Long before the pilgrims arrived in Jamestown, the longest-standing permanent European settlement in the modern-day United States had already been founded. In fact, it was founded fifty-five years earlier. Back in September 1565, the history of St. Augustine began with Spanish sailor, soldier, and explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and his men established a settlement and started a colony in Florida. From their boats, they identified the site on August 28th, the feast day of St. Augustine, which is where the city’s name is derived from.
While Menéndez was the first to successfully establish a settlement in Florida, he was not the first one to attempt such a feat. In 1513, Juan Ponce de León, who is said to have previously accompanied Christopher Columbus on his 1493 journey to the New World, attempted to start a colony in Florida. However, while these other attempts to colonize Florida were often fueled by a desire for gold and for setting up a trading network with Native tribes who occupied the area, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and his men came with a different intent.
Removing French Huguenot Colonists
French Huguenot colonists had established a post at Fort Caroline, which was situated near the site of present-day Jacksonville. These French Huguenots were striving to overcome the Spanish claim had on the region and so King Philip II of Spain ordered that the French be eliminated from the area.
It was thought that the French post at Fort Caroline presented a significant threat to the Spanish claims over the territory. However, the post also threatened the Treasure Fleet of the Spanish, which followed the Gulf Stream from Mexico and South America on its journey back to Spain. Proudly Catholic, King Philip II also wanted the French Catholics removed from the area as they were protestants and he as a devout Catholic would allow them to continue occupying any part of the territory.
Menéndez Has A Lucky Break
Unfortunately for Menéndez and his men, they reached Florida after French reinforcements had already arrived, grossly outnumbering his troops. On seeing the large fleet of French ships, Menéndez realized he was outmatched and retreated to an area which he had discovered just a week previous, St Augustine. It was here that he bravely waited for the French to attack.
It was here that Menéndez and his troops had a real stroke of luck.
As the French fleet came charging down the coast to attack the Spanish ship, a hurricane began, driving the French ships south, sinking the majority of the vessels, and killing almost the entire crew. All the while, Menéndez, and his men lay sheltered near St. Augustine.
The Spanish Take Control
With the French reinforcements completely decimated by the storm, Menéndez and his group of men were able to march to Fort Caroline with little resistance. With less than a hundred and fifty French Hugeonot soldiers remaining inside the fort, Menéndez was able to conquer the fort without spilling a drop of Spanish blood and take control. Attacking in the early morning after a night of heavy rain, Menéndez was able to surprise the Huguenots inside the fort. Many of the soldiers were asleep and while many of them begged for their lives, some in their bedclothes, others undressed, Menéndez and his men killed one hundred and forty French Huguenots to gain control of the fort.
The Massacre Of The French
On his return to St. Augustine, Menéndez was met by a group of Indians from the region who told him they had seen white men on the beaches south of St. Augustine. Realizing immediately that these must be the surviving French soldiers from the ships that were wrecked in the storm, Menéndez gathered his men, and along with the chaplain Mendoza, they rushed to the location of the shipwrecked French Huguenots.
When they reached the Frenchmen, Mendoza pleaded with Menéndez to allow them the chance to live if they turned their back on Protestantism and converted to Catholicism. Sixteen men accepted the deal but the other one hundred and eleven were brutally killed.
French commander Jean Ribault and his troops who had survived the storm turned up at the same beach just two weeks later. Menéndez and his soldiers offered the French a chance to surrender, which Ribault and his men accepted. After tying the Frenchmen up, Menéndez stabbed Jean Ribault to death before violently murdering the remaining men, beating them to death with axes and clubs.
This series of events in the history of St. Augustine led to the inlet where these vicious attacks took place being named the Mantanzas Inletas it still is to this day. Its name comes from the Spanish ‘Mantanzas’ which means slaughters; the inlet of slaughters.
What Might Have Been
Florida could very well have been a French Colony if that storm never did blow the French fleet off course and shipwreck the French Huguenot soldiers on board. If there had never been a hurricane on that faithful day, there is every chance that Pedro Menéndez de Avilés would never have made it to Fort Caroline and that he and his men would have failed like so many colonizers before them. However, this lucky break resulted in St Augustine being colonized successfully by the Spanish and going on to become the epicenter of Spanish rule in Florida.
The Development Of St. Augustine Moving Forward
After the massacre of the French at the Mantanzas Inlet, the Spanish established a permanent colony in St. Augustine to prevent the French from settling in the area again. As the Spanish crown realized what a crucial location St Augustine was in to help trading ships in trouble and to attache pirates, there was more money injected into the area. The Catholic Church also invested heavily, realizing the opportunity to send missionaries to the region to convert the native Indian population.
Although the city underwent numerous attacks from the English and others, and the city was burned to the ground by Englishman Sir Francis Drake in 1586, the residents always returned. In 1672 the Spanish built the now-oldest fort in the country, the Castillo de San Marcos to protect the city going forward. The fort still stands proudly to this day, serving as a symbol of St. Augustine and to remind us all about the fascinating history of St. Augustine and the vital role this region played in the development of the region.