Final Voyage

On April 15, 1528, after a troubled voyage marked by a devastating encounter with a hurricane, the loss of three ships and the desertion of nearly a quarter of his crew, the Spanish explorer Pánfilo de Narváez made landfall in Tampa Bay somewhere near the mouth of the Alafia River.

drawing of Spanish explorers in a row boat Spanish explorers row in a bay; image from the Florida State Archives (PR02988)
portrait drawing of Spanish explorer Pánfilo de Narváez Drawing of Spanish explorer Pánfilo de Narváez — from the Florida State Archives (RC07568)

Text source: Clayton Pritchard, “Historical Overview”, the Narváez/Anderson Site Report (8Pi54): A Safety Harbor Culture Shell Mound and Midden, Central Gulf Coast Archeological Society, September 1998.

Unfortunately for Narváez and his men, word had spread among the local Indian tribes of the brutality of an earlier visitor: Ponce de León, who had landed in Charlotte Harbor in 1521. The Indians met the Spaniards with open hostility. Narváez added to his troubles by dividing his forces and leaving a large group of men aboard his remaining ships while he explored the interior. When he returned, the ships were gone. He never saw them again.

Narváez and his men marched north, dirty, starving and plagued by diseases. Their dreams of easy riches were soon forgotten in the daily struggle to survive. By the time they reached the Florida Panhandle, they had eaten the last of their horses.

In a final act of desperation, Narváez built a fleet of crude rafts and attempted to return to Cuba. He set sail but encountered yet another hurricane and died at sea. Blown off course, the rest of his crew made landfall in Texas. By then, only about 80 men were left of his original force of more than 600. Within five years, all but four were dead.

The Spanish attempted to colonize Florida many times over the next three decades, always without success. The effort cost many ships and thousands of men. In 1567, Captain Pedro Menéndez de Avilés established a small fort on the Pinellas County peninsula that was subsequently destroyed by the Tocobaga Indians, leaving no survivors. Approximately 190 years would pass before the Spanish returned to Tampa Bay.

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