Juan Ponce de Leon

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Ponce de Leon and the Calusa Tribe: In the Eyes of the “Fierce People”

On about June 3 1513, Ponce de Leon and his men had their first encounter with the Florida Native American tribe called the Calusas. At the first encounter the Indians were curious about the new arrivals to their land, but this curiosity would not last. Later that same day, the rest of Ponce de Leon’s crew that remained on the ship raised the anchor to do repairs. As this was going on Calusa Indians were calling out to them but were ignored by the crew. As the anchor was raised, several Calusa tribe canoes with warriors in them began to head toward the ship and tried to attack it. The Calusa warriors began to try and attack the ships anchor and keep it from being raised. This attack failed and they were quickly chased ashore by a boat with sap use sailors. Onshore the Spanish destroyed two Alissa canoes and captures 4 Calusa women. After the first encounter there were no violent encounters for a while, but the Spanish refused to reveal their gold and trade goods until they were presented with tradeable goods. On June 5 Ponce de Leon was informed by a captured Calusa member, who could speak Spanish, that the Calusa chief, named Carlos, wanted to send a canoe full of gold to trade with the Spanish. Ponce de Leon was waiting for the right wind to sail again when he and his crew where besieged by twenty Calusa canoes. The Calusas attacked the anchor and the ship itself from their canoes. They were able to kill one Spanish sailors with their arrows, before they were chased back to shore by the armed ship. The Spanish captured five canoes and four Indians, and killed some of the Indians too. Ponce de Leon released two of the prisoners and sent them to their chief with a message saying that even though they took a Spanish life he would make peace with him. Ponce de Leon was again enticed by the idea that the Calusa chief had gold to trade with him if he would wait a day by some Indians he met well out taking soundings of a harbor. Like the first time, this was a trap set up by Calusas. Canoes filled with about eighty breech wood clothed Calusas attack eleven Spanish sailors. The fighting lasted all day, with no harm done to the Spanish. The Calusa arrows proved to be ineffective against the Spanish since they could not reach them. The advanced weapons of the Spanish, crossbows and artillery, proved to be too much for the Calusas and they retreated. After about nine days after the battle on June 14, Ponce de Leon decided to retreat from Florida and go back to Puerto Rico.

Map of Florida showing the territory of the Calusa tribe from wikipedia. The red shows there core area, while the blue shows their political influence.

Map of Florida showing the territory of the Calusa tribe from Wikipedia. The red shows there core area, while the blue shows their political influence.

These Indians that Ponce de Leon and his men meet were known and feared as the Calusa tribe. The Calusa tribe inhabited the southwest region of Florida. Their population is estimated to be somewhere between ten thousand and fifty thousand members. Their political influence spread further than there physical territory. They lived in villages with huts that were built on stilts with thatch roofs made of Palmetto leaves. The Calusa were fierce warriors that were feared not only by the smaller tribes of the region, but also made the Spanish put a fight. The name Calusa means “fierce people” and they lived up to that name. The Calusas were taller than most of the Spanish explorers by about 4 inches. Like other tribes in the New World, the Calusa relied heavily on hunting and gathering instead of planting crops. Their diets consisted of fish, eels, turtles, deer, and shellfish. Near the coast, the Calusa relied mostly on fish that they would catch in handmade nets. Those farther away from the coast relied more on reptiles and mammals to sustain themselves. The Calusa also relied on the tribute they would get from smaller tribes as protection from the Calusa’s fierce reputation of violence. Calusas were well accomplished sailors in both the rivers and streams of Florida to the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. The Calusas used fifteen foot long dugout canoes made from cypress trees. These canoes were able to go as far out as Cuba in the Caribbean. The Calusa are referred to as the first “shell Indians”. They would use shell in such things as

Daily life of Calusa Indians, by Merald Clark. This is a  modern drawing of what a day in the life of a Calusa tribe member. From the Florida Museum of Natural History

Daily life of Calusa Indians, by Merald Clark. This is a modern drawing of what a day in the life of a Calusa tribe member. From the Florida Museum of Natural History and

jewelry, tools, and ornaments for the Calusas. There are also massive piles of shells that have been found in Calusa camps that show the importance of shell to the Calusa. The Calusas where led by a priest and a chief that was born into his position.

When it comes to looking at the conflict between Ponce de Leon and his crew and the Calusas from the eyes of the Calusa Indians, the aspects of the Calusa most be taking into account. The Calusa were known throughout Florida for being fierce and powerful warriors that got whatever they wanted through force. When the Calusas saw the incoming Spanish ships, they must have thought that the Spanish were trying to invade their territory, which is not all that inaccurate. The place where Ponce de Leon had his encounters with the Calusa was pretty close to their territory border, so they must have thought that the Spanish were some unknown tribe coming to steal to start a war over territory or allies of one of their neighboring tribes. The Calusas most have been threatened by the arrival of the Spanish’s ships with their massive sails and cannons. Compared to fifteen foot canoes the Calusa used, the Spanish ships most have looked threatening. By attacking the Spanish ships the way the Calusa did might have been a way to show the Spanish the strength of the Calusa forces. Being the warriors that they were, Calusa used force to show people that they were not to be taking lightly and would not give up their land without a fight. This fighting spirit would continue as Spanish began to colonize Florida and invade Calusa land. The Calusa would continue to fight the Spanish, even going as far as to mortally wound Ponce de Leon on his second voyage to Florida.

Arana, Luis Rafael. The Exploration of Florida and Sources on the Founding of ST. Augustine. Florida Historical Quarterly (2013): 1/2: 1-16. Accessed on September 8, 2014.
Na. “The Calusa: “The Shell Indians,” Historical Society of Palm Beach, Accesed on October 13, 2014, http://www.pbchistoryonline.org/middle-school-lessons/001-Calusa/001-Calusa1.htm
Wikipedia contributors, “Calusa,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed October 10, 2014, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Calusa&oldid=623683133.


N.a, N.d, taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calusa

Clark, Merald, Artist’s conception of Calusa people preparing for fishing in the estuary, N.d, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida Gainesville, Florida.

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