Early Exploration & Colonization in Florida

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about the early exploration and colonization of Florida. We will identify important explorers and highlight key developments in Florida colonization.

Who Got There First?

Maybe you've vacationed in Florida. It is certainly an enjoyable place to visit. But did you know Florida was the first of the continental United States to be visited by Europeans? It is believed the Portuguese had some degree of knowledge of Florida. We know this because of early Portuguese maps depict the peninsula. Portuguese explorers may have even landed there. Who knows? But typically the Spanish are credited with discovering Florida.

Spanish Explorers: de Leon and de Soto

Maybe you've heard the popular legend that Ponce de León discovered Florida while searching for a 'Fountain of Youth'. This view is commonly accepted, but it is almost certainly a myth. Nowhere in his writings does Ponce de León mention a Fountain of Youth. The story was fabricated years after his death, probably in an attempt to discredit him.

Ponce de Leon
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Nevertheless, it is Ponce de León who is credited with discovering Florida. It is believed that he spotted the peninsula on April 2, 1513, and went ashore shortly afterwards. Scholars are unsure of exactly where he landed, although some believe it was near St. Augustine. He claimed the land for Spain and named it 'Florida,' meaning 'flowery land'. Ponce de León returned in 1521 with the intent of establishing a colony, but he and his men were driven away by the Calusa Native Americans. Ponce de León died that year from wounds he received from fighting the Calusa.

Like the explorers who arrived in Virginia a century later, the lust for gold was major motivation for Spanish exploration of Florida. In 1539, Hernando de Soto landed near what is now Tampa Bay, and from there set out on an expedition across the southern United States with the hope of finding gold. It is believed he explored throughout Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Hernando de Soto is the first recorded European to have crossed the Mississippi River. In 1542, de Soto died of fever along the bank of the Mississippi. He never found what he was looking for.

Hernando de Soto
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Colonization of Florida

In 1559, explorer Tristán de Luna y Arellano tried established a colony in what is now Pensacola, but before he and his crew could unload their ship, a hurricane came through destroyed much of their livelihood. At the same time the Spanish were exploring Florida, the French were beginning to wander into the area, coming down from South Carolina. Skirmishes between the two groups were becoming more and more common. To halt French incursions into Florida and discourage them from colonizing the area, the Spanish built a fort and settlement in St. Augustine. Founded in 1565, St. Augustine is considered the oldest continuously occupied settlement in the United States. It was founded by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who would become Spanish Florida's first governor. It was named St. Augustine because the land was sighted during one of the feast days honoring the Christian Church Father St. Augustine.

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