Discovery and Exploration of the Sunshine State

Pedro Menendez de Aviles, by Francisco de Paula Marti, 1791

Pedro Menendez de Aviles, by Francisco de Paula Marti, 1791

“Gentlemen, from where does this fleet come?” he demanded, “very courteously.”

“From France,” came the answer from Ribault’s flagship.

“What are you doing here?”

“Bringing infantry, artillery, and supplies for a fort which the King of France has in this country, and for others which he is going to make.”

“Are you Catholics or Lutherans?”

“Lutherans, and our general is Jean Ribault.”

In answer to like questions from the French ship, Menendez replied: “I am the General; my name is Pedro Menendez de Aviles. This is the armada of the King of Spain, who has sent me to this coast and country to burn and hang the Lutheran French who should be found there, and in the morning I will board your ships; and if I find any Catholics they will be well treated.”

In the pause which followed this exchange of courtesies — “a stillness such as I have never heard since I came to the world,” says the Spanish chaplain — the French cut their cables and, passing through the midst of the Spanish fleet, made off to sea. Pedro Menendez de Aviles gave chase. But, the French ships were too swift for him. So, at dawn, he returned to the river’s mouth. But, seeing the three other French vessels within the bar and soldiers massed on the bank, he withdrew and sailed back to St. Augustine.

Here, he began the fortification of a large Indian house, dug a trench about it, and bulwarked it with logs and earth. This converted Indian dwelling was the beginning of the settlement of St. Augustine. The work finished and the last of the colonists and supplies landed, Menendez took formal possession. From a distance, the French ships watched the landing of the Spanish troops; then made off to St. John’s River. On arrival at Fort Caroline, Jean Ribault gathered his vessels together — except his son’s, which had not returned — and, taking aboard 400 soldiers, set out again, to attack St. Augustine. He left only 240 men at Fort Caroline; and many of them were ill. His plans were made against the advice of Laudonniere, left in command of the fort, who urged the danger of his situation should contrary winds drive Ribault’s ships out to sea and the Spaniards make an attack by land. These forebodings were prophetic. A terrible wind arose which blew for days. And, Menendez, guided by Indians and a French prisoner he had picked up in the islands, marched overland upon Fort Caroline.

Fort Caroline, Florida

Fort Caroline, Florida

On the 20th of September just before daybreak, Menendez reached the fort. Most of the men inside were asleep. The trumpeter on the bastion had barely sounded the alarm before the Spaniards were inside the walls. The French had no time to don clothes or armor. In their shirts or naked, they seized their swords and rushed out into the gray light of the court. Within an hour, 132 French had been killed, and half a dozen men and fifty women and children captured. The remaining French, many of them wounded, escaped to the woods; among them was Laudonniere. It was not a fight but, a massacre. Even the very sick were dragged out and slain. One woman who escaped had a dagger wound in her breast; though Menendez had given orders to spare the women and children, fearing “that our Lord would punish me, if I acted towards them with cruelty.”

Twenty-six French, including Laudonniere, were rescued by the ships of Jacques Ribault and ultimately reached France. Some twenty more, too badly damaged to travel fast, were discovered by the men sent out by Pedro Captain Menendez de Aviles to beat the brush thoroughly for fugitives and run through with swords. One lone man, a belated Cabeza de Vara, made his way across the country from tribe to tribe and came out at Panuco. After a brief rest at the post, which he rechristened Fort San Mateo, Menendez marched swiftly back to St. Augustine. He learned presently that 140 men from two French ships wrecked by the storm were nearby. They had lost 200 of their comrades, drowned, killed, or captured by Indians; they themselves were destitute. Menendez made a quick march to the spot. When the castaways pleaded that their lives be spared until the arrival of a French ship to take them home, Menendez answered that he was “waging a war of fire and blood against all who came to settle these parts and plant in them their evil Lutheran sect. . . . For this reason I would not grant them a safe passage, but would sooner follow them by sea and land until I had taken their lives.” An offer of 5,000 ducats for their lives met with the ambiguous reply that mercy would be shown for its own sake and not for price. So read the Spanish reports of this event. French reports state that Menendez, induced the 140 men to surrender themselves, their arms, and ammunition without a blow, and gave his oath to spare their lives and to send them to France.

