Secrets of Spanish Florida – A Secrets of the Dead Special

Air date: 12/26/2017

Secrets of Spanish Florida — A Secrets of the Dead Special

New documentary premieres Tuesday, December 26 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings)

Streams December 27 via and PBS OTT apps


The first permanent European settlement in the United States was founded in 1565–two generations before the settlements in Jamestown and Plymouth–not by English Protestants, but by the Spanish and a melting pot of people they brought with them from Africa, Italy, Germany, Ireland and even converted Jews, who integrated almost immediately with the indigenous tribes. Secrets of Spanish Florida – A Secrets of the Dead Special uncovers one story of America’s past that never made it into textbooks. Follow some of America’s leading archaeologists, maritime scientists, and historians as they share the story of Florida’s earliest settlers. It’s a story that has taken more than 450 years to reveal.

Notable Talent: Jimmy Smits, actor, narrates

Buzzworthy Moments

  • With claim to the east coast of the New World contested by both the French and the Spanish, a community of settlers from Spain and elsewhere arrived in 1565 and laid claim to an area that is now St. Augustine, Florida.
  • America’s original European forefathers were a melting pot of races that more closely resembled today’s population than was previously understood.
  • The discovery of 1,000 pages of manuscripts written by members of the Timucuan tribe in the late 16th century indicates that these people, who lived in Georgia and Florida, had achieved a level of literacy among indigenous peoples that has not been recognized before.
  • Nearly 125 years before the Emancipation Proclamation—in 1738—a colony of 100 former slaves had already been given their freedom and their own land in Spanish La Florida.
  • A “lost tribe” of indigenous people known as the Yamasees, survived extermination by hiding in the colony’s swamps and blending in with other tribes for generations, though their existence is still not recognized by the federal government. The documentary interviews two members of the tribe.

Short TV Listing

Watch a team of archaeologists, scientists and historians reveal colonial America’s Spanish roots. (99 characters)

Long TV Listing

Join a team of archaeologists, scientists and historians as they reveal the little-known history of America’s Spanish colonists who settled in Florida in 1565, long before Jamestown or Plymouth were founded. Narrated by actor Jimmy Smits. (239 Characters)

Running Time: 120 minutes

Series Overview

At the intersection of science and history, Secrets of the Dead uses the latest scientific discoveries to challenge prevailing ideas and throw fresh light on unexplained historical events.

Production Credits

Secrets of Spanish Florida – A Secrets of the Dead Special is a production of Small Planet Pictures Inc., Investigative Media Group Inc. and 1186 Pictures in association with the University of Florida Historic St. Augustine Inc. and THIRTEEN Productions LLC. Narrator is Jimmy Smits. Producer/Writer is Robbie Gordon. Associate Producers are Josh Wallace, Jenny Mottier, and Jaime Greco. Director of Reenactments is Tony Haines. Director of Photography is Joe Karably. Senior Editors/Sound Design are Tony Haines and Ed Delgado. For Secrets of the Dead: Director of Programming Operations is Jane Buckwalter. Executive-in-Charge in Stephen Segaller. Executive Producer is Stephanie Carter.


Funding for this program was provided, in part, by The Lastinger Family Foundation; The Hough Family Foundation; The Weaver Family Foundation Fund, through the Community Foundation of Northeast Florida; and The Joy McCann Foundation. Funding for Secrets of the Dead is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by public television viewers.

About WNET

WNET is America’s flagship PBS station and parent company of THIRTEEN and WLIW21. WNET also operates NJTV, the statewide public media network in New Jersey. Through its broadcast channels, three cable services (THIRTEEN PBSKids, Create and World) and online streaming sites, WNET brings quality arts, education and public affairs programming to more than five million viewers each week. WNET produces and presents such acclaimed PBS series as Nature, Great Performances, American Masters, PBS NewsHour Weekend, Charlie Rose and a range of documentaries, children’s programs, and local news and cultural offerings. WNET’s groundbreaking series for children and young adults include Get the Math, Oh Noah! and Cyberchase as well as Mission US, the award-winning interactive history game. WNET highlights the tri-state’s unique culture and diverse communities through NYC-ARTS, Theater Close-Up, NJTV News with Mary Alice Williams and MetroFocus, the daily multi-platform news magazine focusing on the New York region. In addition, WNET produces online-only programming including the award-winning series about gender identity, First Person, and an intergenerational look at tech and pop culture, The Chatterbox with Kevin and Grandma Lill. In 2015, THIRTEEN launched Passport, an online streaming service which allows members to see new and archival THIRTEEN and PBS programming anytime, anywhere:


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Many Americans felt it was time to annex Spanish held Florida to the United States. Georgia Governor George Mathews created a private army comprised of volunteers. The “Patriot War” of 1812 is one of the most overlooked events in early 19th century history. Credit: Small Planet Pictures, Inc.

First sanctioned free black community sails to Cuba to escape British rule.jpg -- the British obtained La Florida from the Spanish by treaty in exchange for Havana in 1763. For the free black community of St Augustine it was an unimaginable twist of fate—they could not face enslavement again. As many as 3019 people fled. As the Spanish ships sailed away from St. Augustine, the first legally-sanctioned free black community in the United States disappeared with the, into the horizon. Credit: Funcación Nao Victoria

America’s first city was born in deadly storm—Spanish soldiers marched 40 miles up to their waists in water during hurricane force winds to reclaim Spanish territory from the French. They founded the first continuously-occupied European settlement in the United States in 1565—55 years before the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth. Credit: Small Planet Pictures, Inc.

The first settlers in America’s oldest city set out in 8 Spanish Galleons carrying more than 1500 people and enough provisions to sustain them until they could produce their own food and supplies in the New World. There were 26 families, tailors, hat makers, shoemakers, surgeons, barbers, and a master beer brewer. But a deadly hurricane sunk several ships at sea. Only 5 of them ever made it to American soil. Credit: Funcación Nao Victoria

University of Florida archaeologist Dr. Kathleen Deagan helps unearth the bones of the original settlers found on Charlotte Street in St. Augustine when the city had to dig up a sewer line. Credit: Small Planet Pictures, Inc.

St. Augustine inadvertently became a pawn in the undeclared war between England and Spain. Francis Drake and his men had been on their way home after looting several Spanish towns in the Caribbean when they spotted the fort. Drake knew that attacking Spain’s first settlement in La Florida would deliver a crushing blow to King Philip and his legacy. Credit: Small Planet Pictures, Inc.

The discovery of the English pirate Francis Drake’s written plan to attack Puerto Rico helped the Spanish defeat Drake, which was his last siege. The Spanish admiral who defeated him was then made Governor of St. Augustine. Credit: Small Planet Pictures, Inc.

By the mid-1600’s the vulnerability of the only Spanish settlement left on the east coast was about to become tragically apparent. The English pirate Robert Searles sacked and looted the town, killing more than 60 people and taking 70 hostages. He sold the Africans and Natives as slaves in the Carribbean. Credit: Small Planet Pictures, Inc.

"Secrets of Spanish Florida – A Secrets of the Dead Special " narrator, Emmy award-winning actor Jimmy Smits. Credit: Photo by John Russo