Pedro Menendez de Aviles

MENENDEZ (or Melendez) seems to have been rather too harshly treated by historians, for his career in Florida was not wholly voluntary. He was a native of Avila, in Spain, and at the period under consideration, he was about forty-six years of age. He had already risen to the highest rank in the Spanish navy, and was a man of large fortune. In 1554, he commanded the vessel which bore his king to England to marry Queen Mary; and in 1561, he commanded the great treasure-fleet of galleons on their voyage from Mexico to Spain. One of the vessels containing his son and several relatives and friends disappeared, and was never heard of afterward. When he had delivered the fleet in Spain, he asked permission to go back in search of the lost vessel, but was then refused. Finally, after two or three years delay, his request was granted, but on condition that he should explore and colonize Florida. He fitted out an expedition for the purpose at his own expense, but when he was about to sail, orders came to him from Philip to exterminate all Protestants he might find there, or in whatever corner of the world he should discover them, on land or sea, in forests or marshes.

Philip had heard that the Huguenots who had fled from persecution in France were hiding in the forests beyond the Atlantic, and his zeal was so kindled for the domination of his church, that he gave the order to Menendez to extirpate the heretics. The mariner had no alternative but to obey or lose the opportunity of searching for his son. He was not even allowed to choose the alternative, for disobedience would have led him to the dungeons of the Inquisition. So he obeyed. The king, regarding it as a holy enterprise, added ships and treasure. Soldiers and seamen flocked to the standard of Menendez in great numbers, and he sailed with a fleet of eleven ships (one of them a galleon of nine hundred tons) with over twenty-six hundred persons, consisting, besides the soldiers and sailors, of adventurers and priests. This was the armament, the sailing of which Ribault had been apprised by Coligni. Storms and other disasters in the West Indies scattered it, and when it arrived on the coast of Florida, it was reduced to a squadron of only five vessels (one of them the great ship), bearing about a thousand persons of all descriptions.

When Menendez landed from the galleon, on the coast of Florida, he made the event an occasion for a pompous ceremonial. As he left the great ship in a boat with six oarsmen, accompanied by Mendoza, his chaplain, and followed by other boats filled with gentlemen and ecclesiastics, loud trumpets sounded, drums beat, cannon thundered, and flags were displayed on the ship and on the shore, where his soldiers had already begun the construction of a fort. As they touched the beach, the chaplain walked before, bearing a large cross and chanting a hymn. Menendez followed with his train, carrying aloft, with his own hand, the royal standard of Spain unfurled. He and his followers reverently knelt before the priest, who was arrayed in rich sacerdotal robes, and kissed the sacred symbol of the atonement which Mendoza held in his hand. It was firmly planted in the sand by the side of the flagstaff from which fluttered the royal banner in a gentle breeze; and a shield bearing the arms of Spain was leaned against the cross. Then Menendez drew his sword and formally took possession of the whole country in the name of King Philip of Spain. On that spot, and with such consecration, were laid the foundations of the city of St. Augustine, in Florida, forty years earlier than those of any other town in America, north of Mexico.

Menendez soon marched upon Fort Carolina, on the St. Johns, to execute his dreadful mission. His journey was in incessant rain over oozy ground, but zeal gave strength to his four hundred soldiers. The feeble Huguenot fort was in command of Laudonniere, who had only a handful of soldiers (for a greater portion had gone with Ribault), and he was burdened with civilians, men, women and children. With the ferocity of tigers, the Spaniards fell upon them. They were close to the fort before their presence was suspected. No person was spared on whom the assailants could lay hands. In their beds, in prayers for mercy, in flight, they were slaughtered. A few escaped to the woods without food and with scanty clothing. Many perished for want of food, and a few made their way to two small French ships, in which they sailed for Europe. Among them was Laudonniere. According to the chaplain, Mendoza, one hundred and forty-two of the Huguenots were slain, whilst the Spaniards did not lose a man. The women and children were butchered. A few men were hanged upon trees, and over them was placed the inscription:


Leaving a garrison of three hundred men in Fort Carolina, and naming it Fort Matheo, Menendez returned in triumph to St. Augustine. His chaplain has left a glowing account of his reception there, and bestows unstinted praise on that leader as one of the most zealous of Christians. He was supported, he says, in his great fatigue by a "burning desire to serve our Lord and destroy this Lutheran sect, the enemy of our holy Catholic religion."

