Florida – The Land Of Flowers

In the early sixteenth century there flourished a valiant Spaniard of noble birth, a grandee of Aragon, who had taken part in the conquest of Grenada, Don Juan Ponce de Leon. He had accompanied Columbus on one of his American voyages, and in 1510 was appointed Governor of Puerto Rico. The bold Don Juan had become somewhat worn by a life of dangerous buccaneering and romantic adventure, and being rather advanced in years he was losing the attractiveness which had long added charms to his gallantries. From the Indians of Puerto Rico he heard of an island off to the northwestward, which they called Bimini, and he listened with wonder and constantly increasing interest to the tales they told of an extraordinary and miraculous spring which it contained that would restore youth to the aged and health to the decrepit—the ” Fountain of Perpetual Youth.” They described it as being in a region of surpassing beauty, and said there were found abundant gold and many slaves in this land of promise. The rugged old warrior was fired with the prospect of restored youth, and soon secured from the king a grant of Bimini. In March, 1513, he sailed with a large expedition from Puerto Rico, discovered some of the Bahama Islands, coasted along the mainland to latitude 30° 8′ north, and on Easter Sunday, April 8th, landed a short distance south of St. John’s River and took possession, calling the country Florida, from ” Pasqua Florida,” the Spanish name for the day. He did not find the magic spring, however, but he did discover a fairy scene, a land filled with a profusion of fruits and flowers. Though he subsequently diligently searched for it, he unfortunately never found the miraculous fountain. He explored the Gulf Coast, and returned to the quest again in 1521, when he got into quarrels with the Indians, was mortally wounded in a combat, and went back to Cuba to die.

Another Spanish grandee, fired with zeal for gold and conquest, appeared upon the scene somewhat later in the sixteenth century. Ferdinand de Soto, a native of Jerez, whose only heritage was his sword and shield, had accompanied various expeditions to Darien and Nicaragua, and in 1532 joined Pizarro in the conquest of Peru, where he acquired great wealth, with which he returned to Spain. Soon after, being anxious for more adventure, he was appointed Governor of Cuba and Florida, and given a commission to explore and settle the Spanish possessions in the latter country, then including the whole northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico. In May, 1539, he sailed from Havana with a large fleet and six hundred men, coasted around Florida and landed at Tampa Bay on the Gulf side, where his explorations ashore began in July. Fabulous stories had been told him of the wealth of the country by those who had been there, and De Soto’s plan was to go everywhere in search of gold. He captured Indians for guides, and found a Spaniard, Juan Ortiz, whom they had taken captive several years before, but who was now living with them as a friend, knew their language and be-came interpreter. Then De Soto, by his aid, began a most difficult exploration, advancing through thick woods, north and east, amid tangled undergrowth, over bogs and marshes, crossing rivers and lakes, fighting the Indians who resented his cruelties, for he made them his slaves and bearers of burdens, tortured and killed them if they resisted. But he found no gold, though he pushed steadily onward, and turning westward in the quest, his numbers growing smaller and the survivors weaker under the weight of their privations. He travelled a long distance, crossing Northern Florida and Georgia into the Carolinas, and probably to Tennessee, descending the Alabama River, and having a battle with the Indians near Mobile Bay in October, 1540 ; then turning again northward, crossing the Mississippi River, which he discovered in May, 1541, near the Chiekasaw Bluffs, exploring it nearly to the mouth of the Missouri, and then turning southward he sailed down the river, and finally died of fever near the mouth of Red River in May, 1542. During the three years’ wanderings nearly half his force had perished in battle, or of privation and disease. The Indians were in awe of him and believed him immortal, and a panic therefore seized his surviving followers, who feared annihilation if the savages discovered that De Soto was dead. So they quietly buried him at night, from a boat in midstream, sinking the corpse in the great Father of Waters. Discouraged and almost hopeless, his followers managed to build some small vessels, and the next year arrived safely in Mexico.

Neither of these expeditions succeeded in colonizing Florida, but they left a feeling of hatred among the Indians, caused by the Spanish cruelties, which always afterwards existed. In 1564 some French Huguenots, led by René de Loudonnière, attempted making a settlement at the mouth of St. John’s River, and built Fort Caroline there. News of this reached Spain, and in 1565 another colonization expedition was sent out under Don Pedro Menendez d’Aviles, which set sail from Cadiz, and on St. Augustine’s Day, August 28th, landed not far from where Ponce de Leon had made his first invasion, and founded a colony which he named St. Augustine, in honor of his day of arrival. As soon as Menendez was established on shore he attacked the Huguenots at St. John’s River, and hanged such of them as had escaped being killed in the battle, declaring that he did this because they were Protestants. Some of them who had been away from the fort at the time were afterwards shipwrecked near St. Augustine, and these he also captured and put to death. The French Fort Caroline was then garrisoned y the Spaniards, its name changed to Fort San Mateo, and they also fortified with redoubts both sides of the river entrance. The story of the atrocities of Menendez was received with indignation in France, but the King, controlled by intrigue, dared do nothing, such was his fear of the power of Spain.

Full vengeance was afterwards taken, however. Dominique de Gourgues, a French gentleman of Mont-de-Marsan, who hated the Spaniards with a mortal hatred, took up the quarrel, sold his inheritance, borrowed money, and equipped a small expedition of three vessels and one hundred and eighty men. He concealed his real object, and sailing for sometime through the tropical seas, finally came to Cuba, when he first made known his purpose to his followers. He landed at St. Mary’s River, opening communication with the Indians, and a joint attack upon the Spaniards to the southward was arranged. In May, 1568, the fort and redoubts at St. John’s River were stormed and taken, a few Spaniards being captured alive, all the rest having been slain in the combat. Gourgues was shown neary the trees whereon Menendez had hanged the French prisoners when he first took the fort, having placed over them the inscription “Not as Frenchmen, but as Luther-ans.” He hanged his Spanish prisoners on the same trees, and over them was also nailed an inscription, burned with a hot iron on a tablet of pine, “Not as Spaniards, but as Traitors, Robbers and Murderers.” Gourgues’ mission of vengeance was fulfilled. His Indian allies demolished the fort and the redoubts at the mouth of the river. He then sailed home with his expedition, landing at Rochelle on the day of Pentecost, where the Huguenots greeted him with all honor, and whilst he was scorned at court and lived for some years in obscurity, Queen Elizabeth showed him great favor; and as he was going overland to join the army of Portugal to once more fight his enemies, the Spaniards, he fell ill at Tours and died. The French made no more attempts at settlement in Florida, and the Spaniards afterwards possessed it, though frequently being at war with the English. Spain finally ceded the” Land of Flowers” to the United States, which took final possession in 1821.