Juan Garcia, and Diego de Tolosa. Fray Gregorio and Fray Juan had already made three or four unsuccessful attempts to reach Florida by land from Mexico, with a total misapprehension as to distance and direction. His plans consummated under the orders of Las Casas, Fray Luis went to Spain to urge the great project with the King. His petition was soon granted. When he returned to Mexico in 1548 he had the royal authority to establish a mission at some point in Florida where Spaniards had not yet spilled native blood. In 1549, Fray Luis and his three companions sailed from Vera Cruz in an unarmed vessel. At Havana he took on board, a converted native girl named Magdalena, who was to act as interpreter and guide. Perhaps it was almost impossible for the pilot to distinguish one inlet from another, with certainty, on that much-indented coastline, where the low shore presents no variation to the eye for miles; for, instead of landing at a new point, the monks first touched Florida soil in the vicinity of Tampa Bay. And, the natives about Tampa Bay were hostile, with memories of Hernando De Soto.

There were empty huts nearby and a background of forest in which it seemed nothing stirred. Fray Diego went ashore and climbed a tree at some distance from the beach. Immediately, a score of Indians emerged from the forest. Fray Luis, despite the pilot’s warnings, with Magdalena and another monk named Fuentes, hurried after Diego, through the water to their waists. “Our Lord knows what haste I made lest they should slay the monk before hearing what we were about,” Fray Luis writes. He paused to fall on his knees and pray for grace and divine help, as he climbed the bank.

Dominican friar

Then he took out of his sleeves some of the trinkets he had brought; because he writes, “deeds are love, and gifts shatter rocks.”‘ After these gifts, the natives were willing that the friars and Magdalena should kneel among them reciting the litanies; and, to Fray Luis’s joy, they also knelt and appeared pleased with the prayers and the rosaries.

They seemed so friendly, indeed, that Fray Luis permitted Fray Diego, Fuentes, and Magdalena to remain with them and to go on a day and a half’s journey by land to a good harbor of which the Indians had told them. He and Fray Gregorio returned to the ship. It took the pilot eight days to find the new harbor and eight more to enter it. It was on the feast of Corpus Christi that the ship dropped anchor. Fray Luis and Fray Juan landed and said Mass. To their apprehension, they saw no signs of Fray Diego and Fuentes, nor of Indians. On the next day, as they searched, an Indian came out of the woods carrying, in token of peace, a rod topped with white palm leaves; and he appeared to assure Fray Luis that Fray Diego and his companions were safe and would be brought to him. On the next day as Fray Luis, with Fray Juan and Fray Gregorio, rowed towards the shore the natives waded to meet them bringing fish and skins to trade for trinkets. One Indian would take nothing but a little wooden cross which he kissed as he had seen the monks do — much to the delight of Fray Luis. If the pious monk’s joy at this incident was dimmed a few moments later, when he waded inshore and discovered Magdalena naked among the tribeswomen, it kindled again at her assurance that Diego and Fuentes were safe in the cacique’s house. How little truth was in her words Fray Luis learned when he returned to the ship. There he found a Spaniard, once a soldier of De Soto’s army, who had been enslaved by the Indians of this tribe. This man informed him that the Indians had already slain Fray Diego and the monk, Fuentes; he had held Diego’s scalp in his hands.

To pleas that he forsake his mission and sail away to safer shores, Fray Luis had but one answer. Where his comrades in the faith, acting under his orders, had fallen, there he would remain. Though storms prevented him from landing for two days, he refused to accept the assertions of his shipmates — that the storms were sent by God to keep him from a death among the Indians. And, at last, through the lashing and roaring of sea and wind, he came again to shore. Armed natives painted for war could be seen grouped on the bank above the slope to the beach. “For the love of God wait a little; do not land,” Fray Gregorio entreated. But, Fray Luis had already leaped into the water. He turned back once, on reaching the beach, but, it was to call to Gregorio or Juan to bring to him a small cross he had forgotten. When Gregorio cried, “Father, for mercy’s sake, will not your reverence come for it, as there is no one here who will take it to you,” Fray Luis went on towards the hill. At its foot, he knelt in prayer for a few moments, then began the ascent. Midway, the Indians closed about him, swinging their clubs. He cried out once, loudly, before their blows struck him down. Those in the boat heard his cry and saw the Indians clubbing and slashing at his body as they thrust it down the hill. Then, a shower of arrows falling upon their boat made them pull away in haste to the ship. The next day the vessel set sail and, three weeks later, anchored off Vera Cruz.

