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The Founding of St Augustine, Florida, USA

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The town gates of St Augustine

Shortly after the first voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World in 1492, Spain established several colonies on the Caribbean Islands. Lucrative mines were established in both Central and South America. Treasure fleets carried gold, silver and precious gems back to Spain, quickly making it the most wealthy and powerful kingdom in the world. Pope Alexander VI drew a line that divided the New World into territories, primarily under Spanish Control. Portugal was granted the South American 'bulge' that is today known as Brazil by a treaty that was signed in 1494.


While Spain had established many prosperous colonies in Peru and Mexico, her ventures in Florida had all proven disastrous, leaving all their leaders dead.

Christopher Columbus' real contribution to the establishment of the European presence in the New World was not a radical idea that the world was round1, but his careful observation of the prevailing winds. To cross the ocean to the west ships would first sail far south to the Canary Islands. They would then sail west with the north-east trade winds behind them.

On the return journey to Spain they sailed around the southern tip of Florida, headed almost due north. Just south of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, the ships were far enough north to be carried by the prevailing westerly winds on a smooth run back to Europe.

The Spanish built large fleets of galleons to carry their treasure home from the New World. After reaching the Caribbean they would split the fleet in two; the larger one headed for South America where a very productive silver mine had been established. A smaller fleet would head to Mexico to collect the riches gathered there.

The two fleets would usually join in Havana, Cuba, for their return journey to Spain. They soon learned that they could gain the advantage with the push of the Gulf Stream if they sailed close to the coast of North America.

The voyage was far from safe. The primary hazard was weather, the most convenient time to cross was in the fall2, before the severe storms from the north-east began to blow – this is also the peak months of the hurricane season. Even today the occasional wrecked galleon is found and millions are spent to recover the gold and silver still in her hold.

Another, even more devious threat, were Privateers (private ships licensed by other European Kingdoms, who were allowed to attack the ships at sea, with the only requirement that that pay the proper percentage to their own Royal Treasury). These men would inspire the 'Golden Age of Piracy', but that's another tale.

The Competition

The Protestant reformers were not deterred by the Papal decree. The French Huguenots and the English Government, under the Church of England, both wanted to establish their own colonies in the New World. Not only could the new colonies provide a place for the privateers to resupply and repair their ships, but they could also provide their own produce to the mother country.

In 1562 the first French voyage to the New World was organized by Admiral Gaspard de Coligny and commanded by Jean Ribault. The expedition first landed at the mouth of the St Johns River3, located in what is now the north-east corner of the state of Florida. The French named the waterway 'River of May', as they had sighted it on the first day of May. They erected a stone monument near its mouth, claiming the land for France. The expedition next proceeded north to Paris Island4, where Ribault left a small garrison to establish the colony while he returned to Europe for additional supplies and colonists.

Shortly after Ribault's departure a storehouse caught fire and much of the colony's meagre supply of food was destroyed. Faced with starvation the men built a boat to cross the ocean and return to France. One young man elected to stay behind and live with the Native Americans, the rest of the colonists attempted the return voyage to France. In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean they were sighted by a British ship and taken aboard. By all accounts they had been on the verge of cannibalism due to their lack of food.

Upon his arrival in France Ribault learned of the massacre of several Huguenots at the town of Vassey in Normandy. This was the start of the French Wars of Religion, a series of conflicts that would disrupt the country at various times for the next 35 years.

Ribault fled to England to avoid any contact with the French authorities. He quickly gained the attention of Queen Elizabeth I, who was very interested in his stories and plans for the establishment of his colony. When a truce was declared in France on 19 March, 1563, Ribault was anxious to continue his plans to settle in the New World. The Queen of England had other ideas and had him arrested and detained for the following year. Even though it would take another 35 years before the British colony at Jamestown would become a reality, Queen Elizabeth may have been trying to prevent a French colony from being established first, or she might have only wanted to keep the information she had gained from Ribault from being shared with others.

Fort Caroline

With the uneasy truce between the Catholic king and the Huguenots, Colignay returned to power and convinced the crown to allow him to arrange for another expedition. As Ribault was still being held in England the command was given to Laudonnière, who had been one of Ribault's lieutenants. He arrived on the coast of the New World in June 1564, first sailing north to reinforce the colony at Paris Island. When they found the fort abandoned they sailed south to establish a new fortification on the River of May. The new stockade was named Fort Caroline, as a tribute to King Charles IX of France5, who had helped finance the expedition.

Although the colonists included four women, there was little attempt to build a self-supporting community. They hired several Native Americans to search for gold and silver, and traded trinkets for food to reinforce their supply, rather than establishing their own fields of crops. Probably the most important legacy of Laudonnière's time at Fort Caroline is the book published by Jacques LeMoyne, recording the life of the existing tribes who would all cease to exist in the following years.