Ribault's vessels, meanwhile, had all been wrecked near Cape Canaveral, on the Florida coast. All of his people were saved from the sea, but perished at the hands of the less merciful Spaniards. They tried to make their way to Fort Carolina, ignorant of its sad fate. Ribault, with one hundred and fifty men, was betrayed by one of the sailors who had deserted Laudonniere and turned pirate, and under a promise of mercy he cast himself upon the clemency of Menendez. That leader proceeded to put to death the brave captain and his companions. "Seeing that they were Lutherans," says Mendoza, "the General condemned them all to death; but as I was a priest, and had the bowels of a man, I besought him to accord to me the favor, that he would not put to death those whom we should discover to be Christians. He granted my request. I made inquiry, and found ten or twelve, whom we selected from the number. All the others were executed because they were Lutherans, enemies of our holy Catholic faith." They were led out in parcels of ten, and with their hands tied behind them and at a line drawn in the sand with a cane, by Menendez, they were butchered. So, also, says Barcia, the Spanish historian, who regarded Menendez as the chosen instrument of the Almighty to vindicate his cause. Mendoza tells us, when writing of the massacre at Fort Carolina, that "the Holy Spirit enlightened the understanding" of the commander "to enable him to gain so great a victory."

A knowledge of these horrid crimes in Florida and the avowed cause of their commission, excited the greatest indignation throughout Europe, and the unchristian spirit of revenge glowed in many a manly bosom. The French Roman Catholics were greatly moved by this outrage upon their countrymen by the hated Spaniards. The relatives of the victims appealed to the French king to vindicate the wrongs of the emigrants who had been sent out under his sanction and authority. Coligni joined in the appeal; but the king and court, ruled by Catharine, whose theological views were then in a transition state, were profoundly indifferent. No remonstrances or complaint was sent to the Spanish court. No doubt information of the expedition of Ribault had been sent from the French court to Philip and caused the issuing of his bloody commission to Menendez. The courtiers of Charles the Ninth, who feared and hated Coligni because he was a Huguenot and a patriot, rejoiced at the failure of his scheme, and he was utterly unable to do more for his colony.

At this juncture a fiery avenger appeared. It was the Chevalier Dominic de Gourges, a gentleman of Gascony, member of an eminent family and a devoted Roman Catholic. In the military service of his country he had been made a prisoner by the Spaniards, who compelled him to do slave's work in Spanish galleys. His hatred of the Spanish blood thereby engendered was undying. When he heard of the treatment of his countrymen in Florida, at their hands, he was in retirement. Filled with indignation because of the crime and the criminal indifference of his king, he determined to fit out an expedition at his own expense, to punish the offenders. That was in 1567. He sold his property, borrowed money of his friends, and fitted out three small vessels, manned by one hundred soldiers (many of them gentlemen volunteers), and eighty mariners prepared with cross-bows and picks to act as soldiers. His vessels were so flat-bottomed that they might pass over the sand-bars of rivers.

De Gourges kept his destination a secret, and sailed from Bordeaux late in August for the coast of Benin, in Africa, as he publicly pretended. After various vicissitudes and delays, his little squadron left the extreme western end of Cuba for Florida, when, for the first time, he revealed to all his followers, his destination and designs. In a speech glowing with enthusiasm, he so warmed their hearts for the work that was before them, that they were impatient to reach the coast. Their eyes were gratified with a sight of Florida in the spring of 1568, when the squadron entered the mouth of a small river north of the St. John's. The Indians, supposing the new comers to be Spaniards, showed much hostility. De Gourges' trumpeter, who had been with Laudonniere, and understood a little of the Indian tongue, volunteered to go ashore. There he was delighted, not only by the discovery that the cacique was an old friend of Laudonniere, but that he was accompanied by a young Frenchman who had escaped the massacre of Fort Carolina. The cacique received the trumpeter kindly, and sent an invitation to De Gourges to come on shore and hold a conference. He did so, and his young countryman acted as interpreter. The cacique, painted and bedecked, was seated on a log in a beautiful grove, with several allied chiefs sitting in a semicircle around him. He placed De Gourges on another log, and then opened the conference with bitter complaints against the Spaniards, because of their cruelties. They had driven the Indians from their homes, murdered their children, and desolated their fields because they had treated the Frenchmen kindly. The Chevalier was pleased with this discourse, but was cautious. He told the cacique that the Spaniards should be punished for their crimes. "Do you intend to make war upon them?" quickly asked the cacique. "I do," as quickly answered De Gourges. "We will join you!" said the cacique with vehemence as he sprang to his feet; and the same words came from the lips of the other chiefs with equal vehemence as they seized their arms which they had laid upon the grass, and brandished their javelins in great excitement. An alliance against the Spaniards was made on the spot between the French and Indians, and steps were immediately taken to attack the common enemy. Other alliances were made between the French and Indians, many generations afterward, which were instruments of dire distress to the English settlers in America, as we shall observe as our story goes on.

