The Expedition of Tristan de Luna y Arellano
The failure of Soto’s entrada to actualize the riches of La Florida did nothing to cool Spanish determination to conquer and pacify the region. The northern frontier of New Spain required the establishment of military colonies, both on the Gulf and in the Atlantic, to prevent encroachment by European powers and to make the region secure for Spanish navigation. But unlike those of Mexico, Florida’s natives were semi-nomadic, disinclined to accept imposed labor, and not hesitant to fight intruders (as León, Narváez, and Soto found out). In addition, the region had unusual geographical limitations, with an interior full of swamps, no fields for farming and grazing, and dense forests. Offshore reefs, shoals, and sandbars had caused disastrous shipwrecks in 1545, 1551, and 1554; at least two thousand Spaniards had perished on the shores of La Florida before an attempt to occupy them was made (Priestley 1936: 51).
The very first attempt at Spanish colonization north of New Spain had occurred earlier along the Atlantic seaboard. The enterprise was a private venture undertaken by Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón, a wealthy, slave-trading lawyer from Santo Domingo. In July 1526, his fleet of six ships, carrying 500 to 600 men, women, children, priests, soldiers, and slaves, set sail from Hispañiola for Chicora, a region (on the present-day Carolina coast) his slavers had visited five years before. While approaching land, the flagship grounded on a shoal at the mouth of a river called Jordan, and sank with most of the colonists’ supplies. After placing the remainder of the disheartened expedition ashore, Ayllón decided to move his colony down the coast until he came to a place (near St. Catherines Island, Georgia) that he christened San Miguel de Gualdape (Hoffman 1990:73). However, hunger, cold, disease, and attacks from natives caused the deaths of half the settlers, including Allyón himself, which prompted a murderous mutiny that effectively ended the first attempt to colonize the present-day United States. Of the would-be colonists, only about 150 people managed to return to tell the story four months later. Despite its failure, the episode fueled beliefs in legendary riches and put the region on the map, which now included a prominent cape called Santa Elena.
By 1555, no less a person than the archbishop of Mexico urged the pacification of Florida, writing Philip II to urge the salvation of souls there, “since we have it so near at hand, and know the numberless people which are lost therein from having none to preach to them the Holy Gospel” (Lowery 1901: 354). New Spain’s second viceroy, Luis de Velasco (1550-1556), wrote the following year, urging that the region be reduced to the faith. Dr. Pedro de Santander in 1557 avidly asserted to the King his scheme for colonizing the Florida coast at various points, by claiming that the land was promised to the faithful, who ought to put all its idolatrous inhabitants to the knife, “leaving no living thing save maidens and children, their cities robbed and sacked, their walls and houses leveled to the earth” (Lowery 1901: 355). Other advocates, such as mariner Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (whose plans would later become a crucial part of Spanish strategy) suggested to Philip that a fortress should be built “where ships damaged by storm in the Bahama Channel might take refuge from the Indians” (Weddle 1985: 251).
Late in 1557, Philip II ordered Velasco to appoint a governor for Florida and the Punta de Santa Elena and to carry out the establishment of strong settlements at both locations (Philip to Velasco, December 29, 1557. In Priestley 1928 1:46-52). The viceroy had already chosen a favorite, Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano, to become adelantado. Luna was not unknown in the colony of New Spain. He first came to Mexico in company with the famous conqueror Hernán Cortés in 1530. As a cavalry officer, Captain Luna was second in command and maestre de campo (major) to Francisco Vásquez de Coronado on the march for Cibola (Priestley 1936:43). Later, he put down native rebellions at Coatlán and Tetiepa in 1548. He was a cousin of the first viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, a cousin of the wife of Hernán Cortés, and a personal friend of the second viceroy Luís de Velasco, who kept Luna’s son in the viceroyal household. His wealthy wife Doña Isabel de Rojas had been twice widowed; she was previously married to conquistador Juan Velasquez, then to Francisco de Maldonado (Priestley 1936: 65). Doña Isabel died well before Luna’s expedition, leaving him her vast estates and encomiendas.
Velasco gave Luna authority extending eastward to the Atlantic Ocean from a north and south line 50 leagues west of the Rio del Espiritú Santo (Mississippi River); there was no northern boundary to his mandate for conquest and settlement. Detailed instructions had been drawn up to construct regular Spanish towns, and to appoint town councilmen, judges, and bailiffs. The first town at Ochuse was to have a fortress large enough to contain 100 settlers, and to include inns, storehouses, jails, and slaughterhouses (Instructions of the Viceroy to Don Tristán. In Priestley 1928 1: 18-33).
