Christopher Columbus made the trip to the New World three times. While the 1492 event is his most heralded, it was on the second trip in 1494, his trip to Cuba, that Columbus revealed an important observation: the Cuban Indians were friendly.
By the time Diego Velasquez arrived in Cuba 17 years later, the local Indians had had a change of heart and greeted the Spaniard with a “cloud of arrows.” One reason for the aggressive greeting was that a Hispaniola (Dominican Republic) chief named Hatuey had traveled to Cuba and informed the locals of the egregious treatment they had experienced at the hand of the Spanish. In one instance, the Spanish had gathered up a group of the island’s chieftains and burned them alive.
It is no wonder then that the Europeans in general, and the Spanish in particular, were not well received in the New World. Spanish slavers began visiting the area as early as 1502. By 1509, they were capturing the aboriginal populations of the Bahamas Islands, known as the Lacayos. It took less than a decade for the Spanish to depopulate the island chain of its indigenous people.
Some segment of the Lucayos population likely attempted to escape; it can be imagined that some landed in the Keys.
Written accounts chronicle a similar scenario involving the Cuban Indians which consisted of three major cultures. The original inhabitants were the Guanahatabeyes, a shell culture like the Calusa and Tequesta cultures of South Florida. The other two major cultures, the Ciboneyes and the Tainos, were believed to be part of a South American Arawak culture that island-hoped throughout the West Indies.
A segment of the Cuban Indians left their homeland as it was being conquered by Spanish forces led by Diego Velazquez, with a little help from Hernando Cortes, in 1511. In addition to the capture and enslavement of the indigenous people, the Europeans also brought diseases like small pox that the Indians had no immunity against.
Some Indians were said to have set off in search of a mystical river enriched with magical properties capable of restoring youth. This, of course, is the same myth Ponce de Leon went chasing on his 1513 expedition. According to the 1575 memoir of Hernando d’Escalante Fontaneda, who spent 17 years living with the Calusa Indians, the Cuban Indian refugees essentially melded into the Calusa culture.
Sixteenth Century Spanish explorers described the Indians of the Florida Keys as a savage people who lived with no fixed homes and fed off a diet of roots, seasonal fruits and local seafood. Some Spanish documents indicate the Indians were experts with bows and throwing implements like spears and darts. These would have been excellent devices used to hunt primary sources of proteins like hogfish, conch, lobster and turtle. They also hunted what the Spanish called sea wolves, Caribbean monk seals, a now extinct pinniped last spotted in 1952.
One of the primary intentions of the Spanish was the conversion of the savage aboriginals to Christianity. To that point, when Pamphilo de Narvaez sailed for La Florida in 1527 he came with a declaration. After he landed, Narvaez read from a document addressed to all Indians. “You will not be forced to embrace Christianity, but when you shall be well informed of the truth, you will be made Christian… But if you do not do this, and if by malice you delay agreeing to what I have proposed to you, I will testify to you, that with God’s assistance, I will march against you, arms in hand… I will sell and dispose of you according to the order of Her Majesty, I will seize upon your effects; I will ravage your property, and will do to you all possible harm.”
In the end it took roughly 250 years of what was a largely Spanish presence to eradicate the Calusa and Tequesta cultures from not only the Keys, but from South Florida. Losses were due in part to the slave trade, part to combat, and part to the introduction of Old World diseases. By the mid 1700s, pretty much all that was left of the aboriginals were the Indian mounds that once marked their villages and camps sites.
The people who went on to become known as the Seminole Indians arrived in Florida and in the Keys rather late in the game. Their arrival coincided with the colonization of America in the early 1700s.
European colonies largely centered near deep-water ports. Subsequently, much of Florida was left unoccupied. Bands of Creek Indians from Georgia and Alabama, but also Yuchis and Yamasses Indians, moved in. It would be this collection of Creek, Yuchis and Yamasses Indians, as well as runaway slaves that become the Seminole Indians. Seminole means the wild people or runaway people.
Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. He is the curator of the Keys History and Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.