The chaplain discovered ten Catholics among them and these were set apart. The remaining 130 men were given food and drink and were then told that — as a precaution because of their numbers — they must consent to have their hands bound behind them on the march to St. Augustine. Captain Menendez de Aviles ordered a meal prepared for the prisoners, gave his final instructions regarding them to the officers in charge, and went on ahead. A gunshot’s distance off, beyond a hummock, he paused long enough to draw a line with his spear in the white sand of the flat. Then he went on. The heavy dusk from the sea was massing swiftly behind the Frenchmen, and the last faint flush of the afterglow was fading from the western sky, when they came up abreast of the spear line in the sand. There, the Spaniards fell upon them, slew, and decapitated them. The place is still known as Las Matanzas (The Massacre).

Shortly after Captain Menendez de Aviles had reached St. Augustine, Indians informed him that Jean Ribault and 200 men were at Matanzas, having been cut off there, as the other Frenchmen had been, by the inlet, as they were attempting to reach Fort Caroline by land. Menendez set out immediately. Once more were the same ceremonies repeated; and Ribault and his 200 were induced to surrender. When, with their hands bound, they were halted at the spear-line, now more clearly indicated by the heap of corpses along it, they were asked: “Are you Catholics or Lutherans, and are there any who wish to confess?” Seventeen Catholics were found and set aside. But, Ribault, the staunch Huguenot mariner of Dieppe had been too long familiar with the menace of death to recant because a dagger was poised over his entrails. He answered for himself and the rest, saying that a score of years of life were a small matter, for “from earth we came and unto earth we return.” Then he recited passages from Psalms. One of Menendez’s captains thrust his dagger into Ribault’s bowels, and Meras, the adelantado’s brother-in-law, drove his pike through his breast; then they hacked off his head. “I put Jean Ribault and all the rest of them to the knife,” Captain Menendez de Aviles wrote to Philip, “judging it to be necessary to the service of the Lord Our God, and of Your Majesty. And, I think it a very great fortune that this man be dead … he could do more in one year than another in ten; for he was the most experienced sailor and corsair known, very skillful in this navigation of the Indies and of the Florida Coast.”

There were some among his officers at St. Augustine, and among the nobility in Spain, who condemned Menendez for his cruelty and for slaying the captives after having given his oath for their safety. But, Barrientos, a contemporary historian, holds that he was “very merciful” to them for he could “legally have burnt them alive . . . He killed them, I think, rather by divine inspiration.” And, Philip’s comment, scribbled by his pen on the back of Menendez’s dispatch, was: “As to those he has killed he has done well, and as to those he has saved, they shall be sent to the galleys…. We hold that we have been well served.”

Spanish massacre the French

The name of Captain Menendez de Aviles is popularly associated in America almost solely with this inhuman episode. But, the expulsion of the French was only an incident in a work covering nearly ten years, during which time, Menendez proved himself an able and constructive administrator, as well as a vigorous soldier, and laid the foundation of a Spanish colony on the northern mainland which endured. Menendez was a dreamer, as are all men of vision, and he pictured a great future for his Florida — which to him, meant the whole of northeastern America. He would fortify the Peninsula to prevent any foreigner from gaining control of the Bahama Channel, that highway of the precious treasure fleets; he would ascend the Atlantic coast and occupy Santa Elena, where the French had intruded, and the Bay of Santa Maria (Chesapeake Bay), for, since one of its arms was perhaps the long-sought northern passage, the bay might prove to be the highway to the Moluccas, much endangered now by the activities of the French. The other extremity, on the Pacific, it was hoped, might be discovered by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, who, shortly before, had started on his way to conquer the Philippine Islands. This accomplished, then away with France and her St. Lawrence River, which, after all, Jacques Cartier and La Rocque de Roberval had found untenable. To approach Mexico, Menendez would occupy Appalachee Bay, and plant a colony at Coosa, “at the foot of the mountains which come from the mines of Zacatecas and San Martin,” where Francisco de Ibarra was at engaged in carving out the Kingdom of New Biscay. Finally, Menendez had great hopes of economic prosperity, for silkworms, vineyards, mines pearls, sugar plantations, wheat and rice fields, herds of cattle, salines, ship timber, and pitch would make Florida not only self-supporting but richer “than New Spain or even Peru.”

