While Spanish conquistadors and adventurers were moving the colonial frontier to the mainlands of South and Central America in the early sixteenth century, they also began to explore the southeastern coasts of North America. Slavers preying on the Lucayan Indians in the Bahamas were probably the first to sail the shores of Florida, searching for harbors in which they could anchor to capture Indians who could be taken back to the Caribbean and sold. In 1512 Juan Ponce de Leon contracted with the Spanish crown to explore the region north of the Bahamas and the next year he explored the coasts of the southern portion of the Florida peninsula. In only a few short years other Spanish sailors and slavers would determine what Juan Ponce had thought was an island was a peninsula attached to the mainland of a huge landmass, one connected to New Spain (Mexico) around the Gulf of Mexico.
Over the next forty years the Spanish crown contracted with several conquistadors to conquer and colonize La Florida, establishing a presence on the northern border of Spain’s growing American empire. But all would fail. The expeditions of Juan Ponce de Leon in 1521 (to southwest Florida), Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón (to the Georgia and South Carolina coasts in 1526), Pánfilo de Narváez in 1528 (Tampa Bay to the eastern Florida panhandle), Hernando de Soto (Tampa Bay through, Florida, Georgia, South and North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas in 1539-1543), and Tristán de Luna y Arellano (the Pensacola, Florida region and parts of Alabama in 1559-1561) could not conquer the land and its people.
Spain’s failure to secure La Florida would not escape the attention of France and England. In 1562 France sent an expedition under Jean Ribault that explored the coasts of northeast Florida and Georgia before establishing a short-lived fort on the South Carolina coast. Two years later a second French expedition established the settlement of Fort Caroline near the mouth of the St. Johns River.
Learning the French were usurping lands he claimed, Philip II of Spain sent Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to oust the Fort Caroline settlement. In 1565 Menéndez accomplished his mission and founded his own town, St. Augustine. In short order he established a second Spanish town, Santa Elena, on the South Carolina coast where the Frenchman Ribault had been. La Florida would remain in Spanish hands for two centuries, though the land it controlled would shrink as English interests, following the ill-fated Roanoke colony in 1585, successfully colonized Virginia and then the Carolinas between 1607 and 1670.
Well aware of the slaughter and enslavement of the Indians of the Caribbean, the Catholic monarchy of Spain had begun to require better treatment of indigenous peoples as early as 1516. In reality, however, such legal admonitions were rarely followed; in Florida, Narváez and de Soto, for example, both displayed extreme cruelty toward the native peoples. But by the time of the successful La Florida colony and the founding of St. Augustine, Spanish attitudes had shifted somewhat. Native people were recognized as having souls and capable of becoming loyal, Christian subjects of the crown, members of Spain’s American empire who could work in support of the crown’s colonies. From his headquarters in St. Augustine, Menéndez set about to make Christian allies of the Indians of La Florida. He also wished to establish an overland route from the Atlantic coast at Santa Elena south and west to northern New Spain and to find the fabled northwest passage, the sea route from the Atlantic into the Pacific that would provide a shortcut to the riches of the Orient.
See also Diaz, Bernal.