1527-1543 The Spanish Attempt to Colonize Florida

Let’s look at what the Spanish were up to in southwest North America before the English established Virginia farther north. Jamestowne is not the oldest city in North America, as some people think. The Spanish founded St. Augustine in Florida forty-five years earlier in 1565.

1527 The Narváez Expedition

On December 26, 1526, the King of Spain Charles I [aka the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V] granted to Pánfilo de Narváez the rights to claim and govern Florida, as well as the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Narváez already had a history as a conquistador in Cuba and Mexico. King Charles gave Narváez one year to complete his task. Narváez had to raise his own funds. But since Hernán Cortéz had been so successful finding gold among the Aztecs in the New World, investors were eager to help.

Narváez gathered 600 men and women. They were mostly Spanish with a sprinkling of African, Greek, and Italian. Some 450 of that number were soldiers. The rest were sailors, wives, and their servants. [Married men were not allowed to travel to the West Indies without their wives.] King Charles appointed Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca(1) to act as his eyes and ears, and to serve as second in command. The crown would receive 5 percent of any wealth acquired by the expedition.

It took the ships a week to reach the Canaries, where they restocked water, wood, wine, fruits, and meat. They continued to Santo Domingo, Hispaniola, where they arrived in August of 1527. 100 men deserted before the ships sailed on to Santiago, Cuba, which was Narváez’ family home. They arrived in September. From Cuba, Narváez dispatched two ships and 60 crew on a supply mission to Trinidad. However, all perished in a hurricane on the way back to Cuba. That left Narváez with four ships, after which he acquired two more.

With some 400 men and 80 horses, Narváez departed for the Gulf coast. But just offshore from Cuba, the entire fleet ran aground on the Canarreos shoals. They remained stuck for nearly three weeks, during which time the crew and passengers depleted precious supplies. When the ships finally floated free, they tried to reach the Mexican coast, but could not overcome the Gulf Stream. So the continued on to Florida.

On April 12, 1528, the explorers saw land north of today’s Tampa Bay. They turned south and spent two days looking for ‘a great harbor’ that the pilot Miruelo had heard about, losing another ship in the process [leaving them with four ships].

On April 15, Narváez and 300 men went ashore near the Rio de las Palmas at a site known today as the Jungle Prada in St. Petersburg. Narváez assigned some men to engage in trade at the local village, where they exchanged glass beads, brass bells, and cloth for fresh fish and venison. He set the others to work building the camp.

The next day, in a ritual similar to the one we will tell you about when Sir Humphrey Gilbert re-claims Newfoundland for England in 1583, the Spanish ceremoniously declared Panfilo de Narváez Governor of Florida. After reading the Requerimiento [declaration that the land belonged to Emperor Charles V by order of the Pope], the Spanish informed the natives that they had two choices. 1] They could convert to Christianity and in turn receive the love and protection of the Spanish. 2] They could refuse and subject themselves to war. The natives threatened and pleaded, but the Spanish ignored them.

Soon after, Narváez sent the pilot Miruelo off in a brigantine to find his ‘great harbor,’ leaving Narváez with three ships.

On May 1, 1528, Narváez split his party into two. He would lead a land expedition of 300 men north to look for promised gold in Apalachee [Appalachian Indian territory]. The remaining 100 would take the three ships and survey the coast, following closely in case the land party needed them. Narváez asked Cabeza de Vaca to lead the fleet, but he refused and ended up accompanying Narváez.

The land party reached the Withlacoochee River, where, after enslaving the natives and stealing their corn, they set up camp. Their bad reputation with the natives preceded them as they entered Apalachee territory on June 25, 1528. The next four to five weeks were spent fighting for food and land with the Apalachee. When the Spanish learned the Aute Indians had food, and that their villages were by the sea, they started west, only to be ambushed by the Apalachee while they traversed the swamplands. When Narváez reached the Aute village, he found it burnt and deserted. By now the Spaniards were struggling for survival and many were wounded.

Meanwhile, Miruelo returned to Tampa Bay. When he found no ships, he sailed to Havana, Cuba, to retrieve another ship Narváez had left there. With two ships, Miruelo returned to Florida where he met up with the three remaining ships. The five ships searched the coast for a year, looking for the land party. Eventually, they gave up and sailed for Mexico, stranding the others on the mainland among hostile natives. Another man, Juan Ortiz, had been captured by the Tocobaga natives of Tampa Bay. They put him to work in their tribe as a slave. We will meet up with Ortiz again in twelve years.

The land party, on August 4, 1528, reached a bay where they planned to build more brigantines and sail back to Cuba. By this time Narváez was very ill and Cabeza de Vaca took the command. That bay is called the Bay of Horses because so many of the honored beasts were killed to feed the Spanish. The horsehair was used for ropes and the skins for bags to carry water. The Spanish melted down their iron gear to make hammers, saws, axes, and nails. They sewed together their shirts to make sails. They created pitch from pine trees to seal the ships from water, as well as oakum from palmetto leaves.

It took the Spanish less than two months to build five boats, each twenty to thirty feet long, fitted with sails and oars [makeshift pinnaces]. On September 22, the surviving 242 men piled into boats and headed west, following the coast of today’s Southern Texas. As they battled storm after storm, more men died. Narváez was carried out to see and never seen again.

