Fontaneda’s memoir of his years as a Calusa captive

An early first-hand account of Indians in the Keys appears in Hernando D’Escalante Fontaneda’s 1575 memoir. 

Captured by the Calusa at the age of 13, Fontaneda lived with the Indians for 17 years. Buckingham Smith’s 1854 translation of Fontaneda’s account begins, “Very Powerful Lord: Memoir of the things, the shore, and the Indians of Florida, to describe which, none of the many persons who have coasted that country know how to describe it.”

Hernando was born in Cartagena, Columbia circa 1535 to Garcia D’Escalante, a Conquistador. At 13, passage was booked for he and his brother Alonzo aboard a ship bound for Spain, so they could further their education. While the ship set sail from Cartagena circa 1548, the vessel never reached its destination.

The ship struck one of the thousands of coral reefs known in those days as the “Bahama Channel.” Some survivors from the shipwreck, including Hernando and Alonzo, managed to reach the shores of Las Martires, an archipelago named by Ponce de Leon in 1513. In her book “West of the Papal Lines,” Barbara Purdy wrote about the fate of Fontaneda, “His brother survived the wreck also, but throughout the years 42 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 Indians, Fontaneda was taken under the wing of the Calusa caique Carlos. According to Fontaneda’s memories, “the territory of Carlos, a province of Indians, which in their language signifies a fierce people, they are so-called for being brave and skillful, as in truth they are. They are masters of a large district of country.”

Fontenada’s memoir gives keen insight into the lives of those who called the Florida Keys home hundreds of years ago: “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 a village at the north end of the Las Martires that he called Tequesta. Tequesta was found on a riverbank said to be linked to the Lake of Mayaimi (Lake Okeechobee). He mentions several towns located on the lake that consisted of, “30 or 40 as well as several small towns.” He details their way of life, “These Indians occupy a very rocky and very marshy country. They have no product of mines, or thing that we have in this part of the world. The men go naked, and the women in a shawl made of a kind of palm-leaf spit and woven. They are subject to Carlos, and pay him tribute of all the things that I have before mentioned, food and roots, the skins of deer, and other articles.”

Two additional villages were mentioned in Fontaneda’s memoir. The smaller of the two, Cuchiyaga, was located in the Lower Keys. Cuchiyaga roughly translates into English as, “place where there has been suffering.” Fontaneda wrote that the Christians being held captive in Cuchiyaga were surprised by the presence of deer on the Islands of Cuchiyaga. This could be the Big Pine Key and No Name Key area as there would have been fresh water available, as well as deer. 

The larger of the two villages was called Guaragunbe and was located in the Upper Keys. Guaragunbe was likely located around Lower Matecumbe where fresh water springs could once be found. Guaragunbe roughly translates into English as, “the town of weeping.” Fontaneda 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.”

Fontaneda was rescued in 1566 by Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the man who established the Spanish outpost of St. Augustine. One of the first mentions of the word Matecumbe appears in a petition to the Spanish Crown written by Menendez in 1573. Fontenada’s memoir was written in 1575, the year of his death.

Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. He is the curator of the Keys History and Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at