Discovery and Exploration of the Sunshine State

The survivors at Pensacola Bay were soon in straits for food. So Arellano, leaving a garrison on the coast, sent about 1,000 of his colonists — men, women, and children — to Santa Cruz de Nanipacna, forty leagues inland on a large river, probably in Monroe County, Alabama. But, these colonists in the fruitful land were like the 17-year locusts; they ate everything from the Indians‘ stores of maize and beans to palm shoots, acorns, and grass seeds – but, produced nothing. And soon, an exploring band of 300 was sent on towards famed Coosa in search of more food. They reached it after a hundred days of weary marching over De Soto’s old trail. Though the natives had small reason to love De Soto’s countrymen, they treated the Spaniards well and fed them bountifully all summer. Twelve men, sent back to Nanipacna with reports, reached that place at last, to find only a deserted camp and a letter saying that the famished colony had returned to Pensacola. When Arellano wished to go to Coosa to see for himself if it were suitable for a colony, his people mutinied. The malcontents sent a spurious order to the explorers at Coosa to return; and in November 1560, after more than a year in the interior, the little band joined the main body at Pensacola.

Spanish Explorers

Spanish Explorers

Two ships, which Arellano had sent home for aid, reached Mexico safely. The Viceroy immediately sent provisions for the colonists and a new leader, Angel de Villafane, to replace Arellano and to enjoy those high-sounding but, so far, empty titles bestowed upon the successive Governors of Florida.

Villafane’s orders were to move the colonists to Santa Elena. Pensacola was too far westward for Philip’s chief purpose; the most important matter was to establish a colony on the Atlantic seaboard where it could keep a watchful eye on the French, should they venture too far south of Cartier’s river. Fray Gregorio de Beteta, who had been with Fray Luis Cancer of martyr fame, accompanied Angel de Villafane in the hope that the natives of Carolina would prove less recalcitrant than those about Tampa Bay. Villafane provisioned the garrison at Pensacola and then set sail for Santa Elena. At Havana, many of his followers deserted him; but, in May, with the residue, he reached the Carolina coast. He explored as far as Cape Hatteras, but, found no site which he considered suitable for colonization. He then abandoned the project and returned to Espanola in July, 1561. A ship was soon dispatched to remove the garrison left at Pensacola.

The failure of the Spaniards, thus far, to effect a settlement on the coast of the Atlantic mainland of North America is readily explicable. In the islands, in Mexico, and South America, the Spaniards flourished because of the precious metals and the docility of the natives. On the northern mainland they found no mines, and the Indians would not submit to enslavement. They traversed a rich game country and great tracts of fertile soil which, later, the English settler’s rifle and plow were to make sustaining and secure to the English race. But, the Spaniards, accustomed in America to living off the supplies and labor of submissive natives, were not allured by the prospect of taming tall Creek warriors, or of tilling the soil and hunting game to maintain themselves in the wilderness. They had astounding enterprise and courage for any rainbow trail that promised a pot of gold at the end of it, but, little for manual labor.

When news of Angel de Villafane’s failure reached Spain, King Philip decided against any further attempts to colonize Florida for the time being. He was reassured, as to France, because the French, as yet, had not made any firm foothold on American soil. There seemed little to alarm him in the steady increase of their fishing vessels, alongside those of Spain, in Newfoundland waters, or in the small trade in the furs, the fishermen were bringing home yearly. He could not foresee that not the pot of gold but, the beaver was to lead to the solution of the Northern Mystery and to spread colonies from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Moreover, thought the King, where Spaniards had failed, Frenchmen could not succeed. So, in September 1561, Philip issued his declaration with regard to the northern coast. It is interesting to note that he was largely influenced to this decision by the advice of Captain Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who was very shortly to change both his own mind and Philip’s. But, no doubt he relied more on the treaty signed in 1559 between himself and Henry II of France, under which France surrendered booty from Spanish ships and ports, said — perhaps somewhat extravagantly — to equal in value a third of the kingdom; and, on his own marriage by proxy in the same year to the French princess Elizabeth, daughter of Catherine de’ Medici.