Somewhere around Galveston, Texas, the remaining 80 men wrecked and were cast ashore on a barrier reef. As soon as possible. Cabeza de Vaca moved them to the mainland. The struggling castaways lived there for the next four years, now and then roaming the Texas countryside and intermingling with the local natives. One by one, the members of the original expedition died off until there were only four left: three were Europeans and one was African: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, and Carranza’s enslaved Moor Estevanico.

In 1532, the four men set out on foot headed west, then south. They were looking for New Spain’s outpost in Baja California. Like for so many of the early expeditions, historians can only piece together portions of their path. It is believed the travelers crossed Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and the northern provinces of Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Finally, in July of 1536, they reached today’s Sinaloa near Culiacan and came across a Spanish slaving expedition. Cabeza de Vaca later wrote that his countrymen were “dumbfounded at the sight of me, strangely dressed and in the company of Indians. They just stood staring for a long time.” The slavers escorted the four explorers back to Mexico City,(2) where Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza gave them a hearty welcome. They four men were the first of their cultures to see the Mississippi River and cross the Gulf of Mexico and Texas. Panfilo de Narváez gets credit for being one of the most ruthless and incompetent conquistadors of the Colonial Period.

1539-1543 Hernando de Soto and Luis de Moscoso Alvarado

In 1539, King Charles I of Spain assigned another conquistador Hernando de Soto (between 1496 & 1500-1542) to search north of the Gulf of Mexico for gold, silver, and a passage to Cathay. De Soto had, since 1530, been busy helping Francisco Pizarro González invade Peru. Both Pizarro and de Soto became rich from the plunder of Inca gold.

One source referred to Hernando de Soto’s time in what the English later called Virginia as The Reign of Terror. He was no nicer to the Indians than Pánfilo de Narváez or Cabeza de Vaca. Like so many other Spanish explorers, de Soto convinced the natives that he was the immortal Sun God.

There are at least four plausible versions of the route de Soto took. One version is that he debarked on the North American continent at today’s Port Charlotte, Florida. Over the next five years, he followed the route shown on the map above. His personal journey ended with his death from fever on May 25, 1542. The exact location of his death is also debatable – either near present-day McArthur, Arkansas, or on the banks of the Mississippi in Louisiana. [The location of his death and grave were hidden from the Indians at the time to keep up the pretense that he was the Sun God.] All versions of the story agree that Hernando de Soto explored Florida, Georgia, Alabama, most likely Arkansas, and was the first documented European to cross the Mississippi River.(3) None of his settlements still exist.

At some point, de Soto came across Juan Ortíz, who had been left with the natives in Tampa Bay for the last twelve years. By that time Ortíz had learned the native language and was a handy interpreter for de Soto. Ortiz came up with an effective method for guiding the expedition and communicating with different tribal dialects. He recruited a guide from each tribe along the route who had lived in close proximity to another tribal area and was familiar with both languages. This allowed him to pass his information and language on to the next guide.

While in Alabama, Hernando de Soto’s party participated in one of the bloodiest battles in North American history against Chief Tuscaloosa and the Mobilan Indians. During the nine hours that it took the Spaniards to fight their way out of an ambush, they lost 200 men and 150 more were wounded. They lost most of their possessions and nearly a quarter of their horses. The Mobilians, however, lost from 2000 to 6000 warriors.

After de Soto’s death(4), his maestro de campo [field commander] Luis de Moscoso Alvarado took the lead. By that time, the Spanish had been exploring Florida for three years and found no gold. Their horses were gone. They wore animal skins for clothing, and they were pathetically hungry and homesick. Moscoso considered two options: sail down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico or travel overland through today’s Texas. Since building boats seemed like an overwhelming task, the Spanish headed for Texas, only to run into desert. They backtracked to the Mississippi, where, during the winter of 1542–43, they built seven brigantines. Like the Narváez Expedition, they melted down their horse tackle and slave shackles to forge the needed iron nails.

The ships pushed off downriver on July 2, 1543. They traveled two weeks dodging hostile natives who sprayed them with arrows. Another eleven Spaniards died and many more were wounded. An estimated 311 of the original 700 participants made it back to Mexico by September 10. It is believed the Spanish did more damage to the American natives by the diseases they left behind than by killing them.

Next article: 1534 Jacques Cartier Explores the St. Lawrence in Canada


  1. One of the four survivors, Cabeza de Vaca wrote about the expedition with the title La Relación (The Relation), published in 1542 as the first written account of North America. With later additions, it was published under the title, Naufragios [Shipwreck].
  2. Estevanico became a guide for later expeditions. Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain, and wrote a full account of the expedition with detailed descriptions of the indigenous peoples they encountered. Later, he served the colonial government in South America. His written account of the expedition was recently published as a novel in 2014, by Laila Lalami, which was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.
  3. Alonso Álvarez de Pineda was the first European to see the river, in 1519. He sailed up river twenty miles.
  4. The inventory of De Soto’s possessions at the time of his death included four Indian slaves, three horses, and 700 hogs.