Memoir Of Hernando D’Escalante Fontaneda

On the Country and Ancient Indian Tribes Of FLORIDA





I HAVE the honor to inform you that Florida and the Lucayan Islands are situate on one side of the Bahama (old) Channel, which passes between Havanna (Cuba) and Florida. But nearer the mainland, extending from east to west, lie other islands, called the Martyrs (Los Martires), on account of the great number of men who have been put to death there; and on the rocks of the coast, where a great many have been shipwrecked. These islands are inhabited by a tall race of men and women graceful and well-featured. There are two Indian villages on these islands, one of which is called Guaragunve or the Village of Tears (Pueblo de Llante); and the other, smaller in size, Cuchiyaga, which signifies the place where martyrdom has been suffered. These Indians possess neither gold nor, silver, and still less clothing, for they go almost naked, wearing only a sort of apron. The dress of the men consists of braided palm-leaves, and that of the women of moss, which grows on trees, and somewhat resembles wool. Their common food consists of fish, turtles, snails, tunny-fish, and whales, which they catch in their seasons. Some of them also eat the wolf-fish, but this is not a common thing, owing to certain distinctions which they make between proper food for the chiefs and that of their subjects. On these islands is found a shell-fish known as the langosta, a sort of lobster, and another known in Spain as the chapin (trunk-fish), of which they consume not less than the former. There are also on the islands a great number of animals, especially deer; and on some of them large bears are found. These islands extend from west to east, and as the mainland of Florida lies at no great distance to the eastward, these animals could easily pass over from the peninsula, and thence from island to island. To us, however, who found ourselves prisoners there, it seemed strange to see deer in the island of Cuchiyaga, and also to hear them frequently spoken of elsewhere. There are many other things which I could tell about, but must omit them for the present, for those of more importance. On these islands also are found a species of tree or wood, which we call guaiacum orlignum-vitæ (Guaiacum Officinale), and which physicians know is useful for many purposes; also fruit trees of different kinds. It is useless to speak of the great variety of fruits found there. Westward of these islands lies a great channel, through which no pilot dares to pass with a large vessel, because, as stated elsewhere, exist towards the west a number of treeless islands. Formerly they were probably covered with earth which the tides have carried off, leaving only barren shores of sand about seven miles in circumference. They are called The Tortugas, because of the great number of tortoises that collect there to rest during the night. These tortoises are about the size of a large shield, have as much flesh as a cow, are all meat, and still they are fish. Going northward, between Havanna and Florida, and towards the islands, the Tortugas are first met. The Martyr Islands are forty leagues from Havanna, twenty from the Tortugas, and twenty leagues more to Florida, that is, to arrive at the Indian province of Carlos1 (or Calos), of which the name signifies “cruel village.” It is thus named because the inhabitants are barbarous and very adroit in the handling of arms. They are masters of a part of the country extending as far as the village of Guasaca, near the Lake Mayaimi, thus named on account of its great size.

In going from Havanna to the opposite shore, the chain of the Martyr Islands commences near the coast of Florida. Here one finds himself about sixty leagues from the islands of the other extremity of the group. There are several channels, of which the principal one is very wide, and of variable depths. The greatest width, as nearly as I can remember, from the report of the Indians, is towards the Bermuda Islands. I shall now say no more on this subject, but describe the group of the Martyr Islands lying to the northward.

These islands terminate near an Indian village called Tegesta,2 built on the borders of a river, which takes its rise in the interior. It runs through fifteen leagues of country, and flows from a fresh-water lake, which the Indians visit and pretend it forms a part of Lake Mayaimi (Okechobee). This lake is situated in the midst of the country, and is surrounded by a great number of villages of from thirty to forty inhabitants each, who live on bread made from roots during most of the year. They cannot procure it, however, when the waters of the lake rise very high. They have roots which resemble the truffles of this country (Spain), and have besides excellent fish. Whenever game is to be had, either deer or birds, they eat meat. Large numbers of very fat eels are found in the rivers, some of them as large as a man’s thigh, and enormous trout, almost as large as a man’s body; although smaller ones are also found. The natives eat lizards, snakes, and rats, which infest the lakes, fresh-water turtles, and many other animals which it would be tiresome to enumerate. They live in a country covered with swamps and cut up by high bluffs. They have no metals nor anything belonging to the Old World. They go naked, except the women, who wear little aprons woven of shreds of palm. They pay tribute to CARLOS, composed of all the objects I have spoken, such as fish, game, roots, deer-skins, etc.



