Spanish Colonial Florida

Understanding Colonial Florida

By James Cusick

I. Overview

We can learn a lot about U.S. history and never hear anything about Florida. However, if we learn Florida history, we also learn the key events of early American history. That’s because in the colonial period, Florida, although a Spanish colony, played a major role in shaping attitudes and events in the southernmost British colonies. Moreover, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Florida was a battleground for many of the “big” issues in American history, including the struggle of Native Americans to protect themselves and their lands, the struggle of Africans and African Americans to free themselves from bond slavery, and questions about the limits of United States expansion.

Here is an easy way to break down Florida’s colonial period into themes:

  • Sixteenth Century (1500s): The Age of Explorations and Conquests
  • Seventeenth Century (1600s): The Rise and the Fall of the Spanish Mission System
  • Eighteenth Century (1700s): The Age of Rival Colonial Powers (Spain, France, and Britain)
  • Nineteenth Century (early 1800s): The Expanding American Republic and its Neighbors

Keep in mind that these are the over-arching themes of each century; it is easier to fit in all the different people and events that crowd the history of our state.  It is also easy to see how the history of Florida in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries flows into the larger history of British America and the United States. The essays on this web site take up these themes and expand on them in greater detail.

II. Getting Started

It is important to remember that the people who lived in Florida in the 1500s were pre-modern people—they thought and believed radically different from modern citizens of the United States. By the 1700s, on the other hand, Spain was influenced by the Enlightenment, and people were interested in the new ideas about natural history, science, politics, and economy coming out of France, Britain, and the American colonies. So just as Benjamin Franklin might seem “more like us” than the people of the Salem Witch Trials, black soldiers or Spanish merchants from the 1780s may also seem “more like us” than the conquistadors or Timucuan caciques of the 1500s.

Florida, like Spain’s other colonies in the Americas, did not evolve in a vacuum. Many features of colonial life were rooted in traditions from Old-World Spain. Others grew up as settlers coping with living in a new continent, already populated by its own peoples.

In general, the Spanish colonial inhabitants of Florida lived in a society stratified along class, race, ethnicity, religion, and gender. Simply put, it was a society that believed there were different ranks of people, and that these differences were natural and normal. In all cases, people tended to measure themselves by who was above them and who was below them, and while they might court favor from the people above them, they did not put up with any insults from people below them.

But people also believed it was possible to move between the ranks. For a conquistador, the route to wealth and honor might require daring, risk-taking, and success in battle. For a merchant, it might mean marriage alliance with a powerful noble family. For a servant or manual worker, it might mean entering the service of some powerful man mounting an expedition to the New World. In fact, for many people in Spain in the 1500s, the chief motive for traveling to the New World was to escape the circumstances of their births and establish themselves in better situations.

Because of attitudes about rank, life in the Spanish colonies did not follow the principle of “majority rule” that shapes modern democracies. Spaniards, as well as other Europeans, held few concepts of democracy or elected government in the 1500s. In Spain people had traditional privileges handed down from the Middle Ages in a set of laws known as the “Siete Partidas.” The extent of these privileges depended on a person’s place in society. Nobles and clergy, for example, were largely exempt from paying taxes. Craftsmen joined guilds to protect their means of earning a living. One of the most common ways to settle disputes was to sue, and courts and lawyers were always busy. This gave the poor and powerless some chance of justice—but usually they only received justice if a person in a position of power took their side. Much of what we know about colonial times comes from petitions and lawsuits. People filed these suits to get compensation for slander, to seek financial aid, to protest some type of abuse, or to charge someone with a crime. In theory, everyone had the right to appeal a petition to the king or queen. Courts were active in both Spain and its colonies. But Spanish nobles showed little interest in other types of government, such as the system of parliament that developed in the mid-1500s under the English monarchy.

Another important set of laws, one that applied to life in the American colonies, was known as the Laws of the Indies, which established the rights of colonists and of Native Americans. In the American colonies, incoming Spanish settlers were a small minority of the population. Hundreds of thousands of native peoples lived in Mexico, North and South America, and the Caribbean. Over time, the population of Spanish America became a mixture of people of Spanish descent, Native Americans, Africans (both slave and free), and people of mixed heritage.

