The Spanish in the Southeast

Published Aug. 1, 2014
When I visited the Florida section of Gulf Islands National Seashore many years ago I was surprised to learn that Spaniards had explored that area, the panhandle of northwest Florida. We all learn in school about Juan Ponce de León, the first known European to explore the mainland, in 1513, and St. Augustine, on Florida’s Atlantic coast, being the oldest city in the U.S., founded in 1565, but the extent of Spain’s exploration of what is now the United States was vast, much greater than I had imagined, and but for a few hurricanes and battles our political map could have looked much different.
Señor de León landed on Florida’s Atlantic coast, during the Easter season, between what is now St. Augustine and the St. Johns River and named it La Florida for the Feast of the Flowers in honor of the season. The party explored the coast and the Keys for several months but were fought off by Indians who had heard of the Spaniards’ reputation for cruelty.
In the panhandle, it is believed that an uncle and nephew named Miruelos were the first to enter Pensacola Bay, in 1516. Santa Rosa Island, where I read about the Spaniards in Florida, casts a protective arm across the bay’s entrance and comprises the eastern segment of Gulf Islands NS. The Miruelos nephew later sailed with Alonso Alvárez de Pineda to map the northern Gulf Coast.
An expedition under Pánfilo de Narváez landed near Tampa Bay on the western Gulf Coast of Florida in 1528 and marched north along the coast. Suffering hunger and other deprivations, the men eventually ate their horses and built rafts but drowned in the Gulf. Four of them wandered across the South and Southwest and eight years later managed to reach California.
These explorations led to the 1539 expedition by Hernando de Soto, who also landed at Tampa and headed north on foot. The main party rested near present-day Appalachicola while several parties went west, one, led by Diego Muldonado entering Pensacola Bay. De Soto’s expedition explored parts of present Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi and in April 1541 reached the Mississippi River, the first known Europeans to see the river. They continued west through Arkansas and returned to Louisiana and then Mississippi, where de Soto died and was laid to rest in the Mississippi River. The Spaniards moved through Texas trying to reach Mexico and were barred passage by Indians, so they went south on the Mississippi to the Gulf, a small fraction of the original contingent reaching Mexico.
Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano, chosen by King Phillip II to become governor of Florida, led an expedition of 1,000 civilians and 500 soldiers on 13 ships and made landfall somewhere in Pensacola Bay on Aug. 14, 1559, but hurricanes, illness and death doomed the colony. Only 360 remained a year later, and the settlement was abandoned. Nevertheless, Pensacola celebrated its 450th anniversary in 2009, and de Luna’s was purportedly the first European colony in what is now the U.S., unless the legend of 12th-century Welsh settlement in America is true.
Spain gave up on eastern North America for more than a century. In the 17th century 11 expeditions went out in search of French colonists who were said to be in the panhandle area but found only the ruins of a settlement on the Texas coast. One expedition entered Pensacola Bay in 1686, a geographer mapped the bay in 1693, and Spain occupied the bay in 1698.
But the settlements by and large did not take. St. Augustine will celebrate its 450th anniversary next year ( but as an English-speaking city, and the Spanish influence in the South largely remains in scattered bits of architecture and place names. Had things gone differently, had the Spanish forgotten gold and put down roots, much of what is the U.S., from South Carolina to the Southwest and California, could have been a Spanish domain, and our entire history, from English settlement to the Revolution and the present, could be drastically changed. It would make a good alternate history.

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