I THINK from what I was told by some Indians from the islands of Jeaga, at the beginning of the Bahamas, that the auditor LUCAS VASQUEZ D’AYLLON,3 of San Domingo, accompanied by six of his planters, came in vessels to visit this country and the river St. Helena, situated seven leagues to the northward, on the banks of which is a village named Orista, but which by mistake they called Chicora. They saw another village, named Quale but called by them Gualdape: these are all they visited, as they did not explore the interior. The truth is, there is neither gold nor silver within sixty leagues of this place, although I am informed there are both gold and copper mines4 in the interior, towards the north. On the banks of a river and of some of the lakes, are the Indian villages of Otopali, Olgatano, and many others. The people are not of the Chichimèque race, nor are they of the same race as the inhabitants of the river Jordan. Their principal king is called, in the language of the Carlos Indians, Zertepe, and is superior to all the other chiefs, as MONTEZUMA was. In that portion of the country which LUCAS VASQUEZ D’AYLLON and other Spaniards visited, the inhabitants are very poor. Some small pearls are found there, however, in the shell-fish. The natives live on fish, large oysters, roasted or raw, deer, roe-buck, and other animals. When the men go out to hunt, the women collect wood and water to boil or broil their food. If the Spaniards found gold there at any time, it must have been brought there from a great distance, probably from the mountains of the domains of the king of whom I have just spoken. It has been said the Indians of Cuba worshiped the river of Jordan, but that is not true.

JUAN PONCE DE LEON, believing the reports of the Indians of Cuba and San Domingo to be true, made an expedition into Florida to discover the river Jordan.5 This he did either because he wished to acquire renown, or, perhaps, because he hoped to become young again by bathing in its waters. Many years ago, a number of Cuban Indians went in search of this river, and entered the province of Carlos (Calos),6 but SEQUENE, the father of CARLOS, took them prisoners, and settled them in a village where their descendants are still living. The news that these people had left their own country to bathe in the river Jordan, spread among all the kings and chiefs of Florida, and as they were an ignorant people, they all set out in search of this river, which was supposed to possess the power of rejuvenating old men and women. So eager were they in their search, that they did not pass a river, a brook, a lake, or even a swamp, without bathing in it; and, even to this day, they have not ceased to look for it, but always without any success. The natives of Cuba, braving the dangers of the sea, became victims to their faith, and thus it happened that they came to Carlos, where they built a village. They came in such great numbers, that although many have died, there are still many living there, both old and young. While I was a prisoner in those parts, I bathed in a great many rivers, but I never found the right one. It seems incredible that JUAN PONCE DE LEON should have gone to Florida to look for such a river.

Let us now speak of the Abolachi country, not far distant from Panuco, where, it is reported, so many pearls are found, and really do exist.

Between Abolachi and Olagale7 is a river which the Indians call Guasaca-Esgui, which means, translated into our language, Reed river. It is on the sea-coast, and at the mouth of this river, the pearls are found, in oyster and other shells; and from thence they are carried into all the provinces and villages of Florida; especially to Tocobajo, which is the nearest place, and where the greatest cacique or king of this country resides. This village is situated on the right, coming from Havanna. The name of the chief is TOCO-BAJA-CHILE. He has a great many subjects, is an independent chief, and dwells on the other side of the river; which extends more than forty leagues into the interior of the country, where FERDINAND DE SOTO intended to establish colonies, but was prevented by death, when his followers disbanded and returned to Spain. On their way back they hung the chief of the Abolachi country, because he refused to provide them with maize for their journey, or, as the Indians say, for the sake of some large pearls which he wore on his neck, one of which was as large as a ring-dove’s egg. The natives say there are no gold or silver mines in this country, at least none known to them. They live on maize, fish, deer, roe-bucks, and other animals; but fish constitutes their principal food. They make bread from roots which grow in the swamps, and have a variety of fruits. The men and women go almost naked. The former wear no other clothing than aprons made of prepared deer skins, while the latter make theirs of moss which grows on trees, and is not much unlike hemp or wool.

