La Moskitia was inhabited as many as 3000 years ago by Chibcha-speaking Amerindians who migrated here from present-day South America. Today’s Pech and Tawahka indigenous groups are descended from those early migrants, and speak variations of Chibcha dialects. The pre-Hispanic population reached its peak between AD 800 and 1200, around the time groups to the west, especially the Maya, were in near collapse.
Christopher Columbus was the first European to reach La Moskitia, on his fourth and last voyage in 1502. Sailing east from the Bay Islands, he landed briefly near the mouth of a large river – which one is unknown, though it was likely the Patuca or the Sico – before rounding the cape (which he dubbed Cabo Gracias a Dios, or ‘Thank God Cape’, reportedly after weathering a fierce storm). But the unforgiving terrain and environment of La Moskitia prevented any serious exploration for over a century. A cursory exploration in 1564 was not followed up until 1607 and 1609, and the first church – the point of early expeditions – was not founded until 1610. However, that church, and another founded a year later, were both sacked and burned, and their occupants killed, by Tawahka Indians. It took another 80 years for Spanish missionaries (supported by Spanish troops) to gain a foothold in the jungle.
In the 1700s, Spanish influence waned as that of English pirates (and some Dutch and French) rose. The slow-moving Spanish galleons laden with precious metals and raw materials made easy targets for pirates, who found refuge in La Moskitia’s lagoons and river inlets. The English made little attempt to convert the indigenous people to Christianity – one supposes the pirates were not themselves big church-goers – but rather formed alliances with them against the Spanish. In fact, it was arming one group with muskets that gave rise to the term mosqueteros and eventually ‘Miskito’ and ‘Moskitia’.
Britain maintained control over eastern Honduras until 1786, when, through a treaty with Spain, it essentially traded the Moskitia for present-day Belize. But having gained nominal control of the territory, Spain did little to exert any real influence there. The status of the colony was in constant flux: the Central American Federation came and went, and a meddlesome British government briefly recognized the Moskitia as a sovereign nation, before Honduras finally became an independent republic in 1838. Through it all, life in La Moskitia stayed relatively unchanged. Moravian missionaries began arriving in the late 1920s, setting up schools, clinics and churches. The Honduran government didn’t take up true civic responsibility in La Moskitia until the 1950s, around the same time indigenous rights organizations began forming to focus on land rights and other issues.
In the 1980s, the Moskitia was used as a base for the Contra war, the US-supported effort to unseat the new Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Puerto Lempira had major military installations, as did many of the small border towns. Countless indigenous people, especially Miskitos, whose traditional lands spanned the Honduran–Nicaraguan border, were killed and displaced during the conflict.