A Florida Reading List for Columbus Day
Around the State
With Americans marking the 518th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage on Monday, a bit of the spotlight should fall on Florida. Few Floridians are aware of the important part their state played in the epic and tragic tale of the Spanish discovery and conquest of the New World.
The best author covering the native people of Florida is Jerald T. Milanich of the University of Florida and the Florida Museum of Natural History. Using the scanty historic records as well as archaeological evidence, Milanich’s books offer an interesting and often haunting take on the Timucua tribes and other native peoples in Florida who were decimated by contact with the Spanish and other Europeans. In books including “Archaeology of Precolumbian Florida” and “The Timucua,” Milanich presents as good a look as we will ever have on these vanished people. His “Florida Indians and the Invasion from Europe” focuses more on the years following the first contact.
Most of the first Spanish explorers were looking for gold. Colonizing Florida was not the highest priority.
A Spanish explorer who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage, Juan Ponce de Leon, arrived in Florida for the first time in April, 1513 -- a little more than 20 years after the Spanish first reached the New World. Despite popular myth, de Leon was not in search of the Fountain of Youth in his trips to Florida, the last one of which claimed his life.
Despite the many myths that cling to Ponce de Leon, he has not attracted much in the way of biographers. Robert Henderson Fuson from the University of South Florida does an excellent job of putting Ponce de Leon at the center of Spain’s early explorations in the New World in “Juan Ponce de Leon and the Spanish Discovery of Puerto Rico and Florida.” Douglas Peck presents an interesting argument for where Ponce de Leon went on both coasts of Florida in his voyages there.
Ponce de Leon was followed by Pánfilo de Narváez, who had run afoul of Cortes in Mexico. Arriving in Tampa Bay in 1528, Narváez headed north looking for treasure. He made the mistake of heading away from his ships and soon found his force facing starvation. The Spanish slaughtered their horses for meat and were so desperate that they assembled rafts to sail to Mexico. Most of them, including their leader, drowned in the effort. Many years later Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who had managed with some other survivors to reach near what is now Galveston, Texas, arrived in Mexico, but only after many encounters with the native people.
While there is not much focusing primarily on Narváez and his ill-fated expedition, there are a number of excellent books on Cabeza de Vaca, including “A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca” by Andrés Reséndez and “Brutal Journey: Cabeza de Vaca and the Epic First Crossing of North America” by Paul Schneider. Cabeza de Vaca’s “Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition” which covers his nine years in the wilderness is also fascinating and very accessible.
While best known for discovering the Mississippi River, Hernando de Soto, who had played a crucial part in conquering the Incan empire in South American, also arrived in Florida in 1539 and led his 600 men on a fruitless and bloody march across the American Southeast in search of gold.
The works of Charles Hudson of the University of Georgia, who spent his summers touring across the region trying to map out de Soto’s route, offer some excellent insight into the man and his expedition. Hudson’s “Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun” is an excellent overview of the mission. Hudson teamed up with Milanich to look at the demographic impact of the mission on Florida’s native people in “Hernando de Soto and the Indians of Florida.” David Ewing Duncan’s “Hernando de Soto: A Savage Quest in the Americas” is a readable and accessible biography.
The Spanish attempted in 1559 to launch a colony near what is now Pensacola, led by Tristán de Luna y Arellano, a veteran of exploration efforts in the American Southwest. Plagued by hurricanes and problems getting supplies from Mexico, this expedition also ended in failure.
With the Spanish floundering in their efforts to launch a colony in Florida, the French attempted to plant one along the banks of the Saint Johns River -- the perfect site to harass Spanish treasure ships coming up from Mexico and South America. French Huguenots established La Caroline near present-day Jacksonville in 1564. The colony struggled with mutinies and near-starvation. Reinforcements from France arrived just as the colony was about to head back to Europe -- with the Spanish right on their tails. While the French attempted to attack the Spanish garrison to their south, they were caught in a hurricane and marooned. The Spanish easily took La Caroline and slaughtered many of the captives they encountered when the shipwrecked French surrendered weeks later.
The epic story of the battle between the Spanish and the French for control of Florida and the founding of the nation’s oldest city, St. Augustine, in 1565 can be found in a number of excellent books. “The French in Early Florida: In the Eye of the Hurricane” by John McGrath places the colony in the context of the political and religious turmoil that shaped France during that time. “The Enterprise of Florida: Pedro Menendez de Aviles and the Spanish Conquest of 1565-1568” by Eugene Lyons focuses on the Spanish effort and the key role played by their leader Menendez.
The late U.S. Rep. Charles Bennett offered an interesting take on Rene Laudonniere, the French leader, in “Laudonniere and Fort Caroline.” Bennett also translated Laudonniere’s “Three Voyages.” Miles Harvey focused on Jacques Le Moyne, an artist who was at La Caroline, and left dozens of captivating portrayals of the colony and native life in “Painter in a Savage Land: The Strange Saga of the First European Artist in North America.”
Michael Gannon, the dean of Florida historians, focused on the important role the Catholic Church played in exploring and settling the peninsula in “The Cross in the Sand: The Early Catholic Church in Florida, 1513-1870.” Milanich argues that Franciscan missions helped lead to even greater fatalities among the native people in “Laboring in the Fields of the Lord: Spanish Missions and Southeastern Indians.” Helped by the notes of Francisco Pareja, a Franciscan who published five books of the Timucua language, Julian Granberry complied “A Grammar and Dictionary of the Timucua Language.”
Reach Kevin Derby at email@example.com or at (850) 727-0859.