Velasco began to prepare for the expedition. He gathered 400 soldiers, half footmen and half horsemen, 100 craftsmen and tradesmen, and a contingent of friars and secular clergy (Hoffman 1990: 155). The viceroy then dispatched Guido de Lavazares from Veracruz with three small vessels and sixty soldiers and sailors to select a suitable harbor on the coast of Florida and to explore the vicinity of Cape Santa Elena (Lowery 1901: 356). During a three month voyage, the vessels touched along the Texas coast, discovering a bay, of which Lavazares took possession, calling it Bahía de San Francisco (Matagorda Bay). Attempting to sail eastward, the flotilla was plagued by contrary winds and eventually sighted the shallow coastline east of the Mississippi River. Ten leagues farther east they entered a large bay, which Lavazares named Bahía Filipina (Mobile Bay) after Philip II, calling it “the largest and most commodious in all that coast” (Hoffman 1990: 155). From there, the vessels attempted twice to continue eastward but were only able to reach the vicinity of Choctawhatchee Bay; bad weather prevented them from entering Pensacola Bay (Weddle 1985: 259).
The explorations of Lavazares, however, did not determine the site of Luna’s landing in Florida. A subsequent reconnaissance voyage in a single ship commanded by Juan de Rentería departed Veracruz sometime in 1558 to discover the Florida ports in advance of the Luna fleet. Historian Robert Weddle discovered previously unknown archival testimony of Gonzalo Gayón, who served as pilot for Rentería and later as chief pilot for Luna. According to Gayón, they discovered the port of Polonza [Pensacola], the port of Filipina [Mobile], the coast of Apalache, and the Costa de Médanos [Padre Island] (Weddle 1985: 259, 264).
The Luna expedition assembled at the Veracruz port of San Juan de Ulúa during April and May, 1559. Eleven ships were loaded with supplies of corn, hardtack biscuit, bacon, dried beef, cheese, oil, vinegar, wine, and live cattle, as well as arms, armor, and tools for construction and for agriculture. When the armada departed for Florida on June 11, it carried 540 soldiers (200 horsemen and the rest arquebus men, shield bearers, and crossbow men) and 240 horses, and more than 1,000 other colonists, including women and children, Negro servants, and Aztecs and Tlaxcalans. The latter were to serve as farmers. Compared with those who ventured to sea before them on the ships of Ayllón, Narváez, and Soto, Tristán de Luna and his people embarked with a certain knowledge of where they were going and what they were supposed to do.
For seventeen days, the ships sailed with a fair wind; on June 28 the pilots calculated their longitude as being the same as Rio del Espiritú Santo. From there, the ships were carried southwest to the reefs of Alacrán off the Yucatán peninsula, where they caught a fair wind to the northeast for eight days, sighting land (around Cape St. George or Cape San Blas) on July 12. After anchoring for five days to collect water, wood, and grass for the horses, the ships continued westward; a frigate was sent ahead to search for Ochuse. Evidently, the frigate’s pilot failed to recognize the port and led the fleet 20 leagues beyond to Lavazares’ Bahía Filipina (Mobile). Luna sent the frigate back eastward to find Ochuse and disembarked the horses (110 had not survived the voyage) and some soldiers to continue to their objective by land.
Figure 2: Map of Florida and Apalche, from Cornelius Wytfliet, Descriptiones Ptolemaicae augmentum, Louvian, 1597, showing the Bahía de Santa María
On August 15, the armada entered the sheltered waters of Maldonado’s Ochuse and Gayón’s Polonza. Luna quickly renamed the bay Santa María Filipina for the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and in honor of King Philip. He and his pilots considered it to be one of the best ports yet discovered in America. As Velasco relayed Luna’s description of Pensacola Bay to Philip,
. . . the lowest water it has at the entrance is eleven cubits, and inside it has from seven to eight fathoms. It is a very spacious port and has a width of three leagues fronting the spot where the Spaniards now are. The entrance over the bar is half a league wide, and has very good marks at the entrance, there being a reddish ravine on the eastern side, dividing the bay. The ships can anchor in four to five fathoms a crossbow shot from land. The port is so secure that no wind can do them any damage at all. There were some Indian huts, which seemed to be for fishermen. The country is apparently very good. It has many walnuts, grapes, other trees, which bear fruit, and much forest, much game and wild fowl, and many fish of numerous varieties and good. They also found a cornfield (Velasco to Philip, September 24, 1559. In Priestly 1928 2:275).
