Early Spanish Explorations
At Pensacola, the first European contact with local inhabitants was reported by the survivors of the expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez who entered the bay in 1528 aboard five small makeshift boats to look for water and food (Leonard 1939: 2, 3). Narváez had begun his entrada into Florida in April, by landing four hundred persons and forty horses in the vicinity of Tampa Bay. He immediately sent a small ship northward to find a bay that his pilot, Diego de Miruelo, had recommended as a future rendezvous point for the army and the fleet. When the vessels did not return, Narváez decided to send the other ships to find the harbor (Apalachee Bay) and to wait for the soldiers to march overland to meet them. This decision, protested by expedition treasurer Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, who told the captain-general that they would never see the ships again, was to prove fateful. For a year, the ships searched the coast for Narváez and his men; at last they gave up and sailed for New Spain.
Marching northward toward Apalache territory, the army found no gold, only depopulated villages, and mosquito-filled lakes and swamps. By late July, with no sign of sails along the coast and a threat of mutiny from the horsemen, the officers decided to build boats and put to sea. Using arms and horse tack to make tools and nails on a makeshift forge, and killing a horse every third day for food, the men built five crude boats at a place they called Bahía de los Caballos (near Ochlockonee Bay). They set sail westward through the barrier islands in late September. Beyond Cape San Blas along the open Gulf coast, a storm temporarily marooned the boats on a waterless island near Santa Rosa Sound; several men died from drinking brackish water. Seeking shelter, the boats entered Pensacola Bay, where the natives who at first seemed friendly, soon killed three men and wounded all fifty soldiers who guarded their withdrawal (Weddle 1985:193). West of the Mississippi, the boats became scattered; the one commanded by Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca eventually was cast ashore on an island near Galveston. Eight years later, Nuñez and three other survivors of the expedition were found by Spanish slavers along the frontier of northern New Spain. Their story, however desperate, served to whet the appetites of other adventurers eager to attempt the conquest of Florida (Cabeza de Vaca 1964).
The next foray into Florida was commanded by Hernando de Soto, who landed his army of some 600 soldiers and servants, and over 200 horses, on the west coast in May 1539. After arriving at Apalache (modern-day Tallahassee) that winter, Soto ordered Captain Francisco de Maldonado and pilot Gómez Arías to sail west in two small vessels along the coast to investigate the entrance of every creek and river, and to find a suitable harbor where Soto expected to march his army (Biedma 1922: 8, 9). Sixty leagues distant in the winter of 1539-1540, they reached a province called Ochuse with a sheltered, deep harbor (Pensacola Bay) (Swanton 1985: 163, 169). According to Garcilaso de la Vega, the bay was sheltered from all winds, was capable of harboring many ships, and had such a good depth up to shore that Maldonado could bring his ships close to land and disembark “without putting out a gangplank” (Vega 1951: 247, 248).
The reconnaissance party returned to report their discovery, bringing with them an Indian chief of a village situated on the shore of the bay. Maldonado was put in charge of the ships and sent back to Havana for provisions to be brought to Ochuse. Should Soto’s men not meet up with the fleet there by the following summer, Maldonado was to return to Havana and attempt another rendezvous the next summer. The rendezvous never came about; Maldonado and Arías returned to Ochuse in the fall of 1540 and waited until winter set in (Weddle 1985: 225). For two years afterward, they searched the Gulf and Atlantic coasts to no avail; Soto’s army had marched elsewhere into history.