by Glenn R. Swift
Ponce de Leon was the first European to set foot on the modern-day United States. He discovered La Florida in April 1513 while on an expedition consisting of three ships and 200 men. De Leon’s objective was to look for gold, and the “fountain of youth,” although evidence for the latter does not appear until well after his death. Precisely where de Leon first came ashore is widely disputed, but the most widely accepted location by historians is Melbourne Beach (about 100 miles north of North Palm Beach). De Leon named the peninsula La Florida in recognition of the land’s verdant landscape, and because it was the Easter season, which the Spaniards called Pascua Florida or Festival of Flowers.
At the time of the discovery, there were three Native American tribes living along the coast of southeast Florida: the Ais; the Jaega; and the Tequesta. All three tribes were exclusively hunter-gatherers, relying largely upon fishing, the hunting of manatees and sea turtles, and the gathering of wild berries. Most scholars in the field assert that the three tribes are genetically and linguistically related to the Muskogee group of Native Americans, who dominated the southeastern United States, and were descended from the Native Americans of present-day Mexico. This is in contrast to the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean who are classified as belonging to the Arawak group, and descended from the Native Americans of South America.
Most of what we know about the Ais and the Jaega comes to us from the writings of Jonathan Dickinson, an English Quaker on his way from Jamaica to Philadelphia who was shipwrecked in 1696, along with his family and the other passengers and crew members of the ship. The party was held captive by the Jaega for several days before being handed over to the Ais chief (cacique). Because one of the members of Dickinson’s group spoke Spanish, the group was able to persuade the Jaega and the Ais that they were Spanish and not English. As a result of this good fortune, the group was allowed to travel by small boat and on foot the 230 miles up the coast to Spanish-held St. Augustine. During the journey, the party was subjected to constant harassment and physical abuse with five members of the group succumbing to exposure and starvation.
The Spanish authorities in St. Augustine treated the surviving members of the party well and sent them by canoe to Charles Town (now Charleston, South Carolina), where they were able to find passage to their original destination, Philadelphia.
The Ais lived along the 156-mile banks of the Indian River Lagoon from present-day Cape Canaveral to Stuart. They were primarily fishermen “who boiled their fish, and ate them from ‘platters’ of palmetto leaf,” according to Dickinson. The Ais cacique, who wielded power over both the Ais and the neighboring Jaega to the south, resided in the tribe’s main settlement of Jece (present-day Vero Beach). The Ais enjoyed friendly relations with the Spanish, but were sworn enemies of the English who Dickinson said they referred to as “Nickaleers.” Estimates vary widely, but most historians place the population of the Ais at the time of European discovery at about 20,000, with 2,000 residing in their main settlement of Jece.
The Jaega lived between the St. Lucie and Hillsboro inlets with their main settlement being Jobe, which was located along the banks of the Jupiter Inlet. Like the Ais, their origins are believed by many to date back some 2,000 years. Politically subordinate to the Ais, the Jaega consisted of about 2,000 people at the time of European discovery, and maintained friendly relations with the Spanish. Then again, not every Spaniard at that time fared so well in this neck of the woods. Much of what we know about the Jaega comes from the writings of Hernando de Escalante (1536-1575), who was enslaved and held captive in the region for 17 years before being rescued. (Actually, de Escalante was the “lucky one,” the others in his shipwrecked party were sacrificed.)
The Tequesta lived between what is today Boca Raton and the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, with their main settlement along the banks of Biscayne Bay and the mouth of the Miami River. At times, they also occupied the Florida Keys. Archaeological studies confirm that these first residents of Florida’s Gold Coast date back to the third century BCE during the so-called Formative Stage (“Neo-Indian” Period) of the continent when Florida’s climate had reached current conditions and the sea had risen close to its present-day level. The Tequesta were more or less dominated by the more numerous Calusa of the southwest coast of Florida, but they were closely allied to their immediate neighbors to the north, the Jaega. Estimates as to the number of Tequesta at the time of initial European contact range from 800 to more than 10,000.
Tragically, contact with Europeans had lethal consequences for the “first Floridians.” In fact, by 1760 all had perished, having succumbed to the small pox pandemic that decimated the Native American population of the Americas to a mere one-tenth of its pre-Columbian level.