King Philip II Spain

King Philip II of Spain

King Philip II had come to the throne the master of Europe. His father, King Charles V, had been not only sovereign ruler of Spain, of the Netherlands, of Naples, of a part of central Italy, of Navarre, and Emperor of Germany by election, but, he had hoped to become master of England also and to leave in his heir’s hands a world all Spanish and all Catholic. Philip II inherited his father’s power and his father’s dream. If his natural abilities were less, his obstinacy and his zeal were greater. He had seen the march of Spanish power not unattended by affronting incidents. In 1520 a monk named Luther had defied Philip’s father, the Emperor, to his face. The Reformation was spreading. Huguenots were powerful in the domestic politics of France; and France was threatening Spain’s American possessions. Her fishermen had passed yearly in increasing numbers between the Banks of Newfoundland and their home ports. And, a mariner of several cross-sea voyages, Jacques Cartier, had discovered the St. Lawrence River and had set off again in 1540 to people “a country called Canada.”

But, these voyages of discovery were not the worst of France’s insults to Spain. French pirates had formed the habit of darting down on Spanish treasure ships and appropriating their contents. They had also sacked Spanish ports in the islands. Many of these pirates were Huguenots, “Lutheran heretics,” as the Spaniards called them. Another danger also was beginning to appear on the horizon, though it was as yet but a speck. It hailed from England, whose mariners were beginning to fare forth into all seas for trade and plunder. They were trending towards the opinion of King Francis of France, that God had not created the gold of the New World only for Castilians. A train of Spanish treasure displayed in London had set more than one stout seaman to head-scratching over the inequalities of this world and how best to readjust the balances. There was reason enough, then, for Philip’s fear that large portions of the New World might readily be snatched from Spain by heretical seamen; and Philip was as fierce in the pursuit of his own power as in his zeal for his religion.

The slow-moving treasure fleets from Mexico and Havana sailed past Florida through the Bahama Channel, which Juan Ponce de Leon had discovered, and on to the Azores and Spain. The channel was not only the favorite hunting place of pirates — so that the Spanish treasure ships no longer dared go singly but, now combined for protection; it was also the home of storms. The fury of its winds had already driven too many vessels laden with gold upon the Florida coast, whereas yet, there were no ports of relief. Cargoes had thus been wholly lost, and sailors and passengers murdered by the Indians. To these dangers, was added the fear that the French designed to plant a colony on the Florida coast near the channel, so that they might seize Spanish vessels in case of war, for not one could pass without their seeing it.

So, on Philip’s order, Viceroy Velasco bestirred himself to raise a colony, not only for Coosa but, for some other point in Florida. The other point selected was Santa Elena, now Port Royal, South Carolina. When all was ready, the company comprised no less than 1500 people. Of the 12 captains in the force, six had been with De Soto. In the party, there were Coosa women who had followed the Spaniards to Mexico. They were now homeward bound. At the head of the colony went Tristan de Luna y Arellano, the same Don Tristan who had been Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s second in command in the Cibola enterprise 18 years before. The departure of the expedition was celebrated with great pomp. Velasco himself crossed the mountains to Vera Cruz to see it off.

But, this expedition was to be another record of disaster and failure. Arellano brought his fleet to anchor in Pensacola Bay, and then dispatched three vessels for Santa Elena. Before his supplies were unloaded, a tremendous hurricane swept the Bay and destroyed most of his ships with a great loss of life. So violent was the storm that it tossed one vessel, like a nutshell, upon the green shore. Some of the terror-struck soldiers saw the shrieking demons of Hell striding the low, racing, black clouds. The outguards of the storm attacked the three ships bound for the Carolina coast and drove them south so that they returned to Mexico by way of Cuba.