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Chapter 11

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Spain in America

by
Edward Gaylord Bourne

in the
Barnes & Noble edition,
New York, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 13

p175 Chapter XII

French and Spaniards in Florida
(1558‑1568)

As a term in the political geography of Spanish America, the name "Florida" was equivalent to the eastern half of the present United States, or the country from Mexico to Newfoundland.1 In 1558, Philip II authorized Luis de Velasco, viceroy of New Spain, to undertake the settlement of Florida. After a preliminary reconnoissance Velasco despatched, in the summer of 1559, an expedition of fifteen hundred soldiers and settlers to make a beginning at Pensacola Bay.2 The site selected was unfavorable, but attempts to find a better one were not successful; a winter of privation followed, and during the following summer the colony was much reduced. The second summer most of the settlers went off with Angel de Villafañe to the Atlantic coast, to Santa Elena, Port Royal Sounds. When he arrived there late in May, 1561, Villafañe, disappointed at the unsuitableness of the region for a colony, continued his explorations to p176Chesapeake Bay and then returned to Española. The unhappy experiences of these colonists convinced Philip II that the region was not likely to be occupied by the French, and hence he decided that no further attempt at colonization should be made.3

The very next year the unexpected happened. Jean Ribaut, of Dieppe, under the patronage of Coligny, the leader of the Huguenots in France, led a party of soldiers and young nobles to the east shore of Florida, whence they coasted as far north as Port Royal Sounds. Here Ribaut left thirty men and returned to France. Want, lonesomeness, and contentions drove them to the desperate expedient of building a vessel to make their escape from the desolate continent, but only at the cost of such privations as reduced them to cannibalism before they were picked up by an English ship.4

In 1564 the plans for a colony in Florida of French Huguenots were matured by Coligny; and the expedition set out in June under the command of René de Laudonnière, a French officer and gentleman who had been with Ribaut in the first voyage. The site selected was at the mouth of the St. John's River, Florida. Here a fort was built and parties were despatched to explore the country. There were few if any tillers of the soil in the company, and p177when the first novelty wore off, recklessness and ennui led to quarrels, insubordination, and plots.

Thirteen of the sailors seized one of the vessels and set off on a buccaneering cruise against the Spaniards. Want finally brought them up in Havana, where, to save themselves, they gave information in regard to the colony.5 Their example was soon followed by sixty-six others, tempted by the chances with of wealth in plundering Spanish ships and settlements. At first successful, they came to grief, and less than half returned to the fort, where Laudonnière overpowered them and put to death four of the ringleaders for mutiny.6

In August, 1565, after a summer of extreme want, the wasted garrison were preparing to leave the country, when Ribaut arrived with several hundred colonists, soldiers, and young gentlemen, with some artisans and their families.7 Ribaut also brought orders to Laudonnière to resign his command and return to France.8

Contemporaneous with this effort of the French Huguenots to occupy Florida was a new project to colonize the country for Spain. Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who had served as commander of the fleet to New Spain, secured a patent in March, 1565, erecting Florida into a government and constituting him adelantado, governor, and captain-general. p178Menendez on his part was to take five hundred men, one hundred of them farmers, to explore and conquer Florida, to transport settlers thither, some of whom were to be married, support twelve friars as missionaries, and supply domestic animals for the settlements.9 This task Menendez undertook with great energy and zeal. The hazy ideas of the width of the continent, still prevalent even after De Soto's expedition, led him to think Florida near enough to the silver-mines of Zacatecas and St. Martin, in Mexico, to be substituted for Vera Cruz as the place of export, thus avoiding the dangers to health in that town and enabling traffic to escape the perilous and tedious navigation of the gulf by an overland journey of perhaps a hundred leagues longer than that to Vera Cruz. In reality it was over one thousand miles farther from Zacatecas to Florida than to Vera Cruz.10

While Menendez was making his preparations the news first reached the Spanish court of the projects of the French. The king immediately gave orders that Menendez should be granted three vessels, two hundred cavalry, and four hundred infantry in the islands to drive out the French.11 That the Spanish government should allow a French settlement in so important a strategic point in relation p179to their commerce with New Spain was inconceivable, and one wonders why the French promoters of enterprise expected that it would be regarded as anything but a declaration of hostilities.12 The islands were already exposed to the ravages of French buccaneers. The corsair French Jacques de Sorie had sacked and burned Havana ten years before and killed thirty-four prisoners in cold blood.13 To furnish a basis for attacks of this sort, it was naturally believed by the Spanish authorities, was the motive of Ribaut and Laudonnière; and the conduct of the two detachments of mutineers only confirmed the supposition.