This was also true of Spanish Florida. In the first centuries of colonial life, native peoples were the vast majority of the population. Ninety percent of the people in the colony were Native American—Guale, Timucua, Apalachee, and other groups. Efforts to bring all of these people under Spanish rule were intentional. The idea behind the Spanish empire was this: to bring not just new lands but also new people under the Crown of Spain, as subjects of the king. And just like in Old World Spain, these new subjects were divided into ranks. Among native groups, nobles and chiefs were exempt from taxes, just like nobles in Spain. But commoners among the Native Americans could be taxed. All societies have laboring classes, and in colonial Florida the hard labor was largely done by identifiable groups: by convicts or praesidarios, sentenced to Florida; by commoners among the native peoples, subject to tax; and later, as slavery spread, by enslaved Africans and African-Americans.

The most common tax on Native Americans in Florida was a labor tax—a demand that Indian towns or missions send a certain number of laborers to do public work. Often this work meant building or repairing fortifications or supporting the military. This tax applied only to native peoples.

Spanish laws also set forth various rights pertaining to family. Children, for example, were considered to have reached the age of moral understanding by age ten. The law allowed girls to be married at twelve and boys at fourteen (often this meant an arranged marriage, made by their families). It was not uncommon in Florida to see seventeen- or eighteen-year-old girls married to forty- or fifty-year-old men, by agreement of two families. Unmarried men and women, on the other hand, were still considered to be legal “minors” and under the authority of their father until they reached the age of twenty five. Boys were often expected to follow the career practiced by their father and many, instead of formal schooling, were apprenticed into a trade.

The law also provided some protection for married women. A woman had rights under marriage, which included the right to her dowry, which was supposed to revert to her if her husband died, and the right to half of any property accrued during marriage, again if her husband died. During the early years of the colonial period, intermarriage between incoming Spanish men and Native American women became common, since relatively few Spanish women immigrated to Florida. The children born to these Spanish and Native American couples were not considered to be Indians, even though they had a Native American mother. Instead, they were known as ‘mestizos’ or ‘castas,’ people of mixed heritage.

Slaves also had limited sets of rights. Under the law, they could sue for relief from an abusive master, had the right to live with their spouse and children, and not be sold away from them, and could request that a master set a price for their manumission—the amount that would buy their freedom. They had a right to earn money and to keep some of what they earned and some rights to testify in court. There are examples in Florida history of enslaved people exercising these rights, but there are also many examples where their rights were ignored.

III. Seventeenth Century (1600's): The Rise and the Fall of the Spanish Mission System

The 1600s in Florida are called “The Mission Period.” Franciscan friars spread out to preach Christianity among native peoples. In some ways the friars were scouts—sent out to see how groups like the Guale, Timucua, and Apalachee would react to Spanish settlers and their religion. Many native groups wanted nothing to do with the friars. Others were willing to listen and a few invited friars into their lands. By 1635, there were 41 missions in Florida, and some 30,000 native men, women, and children lived at them. But this did not mean the mission residents were always friendly to Spanish rule. If Spanish officials interfered too much in their lives, they would rise in revolt. There was a major Apalachee revolt in 1647 and another among the Timucua in 1655.

By the 1670s, mission towns spanned northeast Florida from St. Augustine to the area of modern day Tallahassee. Most of the people of Florida were Native Americans, not Spaniards or meztizos. But the native population was in decline. The early years of warfare with Spaniards, revolts against Spanish rule, and diseases like measles, smallpox, and plague cost many lives. In 1635 nearly 30,000 people lived at the missions; by 1675 there were only about 13,000.

IV. Eighteenth Century (1700's): The Age of Rival Colonial Powers (Spain, France, and Britain)

At the start of the eighteenth century, Florida was still a land of missions, but they soon fell victim to warfare. The 1700s saw major contests between Spain, France, and Britain for control of North America. The creation of Carolina Colony and Charles Town by the English in 1670 had heightened tensions between English and Spanish settlers in the American southeast. The Spanish Crown protested the founding of Charles Town and agreed with Florida Governor Manuel de Cendoya that it was time to strengthen St. Augustine’s defenses. The Crown financed the building of the Castillo de San Marcos, constructed between 1672 and 1695 of locally-quarried coquina stone. Meanwhile, Florida also gained its second Spanish town. Pensacola was re-established on the Gulf Coast in 1698. But as Pensacola was founded, the English were moving to destroy St. Augustine. The English were distrustful of the influence the Spaniards had among the Indians of Florida—an influence due largely to the existence of the missions. In addition, English settlers in Carolina were increasingly angry that some of their slaves were escaping into Florida.

