in the 1500's and 1600's Spanish ships sailed west from Seville (white dotted line) following the 23.5° north latitude of the Tropic of Cancer, and the treasure-laden ships returned home via Bermuda and the Azores (red dotted line) - so the North American coastline at Virginia's latitude of 36° north was of little interest
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
The Spanish did not try to occupy Virginia because they had no need of yet another colony in the New World. Spain's resources were stretched by efforts to occupy various Caribbean islands, New Spain (Mexico), Peru, and New Granada (Columbia).
Spanish King Charles I was more interested in his other title as Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and his claims to lands and authority in Europe. His son King Philip II also focused on wars against Muslims and Protestants in Europe.
Establishing Spanish dominance and spreading Spanish culture throughout the New World was important, including spreading the Catholic faith, but Europe remained the primary interest of the monarchs. There were limited resources to send to America. The Spanish royal court viewed the colonies as sources of wealth to finance more-important European adventures.
King Charles I of Spain was also Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and both he and his son Phillip II spent much of Spain's resources trying to dominate portions of Europe
Source: The Cambridge Modern History Atlas, A map of the dominion of the Habsburgs following the abdication of Charles V (refined and re-published on Wikipedia)
Spain claimed all of North America based on an edict ("bull") issued by Pope Alexander VI and the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas with Portugal. Spain defined "Florida" as its land stretching north from the tip of the Florida peninsula towards the St. Lawrence River. However, there were not enough incentives - or colonists willing to leave Spain - to expand Spanish settlement north from the Caribbean and occupy the southeastern coast of the continent.
Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón died during his attempt to start the San Miguel de Gualdape settlement in 1526 at Sapelo Sound (mid-way between modern Savannah, Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida). After just three months the remaining colonists returned to Hispaniola, abandoning the first attempt to establish a permanent European colony in North America. It would be 81 more years before the English landed at Jamestown.1
Hernando de Soto's expedition starting in 1539 demonstrated that Native American societies in North America did not have stockpiles of gold, silver or other resources to loot. Unlike the Aztec and Inca, the societies de Soto met were not organized as powerful hierarchies dominating large numbers of subordinates. There was no opportunity in North America for the Spanish to kill a pre-existing set of leaders and establish control over large numbers of laborers accustomed to obedience.
The Atlantic coastline of North America offered no mineral wealth, had few concentrations of Native Americans who could be forced to labor for Spanish colonists, and was north of the normal route home for the treasure fleet. Virginia was so far on the periphery of the core interests in the Caribbean, Mexico, Peru, and Colombia that there was only one abortive Spanish effort to establish at foothold in the Chesapeake Bay, at Ajacan in 1570.
the annual treasure fleet that sailed to Spain assembled at Havana, combining ships that had left Vera Cruz loaded with Mexican silver and goods from Manila (red line) with ships that had left Panama loaded with Peruvian silver (red line) before the "Flota de Indias" sailed from Havana to Spain (green line)
Source: Library of Congress, A new and accurate chart of the West Indies with the adjacent coasts of North and South America (by Emmanuel Bowen, c.1720)
Spain could not afford to build another fortified base in North America north of Puerto Rico. Spanish kings Charles I (1516-1556) and Philip II (1556-1598) obtained great wealth from Mexico and Peru, but chose to spend it on military efforts to control territory in Italy and the Low Countries (Netherlands/Belgium).
The Spanish did confront rivals who built settlements close to the route taken by treasure fleets that sailed past Florida to Spain. The French tried to settle at La Caroline (in what today is Jacksonville, Florida) in 1564. In response, the Spanish killed nearly all of the French colonists and established St. Augustine in 1565. The Spanish did not want other European countries to establish bases on the southeastern coast of North America with pirates who might threaten the treasure fleet.
south of Virginia were Spanish and French settlements in what became South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida
Source: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Virginiae Item et Floridae, Americae Provinciarum, nova Descriptio (published c. 1609)
After learning of the Virginia Company's plans in North America, the Spanish worried about the potential of the English creating a privateering base that could threaten the treasure fleet. Don Pedro de Zúñiga, the Spanish ambassador in London when the Virginia colony was started, wrote back to the Phillip III, the king of Spain, on October 5, 1607:2
Ambassador Zúñiga had an effective set of spies within the English government. He learned of the successful creation of Jamestown soon after Captain Christopher Newport arrived back in England in August 1607. Zúñiga sought an audience with King James I to object, and it was finally arranged after six weeks. That delay was long enough for Captain Newport to load two ships and prepare to sail back to Virginia with the First Supply without any interference by King James I.
