First Efforts to Christianize La Florida

Juan Ponce de Leon, erstwhile companion of Columbus, founder of San Juan in Puerto Rico, colonizer and governor of that island, applied in the year 1511 for authorization to settle the "island of Benini," as the natives referred to the peninsula of Florida.

On February 13 of the following year, his request was granted by a patent of King Charles. Losing little time, on March 27, 1513, his expedition brought him to the coast of what was in reality a continent of unimagined size and richness. Persuaded that he had reached his goal, he called his discovery La Isla de Pasqua Florida, for he had first seen it on that early Palm Sunday.

Reconnoitering first the eastern shore, then the western, he encountered a hostile reception at the spot which now is known as Charlotte Bay. In 1514 he obtained a second patent, one which reflected the early philosophy of the requerimiento. By it he was directed when he would land, to summon the Indians and explain to them the justification for his conquest. If they refused to listen to reason, "you may make war and seize them and carry them away for slaves; but, if they do obey, give them the best treatment you can, and endeavor to convert them to our Holy Catholic Faith."

In 1521 Ponce sailed once more to the land of La Florida, this time with over two hundred men, among them several priests. It was very likely on this occasion that for the first time Mass was offered on the soil of the future United States. A primitive chapel was erected in the vicinity ofthe future city of Tampa. The natives on the coast were consistently unfriendly, establishing a reputation for ferocity which would long endure. In one of their raids Ponce was mortally wounded; he returned to San Juan, where he is honored to have his tomb in the first cathedral built in the northern reaches of the New World. This first missionary enterprise, the establishment of a Catholic colony, with Catholic families and priests, with domestic animals and agricultural implements, was a noble concept – but a total failure.8

Fray Antonio de Montesinos, a Dominican of considerable repute, who had received Bartolome delas Casas into the Order of Preachers, was strong in denouncing the enslavement of the natives. It was he who influenced las Casas to undertake his campaign for the rights of the Indians. Montesinos likewise persuaded Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon to free a boatload of Indians brought to Havana from the Cape Fear region of La Florida. In a plan to establish a Catholic colony, in 1526 Vazquez de Ayllon, accompanied by Montesinos and two other Dominicans, set sail for the area of Cape Fear in modern North Carolina. It is not certain precisely where they landed, but a strong possibility is that it was on or near the island today known as Parris Island, near Beaufort, South Carolina. The noble experiment was ravaged by fevers. Vazquez de Ayllon himself succumbed to the fever9 but the Dominicans survived. Montesinos, this great defender of the Indians against enslavement, was later martyred in Venezuela.10

In 1527, six hundred colonists are said to have been in the five vessels accompanying Panfilo de Narvaez to La Florida. With the avowed purpose of colonizing La Florida, Narvaez sailed from Spain, bringing this large number of colonists, protected by a considerable military force. Accompanying the expedition there also were priests and religious, whose principal mission seemingly was to minister to the settlers in what was expected to be a permanent Spanish outpost of the Catholic Faith.11

Among the four survivors of that ill-fated Narvaez effort to establish Catholic beachheads in the inhospitable New World with La Florida as its center was Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who wrote a long and touching description of the abortive effort at colonizing. Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain, disillusioned but full of marvelous stories of his seven years' experience, including the tale of the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola.12

As he told his story at the court of the Catholic Kings, an attentive listener was Don Hernando de Soto, Knight Commander of the Order of Santiago. De Sota returned to the New World not only as explorer but as colonizer. In 1538 he sailed with over six hundred men, bringing a group of priests. Of the twelve members of the clergy, eight were secular, four religious – an indication that the chief purpose of the expedition was to settle a colony. After final preparations carried out during a year spent in Cuba, de Soto landed on the west coast of Florida in May of 1539. Leaving the colonists to fend for themselves, within a short time de Soto started out on his search for the Golden Cities about which he had heard in Spain. While he pursued his incredible search for wealth, which ended in disillusionment and death, the colony at the bay called Espiritu Santo languished and eventually disappeared. 13

In the early 1550's there took place at Valladolid in Spain a celebrated junta. Juan Gines de Sepulvada, one of Spain's most distinguished theologians, and Fray Bartolome de las Casas, the champion of the Indians' rights, disputed the merits of the missionary practices adopted in the New World. Las Casas defended the thesis that the Indians were not and should not be treated as inferiors by the Spaniards. They were to be seen and acknowledged as true humans, enjoying the dignity natural to all members of the human race. Men and women capable of becoming Christians, they had innate rights to enjoy their property and to live in political liberty and security. They should not be enslaved or subjugated, but rather they should be confirmed in their dignity and should be incorporated into the polity of the Spanish and Christian civilization.14

Two decades later, in 1573, las Casas' ideas were embodied in the ordinances promulgated by the Crown. These laws defined policy governing relations between the Spanish regime and the native populations of the New World. Pacification replaced conquest. The primary agents in spreading Spanish culture were to be the unarmed missionaries, not the military forces. The natives were to be treated as rational beings who would be drawn to the true God by love and good example.

The significance of the debate at Valladolid and the Ordinances of 1573 is that the problems inherent in the dual approach to colonization had been resolved. Conversion rather than conquest was sanctioned as the primary goal. The debate about the nature of the Indians had also been settled. They were not to be treated as inferiors, as natural slaves, or even as children. They were truly human, officially to be recognized as equal to the Spaniards in dignity and human responsibility. The failure to accept the Spanish message, and with it the truths of Christianity, could not be ascribed, as in the earlier period of conquest, to a natural indolence, perversity or stubbornness, but to the machination of the forces of evil – specifically to the witch-doctors in league with the ever-vigilant enemy of God, the infernal prince of darkness.

The stage was being set for a dramatic burgeoning of missionary activity.

See above, 1; below, 41-42.

Hanke, 17.

See above, l; below, 42.

Michael Kenny, The Romance of the Floridas: The Finding and the Founding (New York: Bruce Publishing Co., 1934), 27.

See above, 1-2; below, 42.

Kenny, 38. See above, 1-2; below, 42.

Hanke, 120-25.

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The First Georgia Missions: Our Southern Catholic Heritage, Dr. Paul Thigpen and Katherine Ragan. Illustrations by Pamela Gardner, based on the retablo by Dan Nichols. This retablo is part of the parish patrimony of Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church in Jasper, Georgia

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