Let us now leave Tocobajo, Abolachi, Olagale, and Mogozo, which are distinct kingdoms, and speak of the villages and market-towns of King CARLOS,8 who was afterwards put to death by Captain REYNOSO for some hostile demonstration. The most important of these villages are Tampa, Tomo, Tuchi, Sogo, No (which means “beloved village”), Sinapa, Sinacsta, Metamapo, Sacaspada, Calaobe, Estame, Yagua, Guaya, Guevu, Muspa, Casitoa, Talesta, Coyovea, Jutun, Teguemapo, Comachica, Luiseyove, besides two other villages whose names I do not recollect, as it is now ten years since I was there. In the interior, on Lake Mayaimi, there are Cutespa, Tavagueme, Tonsobe, Enempa, and others whose names I have forgotten. In the Lucayan Islands there are two Indian villages, subjects of King CARLOS, one of which is called Guaragunve, and the other Cuchiaga. CARLOS was sovereign of fifty villages, as his father had been up to the time of his death. The power is now in the hands of his son SEBASTIAN, who bears this name, because Don PEDRO MENENDEZ DE AVILES conferred it upon him when he took him to Havanna to be educated, and ordered him to be called thus. Nothwithstanding the good treatment the Indians received from MENENDEZ, they revolted a second time, which was more serious than the first. It would still have been more unfortunate if they had been baptized, for I have heard them say Christianity was forbidden among them. Most of our strategy was known to them. They are athletic, and use the bow and arrow adroitly. No one knows that country as well as I do, for I was a prisoner there from the age of thirteen to thirty years, and I speak four of the languages of its people. There is only the language of the Ais and Jeaga which I am not acquainted with, because I have never lived among them.

The Abolachi9 are a powerful nation, rich in pearls; but they have no gold, except what is brought from the mines of Onagatano, situated in the Snowy Mountains of Onagatano, the farthest of the Abolachi possessions, and still farther, from the nations of Olacatano, Olagale, Mogoso, and Canogacole. The last are said to be a numerous and warlike people, who go entirely naked, excepting a few who wear dressed skins. They are artists, and can paint everything they see. They are called Canogacole, which means“wicked people,” and are adroit in drawing the bow. The Spaniards could only conquer them with their superior arms, such as cross-bows, muskets, bucklers, large and strong swords, good horses, and escanpils.10 They only speak their native languages; are an honorable and faithful people, and not like the Biscayan who wanted to sell MENENDEZ to the Indians, and had not a mulatto and I prevented him, by exposing his treachery, we should have all been put to death; and PEDRO MENENDEZ, instead of dying at Santander, would have perished in Florida. If he had conducted himself as I did, and as he ought to have done, the Indians would to-day have been the obedient subjects of our powerful King, PHILIP II., whom I pray the Lord will protect for many years to come.

I have elsewhere said that this chief was sovereign of the “River of Reeds,” where the pearls and the mines of lapis-lazuli are found; but farther on, the village of Olagale is subject to him, where also gold is found.

A Biscayan named Don PEDRO, whom his Majesty had deigned to name Guardian of the Swans, was a prisoner in this country, and had he shown a courage proportionate to the favors which he had received from his Majesty, the Indians of Ais, Guacata, and of Jeaga would long ago have submitted, and many of them would already have been Christians. He spoke perfectly the language of Ais and all those I have mentioned above and also that which is spoken at Mayaca, and Mayajuaca, on the other side towards the north. PEDRO MENENDEZ ordered him to be hung on account of the calumnious accusation brought against him and his companion DOMINGO RUIZ. I think he was frightened, and, after returning to Spain, he drew up his report about Florida. He did not desire to go there but finally decided to do so, to get his son out of the hands of the Indians, who had heaped cruel treatment upon him. As for ourselves, we have never to this day received any pay, or obtained any promotion, and returned with our health so impaired, that we have gained but little by going to Florida.

