There may be people walking the streets of Havana or Miami who carry blood traces of South Florida’s pre-Columbian civilizations. If so, their DNA would confirm a little-known chapter of shared history: the migration of Native Americans from Florida to Cuba when the territories were united under Spanish rule.
With their arrival in Florida 500 years ago, the Spanish planted a heritage that flourishes today, nourished by waves of Latin American immigration that have pulled the state back to its Hispanic roots.
The 300-year history of Spanish Florida — from 1513 to 1819 with a two-decade interval of British control — has not been a major area of scholarship, and narratives tend to focus on English colonization of North America.
Even less attention has been given to the link between indigenous Floridians and Cuba, yet tribes such as the Tequesta, Calusa and Jobe had a closer relationship with Havana than St. Augustine, headquarter of the colonial expansion in the Southeast.
“Most of the last remnants of both the Christianized mission Indians of northern Spanish Florida and the unconverted South Florida Indians were ultimately transported to the outskirts of Havana during the 18th century, where it may eventually be possible to discover living descendants of serval extinct Southeastern Indian cultures,” writes John Worth, a University of West Florida anthropologist who specializes in the European colonial era in the Southeastern United States.
The sporadic transport of small numbers of Florida Indians began in the 16th century when Cuba was used as a staging ground for Spanish expeditions. Between Juan Ponce de León’s 1513 arrival and Pedro Menéndez de Avilés’ establishment of the first colony, St. Augustine, in 1565, Havana became the home — temporary or permanent — to Florida natives used by the Spanish as interpreters and guides.
Menéndez de Avilés married a Calusa chief’s sister, baptized Doña María Antonia, which gave him an advantage in dealing with other South Florida tribes, says Miami historian Arva Moore Parks, a pioneer in the study of South Florida natives.
Near the end of the 16th century, there was a shift in the often-fraught relationship between natives and newcomers “that was to mark the next 200 years,” says archeologist Bob Carr, executive director of the Broward-based Archaeological and Historical Conservancy.
“The Indians and the Spanish became solid allies. The [Franciscan] missions had some effect, but what brought about a closer relationship were economic exchanges,” Carr says.
The value of South Florida Indians to the Spanish, he says, was evident in their zealous salvaging of shipwrecks along the peninsular coast and in the Bahamas. The natives were good divers and received, in exchange for their work, alcohol, tobacco, iron implements and beads.
“The courting of South Florida Indians was successful in 1607, when they were invited by the Florida governor [Pedro Ibarra] to attend a festival in St. Augustine,” writes Carr in his book Digging Miami. They were summoned again in 1628 because the Spanish hoped they would “keep an eye on the expanding Dutch and British presence.”
It was not, however, an entirely pacific relationship. During the 17th century, indigenous insurgents from North Florida missions were tried and jailed in Havana, according to Worth’s research. The island’s native Taínos and Ciboneys, meanwhile, had been all but wiped out by Spanish subjugation and disease.
In 1688, the cacique or chief of the Calusas on Florida’s southwest coast expressed interest in converting to Christianity. The Santiago de Cuba diocese sent representatives to negotiate with him. They invited the chief to visit the island, but his advisors warned that he could be turned into a slave upon arriving. Instead, the chief sent ahead a few Indian families to test the Spanish intentions.
“Marking a precedent-setting event in the history of Southeastern Indians in Cuba, the band of Calusa were settled by Cuban authorities on the bluff called La Cabaña directly across the harbor from downtown Havana,” writes Worth.
At the dawn of the 18th century, British soldiers and their Native American allies from the Carolina colony descended on Florida, determined to eradicate the Spanish presence.
Already depleted by disease, the native people of Biscayne Bay, called Tequestas by the Spanish, faced an existential threat from the advancing warrior bands. The arrival of the Lower Creeks (later called Seminoles) forced local tribes into the Keys. For many, the only option was to seek sanctuary with the Spanish in Cuba.
In 1704, Cuban officials approved the permanent immigration of a group of Tequesta, Calusa and Jobe Indians, among others, from the Keys. Some 2,000 sought escape, but the two vessels sent by Bishop Jerónimo de Valdés could only accommodate 270, with the chiefs given priority.
The bishop’s rescue mission unleashed controversy in Havana due to the use of funds from the Spanish crown. And in barely three months, some 200 of the 270 migrants had died, mostly from typhoid and smallpox. Others returned to Florida, according to Spanish records.
The rest, Worth writes, were “dispersed among a number of Cuban residents willing to take them in, including not just the immediate vicinity of Havana but also other regions of Cuba” including the Bay of Jagua in the current province of Cienfuegos.
Parks, who reviewed primary documents from Spanish archives, has documented two subsequent group migrations of Indians from Florida to Cuba, one in 1711, which was successful, and another in 1734, which failed.
A document found by Worth indicates that more than 200 Indians formed a community in Havana, and at least one baptized Calusa woman gave birth to two daughters.
“It was really a rescue between allies,” says Parks. “Most people don’t know the close alliance between the Cubans and the natives of South Florida.”
Spanish soldiers and missionaries returned in 1743 to build a fort and mission for what remained of the Tequesta nation on the north bank of the Miami River, she added.
Sporadic migrations continued. The indigenous population fluctuated around La Cabaña, and natives served as a labor force for the emerging Cuban fishing industry.
The Treaty of Paris in 1763 ended both the Seven Years’ War and the first Spanish colonial period in Florida, with Spain ceding Florida to the English to ransom Havana. With the evacuation of Spanish troops, some remaining Indians in the Keys also left and settled in Guanabacoa, a small city in the outskirts of Havana.
“Their few descendents became part of the quilt of Cuban mestizos and mulattos,” says Carr. “And those who survived in Florida, many also of mixed blood, who became known as the Spanish Indians, would eventually become absorbed by the Seminoles and Miccosukees.
“There was a lot of mixing and there were offspring,” he says. “Ironically, many of the Tequesta descendants might have returned to Miami after Fidel Castro.”