In 1565, Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his men set sail for the New World. King Philip II of Spain, a devout Catholic, ordered his men to sail to Florida to remove the French Protestants from the region. He and his men landed in, what is nowadays St. Augustine, and set off overland to overturn Fort Caroline at the mouth of the St John’s River. His exploits had a major impact on the history of Florida, especially St. Augustine, which Menendez named after sighting land on the feast day of St. Augustine.
Captain Pedro Menendez de Aviles was a Spanish conquistador. As an accomplished sailor, soldier, and explorer, Menendez possessed all of the skills necessary to climb the ranks to Captain in the Spanish navy. His exploits earned him fortune, fame, and more critical missions to command. Appointed Captain-General of the Fleet of the Indies, becoming governor of Cuba and Captain-General to the so-called ‘invincible’ Armada that would invade England and ultimately be Menendez’s final mission, this true Spanish conquistador led a fascinating life.
Below we explore the life of Pedro Menendez de Aviles and take a look back on his role in the history of Florida.
Menendez’ Early Life
One of twenty brothers and sisters, Pedro Menendez de Aviles entered the world on February 15th, 1519. Born into a large family, Menendez understood that his inheritance would not be worth much and so he pursued a career as a seaman. At just fourteen years old, he left home to chase his dream of becoming a sailor. Securing work on a ship sailing from Santander in search of French pirates, Menendez’s maiden voyage was a success.
Gaining A Reputation
On returning to Spain, he sold part of his inheritance and bought a ship. Menendez went on to fine-tune his skills as a navigator, sailor, and explorer, taking on and conquering many feats in the process. One of Menendez's most notable exploits was facing Jean Alphonse in 1549. Alphonse was one of the most formidable and dangerous corsairs, French privateers who would raid ships of countries at war with France, seizing cargo and the vessels. Menendez gained a reputation as an expert swordsman after engaging in a single-handed duel with Alphonse and killing the feared corsair.
Setting Sail To The New World
In 1565, King Philip of Spain chose Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his men for a mission to Florida. The plan was to sail across the Atlantic to the New World to remove the French Huguenot settlement that was established at Fort Caroline. Menendez and his men were also tasked with establishing fortified settlements along the Florida coastline. In July 1565, Menendez, along with two thousand soldiers and eleven ships began the long trans-Atlantic voyage.
Establishment Of St. Augustine
Menendez and his outfit reached the shores of Florida on August 28th where they identified the site of their colony in the New World. The area was sighted on the feast day of St. Augustine, which is where the modern-day city’s name is derived from. The conquistador built the first church at the site within moments of arriving, officially founding St. Augustine, which is now the oldest established city in the country. Some would argue that this is one of Pedro Menendez de Aviles’ biggest contributions to the history of Florida, establishing the oldest city in the country and the oldest Catholic Church in the State.
On September 20th, 1565, Menendez and his men ventured North toward Fort Caroline. Setting up camp nearby, the Spanish knew that the fort was not well guarded and made their move early in the morning. Of the two hundred and fifty occupants, fifty escaped and sailed to France, and the rest were killed with only sixty women and children spared.
After securing the fort, Menendez took his crew south to the shipwrecked French crews who had fallen victim to a storm when in pursuit along the coast by the Spanish fleet. Jean Ribault, a French Huguenot naval office and colonizer of modern-day Jacksonville was among those shipwrecked survivors. Having played a major role in the early history of Jacksonville, this was to be the end for Ribault and his men. The Spanish soldiers showed no mercy, brutally killing three hundred and fifty men at the Matanzas Inlet, which got its name from the events that occurred here. ‘Matanzas’ means ‘slaughter’ in Spanish.
To further fortify the new Spanish colony, Menendez and his crew, explored the coastline as far north as St. Helena Island in South Carolina. On their travels, they built fortified settlements to solidify Spain’s hold over the Florida region.
Pedro Menendez de Aviles Meets An Unexpected End
Satisfied that he has fulfilled his contract with King Philip II, Menendez returned to his homeland of Spain in 1567. In October of the same year, he was appointed governor of Cuba. Pedro Menendez de Aviles made many more transatlantic crossings in his later life, searching for his son in Southwest Florida, whom he never found, sailing to the Georgia Coast and making contact with local Indians at St. Catherine’s Island and becoming shipwrecked at Cape Canaveral en route to Havana.
Menendez made his final trip to La Florida in 1571 with his wife and family, as well as 650 settlers bound for Santa Elena, a Spanish settlement on what is now Parris Island in South Carolina. Three years later, on September 17th, Menendez died of Typhus in Santander, Spain.