Zúñiga tried to get King James I to abandon English colonization efforts in North America. The Spanish interpreted the 1604 Treaty of London to block English settlement in the "Indies," and claimed Virginia was included within that claim. Ambassador Zúñiga communicated the Spanish perspective that James I had more to lose than to gain by irritating Philip III of Spain:3
James I responded, perhaps with a smile, that he was not responsible for the private entrepreneurs who had formed the Virginia Company:4
The Spanish ambassador's recommendation was military action to destroy Jamestown:5
map of Jamestown fort (used on modern interpretive sign) originally obtained through a spy by Spanish Ambassador Zúñiga in London
After the failure of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the 1604 Treaty of London, Spanish leaders avoided direct military confrontation with England in the New World. Conflict with France and the Dutch revolt for independence also occupied Spanish King Philip III. The same year in which Jamestown was settled, the Dutch navy destroyed a Spanish fleet at Gibraltar.
The Spanish continued to monitor the English colonization efforts but never chose to attack the Virginia colony. After learning that Captain John Clarke brought "100 cows, 200 pigs, 100 goats, seventeen mares, and 300 soldiers" to Virginia in 1611 and planned to send 2,000 new colonists, Phillip III did send a spy ship to evaluate English defenses at Fort Algernon.
Captain Diego de Molina sailed the La Nuestra Senora del Rosario to Virginia on April 13, 1611. Its cover story was that it was recovering artillery from a wreck, but the crew included an Englishman known as James Limry (or Limrick/Limbrecke).
When the Spanish ship arrived at Point Comfort, it determined the location of the shipping channel and stayed outside the range of the fort's guns. Captain Diego de Molina, ensign Marco Antonio de Perez, and the English pilot/interpreter/spy James Limry went ashore at Fort Algernon.
Captain John Clarke went out to the La Nuestra Senora del Rosario to guide the Spanish ship to safer anchorage, but they feared that he was trying to place the ship in a location where guns from Fort Algernon would be able to sink it. The Spanish seized Clarke and returned to Havana, leaving their three men behind.6
While a prisoner, de Molina smuggled information back to Spain about the colony's weak defenses at Point Comfort and Jamestown:7
Fort Algernon, where three men from the Spanish spy ship La Nuestra Senora del Rosario came ashore, was located at the current site of Fort Monroe on Point Comfort (red circle)
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
The Spanish carried John Clark to Madrid. He was interrogated for four years in an effort to make him into a spy, then finally exchanged for de Molina. Ensign Marco Antonio de Perez died while in Virginia, and the English pilot was hanged as a traitor. Clarke returned to sailing between England and North America, and was the pilot of the Mayflower in 1620. The Virginia Company gave him land, but he died soon after coming to Virginia in 1623.8
Spanish spies in London continued to report about the Virginia Company's supply expeditions, and regularly noted the weakness of the colony and the opportunity for the Spanish to destroy it. The English ambassador in Madrid was aware of Spanish interests and decisions, through his own network of informants. In 1613 the English ambassador wrote King James I that Spanish officials had assessed recently the threat of the Jamestown colony:9
If the Spanish had considered it in their interest to destroy Jamestown, they had the military capacity. Such an attack would break the peace established in the 1604 Treaty of London, sparking a renewal of war on the European continent. Spanish official chose to avoid that risk. Even if the English managed to survive in Virginia, the Spanish suspected that there would be inadequate profits from the colony to justify the creation of strong military capabilities that might threatened Spanish interests in the Caribbean or the sailings of the treasure fleet.