The country of the kings of Ais11 and of Jeaga is very poor. It contains neither gold nor silver mines, and, to tell the truth, it is only the sea which enriches it, since many vessels laden with precious metals are shipwrecked there; such as the Farfan, and the Howker. On board of the latter was ANTON GRANADO and Captain JUAN CHRISTOBAL, whom the natives made slaves; and killed Don MARTIN DE GUZMAN, Captain HERNANDO DE ANDINO, and JUAN ORVIS. On board of this ship were the two sons of ALONSO DE MESA and their uncle. They were all rich, and I the poorest among them, yet I had twenty-five pesos of fine gold. My father (who was a commander) and my mother, had both served his Majesty in Peru, and subsequently in Carthagena, where they established a colony. I, as well as one of my brothers, was born there. They were sending us to Spain to be educated when we were shipwrecked on the Florida coast; as well as the fleet from New Spain, commanded by the son of Don PEDRO MENENDEZ (Adelantado of Florida).



I AFTERWARDS talked with a Spaniard whom the Indians had kept in a starving condition. He told me that he came from Nicaragua, in one of the Mexican vessels bound for Spain, which was commanded by an Asturian, a son of Don PEDRO MELENDEZ. That he was only a sailor on one of the shipwrecked vessels of the fleet, and ignorant of the fate of the rest until after he had talked with the Indians who went armed to the coast of Ais and returned with very considerable riches, in the form of ingots of gold, sacks of Spanish coins, and quantities of merchandise. As this man had been a prisoner there only for a short time, and knew nothing of the Indian languages, and as JUAN RODRIGUEZ knew them well, we served as interpreters for him and others. It was a great consolation for those who were afterwards shipwrecked there, to find some Christians who could aid them in their misfortunes, and help them to make themselves understood by the natives; for, when the Indians captured them and commanded them to dance and sing, and they would not; and as the Indians of Florida are cruel as well as ill-natured, they thought the Christians refused from obstinacy, and did not wish to comply with their request; so they massacred them on the spot, and reported to the chief that they had killed them because they were rogues and rebels, and refused to obey.

One day when a negro, two Spaniards, and I were speaking to the chief, in presence of the great men of his court, about what I have just stated, the chief said I was the most deceitful of them all. ESCALANTE, said he, “tell me the truth, for you know I am a great lover of it; why, when we commanded your countrymen to dance or sing, or do anything, they were obstinate and refused to obey. Is it because they are indifferent to death, or because they did not wish to obey the enemies of their religion? Answer me, and, if you do not know, ask those new prisoners who are slaves by their own misfortune. Formerly we took them for gods descended from the heavens.” I answered, “My lord, as I understand the matter, they are not rebelious, nor do they refuse from any motive of ill-will, but do not comprehend your wishes. They would only need to understand your language to perform their duty.” The chief replied that this was untrue, as he often gave them commands which they sometimes obeyed, and sometimes did not, although they were repeated over and over. “Notwithstanding that, my lord,” I replied, “they do not act thus from disobedience, but because they really do not understand you. I wish your lordship would speak to them in presence of this negro and me.” The chief began to laugh, and said to them, “Se-le-te-ga!” They then asked what the chief said, and the negro, who stood near them, laughed and said to the chief, “Sire, what ESCALANTE has told you is true, they do not understand you.” Then the chief, having perceived that I had told him the truth, said, “ESCALANTE, now I believe you.” I then explained to them what Se-le-te-ga meant, which is, to go and see if there is any one on the look-out; if any one is coming hither. The inhabitants of Florida always abbreviate their words much more than we do in speaking.

The chief, having perceived the true state of things, told his subjects that when they made prisoners of shipwrecked Christians hereafter, they must give them no orders without his knowledge, so that he might send them a person who understood their language.

I will say no more now on this subject, but proceed to speak of the wealth which the Indians found in bars of gold and Mexican jewelry belonging to the shipwrecked passengers, amounting to more than a million. The chief retained the best part of it for himself, and divided the remainder among the Indians of Ais, of Jaega, of Guacata, of Mayajuaca, and of Mayaca. Most of the vessels or caravels, as I stated before, which had been shipwrecked there were from Cuba and Honduras, and going in search of the river Jordan, which explains how the Indians of Ais, of Jaega, and the Guardgumve Islands became so enriched by the sea and not by the land.