Over time the structure of the colony broke down. There were rumours that Laudonnière was hoarding gold, concealing it from the others. The trinkets had all been traded and the Native Americans had no incentive to keep giving away their food stores. Eventually there was a mutiny and Laudonnière was held captive on one of the ships for two weeks. A group of Frenchmen took two of the small sailing boats that were at the colony and headed to sea to find their fortune the easy way – stealing it from Spanish ships. The two boats became separated at sea, but one of them managed to capture a Spanish ship. She was then captured by another Spanish ship, her crew put to death and a report of the French threat was sent to King Philip II of Spain.

After a disappointing year in the New World the colonists decided to again abandon their fort and return to France. Like the earlier group at Paris Island, they built a small ship and began loading it for the voyage home. As their preparations were underway the British privateer and slave trader, Sir John Hawkins, put his ships into the River of May for fresh water. Hawkins was returning from a very successful voyage and agreed to trade one of his ships to the Frenchmen in exchange for weapons and ammunition that had been intended to defend the colony. Now the Huguenots waited only for a favourable wind and tide to make their departure.

As the defeated colonists waited for favourable conditions, they spotted the sails of a ship headed towards them. First one, then another and another, until it was clear that seven large ships were headed for the river, all flying the flag of France. Ribault had at last returned with the people and supplies that could save the colony.

The seven ships in Ribault's fleet carried 650 new colonists, including craftsmen, noblemen, 500 soldiers and 70 women. They arrived on 29 August, 1565. Four of the ships were too large to enter the river, so they anchored in the open roadstead and waited for smaller ships to ferry their cargo ashore.

The Spanish Reply

The King of Spain had long been aware of the French attempt to establish a presence on the American coast. His men had captured the boy left on Paris Island shortly after he had been abandoned there. The attack on the Spanish ship by Laudonnière's rebellious men had sealed the fate of the French colony. A force must be sent, to not only remove the French threat, but also to establish a settlement in the vicinity to guard against any future incursions into Spanish territory.

The king selected a veteran captain from his navy, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, to command the expedition. Menéndez was a loyal subject, an aristocrat who was used to power, and a devout Catholic. One of his greatest concerns was that the 'Lutheran'6 movement would corrupt the ignorant Native Americans, who had not yet learned of the importance of the Pope. On 20 June, 1565, he sailed from Cádiz with 19 ships and over 1,500 men and women, and headed south to the Canary Islands. They included not only sailors and soldiers but skilled craftsmen, farmers, wives and even children – people needed to establish a permanent town rather than another mad dash for treasure and quick reward.

Soon after heading west on the Atlantic the ships were scattered by a storm. Many were forced to return to port for repairs. When the ships assembled in San Juan, Puerto Rico, they had been reduced to only six vessels. Menéndez had seen reports that Ribault was also sailing for Florida so he sailed as soon as his available ships had been resupplied. He counted his forces as 200 sailors, 500 soldiers and 100 'useless peoples' (the civilian colonists). They reached the Florida coast on 28 August, the feast day of St Augustine of Hippo, so he named the large sheltered bay he sighted there after the Saint. The harbour was protected by a headland on each side formed by two rivers, one that flowed from the north and the other led to the south. (The French had earlier named this place 'The River of Dolphins'.) They continued north until they sighted the four large French ships lying off the river's bar. While most of his lieutenants urged caution, Menéndez insisted they challenge the four ships. The Frenchmen slipped their anchor cables and put to sea. The French ships proved to be faster and more manoeuvrable than the Spanish ones. The Spanish gave up the chase and returned to the harbour they had named St Augustine to form a council of war.

The Spanish anchorage was about 40 miles (65km) south and a bit east of the French fortification. The French ships followed the Spanish long enough to see they were unloading stores from their ships. Two of Menéndez's ships also had to anchor in the open sea because they were too large to enter the harbour. The French ships returned to Fort Caroline to report what they had seen and to prepare for the inevitable attack.

On 8 September, 1565, Menéndez held a grand celebration marking the official founding of the colony of St Augustine. The day was marked with banners, speeches and celebratory gunfire. All of the residents gave their oath of loyalty to the colony, Spain and the Church. The day was concluded with a great feast that included the local Native Americans. The French had so alienated the locals with their demands for food that the natives welcomed the new Europeans and desired to help them remove their former friends.

At Fort Caroline Ribault was not content to wait for the attack, he insisted they mount an immediate attack on the Spanish before they could build any defensive structures. Laudonnière opposed this plan and remained at the fort with 240 women, children and the men who were too infirm or unskilled for the battle. Six hundred soldiers and sailors boarded the ships and headed south prepared to do battle. The Spanish watchmen sighted the approaching warships and raised the alarm on 11 September.

