Hernando Escalante Fontaneda's ship (1549)
Seventeen years with the Calusa Indians. Abduction of a shipwrecked child named Hernando Escalante Fontaneda.
In 1549, a Spanish ship, probably a nao, was wrecked in the Florida Keys, possibly off Upper Matacumbe Key, while sailing to Spain. The survivors were captured by a Calusa tribe, a fierce people, as the name translates, who lived in southwest Florida between Tampa and Cape Sable.
The Calusa Indians were known and feared by the Spaniards. Some explorers and navigators had been in contact with them before 1549, namely Ponce de León in 1513, Diego de Miruelo in 1516 and, a year later, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba. According to their chronicles, they were not an easy people to establish a relationship with. In fact, Ponce de León was killed after a battle with the Calusa, during which he was shot with a poisoned arrow.
The more than 40 survivors of the 1549 shipwreck had no better luck. One by one, they were sacrificed as part of macabre rituals, all except for one boy, Hernando Escalante Fontaneda, born in Cartagena de Indias, and barely 13 years old at the time. He was traveling to Spain with his brother Alonso to study in Salamanca. He was the only one who seemed to understand the Calusa’s gestures asking them to dance and sing at the risk of getting killed if they did not.
This ability saved his life and instead of being sacrificed, he became part of their community until he was 30 years old. He learned their language and that of other indigenous tribes, adopted their customs, rites and way of life. He was just another Calusa until 1566, when Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who had already founded the town of San Agustín (St. Augustine), established a good relationship with one of the main caciques of the area and negotiated the rescue of Hernando and other Spanish captives. Escalante then became the main interpreter and informant for the Asturian-born explorer, providing information about the tribes of ancient Florida and the geography of the entire area.
Upon the death of Menéndez de Avilés, Hernando wrote a brief memoir in which he described the way of life of the inhabitants of Florida under the title Memoir of the things, the shore and the Indians of Florida.
Escalante was able to provide many details about the geography of the coasts and the shipwrecks that had happened in their waters: “Nearer the mainland, extending from east to west, lie other islands, called the Martyrs, on account of the great number of men who have suffered on them; and on the rocks of the coast rising from below the sea, which from afar look like men in distress.”
In addition to describing in detail the life and places populated by the Indians of the coast, Escalante proposed to build a fortification in the area “for the security of his fleets going to Peru, New Spain, and other ports of the West India Islands. These fleets must necessarily pass through the Bahama Channel, and close to this coast, where many ships are shipwrecked and people lose their lives, because the Indians are our enemies, and handle the bow skillfully. It would, therefore, be well to have a small fort erected to protect the channel. To support this fort, and pay the soldiers who should garrison it, a fund might be established (…).”