From Tocobaga to St. Helena there are about six hundred leagues of coast. This country produces neither gold nor silver, nor are any metals found except those which accident brings to Florida from over the sea. I do not need to say that it is a habitable country, since we know the Indians live there, raise flocks and herds of animals, and cultivate the land. I cannot positively say that sugar can be made there. I know they planted cane and it grew, but I did not remain long enough to see the result. The inhabitants of all the provinces which I have named, from Tocobaga to St. Helena, are much given to fishing, and are always to be had. They are very adroit at drawing the bow, and also very treacherous, and I am convinced they can never be made submissive and become Christians. I am willing to sign my name to this statement, as a thing of which I am positively certain; and I give it as my opinion, that if it is not followed, matters will grow worse and worse. They should all be taken, men and women, after terms of peace have been offered them, placed on ships, and scattered throughout the various islands, and even on the Spanish main, where they might be sold as his Majesty sells his vessels to the grandees in Spain. By such clever means they might become civilized and Spaniards established here. These latter could then form settlements, raise cattle, and give assistance to numbers of vessels which are lost on the coast of the province of Satoriva, at or near St. Augustine, San Matheo (St. John’s), where the French Lutherans established a fort for the purpose of plundering all vessels that arrive from the mainland, whether from Mexico, Peru, or any other country. They have already done this thing, and taken refuge on the San Matheo river, where dwell in villages the perfidious chiefs, SATORIVA, ALIMACANY.

On the banks of the San Matheo (St. John’s), sixty leagues further inland, reside other independent chiefs, CARDECHA, ENCAPPE, UTINA, SARANAY, and MOLOA, who govern other villages reaching as far as Mayajuaca, in the Ais country, near the district planted with reeds, which our guides said was the place where Don PEDRO DE MENENDEZ made terms of peace with them. They possess, however, neither gold, silver, nor pearls, and are great rascals and beggars. They use bows and arrows, and, like those before described, wear no clothing. In ascending the river San Matheo, one can go as far as Tocobaga on the west side of Florida, but I do not advise any one to go so far as this river. After having passed the bar of the river, one might go on as far as Agacay, which is fifty or sixty leagues from the coast, or even as far as Utina, where he could disembark and proceed from village to village until, arriving at Canogacola, the inhabitants of which are subjects of TOCO-BAGA. Thence he could go on to the very farthest known point, situated on another great river (Mississippi), whither DE SOTO went, and where he died. And now I shall say no more, for if there were any question of making a conquest of this country, I could not furnish any more details than those I have already given. The conquest of this country would be advantageous to his Majesty for the security of his fleets going to Peru, New Spain, and ports of the West India Islands. These fleets must necessarily pass through the Bahama Channel, and close to this coast, where many people are shipwrecked and lose their lives, because the Indians are our enemies, and handle the bow skillfully. It would, therefore, be well to have a small fort erected to protect the channel. To support this fort, and pay the soldiers who should garrison it, a fund might be established by levying taxes on Peru, Mexico, Cuba, and other parts of the Indies. This is all that can be done, unless pearl-fishing is engaged in, as pearls are the only treasures the country offers. With this expression of opinion, I close my description of Florida and herewith subscribe my name to it.


~Hernando D’Escalante Fontaneda*



* The writer of this memoir was born in Carthagena, in 1538, and was shipwrecked and captured off the coast of Florida by the Indians. He was spared and brought up among them, and learned to speak four Indian languages, and calls attention to what has since been termed their “polysynthetic” structure. He afterwards returned to Spain, and accompanied the expedition of Don PEDRO MENENDEZ to Florida, in 1565, as interpreter. “This memoir,” says BRINTON, “is particularly valuable in locating the ancient Indian tribes of Florida, and was written after the death of MENENDEZ.”

1. Probably so called from the name of its chief, who, bearing from his Spanish Captives of the grandeur and power of CHARLES V. (Carlos V.), in emulation appropriated the name to himself. “It is still preserved,” says BRINTON, “in the Seminole appellation of the Sanybal river, Carlosa-hatchie, Cayo-Hueso (Key West), and Cayo-Vacas, names of the latest residences of the Caloosas, before they were driven from Florida, and went to Havana.”

2. The province of Tegesta is situated to the west of the Caloosa, and embraced a string of villages stretching from Cape Canaveral to the southern extremity of Florida. The more northern portion was, says BRINTON, called Ais, from the native word aisa, deer. The residence of the paracoussi, or chief, was near Cape Canaveral (Corientes).

