Immigration to Florida
Immigration to Florida
It was the year of our Lord, 1513. The Spanish explorers, who came after Cristobol Colon, had pushed further into the Caribbean, settling in colonies along the shores of the isles of San Juan Batista and in its capital, Puerto Rico.
From theses bases, Juan Ponce De Leon sailed along the eastern and then western shores of a large peninsula that he would name “Florida,” after the Easter festival of Flowers then being celebrated in Spain at that time of year.
Most scholars agree that Ponce De Leon first landed in the area of Charlotte Harbor on the SW coast of Florida and first settled on the now resort island of Sanibel.
The Calusa were the dominant native power in the region having first settled the area at least a thousand years before. They were of course throttled by the arrival of these “grand canoes” with their white clouds of sail above them. Even stranger were the fair-skinned inhabitants that occupied them. They wore shiny metal chest plates, iron helmets and all manner of heavy clothing, even in the stifling 90-degree, sub -ropical heat of Florida.
Though wary of these foreigners, the Calusa offered water, food and shelter in the manner of hospitable people everywhere, extending comfort to travelers.
The Strangers, from a far place called Espana, and their capesinos (farmers) started showing signs of making a permanent encampment on the island. That was when relations between the two groups began to deteriorate. You can almost hear the conversations that were held, on the shell mound encampments of the Calusa, along the shores of SW Florida.
“They talk a strange language and do not know a word of the language of the Calusa,” said turtle fisher at one campfire.
“Yes and they are a drain on the economy of the region,” replied eel gatherer.
“Isn’t there a way to tell them that they have not been invited and should leave?”
“I don’t think it will be that easy,” said the chief called “Hunts in water.”
” They have strange beasts that they call Cheval (horse), vacas (cows) and cerditos ( pigs.) I think they mean to stay here permanently and cultivate the ground.”
“But we did not invite them,” protested eel gatherer. “By what right do they stay?”
“Someone in their far away country, named a King, gave them permission, they say.” Replied chief Hunts on water.
“And they seem to believe that they can do what they wish. They also have those loud and dangerous fire-sticks and the bigger ones on their cloud canoes to enforce their will,” he reminded the listeners.
“They will not go quietly.”
“But they have no manners, drink that loco fire water, stink from their heavy clothes and do harm to mother earth,” complained Eel gatherer.
“And we have supported them with food and water as a courtesy. Next they will want to help decide what the Calusa do with our lands and people. Send them back to Espana in their cloud canoes before they take the gathering place of the Calusa over with their fire sticks and fire water.”
“Your words are worth pondering, Eel gatherer,” said chief Hunts on water.
“We do seem to have to take action before they get too settled in. Let us think of a plan.”
After these types of conversations, the relationship of the Spanish campesinos and the native Calusa went from bad to worse. Minor infringements, regarding food and water supplies and fishing rights soon erupted into altercations where violence was threatened by both sides.
Finally, one day, the Calusa had had enough. They gathered their forces on Sanibel Island and made a determined effort to push the invaders into the sea. The Spanish fought bravely, but they were out-numbered by the Calusa. The Spanish fire sticks were deadly, but they took a long time in reloading, while the arrows of the Calusa were relentless in their number and accuracy. The Spanish decided to make a hasty retreat to their cloud canoes. Ponce De Leon received a Calusa arrow in the leg, during their retreat from the island.
The Spanish up-anchored, with their remaining numbers, and sailed to the closest Spanish port, Puerto Rico, on the Island of San Juan De Batista. De Leon did not survive his wound and died in Puerto Rico. A mapmaker would later transpose the names of the island and the port. Thus the island became Puerto Rico, and the port city San Juan.
For the next few hundred years, the Spanish and the Calusa battled each other for possession of the peninsula “Florida.” The Spanish were ensconced in their strong hold of Saint Augustine on the N.W coast and in a smaller settlement at Tampa on the west coast. The Calusa and the Seminoles held much of the rest of the mosquito-infested swamp and jungle land that was then Florida.
The Spaniards themselves were victims of the same prejudice that they had shown to the Calusa and Seminoles. The English had settled in Georgia, a penal colony to the North, and violently resisted any Spanish incursions northward. The English disdained them for their different language, different customs, and hated papist religion. A particularly bloody massacre of Spanish soldiers, at St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, highlighted the long struggle.
The British tried their hand from for several decades but ran into the same conflicts. Spain reassumed control of the area until 1783 when control of Florida was again ceded to the Spanish. No one of the Colonial powers ever asked the Seminoles or the Calusa what they wanted. No one cared.
In 1821, the Spanish sold what they had termed as “Florida” to the new Republic of America for five million dollars. They laughed all the way to the bank. The Calusa and other native tribes, who had actual claim to the land, were shown nothing except contempt. In the next hundred years, after a few wars between the newly arrived Americans and the Semioles, the native population of Florida was pretty much exterminated. Possession is nine tenths of the law, many claimed. The American Civil War finally wrested control of the Peninsula for the Union.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, another wave of immigrants, perhaps descendants of the original Spanish invaders of Florida, swarmed into South Florida from Cuba, Mexico and Central America fleeing oppression in their own lands and seeking new opportunities like Ponce De Leon and his settlers had done so many centuries before.
The anti- immigration arguments, bouts of xenophobia and resentments of old versus new were to begin again.
“They don’t speak the language.”
“They are a drain on the economy.”
“No one invited them here. We should ship them back,” were the comments just as they had been some five hundred years before.
The same negative comments had been muttered about waves of German immigrants to the USA in the 1700’s, Irish and Chinese immigrants in the 1800’s, Japanese, Italian and Polish immigrants in the 1900’s. It was a familiar, native-American protest that had originated with the original native-Americans. It always ended up the same way. The “immigrants” soon became acculturated Americans and rose to be some of its finest citizens, adding much to the texture of the multi cultural wonder that is the United States of America.
Perhaps some day, a sleek space ship will land in SW Florida and an intrepid band of settlers, seeking new opportunities, will emerge form the craft. They will be extra terrestrial aliens, dressed in strange costumes and speaking an alien tongue. They may not know or care to learn the native language and be bent on settling here on earth to stay. It is a never-ending cycle of use and reuse of the land by continuing waves of people in search of a better life. It started with the dinosaurs and perhaps will end with someone from the stars.
Joseph Xavier Martin