Having come to anchor, the colonists went ashore to pick a suitable site to build a town for eighty to a hundred people, the remainder were to go inland toward Santa Elena. The town would have 140 house lots; forty of these were for the plaza, church and monastery, and the governor’s fortified residence and treasury, which was to be in the middle of the central plaza, and large enough to hold and to protect all of the town’s residents in case of attack. The town’s four gates were to be visible from the central plaza. The remaining hundred lots were for the same number of heads of families, who would be sufficient to defend the town (Velasco to Philip, May 22, 1559. In Priestley 1928 2:225). Luna reported to the King that he had chosen the town site on “a high point of land which slopes down to the bay where the ships come to anchor” (Luna to Philip, May 1, 1559 [erroneous date]. In Priestley 1928 2:212).
Luna dispatched the galleon San Juan back to Veracruz on August 25 with letters to notify the Viceroy of his safe arrival and ask for more horses and supplies. He then ordered scouting parties to look for food, since the fleet’s supplies were calculated to last only eighty days. One party went up the Escambia River by boat, the other made an entry by land. The captain of one party, Alvaro Nieto, had been a Soto veteran; he took with him as interpreter an Indian woman named Lacsohe, a native of the region who had been captured by Soto’s army (Weddle 1985: 268). The reconnoitering parties went up the river for twenty leagues, finding a small Indian village at a distance of ten leagues before returning to the anchorage after twenty days. There, they learned of a calamitous event that had occurred during their absence. As Luna reported in a letter to the King,
. . . on Monday, during the night of the nineteenth of this month of September, there came up from the north a fierce tempest, which, blowing for twenty-four hours from all directions until the same hour as it began, without stopping but increasing continuously, did irreparable damage to the ships of the fleet. [There was] great loss by many seamen and passengers, both of their lives as well as of their property. All the ships which were in this port went aground (although it is one of the best ports there are in the Indies), save only one caravel and two barks, which escaped. . . . we lost, on one of the ships which went aground, a great part of the supplies which were collected in it for the maintenance of this army, and what we had on land was damaged by the heavy rains . . . (Luna to Philip, September 24, 1559. In Priestly 1928:2:245).
When news of the disaster at Pensacola reached the Viceroy in Mexico, the first of four relief voyages to the Florida colony began. Meanwhile Luna sent soldiers up the Alabama River to search for food. They found an abandoned Indian village with corn and bean fields (Nanipacana), which had been largely destroyed by Soto’s army in 1540. Plans were made to move the colonists to Nanipacana, and then northward to Coosa, a larger native town also visited by Soto, in hopes that it could become a station on the way to Santa Elena. Leaving a small garrison at Pensacola to wait for relief ships, the settlers moved to Nanipacana in February 1560. An advance party reached Coosa, but found none of the fabled resources reported by the Soto veterans. Meanwhile, Luna had fallen ill with fever, his colonists were slowly starving, and discontent began to turn to mutiny in Nanipacana. Luna yielded to complaints and petitions; the Spaniards abandoned their camp in mid-summer and retreated to Mobile, then Pensacola, where eight days later, a fleet arrived, not to take them back to New Spain, but with a royal order for Luna to occupy Santa Elena at once to keep it from the French. Three small ships were sent to sea to sail around the peninsula and search for Santa Elena, but storms drove them back to Veracruz.
Reports of mutiny at Pensacola, and Luna’s inability to retain firm control of the Florida enterprise caused Viceroy Velasco to replace the ailing governor with Angel de Villafañe, who brought 50 men and fresh supplies to the port in March 1561. Villafañe discharged Luna and sailed toward Santa Elena with four ships and 60 people; however, the expedition failed to find a suitable landing place on the Atlantic coast and suffered a hurricane that sank two of the ships. The sea had defeated both Luna and Villafañe; the successful occupation of La Florida some four years later by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés was made possible to a large extent by his experience as a mariner, but also the knowledge that had accumulated by the failures of two governors before him.