Hernando de Soto was not the first to make contact with Native Americans in Florida. As “The Inca” [Part 1] tells in his chronicles of the expedition, “The first Spaniard who discovered La Florida was Juan Ponce de Leon, a gentleman who was a native of Leon and a nobleman, having been governor of Puerto Rico. Inasmuch as the Spaniards of that time thought of nothing except the discovery of new lands, he fitted out two caravels and went in search of an island they called Bimini or, according to others, Buyoca. There, according to fabulous tales of the Indians, was a fountain that rejuvenated the aged. He traveled in search of it for many days, lost, and without finding it. At the end of this time he was driven by a storm on the coast to the north of Cuba, which coast he named Florida because of the day on which he saw it being Easter.”
The Inca goes on to say, “Juan Ponce de Leon was content simply with seeing that it was land, and without making any effort to ascertain whether it was the mainland or an island, he came to Spain to ask for the government and conquest of that country.”
But Ponce de Leon’s first encounter with Florida was not quite so incidental. In fact, after landing somewhere along the eastern coast of Florida probably south of St. Augustine, he continued south following the coast to present-day Miami where they explored the mouth of the Miami river. They would have encountered the Tequesta Tribe, however, the Tequesta were wary and retreated back into the woods to hide. Then they sailed along the keys before turning north where they again landed in a bay, probably Charlotte Harbor.
This was Calusa country. The Calusa once inhabited the southwestern part of Florida from Charlotte harbor all the way to the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. Here is an account of that encounter by author and historian, Aleck Loker, “They anchored there for several days and had their first encounter with the people of La Florida. The wary Indians at first seemed interested in trading, but as soon as the Spanish approached, the Indians attacked and men were wounded on both sides. Ponce de Leon took eight Indians prisoner.”
So, why were the tribes of La Florida already wary of Spaniards? Because, for years the Spanish slave traders had probably frequented the peninsula and many slaves had escaped to Florida. Many of the tribes in Florida were well aware of the cruelty and might of the Spaniards.
Ponce de Leon returned to Florida in 1521 with a colonizing expedition on two ships with 200 men, including priests, farmers and artisans, 50 horses and other domestic animals, and farming implements. They landed again on the southwest coast of Florida, in the vicinity of Caloosahatchee River or Charlotte Harbor. Here is the Inca’s description of this encounter, “The Indians came out to meet him and fought with him bravely until they routed him and killed almost all the Spaniards who had come with him. No more than seven escaped, among them Juan Ponce de Leon; they went, wounded, to the island of Cuba, where all died of the wounds they bore. Such was the unhappy end of the journey of Juan Ponce de Leon, the first discoverer of La Florida, and it appears that he left his misfortune as a heritage to those who have followed him there on the same errand.”