Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the founder of European Florida in 1565, was a native of Avilés, a seaport on the Asturian coast of northern Spain. He was born in 1519 to parents of minor hidalgo rank who had both blood and marriage ties to the prominent Valdés family. At an early age he entered the privateering trade, in which, armed with royal letters-of-marque, a sea captain seized enemy prizes (ships). So successful was he at that enterprise, by 1562, as captain-general, he was placed in command of the trans-Atlantic treasure fleets that brought to Spain the mined riches of Mexico and Peru. As an adult he wore a full beard. His hair had a reddish hue. He was intelligent, deeply pious and fond of instrumental music.
A Contract With The King
Early in 1565, Menéndez’s career took a different turn. Learning that his son and heir Juan had been shipwrecked off the east coast of the Florida peninsula, he asked permission from King Philip II to search for him. The Spanish monarch granted him the opportunity but stipulated that he should also chart the peninsula shoreline, with its harbors, currents, shoals and bays, and establish somewhere along it a permanent base, which five previous Spanish expeditions had failed to do. In an asiento (charter) signed on March 20, Philip ordered Menéndez to “conquer” La Florida at his own cost. And he conferred upon him the title Adelantado—direct representative of the King.
Menéndez’s primary responsibilities under the charter were to be surveyor, land developer, mining engineer and agribusinessman. But he proposed for himself another mission, that of converting the native populations to Christianity. Yet another purpose of the expedition presented itself ten days later when the King received intelligence that a French military force, mostly Huguenots (Calvinists), had established a base called Fort Caroline just inside the mouth of the Florida river known today as the St. Johns. Angered by that piratical trespass on Spanish-claimed soil, Philip added soldiers and weapons from his own account to Menéndez’s fleet, and, where the French interlopers were concerned, directed the adelantado to “drive them out by what means you see fit.”
To Florida And Battle
Ultimately, with help from private bankers and nine major Asturian families, Menéndez organized not one but two distinct fleets, one to sail from Asturias and Vizcaya in northern Spain, the other from the southern port of Cádiz, for a total of thirty-four ships and 2,646 sailors, soldiers, and civilian settlers, including women and children. Soon after departure in June, both fleets encountered severe weather systems which forced them back to port. The northern fleet never made it to Florida as a fleet. The Cádiz convoy set out again, but was mauled by mid-Atlantic storms, with the result that only five ships with 200 sailors, 500 soldiers and 100 civilians successfully reached the Florida shoreline.
In early September, off the mouth of the St. Johns, Menéndez’s ships engaged a French reinforcement fleet that was unloading soldiers, arms and supplies for Fort Caroline. In the brief and inconsequential battle that followed, the lightened French vessels escaped out to sea. Menéndez then directed his fleet southward through an inlet to a mainland site where his men hurriedly began construction of a largely earthen fort. On September 8 the adelantado formally took possession of the site, naming it St. Augustine.
Two days later, an expected French assault fleet of four large vessels carrying a landing force of 400 infantrymen appeared off the St. Augustine bar. Its purpose was to exterminate the infant Spanish settlement. Instead, it would be exterminated by a confluence of unusual, some still much debated, events. Before the French could get ashore, a fierce storm—some historians call it a hurricane, others a nor’easter—rose up and blew the French ships southward and out to sea, eventually smashing them against the shoreline at points between today’s Daytona Beach and Cape Canaveral.
Menéndez took advantage of that providential “miracle,” as the Spanish interpreted the violent wind, to march north overland and attack Ft. Caroline and its diminished garrison. Reaching the triangular wooden structure after two and a half days of march, Menéndez and his men slew 132 soldiers, sparing the women and youths not under arms. Forty-five Frenchmen escaped. Menéndez renamed the fort San Mateo (St. Matthew), established a guard detachment there and returned to a greatly relieved St. Augustine.
On September 28, word reached Menéndez that Timucua natives had sighted a large body of French soldiers and sailors stranded at an inlet to the south. With fifty of his own men, Menéndez confronted the 215 castaways the next day, informing them that he had captured their home base, and demanding their surrender. On October 12, at the same spot, he accepted the surrender of 150 more stranded combatants. To both groups he made no promises as to how exactly they would be treated. In each case the men were brought across the inlet in groups of ten by a Spanish longboat and, after their hands were bound, they were marched behind the sand dunes and summarily executed by sword and dagger.
In extenuation of those cold-blooded deeds, historians have pointed to three sets of facts: (1) There was no way that fifty Spaniards –most of Menéndez’s soldiers were posted to St. Augustine and San Mateo—could have guarded 344 trained warriors with the primitive weapons of the period. (2) Menéndez had no ships on which to send the captives away to destinations outside Florida. And (3) he had no food with which to feed them. Upon the adelantado’s return to St. Augustine after the second round of executions one of his companions observed, “Some [settlers] considered him cruel, and others, that he had acted as a very good captain should.” Residents of the city today are still similarly divided.
Unquestionably, Menéndez saved St. Augustine. He was not so successful in some other pursuits, however. Though he surveyed the coast, he never found his son. His grain seed brought from Spain failed to take root in St. Augustine’s low sandy soil. And he never found any gold or silver to mine. One great success he would not live to see: the chain of Franciscan missions to the native people, which, true to his word, he began.
At the date of his last known letter, datelined Santander, Spain, September 7, 1574, the fifty-five year old adelantado was, at Philip’s command, constructing a fleet with which to clear the Flanders coast of pirates. The letter was addressed to his nephew, Pedro Menéndez Marquéz, in Florida. Writing personally and not for publication, he stated: “…After the salvation of my soul, there is nothing in this world that I desire more than to see myself in Florida, to end my days saving souls.”
But nine days later he was dead.
His original coffin is exhibited in the museum of Mission Nombre de Dios in St. Augustine.
Further Reading: Books and Periodicals
Barrientos, Bartolomé. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Founder of Florida. Facsimile edition
of original Spanish text of 1567 with accompanying translation by Anthony Kerrigan.
Gainesville: University Florida Press, 1965.
Connor, Jeannette Thurber, trans. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. Memorial by Gonzalo Solís
de Meras. Facsimile edition. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1964.
Gannon, Michael. “The Execution of French Captives at Matanzas in 1565.” Unpublished
manuscript on file at the St. Augustine Historical Society Library.
Lowery, Woodbury. The Spanish Settlements within the Present Limits of the United
States. 2 vols. New York: Russell and Russell, 1901, 1905.
Lyon, Eugene. The Enterprise of Florida: Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and the Spanish
Conquest of 1565-1568. Gainesville: The University Presses of Florida, 1974.
Lyon, Eugene. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés: A Sourcebook. Hamden, CT: Spanish
Borderlands Sourcebooks, Garland Publishing Company, 1994.
Ruidiaz y Caravía, Eugenio, ed. La Florida: Su conquista y colonización por Pedro
Menéndez de Avilés. 2 vols. Madrid: Imprenta de los Hijos de J. A. Garcia, 1893.
Memoir of Father Grajales, chaplain of theMenéndezexpedition
Full title: Memoir of the happy result and prosperous voyage of the fleet commanded by the illustrious Captain-General Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, which sailed from Cadiz on the morning of Thursday, June 28th, for the coast of Florida, and arrived there on the 28th of August, 1565. By Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, chaplain of the expedition.