The allies met at an appointed place not far from the St. Johns, on which the Spaniards had built two forts below Fort Carolina, on opposite banks of the river. Moving cautiously, they crossed a little stream behind a wood arm-pit deep, the soldiers carrying their powder flasks on their helmets, an arquebuse in one hand and a sword in the other. Gathering in battle array near the little fort, the allies rushed forward with shouts and yells, and took it by surprise. The entire garrison, sixty in number, were slain, excepting a few who were reserved for another fate.

De Gourges now hastened across the river, with eighty men in boats, to attack the fort on the opposite side, followed by the Indians, who were so eager for the fray that they could not wait for the return of the little vessels. They plunged into the water, each holding a bow, javelin and quiver of arrows in one hand, and swimming with the other. Appalled by the number of pale and dusky enemies that threatened them, the garrison of sixty men fled in the direction of Fort Carolina (or Matheo), three miles above. They were overtaken by the French and Indians in the woods, and the whole company were slain, excepting a few who were held as prisoners. From these prisoners and from a spy who was discovered in the camp, the French commander learned that Fort Carolina was not very strong; that its garrison consisted of two hundred and sixty men, and that they were greatly alarmed by a report that the allies were two thousand in number. Encouraged by this information, De Gourges, after two days' preparation, marched with his whole force against the doomed fortress. After some severe fighting, the fort was captured. The flower of the garrison had already been slain in a sortie or sallying out to attack the assailants, and many of the remainder had fled to the woods, where they were met by the Indians and slaughtered. There was an indiscriminate massacre as before, a few only being reserved as prisoners. Now these, with others who had been so reserved, were placed in a row under the very trees whereon the Huguenots had been hung, not as Frenchmen, but as Lutherans. De Gourges addressed them, and then suspended them all by their necks. Over them he placed the inscription, burned into wood with a hot iron:


So was concluded the Indian and unchristian work of retaliating upon the innocent the crimes of the guilty. Could the blow have fallen upon King Philip of Spain, or Menendez his executioner, or Mendoza his apologist and coadjutor, and not upon the mere machines of government--the common soldiers--retributive justice would have been more divinely vindicated. But we must judge Philip, and Menendez, Mendoza and De Gourges, leniently, in the light of the spirit of the age in which they lived. No Spanish monarch now; no military chief, no truly Christian minister in any Christian country, to-day, would do such horrid work for such a cause. The seminal idea of the protest at Spires has worked beneficent wonders in making men less Indian and more divine, since it was projected into human society.

Too weak to brave the wrath of Menendez, who was at St. Augustine, De Gourges, with the assistance of the Indians, utterly destroyed the forts on the St. John's, and then sailed for France, where he arrived just in time to avoid vessels which Philip had sent out to intercept him. He was received with coldness at court. Philip had demanded of the weak Charles the head of De Gourges, and the Queen-mother, Catharine, had espoused the cause of the opponents of the Huguenots. In poverty De Gourges concealed himself for some years, declining an invitation of the Queen of England (Elizabeth) to enter her service. At length he died, whilst on his way to a seaport to take command of a fleet that was about to wage war on Philip.

Menendez firmly planted a colony at St. Augustine, and sent an expedition, with Jesuit missionaries, to explore the waters of Chesapeake Bay, plant a settlement there, and scatter the seeds of Christianity among the pagans. But his death in 1574, when he was High Admiral of the Spanish navy, arrested this enterprise, and no further attempts seem to have been made by the Spaniards to plant settlements within the domain of our Republic.

Return to Our Country, Vol. I