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Menéndez de Avilés and the foundation of San Agustín de la Florida

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Coffin and portrait of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés at the Museo Nombre de Dios in San Agustín de la Florida
Coffin and portrait of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés at the Museo Nombre de Dios in San Agustín de la Florida

It is 1559, when France and Spain signed the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis becomed allies. The danger of France colonizing territories in the New World had passed. But in reality, French pirates and privateers continued to harass the maritime routes of Spanish ships and to look for points where they could establish colonies.

In fact, in 1562 an expedition led by Captain Jean Ribault and organized by Admiral Coligny arrived at the mouth of the Río de Mayo, today’s San Juan River, in Florida, who skipping all legal agreements with Spain and the supposed loyalty with an ally, created a fort on Parris Island in South Carolina,  but the arrest of Ribault in England (tried to return to France for reinforcements) and the harassment of the Indians led them to leave the fort and the few survivors who remained tried to return, also being detained by British ships.

That first French colonization attempt was a absolute failure, but they keep trying. In 1564 the second official of  Ribault organized a larger expedition with a couple of hundred men who disembarked near the Jacksonville.  They built a fort that they called the Fort Caroline and was reinforced by another expedition in which Ribault arrived again on American soil. They managed to stabilize the colony, which supossed a real problem for Spain, not only because the french have achieved quickly a colony in that difficult land, but also because this colony was composed of hugonotes and they could spread that Protestant heregy among the natives. This was absolutely unacceptable for Spain in its mission of evangelizing the continent.

Something had to be done and very soon. Felipe II chose a young Asturian seafarer named Pedro Menéndez de Avilés who at the age of 35 was already captain general of Fleet of Indies and who had participated in numerous actions throughout the world. The king ordered him to organize an expedition to march to Florida, locate the French enclave and wipe it off the map. He armed 12 ships with more than a thousand soldiers, settlers and religious and departed from Cádiz in the month of July 1565 arriving at the Florida coast on August 28th,1565. Immediately they founded San Agustín de la Florida, the first Spanish enclave in North America that has reached our days.

Fortaleza de San Agustín en la Florida
San Agustín de la Florida Fortress

Ribault tried to attack the Spanish enclave before it could be operational, but a major storm thwarted his attempt. Menendez quickly organized a ground command to attack the French Fort Caroline aided by the Saturaba Indians and managed to take completely by surprise the French who were taken prisoner and executed immediately. The name of the fort was changed to San Mateo Fort and the Castilla and León flag was hoisted. But the 50 survivors of Ribault’s attempt to attack St. Augustine were still alive at sea. Spanish troops sailed along the coast and found them on a beach where they were captured and executed.

The French threat had been temporarily aborted and a stable colony had finally been created in Florida. Menéndez de Avilés worked hard for several years creating several forts along the east coast of North America to ensure the defense of the territory. In addition to San Agustín y San Mateo forts, he built the forts of San Pedro y Santa Elena to the north and Santa Lucía and Tequesta to the south. Florida would be Spanish for just over 200 years.

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