Florida
Artist’s depiction of Francesca de Vera, a Spanish soldier’s wife.
Artist’s depiction of Francesca de Vera, a Spanish soldier’s wife. Drawing by Bill Celander.
Florida Museum of Natural History.

Despite knowledge of the dangers they could expect, even more Spanish women participated in the fifth major attempt to colonize La Florida. This one did not go to Tampa Bay, and it came closer to success than any before. Don Tristan de Luna y Arellano, a nobleman from Aragon who was married to a very rich woman, led as many as a thousand people from Vera Cruz, Mexico to Pensacola, Florida, which he initially named Santa Maria for St. Mary. According to historian Charles Arnade, farmers, artisans, Indian, Negroes, “honest married women, many with children” as well as women of dubious reputation rounded out the expedition. That settlement lasted for three years, until a hurricane wiped it out in 1561.

The sixth expedition, led by Pedro Menendez de Aviles and supported by his wife, Maria de Solis, finally succeeded, with the result that St. Augustine on Florida’s east coast, settled in 1565, is America’s oldest city. Like all of the earlier attempts at settlement, this one included women from its beginning. Their lives were precarious, and most were dependent on men whose business was violence in the form of soldering. The records tell, for instance, of Francisca Ramirez: in 1627, she petitioned the Crown on behalf of her seven children, arguing that compensation was due because their father had served in the military “when the enemy Hollanders and [those] from other nations came to infest these [Florida] coasts, as with the Indians native to the land.” She added that she “had already lost her father, cut to pieces by Indians, and a brother, drowned.”

As the decades turned into a century, though, some Florida women acquired substantial estates. In 1675, for example, thirteen-year-old Juana Caterina de Florencia married Jacinto Roque Perez in St. Augustine; they moved to San Luis [Tallahassee] around 1678. The teenage mother went on to bear at least ten children, and these descendants were known by her name, de Florencia. Her dowry doubtless was a factor in making the de Florencia family “the province’s most important ranchers, with property in Apalachee worth an estimated 10,000 pesos in 1704.” Following the male tradition of drafting native labor, Juana Catalina became known as exploitive; she is especially remembered for slapping “a hapless chief who failed once to bring her the fish she expected every Friday.” One missionary working at San Luis wrote:

            “It became customary for many settlers to compel Indian men and women to work for
            them, often without a pay. Juana Caterina de Florencia, the wife of deputy-governor
            Jacinto Roque Perez, was one of the worst offenders in this regard, requiring the
            village of San Luis to furnish women for the grinding of meal every day without
            payment, another Indian to bring in a daily pitcher of milk from the country, and other
            services.”