when the English initiated a colony at Jamestown in 1607, the Spanish priority in the Western Hemisphere was to extract more wealth from its islands in the Caribbean, plus settlements in Central and South America
Source: Wikipedia, Portal:New Spain
Spanish caution stands in contract to French aggression 150 years later. The rivalry between the French, expanding from the St. Lawrence River valley, and the English, expanding westward into the Ohio River backcountry, led to open warfare in 1754. The French and Indian War in North America then expanded to become the Seven Years War in Europe. In that conflict, France ended up losing all of its territory in mainland North America, key sugar-producing islands in the Caribbean, and some authority in India.
Spain's opportunity to stop the English from settling on the East Coast, within the boundaries of "Florida," disappeared in the 1600's. England's economic and military capacity increased as Spain's decreased. The colony of Georgia was chartered in 1733 and colonists built Fort Frederica in 1736, extending England's claims further south.
In the War of Jenkins' Ear, a precursor to the War of the Austrian Succession in Europe, there was direct fighting between Spanish and colonial forces in North America. The Georgia militia attacked St. Augustine in 1740, but failed to capture it when Spanish supply ships avoided the Royal Navy blockade.
Spanish officials then launched an invasion into Georgia in 1742. They were defeated near St. Simon's Island, at site since named Bloody Marsh, and never got near Savannah. Until 1763, Spanish and colonial aggression was conducted mostly through proxies, as each side recruited Native American allies to attack the other.
Spanish claims to the remainder of Florida were a casualty of the French and Indian War. Spain sided with France, and Great Britain captured Havana. In the 1763 Treaty of Paris, Spain traded Florida in exchange for regaining Cuba.10
in 1757, the key British map asserting land claims set the Georgia border at the mouth of the St. Johns River
Source: Library of Congress, A new and accurate map of the British dominions in America, according to the treaty of 1763 (by John Mitchell, 1757)
In 1784, Great Britain returned Florida to Spain, after losing the war with American rebels. Spain had allied with the United States in the American Revolution, and the new nation wanted militarily-weak Spain to control the land on its southern frontier. Militarily, Great Britain was more powerful; politically, Great Britain was a greater threat.
At the end of the American Revolution, the United States was a greater threat to Spain than Spain was to the United States. Leaders throughout the newly-independent country expected settlements to expand southward, and eventually the country would obtain control of Florida. Many had the same expectation of the Spanish lands west of the Mississippi River. France had transferred control over Louisiana to Spain in 1762, compensating it for losses in the French and Indian War.
Napoleon reclaimed and sold the territory to Thomas Jefferson's negotiators in 1803. The boundaries of the territory were not clear, including where the French control ended east of New Orleans and Spanish Florida began. The Americans claimed West Florida was included as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Since 1784, Spain had relied upon the Creeks and other Native American allies to contest the gradual occupation of that land by American settlers.
Spanish claims to East and West Florida were eliminated between 1784-1821
Source: Library of Congress, A new and accurate map of the British dominions in America, according to the treaty of 1763 (by Thomas Kitchin, 1763)
Andrew Jackson invaded Spanish-controlled East Florida in the First Seminole War. He captured Pensacola in 1818, but was directed to withdraw so a political resolution could be negotiated with Spain. The Adams-Onis treaty, signed in 1819 and ratified in 1821, ended Spain's long efforts to control land on the East Coast of the United States in return for American recognition of Spanish claims to Texas.
Spanish control over its colonies in Central and South America dissolved, and new nations declared their independence. President James Monroe issued a statement in 1823, since known as the Monroe Doctrine, to deter Spain or other European nations from interfering with the independence of the new nations.11
as the Spanish Empire dissolved and independent states emerged, President James Monroe declared in his 1823 message to Congress that the United States would not allow a European nation to attempt further colonization or to control the newly-independent states
Source: Architect of the Capitol, The Monroe Doctrine, 1823