The Melungeons blog

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Age of Explorers and Conquerors

The year of 1492 marked the end of the Spanish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims. In that same year Christopher Columbus stepped ashore Bahamian inlet of San Salvador and claimed the land for Spain. The people who greeted Columbus and his crew were the Arawak and Taino peoples. The following year 1493, the first Spanish settlement in the New World was established at Hispanola.

Then Columbus sailed to Cuba and Hispanola. The people living on the land were of the language of the Taino and Arawak speaking people. These people grew crops for food and they smoked tobacco. The Taino lived in cities. Some of their cities had populations as large as three thousand. Shortly after the Indian people encounter with the Spanish they were enslaved and made to work hard on colonial plantations. Some of those enslaved were shipped to Mexico. When the captives reached Mexico those who survived were put into chains and were forced to work in the silver mines. Spain encouraged citizens to settle in New Spain. In 1512 a Spanish declaration gave Spanish grantees the right to make slaves of the American Indians under the encomienda system.

The Spanish intentions in the first two decades of the 16th century weren’t colonization but instead to gain wealth for their country. The galleons carrying silver back to Spain had to pass through the Straits of Florida also known as the Florida Channel. This is a sea passage separating the tip of Florida and the Florida Keys from Cuba and the Bahamas Islands. The length of the straits is two hundred miles and the width is ninety miles. The straits connect the Gulf of Mexico with the Atlantic Ocean. The greatest part of the Florida current flows through the Florida Straits and forms the main part of the Gulf Stream. This small passage was vital to Spain’s newfound source of wealth.

Spain decided to send more expeditions to the Americas. In the spring of 1513 Juan Ponce de Leon landed on the eastern coast of Florida’s peninsula and made a claim for Spain. The peninsula had an abundance of beautiful flowers hence the name Florida meaning the land of flowers. In mainland America, the first five decades of the sixteenth century was an era of many unsuccessful attempts by explorers and Christian missionaries to establish a permanent Christian settlement in the New World. There were other notable voyages and expeditions recorded during this era such as Miruelo (1516), Cordova (1517), Pineda (1519), Ayllon (1520).

The indigenous People of Florida

While exploring the region of Florida, the voyagers saw many villages populated by another race of people who had diverse cultures. The voyagers reported that the indigenous population was dying by the thousands from Old World diseases. An estimated total population of the Indians at this time was anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000.

To the northwest the Indian villages of the Apalachee tribes flourished upon the land by the Suwannee and Apalachicola Rivers. At the center of the peninsula the Timuquanans had many villages along the St. John’s River.

In the southwest region the Calusa Indians had numerous homes from Cape Sable to Tampa Bay. The missionaries had to confront a persistent spirit of hostility to Christian teaching. These Indians were described as cruel, crafty, though recklessly brave, polygamous, and inveterately addicted to human sacrifice. Juan Ponce Leon of Spain encountered the Calusa Indians when he landed in 1513. The Calusa who put up a fierce resistance to the invaders did not welcome the Spanish. In 1521 during a skirmish an arrow mortally wounded Leon. Leon was laid to rest in the St. John River.

A small village of Tegestas Indians lived on Biscayne Bay. Some anthropologists believe that the Tegestas Indians originally from the Bahamas and had a kinship with the Calusa tribes.

The Ays tribe lived along the Indian River south of Cape Canaveral. There were only a few Ays people. These Indians came in contact with the early missions and were used for labor in the building the Christian settlements. These tribes connect to ethnologically and linguistically to the great Muskhogean or Creek family.

Some of he records of the early voyages to the Americas amazingly have been preserved. The Archives at Seville, Spain contain the many names of those who were courageous enough to cross over to the New World. I have attempted to bring these people and their stories back into the light of history.

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