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.”