In the 16th Century the only method of forecasting the weather was by observation of the sky, the barometer had not yet been invented. As the French fleet waited for a favourable wind and tide to enter the enemy harbour a sudden storm arrived and swept the French ships helplessly to the south. This was almost certainly a hurricane from the period descriptions.

As Menéndez watched the ships being driven away he realized that the French settlement had to be almost entirely undefended. Even if Ribault's ships had managed to survive the storm it would take several weeks before he could return to the coast. He ordered his men to prepare for a march through the wild and unexplored territory between the two colonies. Led by 20 axemen to clear the way the Spanish began their push north on 16 September. After four days of struggling through the swamps and marshes that separated them, the Spanish scouts sighted the French fort. They settled in for the night and planned to attack at dawn.

As the Spanish swarmed over the wall some 20 Frenchmen, including Laudonnière and LeMoyne, slipped over the opposite wall and headed for a small ship that Ribault had left under the command of his son. They quickly made sail and headed directly for France while the Spanish began the slaughter of those they had left behind.

When it was clear that he had control of the fort Menéndez ordered the killing to cease: 50 women and children as well as a half dozen musicians were taken prisoner. If any of the men survived the battle they were executed on the spot, several bodies were left hanging from trees with a placard that read: 'We do not do this to Frenchmen – We do this to Lutherans'. The fort was renamed San Mateo and 300 soldiers were left to defend the new Spanish outpost while the rest returned to St Augustine with Menéndez to report their victory. The prisoners were sent to Havana, Cuba, for transport back to Europe.


All of Ribault's ships had been driven ashore in the storm. Shortly after Menéndez's return a party of the friendly natives came into the village and reported that they had sighted a large group of Europeans on the far side of the southern river. A group of 50 men were taken to the site and Menéndez opened negotiations with the shipwrecked Frenchmen. The stranded men were given food and water before being taken across the river in groups of ten. There were a total of 208 survivors. After being interviewed by their captors, ten men claimed to be loyal Catholics; they were taken prisoner while the rest were put to the sword.

On 10 October Ribault himself, with a little over 300 men arrived at the same spot on the far side of the river to beg rescue from the Spanish, being unaware of the fate of their countrymen. When Menéndez arrived he again offered to ferry the men to the western side of the river, 150 men, including their leader agreed to cross, while a group of 170 men decided to decline and take their chances in the wilderness.

Once again the men were required to profess their loyalty to the Catholic church, all but 16 were killed on the spot. Whether the men were killed out of cruelty or the logistics of feeding the colony through the coming winter is still a matter of argument. To this day the inlet and river both bear the name 'Matanzas', Spanish for 'slaughters'.

The remaining Huguenots headed south and built a small stockade at Cape Canaveral where they began construction of a small ship for their return to France. When Menéndez learned of their location he ordered one group to approach the stockade by land, while he personally led a second group by sea. This time he promised the men that he would send all who surrendered safe passage back to Europe. All but 20 surrendered, and Menéndez transported them as far as Havana himself. The fate of the other 20 has been lost to history.

St Augustine Through the Years

The town, and later city, of St Augustine remains the oldest continuously-occupied settlement in the present day United States of America. There have been many significant changes over the centuries:

  • 1566: The settlement was attacked and burned by Native Americans; the town was moved to a new location.
  • 1568: The French captured and destroyed Fort San Mateo, the former Fort Caroline.
  • 1586: English Privateer Sir Francis Drake attacked and burned the town on 6 June.
  • 1668: City attacked and plundered by English privateer Robert Searle.
  • 1672: Start of the construction of the Castillo de San Marcos begins.
  • 1763: St Augustine and the rest of Florida are ceded to Great Britain.
  • 1783: The Treaty of Paris not only grants independence to the United States, it also returns the Florida territory to Spain.
  • 1821: St Augustine, along with the rest of Florida, became a part of the United States as a part of the Adams-Onis Treaty.
  • 1861: St Augustine and the rest of Florida secede from the Union and join the Confederate States of America.
  • 1862: St Augustine is captured by the United States Navy and remains in Federal control for the remainder of the war.
  • 1865: The Confederates are defeated and Florida rejoin the Union.


St Augustine is still a functional city with a diverse population. To the casual visitor it may appear to be just another theme park operated only for the tourists. Like many Florida cities there is a vibrant community of local citizens who have little interest or contact with visitors.

Image credit: US Library of Congress
1The myth that most people in the 15th Century thought the world was flat was created several hundred years after the voyage.2Autumn.3Which flows through the present-day city of Jacksonville, Florida.4Near the site of Port Royal, South Carolina today, as well as a large training facility used by the Marine Corps.5In Latin Charles is 'Carolus' – 'Caroline' is translated as 'of Charles'.6In reality the Huguenots where Calvinist, but the Church did not care about such distinctions at the time.

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