3. To AYLLON was given the title of Adelantado, to aid him in the conquest of Chicora (South Carolina), which he discovered, and described as a rich and fertile country, abounding in valuable productions, and inhabited with natives of a clear understanding, governed by a king. One of his ships was commanded by JORDAN, with MIRUELO as pilot, and reached the latitude of 34 degrees; the other, Cabo de St. Elena (Cape St. Helena); and it is said he also reached Bahia Santa Maria (Chesapeake Bay) in 1526. On the chart of RIBERO, 1529, all the countries discovered by AYLLON are indicated under the name of “Tierra de Ayllon,” which covers all the territory south of the States of Virginia, N. and S. Carolina, and Georgia. One of the objects of his several expeditions was to capture slaves to sell in St. Domingo and Cuba. He died in October, 1526, from wounds received in a battle with the natives.

4. On the return of DE SOTO’s expedition to Mexico (New Spain), the soldiers reported that gold, silver, and copper mines were found and worked by the Indians in the Apalachian mountains, and subsequently by the Spaniards in Northern Georgia. DE BRY and also other writers state that the Indians gathered gold and silver to a limited extent from the streams of the auriferous mountains of Carolina and Georgia, and worked them into ornaments, which they wore as pendants.

5. Of all the historic names connected with Florida, none stand out more prominently than that of PONCE DE LEON. The romantic character of his expeditions has won for him a name which will be kept in everlasting remembrance as a bold and adventurous cavalier and navigator. With the pilot ALAMINOS he discovered the Atlantic shore of Florida, near the mouth of the St. John’s river, in latitude 30½ degrees; and the Gulf shore in latitude 24 degrees. The exploration of the Gulf of Mexico was spread over a period of twenty years.

6. All the tribes north of the province of Carlos, throughout the country around the Hillsborough river, and probably from it to the Withlacooche, and easterly to the Ocklawaha, appear to have lived under one chief or king.

7. Olagale is probably the Ocale of DE SOTO, and Etocale of BIEDMA. (Historical Collections of Louisiana, vol. 2, pp. 92-130.)

8. The tribes of CALOS or CARLOS spoke different dialects, and resided in the southern portion of Florida. The Timuquans lived along the coast north and south of St. Augustine, the Timuquan dialect being used at San Mateo, Asila, Machua, San Pedro, etc. Father PAREJA, one of the founders of the Franciscan Order in St. Helena, Florida, and guardian of the first convent established there in 1578, published “Gramatica de la Lengua Timuiquana de Florida, 1614,” “Catecismo de la Doctrina Christiana en Lengua Timuiquana, 1617,” and the “Confesonario en lengua Timuiquana, Mexico, 1612.”

9. “The early French and Spanish writers vary in the orthography of this name. The old Spanish writers write It Abolache, Apalache, Appallatcy: the French, Apalaches. COXE drops the A and writes it Palache, Palatcy, etc. Apáliché in the Tamanaca dialect signifies man. They were a most united, bold, and valorous race, and much more civilized than the adjacent tribes. When DE SOTO arrived in their country he found their fields cultivated, bearing plentiful crops of corn, beans, pumpkins, and fruit of all kinds; having good store of gold, silver, and pearls, which they collected from the lofty mountains of Onagatano (Georgia), abounding in precious metals. Their country was divided into six provinces, interspersed with towns and villages, and lived in houses built of oval shape, plastered with mud, and thatched with reeds and straw. The women manufactured their own clothing from wild hemp and the inner bark of the mulberry tree, lined with skins. Their priests offered up daily morning prayers to the glorious sun; and were regarded as more civilized than the Carlos, Tegesta, Ais and other tribes of Florida. In the beginning of the eighteenth century they were almost destroyed by other tribes, and driven across the Mississippi. By tradition they came originally from Northern Mexico.”–SeeBrinton’s Florida; Historical Collections of Louisiana, vol. 2, p. 261.

10. A sort of armor made of cotton, which the ancient Mexicans used to protect themselves from the arrows of the natives in time of war.

11. The kings and chiefs of Florida took their title, or public name, from the place or territory they governed.

2 thoughts on “Memoir Of Hernando D’Escalante Fontaneda

  1. […] was a Spanish shipwreck survivor who lived among the Indians of Florida for 17 years. His memoir [version 1] [version 2], written in 1575, is one of the most valuable contemporary accounts of American Indian […]

  2. […] 1575, a mere ten years after the Spanish attacked the fort and massacred most of its residents. Fontaneda’s account […]