By: Susan Jones
Before Europeans came to Florida, some native Indian tribes practiced agriculture. Thanks to writings left by French and Spanish explorers, we know crops were produced as early as 1513. The tribes involved in this were the Apalachee in northwest Florida, Timucua in central Florida, and the Potano who lived in the Alachua plain. In the Indian village of Ocali (Ocala), Hernando De Soto found maize, vegetables, and fruits. The Indians made bread from maize and the root of the kunti or coontie, which was very starchy. East Coast Florida tribes thought planting was menial work, beneath the dignity of warriors leaving it to the women who were also reluctant to plant and reap. They depended upon fish, palmetto berries, and roots for subsistence. It was a distasteful but strengthening and healthful diet. Passing through Ocali, De Soto also found that fowls and turkeys in yards and tame deer were tended in herds. De Soto brought with him 750 horses and 500 hogs, which he used to trade with friendly Indian nations. The original piney woods rooter and razor back hogs were descended from hogs De Soto distributed or lost while on march.
When the crops were harvested, they were stored in a barbacoa, a granary built of earthenware and stone, covered over with palm fronds. The barbacoa was often built on the bank of a stream where ready access to water could be had. Also, stored in the barbacoa were wild fruit, game, fish, reptiles, and alligators that were dried and smoked over a fire. The word barbacoa is known to us today as barbecue.
In 1564 a French expedition landed in a settlement that became Fort Caroline. Small quantities of food were obtained from the Indians. After nearly a year of no replacements arriving, these Frenchmen were near starvation as they did not conserve the food nor did they plant anything. Planting was beneath their station as soldiers.
In the meantime, Spanish king Phillip II wanted to make a permanent settlement in Florida in order to possess the fabulous riches found there. Realizing this new settlement would need to be self-supporting, Phillip appointed Pedro Menendez de Aviles governor and issued a royal cedula to be used as a guide in settling and governing the new colony. The cedula stipulated that within three years 500 men were to be settled in Florida, 100 of which would be farmers, 200 were to be married with the rest being craftsmen. He was also to take 100 horses and mares, 200 calves, 400 swine, 400 sheep and goats, and any other livestock the colonists wanted. The contract also stipulated that Menendez: “Pledge yourself to import to aforesaid country, within the said three years five hundred (negro) slaves for your service and that of the people you are to take over, and in order that the towns may be built and the lands cultivated with greater ease; and for planting sugar cane for the sugar mills that may be built, and for the said building of the sugar mills.”1
Menendez assembled 34 ships and accepted 2,646 men for the venture. Due to a large number of volunteers, he was unable to load the 500 slaves stipulated by the cedula. They sailed from Spain in June of 1565. Once in Florida, Menendez destroyed Fort Caroline and slaughtered everyone there.
- Jeanette Thurber Conner, Pedro Menendez Aviles; Memorial of Gonzalo de Solis de Merca; Florida Historical Society. (Deland, Fla., 1923) ; pp. 259, 262.