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.