It’s generally known that the Tequesta were the original inhabitants of South Florida. Tribal artifacts from New River settlements date back to 1450 B.C. Their culture lasted 29 centuries here; their Indian successors were, of course, the Seminoles.
But there was another major player in between those two tribes, five centuries before Frank Stranahan set up his trading post on the New River.
That was Spain.
In fact, the first recorded European to sail by our beaches was the explorer Ponce De Leon, who landed in St. Augustine in 1513 and sailed down the coast soon after.
You can only imagine what a pair of Tequesta braves scavenging on the beach might have thought upon seeing De Leon’s massive triple-masted schooner in full sail on the horizon.
What, indeed? The Spanish explorer claimed all the region for Spain, naming it La Florida, meaning “abounding in flowers.” This name, historians tell us, referred not only to the lush vegetation but also the timing. He discovered the land near Easter, which Spaniards referred to as Pascua Florida (“feast of flowers”).
While much of Spain’s settlement activity was in the north, there would soon be Spanish galleons shipwrecked off South Florida shores. A Spanish fleet was caught in a July hurricane and at least one of its galleons wrecked near the Hillsborough inlet. Later, an English ship went down south of the New River, possibly at the hands of the Spanish navy.
That occurred during the strangest named war you’ve never heard of: “The War of Jenkins’ Ear.” It was declared on Spain by England after a merchant seaman named Robert Jenkins told a bizarre story before the House of Commons. A Spanish patrol boat captain had boarded Jenkins’ ship, promptly accused him of smuggling, and slashed off his left ear. The captain, one Juan de León Fandiño, then told Jenkins, “Go, and tell your King that I will do the same [to him], if he dares to do the same.”
An enraged Parliament accepted this account and declared war on Spain in 1739. This was fought wherever both had ships, including the Caribbean, where England was running a thriving slave trade. Fighting ceased after three years as both countries got absorbed in a wider war in Europe.
Spain introduced cattle, horses and sheep to Florida. They also offered refuge to slaves in the British Caribbean, promising freedom in exchange for conversion to the Catholic Church. Many came.
But the colonizers also had a lot on their plate at the time. Spain had substantial territory in Latin America and what would later become Mexico. There was no shortage of foes, including France in west Florida.
So in 1763 Spain went and traded Florida to England for the city of Havana, which it lost in yet another conflict, the Seven Years’ War.
If Spain gave Florida horses, Britain gave us laws. The legal system set up then remains to this day. And it built good roads.
Alas, the British had to leave a couple decades later after a little thing called the Revolutionary War.
And, dang it all, here came the Spaniards again, in for a second run. But things became hairy in short order. The U.S. Army was freely making incursions in the north, chasing the Creek and Seminoles south out of Georgia. Then there were some treacherous British citizens who didn’t catch the last train out.
Ironically, Spain’s effort to track down a man accused of inciting attacks on official outposts had a lasting result. It yielded the very first documentation of European settlers living on the New River.
The man they sought was William Augustus Bowles, also known as “director general” of the State of Muskogee, his would-be empire. As historian Stuart McIver tells it, Bowles led a band of rogue Brits, Creeks and Cherokees.
A trio of spies was dispatched from St. Augustine to track him down. Making their way up the New River, they found a palmetto-thatched hut belonging to a Bowles associate named Capt. Joseph Robbins.
The spies pretended they needed water, and during their visit Robbins unknowingly informed on another Bowles associate, Charles Lewis, who lived upriver. The spies’ journal noted that Lewis’ enclave included the Lewis family home, a chicken coop and a blacksmith shop geared to making harpoons.
By the time they returned north to make their report, Spain had bigger problems in its far-flung empire, and it dropped the idea of capturing the Bowles band.
So it was probably with some sense of relief that Spain finally agreed to cede Florida to the U.S. in 1821.
As John Quincy Adams, then secretary of state put it, Florida was “a derelict open to the occupancy of every enemy, civilized or savage … and serving no other earthly purpose than as a post of annoyance.”