By: Susan Jones
After the destruction of the French colony by Pedro Menéndez de Aviles, Menéndez had a fort built called San Augustin, with the intent of protecting the small settlement of farmers. Each farmer had been promised land as good as they left in Spain and were to also be given twelve head of stock. Some farmers brought with them cows and sheep of their own. Once in Florida, they began planting crops: corn, wheat, oats, pumpkins, chick-peas, beans, and sugar cane. They were given pigs with the stipulation they were not to be slaughtered for ten years, at which point the increase was to be divided between the farmers and the governor of the province.
In that first year the majority of the crops failed, the cattle ate what little corn grew; the cows and sheep died, and Indians killed many of the pigs, forcing the settlers to consume the rest of the livestock. Rats, moles, and worms ate the seed which had been planted, only pumpkins and melons grew successfully. Menédez was frequently absent from the colony as it was his responsibility to ensure sufficient supplies were available. In December 1565 and March 1566 supplies arrived consisting of cassava, meat, cattle, and poultry; cattle was a term that included sheep, hogs, and goats as well as beef cattle.
There was no certainty to the future of the colony as the Spanish farmers were unable to adjust to the changes in soil and climate. The Indians hated the colonists so farming outside the fort was hazardous. In 1570 Menédez wrote the king the farmers would have to move inland where the soil was better but the danger greater. Menédez also wrote that with a lack of supplies the soldiers would dismantle the fort leaving the farmers to perish. Even though the conditions of the colony seemed wretched, Spain continued to explore and colonize the east and Gulf coasts and interior of Florida. Missions were established where Franciscan priests were to Christianize the Indians.
The settlement at Pensacola was even less successful. Indian warfare was constant; as late as 1699 no provision for growing food had been made by the Spanish garrison. The Spanish at Pensacola were compelled to trade with the French settlement at Biloxi. The neglect of agriculture by the Spanish led their colony to become a market for farm products from Louisiana. The Spanish soldiers cared more for warfare with the Indians than in farming. An Apalachee town near Tallahassee, Iviahica, was far removed from the petty warfare. The inhabitants farmed and had a steady industry in deerskins and wild turkeys. In 1639 three to four thousand bushels of maize and corn were sent from Appalachia to San Augustin. This would not last as constant warfare also came to this area by the beginning of the eighteenth century. The invading British and Creed Indians almost destroyed the Apalachee, forcing them and a few Spanish inhabitants to form a settlement at San Luis.
Spain’s possession of Florida was one of turbulence and warfare. Indians did all they could to prevent the Spaniards from further colonization, while the English began to settle to the north. A new English settlement on Amelia Island brought further disputes about the northern boundary of Spain’s possessions. The constant strife made agriculture an almost impossible industry.
Two centuries of Spanish colonization accomplished little agriculturally. Gardens with fruit trees were planted in San Augustin, Pensacola, and at the missions. Along St. Johns and Halifax rivers vast groves of orange trees were established. There were wild razorback hogs and droves of small, fleet horses. Florida officials wrote constantly to Spain pleading for more farmers, soldiers, and supplies. These requests were made in the form of duplicate letters and sent on different ships as pirates infested the waters between New Spain and Cuba, and around the Florida coast.
The Spanish agricultural legacy in Florida was a 1532 cedula that required cargoes of plants, fruits, and animals to be included in every ship bound for New Spain and the West Indies. It was from crops grown in these locations that would supply Florida, rather than being sent directly from Spain.
Originally published in the Florida Lines Newsletter.