Jean Ribault

Jean Ribault

But, Philip’s policy of hands-off Florida was destined to speedy reversal, to meet the exigency of a new intrusion into Spanish domains. A year had not passed when Jean Ribault of Dieppe led a colony of French Huguenots to Port Royal, South Carolina, the very Santa Elena which Villafane, less than a year before, had tried to occupy for Spain. Ribault’s enterprise dismally failed, but, two years later Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of France, a Huguenot, and the uncompromising foe of Spain, sent a second colony under Rene de Laudonniere. This time, a French settlement was founded, protected by Fort Caroline, on the St. John’s River, in the land of which Juan Ponce de Leon had taken solemn possession for Spain. The enthusiastic reports made by these French pioneers are proof that the Spanish ran astray in the face of tales that were told in the American wilds. Jean Ribault heard of the Seven Cities of Cibola; but, Laudonniere went him one better, for one of his scouts, while exploring the country round about, actually saw and conversed with men who had drunk at the Fountain of Youth, and had already comfortably passed their first quarter of a thousand years.

But, Laudonniere’s artistic sense did not fit him to lead a colony made up chiefly of ex-soldiers — and including both Huguenots and Catholics, who had so recently been in armed strife on their home soil. Men who tilled the ground had been omitted from the roster; the artisans could not turn farmers on the instant; and the soldiers had no inclination to beat their swords into plowshares so long as Spanish treasure ships sailed the Bahama Channel. Laudonniere offended the Indians nearby by trying to make friends with their foes as well and forcing them to set free some captives, and so, was presently in straits for food. Some of his men mutinied, seized two vessels, and went out on a pirate raid. One of their ships, with 33 men aboard, was captured by the Spaniards and the men were hanged — in return for their seizure of a Spanish ship and the killing of a judge who was aboard. The other ship returned to Fort Caroline and Laudonniere had the ringleaders executed.

Rene Goulaine de Laudonnière

Only ten days’ supply of food was left, when one morning, like gulls rising against the sun, four strange sails fluttered over the horizon. Instead of Spaniards bent on war, the visitor, who sailed his fleet into the river’s mouth, proved to be the English sea-dog, John Hawkins. Master Hawkins had been marketing a cargo of Guinea Coast blacks in the islands where, by a suggestive display of swords and muzzles, had forced the Spaniards to meet his prices and to give him a “testimonial of his good behavior” while in their ports.

Hawkins fed and wined the French settlers and offered to carry them away safely to French soil. But, Laudonniere, not knowing whether France was at peace or war with England, was afraid to trust the generous pirate. So far from resenting Laudonniere’s suspicions, Hawkins, no doubt thinking that, in like circumstances, he would be equally cautious, agreed to sell a vessel at whatever price the Frenchman should name. And, he threw into the bargain, provisions, and 50 pairs of shoes, so that Laudonniere, in his memoir, descants much upon this “good and charitable man.”

Grave reports of Laudonniere’s mismanagement reached Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, who decided to send Jean Ribault again to take command. Ribault, with his son, Jacques, and 300 more colonists, chiefly soldiers, set sail on May 23, 1565. On the eve of the departure, Ribault received a letter from Coligny, saying that a certain Don Pedro Menendez was leaving Spain for the coast of “New France” — such the French declared to be the name of the coast south of the St. Lawrence River. Admiral Gaspard de Coligny sternly counseled Ribault not to suffer Menendez to “encroach” upon him “no more than he would that you should encroach upon him.”

Fort Caroline, Florida

Fort Caroline, Florida

If the settlement at Port Royal had been a disquieting intrusion, Fort Caroline, under the very nose of Havana and on the path of the treasure fleets, was an imminent menace to New Spain. Its import was plainly stated in the reports to Philip from Mexico. “The sum of all that can be said in the matter, is that they put the Indies in a crucible, for we are compelled to pass in front of their port, and with the greatest ease they can sally out with their armadas to seek us, and easily return home when it suits them.” In urging action before Admiral Coligny could send Ribault to relieve the colonists, the same report continued: “seeing that they are Lutherans … it is not needful to leave a man alive, but, to inflict an exemplary punishment, that they may remember it forever.”

