On Jan. 5, 1595, an infant boy named Esteban was baptized in the small Spanish garrison town of St. Augustine. In the priest’s three-line baptism entry, Esteban’s mother is identified only by her first name, Gratia. Described as a slave owned by a Spanish woman named Catalina, Gratia was one of perhaps 50 slaves who lived in St. Augustine at the end of the 16th century. And like Gratia, most of the town’s other slaves appear only briefly in the historical record, with few personal details besides a Christian name: Simón, María, Agustín, Francisca, Ana, Baltasar, Felipe or Ambrosio.
Collectively, their long-forgotten stories document and complement a remarkable history that dates back more than a century before the first slaves reached Virginia in 1619. They portray a society that was fluid and eclectic. By 1619, La Florida’s population included Spaniards, Portuguese, Greeks, Italians, French, Flemish, Germans, two Irishmen, West Africans, Sub-Saharan Africans and a diverse group of Native Americans. In other words, early Florida reflected a population that resembled modern America.
Floridanos of African descent were present from the earliest Spanish expeditions to the peninsula. Most readers are familiar with the founding myth of Florida and Juan Ponce de León’s alleged search for the Fountain of Youth. However, his 1513 voyage takes on a different complexion when we understand the crew’s composition, which included several free blacks. One of them, Juan Garrido, a native of West Africa, later participated in Hernando Cortés’s 1519 conquest of Mexico, where he lived over the next two decades, participating in numerous conquest expeditions. In a lengthy petition submitted to the Spanish Crown in 1538, Garrido highlighted his three-decade career as a “conquistador,” adding that he commissioned the construction of Mexico City’s first Christian chapel and that he was the one who introduced wheat into Mexico.
One of the more extraordinary tales of adventure and survival occurred on Florida’s Gulf Coast in 1528. Pánfilo de Narváez landed on the West Coast of Florida, most likely on the Pinellas peninsula, with 600 troops, including an African slave named Estebanico. One of four men to survive the disastrous Narváez expedition, Estebanico spent the next eight years living among natives of the South and Southwest, eventually making his way to Mexico. A few years later, Estebanico died while serving in the Francisco Vázquez de Coronado expedition in the American Southwest.
Of course, it is worth noting that every 16th century Spanish expedition to Florida included Africans, both free and enslaved. The first recorded slaves to reach La Florida arrived in late September 1526 as part of the Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón expedition. Ayllón brought as many as 100 slaves to support a new Spanish settlement, which he named San Miguel de Gualdape (near present-day Sapelo Island, Ga.). The short-lived colony endured for less than two months; many of the slaves rebelled and by November 1526 the settlement was abandoned.
A decade later, Hernando de Soto received royal license to lead another Florida expedition. In his contract with the Spanish crown, Soto was authorized to take 100 slaves to Florida, a third of them women. Many of the men who participated in the expedition also brought their own slaves, and several free blacks received license to join Soto, including Alonso de Pereda, Luis Moreno, Pedro de la Torre and a young servant named Bernardo.
From the time of St. Augustine’s founding in early September 1565, African descendants, both free and enslaved, played critical roles in the town’s daily life. Slaves worked local fields, harvesting much-needed maize to support the town’s settlers and the livestock they had brought with them from Europe. They fished, hunted and served as guides. Enslaved men quarried stone from neighboring Anastasia Island; they worked in the town’s forge; they cut timber and helped build and maintain the St. Augustine’s early residences, defensive walls and wooden fortresses. Some slaves, like the shipwreck survivor Juanillo, served as translators and intermediaries between Spaniards and neighboring Native American chiefdoms. Enslaved women provided domestic labor for the town’s elite residents or as forced concubines. They too worked the fields and performed arduous tasks, including weaving palm thatch match cords used to ignite matchlock firearms.
In the fall of 1565, a free black woman named Luisa de Abrego married Spanish soldier Miguel Rodríguez, a native of Segovia. To date, their union is the oldest documented Christian marriage for any region of the continental United States, an interracial union that predates the founding of Jamestown by more than four decades (Watch this video of Luisa de Abrego’s story, part of USFSP’s digital history initiative, La Florida: The Interactive Digital Archive of the Americas.)
The 400th anniversary of the first African slaves brought to colonial Virginia has understandably generated a great deal of discussion and reflection. As we engage in a national dialogue on the legacy of slavery in the United States, we need to incorporate a more complete history of America. Between Columbus and Jamestown, an extraordinarily interesting chapter of America unfolded in La Florida. But many textbooks and commemorations ignore the period between 1492 and 1607, the so-called “Forgotten Century,” a period during which the institution of slavery took root on Florida soil. Lest we forget.
J. Michael Francis holds the Hough Family Endowed Chair at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Gary R. Mormino is professor emeritus of history at USFSP. Rachel Sanderson is associate director, La Florida: The Interactive Digital Archive of the Americas, at USFSP.