Fontaneda was born in Cartagena, Columbia circa 1535 to Garcia D’Escalante, a Conquistador. At thirteen, passage was booked for Fontaneda and his brother Alonzo aboard a ship to the homeland in order to pursue their higher education in Spain. While the ship set sail from Cartagena circa 1548, the vessel never reached its final destination, but struck one of the thousands of coral reefs bordering the passage known in those days as the Bahama Channel.

Fontaneda survived the shipwreck and washed ashore on Los Martires, the archipelago named by Ponce de Leon in 1513 and called the Florida Keys today. The survivors of the shipwreck, including his brother Alonzo, were captured by the Calusa Indians and for reasons known only to Carlos, the king or caique of the Calusa people, took Fontaneda under his protective wing. In fact, Fontaneda would go on to live for roughly 17 years among the Calusa people.

One of the best early accounts of aboriginal life in the Florida Keys was penned in a memoir written by Fontaneda in 1575. In it he wrote, “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.”

He also noted, “On these islands 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.”

In her book West of the Papal Lines, Barbara Purdy wrote about Fontaneda. “His brother survived the wreck also, but throughout the years forty-two captives, including Alonzo, were ritually sacrificed amidst elaborate ceremonialism. The natives believed that the spirits of these strange outsiders would bring them good fortune.”

During the course of his time living with the Calusa, Fontaneda was able to learn several local dialects and act as interpreter between Spanish captives and the Indians. One day Carlos, asked Fontaneda, “Escalante, tell us the truth for you know well that I like you much. When we tell these, your companions, to dance and sing, and do other things, why are they as mean and rebellious that they will not? Or is it they do not fear death, or will not yield to a people unlike them in their religion. Answer me; and if you do not know the reason, ask it of those newly seized, who of their own fault are captives now, a people whom once we held to be gods come down from the sky.”

Fontaneda responded, “My Lord, as I understand it, they are not contrary, nor is it for some evil reason, but it is because they cannot understand you, which they earnestly strive to do.”