Spanish Missionary Efforts Among Florida Indians

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photo credit: Aaron Huey

When the Spanish exploration of Florida began with Juan Ponce de Leon (the conqueror of Puerto Rico) in 1513 there were an estimated 200,000 Native Americans living in what would later become the state of Florida. European diseases soon reduced this population. The Spanish expeditions which followed were motivated originally by greed and glory. In 1549, the Spanish launched their missionary efforts to convert the heathen natives.  

The first missionary effort was led by Fray Luis Cancer de Barbastro, a Dominican.  Fray Luis was an unusual missionary in that he felt that his primary hope in converting Indians lay in contacting people who had not been antagonized by the earlier Spanish show of force. He felt that Indians could be converted by kindness and good example instead of force.

With him were two other priests, a lay brother, and an Indian woman named Magdalena who was to serve as their interpreter. It is not certain if Magdalena was a Calusa who had been captured by an earlier Spanish expedition or if she was a Native Cuban who had been captured by the Calusa and learned their language. Trading trips to Cuba by the Calusa had been made regularly by fairly large numbers of Indian traders.

The missionary group landed at Tampa Bay where the Indians quickly captured a sailor, the lay brother, and Magdalena. Determined to rescue the captives, Fray Luis sailed to Charlotte Harbor. The three priests went to an Indian village to obtain information about the captives. While they saw Magdalena, they failed to rescue her, but they did rescue a Spanish sailor who had been captured ten years earlier. The sailor told them that the other captives had been killed.

Fray Luis, however, still wanted to save the souls of the Indians. He again went ashore. As he waded ashore he was greeted by Indians who first snatched his hat from his head, and then hit him on the head with a club. They then killed him.  He thus became a martyr to his cause and a victim of Calusa hostility which had been incited by earlier Spanish expeditions.  

While this ended the initial Spanish missionary attempt, there were some unintended consequences of this contact. The Spanish and Magdalena who were captured by the Calusa brought typhus with them. The mortality rate from this epidemic was about 10%.  

Missionary attempts began again in 1566 when the Spanish governor of Florida requested that the Jesuits establish missions among the Indians. Three Spanish Jesuits-Father Juan Rogel, Father Pedro Martínez, and Brother Francisco Villareal-sailed for Florida, but their ship missed St. Augustine and finally anchored off the Georgia coast near St. Simons Island. Father Martínez and some sailors went ashore to ask directions. While they were ashore, a storm blew their ship away from land, marooning them. After ten days, the Spanish built a small boat and attempted to find St. Augustine. Father Martínez and three sailors were killed by Indians.

While this initial attempt did not bode well for the Jesuits, the following year they managed to establish a mission at the town of Calos, the capital of the Calusa nation.

In 1568, a group of 11 Jesuits led by Father Juan Bautista de Segura arrived in St. Augustine. The Jesuits were seeking to establish missions among the Tequesta and Calusa. They made few converts. In general, the chiefs and native religious leaders were openly hostile toward the Jesuits, viewing them as threats to the power of the native elites. The following year, the Jesuits admitted failure and abandoned their mission at Calos. In 1572, the Spanish Jesuits abandoned all of their missionary efforts in Florida.

In 1573, the Spanish governor of Florida arranged for the Franciscans to establish missions in the territories under his jurisdiction. Under Royal Orders, 18 Franciscans were to be sent to La Florida. By the end of the year, three Franciscans had arrived and were working with the Guale and Orista. The Franciscans baptized the chief and his wife of the main town of Guale. This was a major victory for the Franciscans as the chief was in line to become the head chief over a number of villages.

In 1575, the Franciscans decided that it was in their best interest to withdraw from the area because of conflicts with the Spanish colonial government.

In 1584, the Franciscans tried again. A group of Franciscans under the leadership of Father Alonso de Reynoso arrived in St. Augustine to establish missions among the Indians. However, the priest was accused of fraud and denounced for excessive card playing. Thus the Franciscans’ missionary effort ended almost before it had begun.

In 1587, Father Alonso de Reynoso brought nine Franciscan friars to help convert and pacify the Indians. Three years later, Father Alonso de Reynoso brought in another group of 12 Franciscan friars to work among the Indians.

In 1595, a group of 12 Franciscan friars under the leadership of Father Juan de Silva began missionary work among the Indians. This marks the beginning of successful Franciscan missionary efforts among the La Florida Indians. The Franciscans’ missionary efforts were carefully carried out within the context of Spanish colonial enterprise and against a backdrop of native depopulation. As a part of this missionary effort, the Franciscan Francisco Pareja began writing down the language of the Timucua.

In 1608, the Apalachee chiefs asked the Spanish to send them priests. The Apalachee have an estimated population of 50,000 living in 107 towns. At this time, the traditional chiefs were finding it difficult to control their people and felt that affiliation with the Spanish would reinforce their leadership through formal recognition of the leadership, gift giving, and military alliances. The Apalachee had been a Mississippian chiefdom in which the chiefs had considerable power. The native leaders in Spanish Florida were willing to abandon some traditional priestly power when it no longer reinforced their chiefly authority.

A Franciscan priest and an entourage of 150 Potano and Timucua traveled to the Apalachee town of Ivitachuco. The Apalachee cleared a wide road for the travelers and an estimated 36,000 Apalachee, including 70 chiefs, greeted the entourage.

In 1610, the Franciscans extended their missionary work to the interior of the Timucua territory. The Franciscan Francisco Pareja published a book in 1613 in Mexico City which contained sections on religious doctrine in both Spanish and Timucua.

In 1633, the Franciscans established a mission-San Lorenzo de Ivitachuco-among the Apalachee. At this time the native population was relatively large and dense. The Apalachee chiefs appeared to be enthusiastic about the Spanish and the Franciscans. Following the demographic and political collapse brought about by disease, the chiefs were scrambling to retain their authority. They saw the alliance with the Spanish Franciscans as a way to retain power.

In 1680, the Spanish Franciscans abandoned the mission at Santa Catalina which served the Guale. Four years later, the Franciscans re-established a mission among the Guale. The new mission was located on Amelia Island and was called Santa María by the Spanish.

In 1697, the Spanish sent a group of Franciscans to the Calusa. The Calusa were less than enthusiastic about the Franciscans. The friars were ridiculed and insulted. Calusa hecklers mooned the friars and sent them fleeing south down the coast toward Cuba in a small boat.

In 1743, the Jesuits returned to Florida and established a mission, Santa Maria, at the mouth of the Miami River. The mission was intended to serve the 200 people who comprised the remnants of the Calusa, Key, and Boca Raton tribes

In 1763, Florida was transferred from Spain to England, thus ending the Spanish missionary efforts.  

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