Vast and unified in vision were these contemporaneous projects of King Philip and his men, embracing the two oceans and reaching from Spain to the Philippine Islands. The tasks of Captain Menendez de Aviles in La Florida, Ibarra in New Biscay, and Legaspi in the Philippines were all but parts of one great whole, and Florida, said Menendez, with a twentieth-century contempt for distance and a Spanish disregard of time, “is but a suburb of Spain, for it does not take more than forty days sailing to come here, and usually as many more to return.”

Within two years Menendez had established a line of posts between Tampa Bay and Santa Elena (Port Royal) and had made an attempt to colonize Virginia. But, this work had not been done without setbacks. Disease and the adventurer dislike of manual labor — the same enemies that so nearly wrecked the English settlement at Jamestown several decades later — played their part in hampering the growth of the Florida settlements.

St. Augustine Colony

When the colonies might perhaps have been in a degree self-supporting, it was still necessary to import all their supplies. Over 100 colonists died at St. Augustine and San Mateo (Fort Caroline); the attitude of others was fairly expressed in the statement of some deserters, that they had not come there to plow and plant but to find riches and, since no riches were to be found, they would no longer live in Florida “like beasts.” From the principal settlements, over 300 men absconded; 130 belonging to St. Augustine seized a supply ship and made off in it. But, Menendez’s forces were strengthened by over 1,000 colonists from Spain. The foothold in Florida had been won.

Meanwhile, Captain Menendez de Aviles had turned to inland exploration. While at Santa Elena in 1566, he sent Juan Pardo with 25 men “to discover and conquer the interior country from there to Mexico.” Menendez aimed to join hands with the advance guard of pioneers in New Biscay. Going northward through Orista at forty leagues, Pardo apparently struck the Cambahee River. Turning west, he visited Cufitachiqui, where Hernando De Soto had dallied with the “queen” a quarter century before. A few days later, he was at Juala, on a stream near the foot of the Alleghanies. The mountain being covered with snow, he could not proceed, so he built a stockade, called Fort San Juan, and left there, a garrison under Sergeant Boyano. Going east to Wateree, he left there, a priest and four soldiers, and returned by a direct route to Santa Elena. He had thus extended the work of De Soto by exploring a large part of South Carolina and adding considerably to the knowledge of North Carolina.

Conversion of the natives was an essential part of Menendez’s scheme to pacify and hold the country. He had, as yet, no missionaries; so, he detailed some of his soldiers to the work, and, in 1566, by much urging, he induced Philip to equip and send three Jesuits to Florida. The three were Father Martinez, Father Rogel, and Brother Villa-real. Their mission began in disaster. Father Martinez was killed by Indians and the other two withdrew temporarily to the West Indies. On their return, Menendez established Father Rosrel with a garrison of 50 soldiers at San Antonio, on Charlotte Bay, in the territory of the cacique Carlos, and Brother Villareal, also with a garrison, at Tegesta on the Miami River mouth at Biscayne Bay.

Menendez had now established three permanent settlements on the Atlantic coast — St. Augustine and San Mateo in Florida and Santa Elena in South Carolina; and he had garrisoned forts at Guale in northern Georgia, at Tampa and Charlotte Bays on the west coast of the peninsula, and at Biscayne Bay and the St. Lucie River on the east coast. From these points, Spaniards would now command the routes of the treasure fleets from the West Indies and from Vera Cruz. He had also projected a settlement at Chesapeake Bay, which was not fated to endure.

In May 1567, after 20 months of continuous activity, Captain Menendez de Aviles went to Spain. There, he was acclaimed as a hero. Philip made him Captain-General of the West, with command of a large fleet to secure the route to the West Indies, appointed him Governor of Cuba, and created him Knight Commander of the Holy Cross of Zarza, of the order of Santiago. It was said that Menendez was greatly disappointed that his reward consisted of so many sonorous words and of so little substance. Menendez had reached his zenith. The story of his later successes is varied with disasters.