In 1687, Spanish records show that eleven slaves (eight men, two women, and a child) escaped from Carolina Colony and asked for sanctuary in Florida. Governor Diego de Quiroga agreed to shelter the runaways but he also wrote to Spain for instructions: should he send them back to their English masters? Advisors of King Charles II of Spain took almost six years to reach a decision. When they did, it was momentous. In 1693, still angry that the English had settled Carolina, the King told Florida’s governor to pay for the slaves and set them free. Then he issued a proclamation that any future slaves who escaped from an English colony and reached Florida could win their freedom by converting to Catholicism. They would not be sent back to their masters and Spain would not pay any compensation. This proclamation outraged English settlers. But it also started an “underground railroad” as more slaves tried to escape to Florida.

In 1702, the English were angry enough with Spanish policies to attack. Governor James Moore brought an army south from Carolina. St. Augustine residents, knowing they could not stop the English invasion, fled into the Castillo de San Marcos. The English arrived and took over the town, but could find no way to capture the Castillo. After six weeks, they gave up, burned down St. Augustine, and left. The people of St. Augustine were safe—but their town was in ashes and the job of rebuilding took years. The English launched more attacks against Florida between 1703 and 1706. This time they sent raiding parties recruited from Indian allies. Raiders ignored St. Augustine and destroyed the mission towns. They captured or killed most of the people living at the missions. A few escaped to St. Augustine and some of the Apalachee at San Luis managed to escape west and settled in Mobile.

Destruction of the missions was a severe blow to Spanish rule in Florida. The only settlements left in the colony were Pensacola and St. Augustine. The slaves running away into Florida now became potential allies to help defend the colony. By the 1720s more than 200 runaway slaves lived in and around St. Augustine. Most of the men served in colonial militias. Eventually, after many appeals to the governor and reminders of the King’s promise of liberty, the newcomers gained their freedom. In 1738, Governor Manuel de Montiano decided to create a town and fort for them with land to farm. The new settlement, two miles north of St. Augustine, was called Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose.

The free black town of Mose was only one and a half years old in 1740 when troops from Carolina and Georgia invaded Florida again. They quickly reached St. Augustine, pushed Spanish forces away from the defenses around Fort Mose, and took over the fort as a camp. Governor Montiano ordered a counterattack. His troops, with Indian allies and black militia from Mose, made a surprise assault on the fort. They drove the English troops out and burned down the fort so the enemy could not re-use it. English forces eventually had to retreat. Fort Mose remained abandoned for many years. In the 1750s, free blacks built a new Fort Mose, a short distance from the original.

Fort Mose rebuilt in 1752.

University Press of Florida

The conclusion of yet another conflict, the French and Indian War (1756-1763) saw a major change in Florida. The first era of Spanish rule came to an end. By treaty agreement, Spain gave Florida to Britain. Most Florida settlers left for Cuba. The British divided Florida into two colonies, and made Pensacola the capital of British West Florida and St. Augustine the capital of British East Florida. But the Spaniards were not gone long. During the American Revolution, Spain joined the American colonies and France in fighting against Britain. Spanish forces concentrated on trying to win back West Florida. In 1781, after a series of military successes, Bernardo de Gálvez, governor of Spanish Louisiana, forced the British garrison at Pensacola to surrender. It was one of two major British defeats in 1781—the other being Yorktown. At the end of the American Revolution, both East and West Florida reverted to Spanish rule.

V. Nineteenth Century (early 1800's): The Expanding American Republic and its Neighbors

The final years of Spanish rule in Florida also saw many rapid changes. Bands of Seminole Indians now lived in towns along the Suwannee River, between the Suwannee and Apalachicola Rivers, and in what is today’s Alachua County. The Seminoles raised livestock, and it was common for towns to have 1500 head of cattle and 400 to 500 horses. They were also interested in trading with Spanish settlers and ranchers. The rise of the United States of America also influenced life in Florida. Many Americans wanted land in Spanish Florida. Runaway slaves continued to escape into the area. St. Augustine’s best group of soldiers was a 50-member militia unit of free men of color. At the same time, slavery became a common feature of life in Florida as Cuban, British, French, and American settlers started plantations to grow rice and cotton. Like settlers in Georgia and South Carolina, they used slave labor to run the plantations.

There were few years of peace in these times. In 1810, revolts against Spanish rule began in West Florida. In 1812, American troops occupied parts of East and West Florida during the War of 1812. In 1817 and 1818, American troops again crossed the border, this time to fight the Seminoles in the First Seminole War. By 1819, Spain had agreed to cede the two Florida colonies to the United States. In 1821 it formally transferred control of the colonies. Under American rule, the Florida peninsula (East Florida) and the Panhandle (part of West Florida) were combined as a single American territory. This was the beginning of Florida as we know it today.

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