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In Search of St. Augustine

Beyond the tourist trappings and sunny beaches, inquisitive travelers can find remnants of America's Spanish past

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Then, in 1564, French Huguenots landed near today's Jacksonville and built a fort they named Caroline. Where the Spanish had seen Florida as a no-gold wasteland, Jean Ribaut, a Huguenot leader, saw Eden, a land the "fairest, frutefullest, and plesantest of all the worlde."

Now French Protestants—heretics!—squatted in Philip's Florida. Worse, they were nicely situated to attack the galleons near where the treasure fleets turned east, toward Spain. This called for action. And Philip knew just the man.

If the French are there, the land must be valuable

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés had served as captain general of the annual treasure fleet to the Americas. He had also done jail time on a trumped-up smuggling charge. So when the king needed a tough guy, he turned to Menéndez: "You will explore and colonize Florida," he commanded, "and if there be settlers or corsairs of other nations not subject to us, drive them out."

In 1565, Menéndez sailed from Cádiz with about 30 vessels, carrying approximately 2,600 sailors and soldiers, administrators, priests, farmers, millers, tanners, locksmiths and silversmiths. Meanwhile, France's Jean Ribaut had his orders too: "Do not let Menéndez encroach upon you, any more than he would let you encroach upon him."

Scouting ahead of his armada, which had been scattered by storms, Menéndez sighted a good harbor on September 3. He named it San Augustín, for his hometown's patron saint. A few days later, after a foray to the north and a preliminary skirmish with the French, he sailed back to set up shop at St. Augustine. Timucua Indians greeted the Spaniards as they stepped onto the white beach in their thigh-high boots, and tights and puffy breeches, hot sun glinting off their metal armor and helmets. The Timucua, who sensibly wore little, must have been bemused by the sight as the Spanish blew trumpets, beat drums, shot off cannon, celebrated mass, and then, one by one, kissed a cross. It was September 8. St. Augustine was now a Spanish municipality.

Hospitably, the Timucua offered the Spaniards their village's palm-thatched communal house to use as their fort. Arriving ships swelled the new colony to 500 soldiers, plus a hundred men, women, children and officials, whom Menéndez termed "useless people." Meanwhile, the soldiers did what they could to fortify the communal house, expecting an immediate French attack.

A fort affords Florida some security

Just as the Spaniards were digging in, two French galleons from Fort Caroline appeared on the horizon. But before Jean Ribaut could strike, a sudden storm blew his ships to the south. Exploiting the bad weather, which lasted for days, Menéndez ordered a hard march up the coast, through wind and floods, to take Fort Caroline by surprise. Of 240 in the garrison, 132 were killed.

To the south, the storm-blown French ships foundered. The French soldiers trudged back north, unaware the Spanish had taken their fort. Menéndez, with 50 soldiers, persuaded 200 of the bedraggled Frenchmen to surrender. Then, except for ten professed Catholics, whom Menéndez afforded safe passage to St. Augustine, he had them skewered. Soon after, he captured Ribaut and 150 Frenchmen. Except for the musicians and four Catholics, he killed them too.


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