Hernando D’Escalante Fontaneda was born in Cartagena, Colombia circa 1535. At 13, passage was booked for him and his brother aboard a ship bound for Spain. The ship set sail circa 1548, but never reached its destination. Survivors from the shipwreck, including Hernando, reached the shores of the Florida Keys and were captured by Calusa Indians. In the book “West of the Papal Lines,” Barbara Purdy wrote, “His brother survived the wreck also, but throughout the years forty-two captives, including Alonzo, were ritually sacrificed amidst elaborate ceremonialism. The natives believed that the spirits of these strange outsiders would bring them good fortune.” For reasons known only to the king or caique of the Calusa people, Fontaneda was taken under his protection and would go on to live and travel with the Calusa for roughly 17 years.
Fontaneda wrote a memoir. His observations, written in 1575, provide some of the earliest first-hand accounts of the island chain’s aboriginal people. “There are yet other islands, nearer to the mainland, stretching between the west and east, called the Martires, for the reason that many men have suffered on them, and also because certain rocks rise there from beneath the sea, which, at a distance, look like men in distress. Indians are on these islands, who are of a large size: the women are well proportioned, and have good countenances. … The people are great anglers, and at no time lack for fish.”
“On these islands,” he noted, “is likewise a wood we call here palo para muchas cosas (the wood of many uses), well known to physicians; also much fruit of many sorts, which I will not enumerate, as, were I to attempt to do so, I should never finish. … These Indians have no gold, less silver, and less clothing. They go naked except only some breech-cloths woven of palm, with which the men cover themselves; the women do the like with certain grass that grows on trees. This grass looks like wool, although it is different from it.”
Fontaneda described two villages in the Keys, Cuchiyaga and Guaragunbe. Fontaneda wrote that the Christians being held captive in Cuchiyaga were surprised by the presence of deer on the islands of Cuchiyaga. About the other village he wrote, “The Indians of the Islands of Guaragunbe were rich; but, in the way that I have stated, from the sea, not from the land.”
Brad Bertelli is curator of the Keys History & Discovery Center.