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Fort Matanzas, about fifty feet long on each side, was constructed of coquina, a local stone formed from clam shells and quarried from a nearby island. (Courtesy of National Park Service)

America's First True "Pilgrims"

An excerpt from Kenneth C. Davis's new book explains they arrived half a century before the Mayflower reached Plymouth Rock

Unaware that Fort Caroline had fallen, groups of French survivors of the storm-savaged fleet came ashore near present-day Daytona Beach and Cape Canaveral. Trudging north, they were spotted by Indians who alerted Menéndez. The bedraggled Frenchmen were met and captured by Spanish troops at a coastal inlet about 17 miles south of St. Augustine on September 29, 1565.

Expecting to be imprisoned or perhaps ransomed, the exhausted and hungry Frenchmen surrendered without a fight. They were ferried across the inlet to a group of dunes where they were fed what proved to be a last meal. At the Admiral's orders, between 111 and 200 of the French captives—documents differ on the exact number—were put to death. In his own report to King Philip, Admiral Menéndez wrote matter-of-factly, if not proudly, "I caused their hands to be tied behind them, and put them to the knife." Sixteen of the company were allowed to live—self-professed Catholics who were spared at the behest of the priest, who reported, "All the rest died for being Lutherans and against our Holy Catholic Faith."

Twelve days later, on October 11, the remaining French survivors, including Captain Jean Ribault, whose Trinité had been beached further south, straggled north to the same inlet. Met by Menéndez and ignorant of their countrymen's fates, they too surrendered to the Spanish. A handful escaped in the night, but on the next morning, 134 more French captives were ferried across the same inlet and executed; once again, approximately a dozen were spared. Those who escaped death had either professed to be Catholic, hastily agreed to convert or possessed some skills that Admiral Menéndez thought might be useful in settling St. Augustine—the first permanent European settlement in the future United States, born and baptized in a religious bloodbath.

Although Jean Ribault offered Menéndez a large ransom to secure his safe return to France, the Spanish Admiral refused. Ribault suffered the same fate as his men. Following Ribault's execution, the French leader's beard and a piece of his skin were sent to King Philip II. His head was cut into four parts, set on pikes and displayed in St. Augustine. Reporting back to King Philip II, Admiral Menéndez wrote, "I think it great good fortune that this man be dead, for the King of France could accomplish more with him and fifty thousand ducats than with other men and five hundred thousand ducats; and he could do more in one year, than another in ten . . . ."

Just south of modern St. Augustine, hidden off the well-worn tourist path of t-shirt stands, sprawling condos and beach-front hotels, stands a rather inconspicuous National Monument called Fort Matanzas. Accessible by a short ferry ride across a small river, it was built by the Spanish in 1742 to protect St. Augustine from surprise attack. Fort Matanzas is more a large guardhouse than full-fledged fort. The modest structure, about fifty feet long on each side, was constructed of coquina, a local stone formed from clam shells and quarried from a nearby island. Tourists who come across the simple tower certainly find it far less impressive than the formidable Castillo de San Marco, the star-shaped citadel that dominates St. Augustine's historic downtown.

Unlike other Spanish sites in Florida named for Catholic saints or holy days, the fort's name comes from the Spanish word, matanzas, for "killings" or "slaughters." Fort Matanzas stands near the site of the grim massacre of the few hundred luckless French soldiers in an undeclared war of religious animosity. This largely unremarked atrocity from America's distant past was one small piece of the much larger struggle for the future of North America among contending European powers.

The notion of Spaniards fighting Frenchmen in Florida four decades before England established its first permanent settlement in America, and half a century before the Pilgrims sailed, is an unexpected notion to those accustomed to the familiar legends of Jamestown and Plymouth. The fact that these first settlers were Huguenots dispatched to establish a colony in America in 1564, and motivated by the same sort of religious persecution that later drove the Pilgrims from England, may be equally surprising. That the mass execution of hundreds of French Protestants by Spanish Catholics could be mostly overlooked may be more surprising still. But this salient story speaks volumes about the rapacious quest for new territory and brutal religious warfare that characterized the European arrival in the future America.

Excerpted from America's Hidden History: Untold Tales of the First Pilgrims, Fighting Women, and Forgotten Founders Who Shaped a Nation, by Kenneth C. Davis. Copyright(c) 2008 by Kenneth C. Davis. By permission of Smithsonian Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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