While French depredations had been protested by Philip’s envoy to France, the matter had not been pushed to a consequence, because Philip desired to enlist the aid of Queen Catherine de’ Medici. Catherine also was forced to temporize. She needed Philip’s support to maintain her position of power in France between Catholic Leaguer and Huguenot; but, she dared not, for his friendship, go so far as to interfere with Coligny’s designs on Florida, lest even the French Catholics turn against her; for they too had caught the Admiral’s vision of a France once more great, rich, and glorious. It suited her, therefore, to make the answer that the French ships were bound for a country discovered by France and known as the Terre des Bretons and would, in no way, molest the territories of Spain. Jean Ribault reached Fort Caroline while Laudonniere and his men were still there. With the arrival of his ships, bringing 300 more colonists, plans for evacuation were abandoned.

To expel and castigate the French and to plant his own power solidly in Florida, Philip had, at last, picked a man who would not fail. Menendez was already a sea-soldier of note and had rendered distinguished services to the Crown. He was a nobleman of the Asturias, where “the earth and sky bear men who are honest, not tricksters, truthful, not babblers, most faithful to the King, generous, friendly, light-hearted, and merry, daring, and warlike.” During the recent wars, as a naval officer, he had fought the French; and later, off his home coasts and off the Canaries, he had defeated French pirate ships.

Menendez’s contract was a typical conquistador’s agreement. His chance to serve the King was a certainty. His profits were a gamble. The title of adelantado of Florida granted him was made hereditary. His salary of two thousand ducats yearly was to be collected from rents and products of the colony. He was given a grant of land 25 miles square, with the title of Marquis, and two fisheries — one of pearls — wherever he should select them. He was to have a few ships of his own to trade with some of the islands and was absolved from certain import and export duties, and for five years he was to retain whatever spoils he found aboard the pirate vessels he captured. Apart from a loan from Philip of 15,000 ducats, which he bound himself to repay, he was to bear all the expenses of the venture — about $1,800,000. His fleet was to contain, besides the San Pelayo of 600 tons, six sloops of 50 tons each and four smaller vessels for use in the shallow waters of Florida. His colonists were to number 500, of which, 100 must be soldiers, 100 sailors, and the rest artisans, officials, and farmers; and 200 of them must be married. He was to take four Jesuit priests and 10-12 friars. He was to parcel out the land to settlers and to build two towns, each to contain 100 citizens and to be protected by a fort. He was also to take about 500 black slaves, half of whom were to be women. Above all, he was to see that none of his colonists were Jews or secret heretics. And, he was to drive out the French settlers “by what means you see fit.” He must also make a detailed report on the Atlantic coast from the Florida Keys to Newfoundland. The previous success of Menendez as a chastiser of pirates may be indicated by his possession of nearly two million dollars to spend on this colony. When his entire company was raised, it comprised 2,646 persons, “not mendicants and vagabonds . . . but, of the best horsemen of Asturias, Galicia, and Vizcaya … trustworthy persons, for the security of the enterprise.”

Captain Pedro Menendez de Aviles sailed from Cadiz on July 29, 1565. In the islands, 30 of his men and three priests deserted; but, neither this circumstance nor the non-arrival of half his ships, which were delayed by storms, prevented him from continuing at once for Florida. On the 28th of August he dropped anchor in a harbor about the mouth of a river and gave to it the name of the saint on whose festival he had discovered it — Saint Augustine. Seven days later, he went up the coast, looking for the French. In the afternoon he came upon four of Ribault’s ships lying outside the bar at St. John’s River. Menendez, ignoring the French fire, which was aimed too high to do any damage, led his vessels in among the foe’s.