That the intruders were heretics intensified their exasperation. Carefully shielding the purity of the faith in the New World by excluding all Spaniards whose progenitors had been tainted with heresy, they would regard an enterprise which combined plunder of their colonies and fleets and a corruption of the Indians with diabolical heresy as an extraordinary provocation, excluding the guilty plotters from any claim to mercy.

Menendez, with a company of over two thousand six hundred persons, all maintained at his own expense, p180except one ship and about three hundred soldiers paid by the king, left Cadiz, June 29, about the time Ribaut must have left Dieppe.14 On the night of September 4, off the coast of Florida, Menendez fell in with some of Ribaut's ships, and in response to inquiries announced his instructions to hang and burn the Lutheran French to be found there.15 The French ships escaped in the darkness, and Menendez continued on his way to his new domain. September 6, 1565, a landing was made and a fort begun which may be considered the foundation of St. Augustine, the oldest town in the United States. Two days later Menendez landed and took formal possession of the territory.16

His forces were not so superior to Ribaut's as to prevent his situation being one of peril. A storm, however, scattered Ribaut's ships, and Menendez decided to attack the French by land. A stealthy march, a desperate assault on a sleeping garrison just before daybreak amid a pouring rain, and soon all was over. One hundred and thirty men lay dead in and around the fort.17 The women and children under fifteen Menendez ordered to be spared.18 p181Of them he wrote to the king, "There were, between women, infants, and boys of fifteen years and under, some fifty persons, whom it gives me the greater pain to see in the company of my men, by reason of their wicked sect, and I have feared that our Lord would chastise me if I shall deal cruelly with them, for eight or ten children were born here."19

About fifty persons escaped the slaughter by swimming across the river or by taking boats to the ships. One of the ships was sunk by the guns of the fort. The other slipped down the river a few miles where there were two more. Menendez determined to capture them if possible. In his absence word was brought that some twenty Frenchmen had come in from the woods, and he gave orders to execute justice upon them.20 A few days later, after Menendez had returned to St. Augustine, he heard of a party of Frenchmen some twenty miles distant to the south. He set out immediately with a small force against them. From their spokesman he learned that Ribaut's fleet, consisting of four galleons and eight pinnaces with four hundred picked men and two hundred sailors, which had put out in search of the Spaniards, had been struck by a hurricane, that three of the galleons had gone down p182with over two hundred persons, and that Ribaut's flag-ship had been dismasted.

In reply to a request for safe passage to the fort Menendez told him: "We held their fort, having taken and put to death those who were in it for having erected it there without the leave of your majesty, and because they were planting their wicked Lutheran sect in these your majesty's provinces, and that I made war with fire and blood as governor and captain-general of these provinces upon all who might come to these parts to settle and to plant this evil Lutheran sect, seeing that I came by your majesty's command to bring the gospel into these parts, to enlighten the natives thereof with that which is told and believed by the holy mother church of Rome for the salvation of their souls; that therefore I should not give them passage, but, on the contrary, should pursue them by sea and by land until I had their lives."21

The Frenchmen, through a lieutenant of Laudonnière, then offered to surrender if their lives would be spared. "I answered," writes Menendez, "that they might give up their arms and place themselves at my mercy; that I should deal with them as our Lord should command me, and that he [i.e., the envoy] had not moved me from this nor could move me, unless God our Lord should inspire in me something different."22 According to Solis, the p183brother-in‑law of Menendez, who was a witness, his reply was that "if they wished to surrender their arms and banners and put themselves at his mercy they might do so and he would do with them as God should give him grace, they might do as they liked; other truce or friendship they could not have."23

It is possible that the translation of this reply into French made it seem to give grounds for a hope that did not exist. To‑day, in view of what Menendez had declared to the first envoy, he does not seem to have committed himself to any mercy. Their offer of fifty thousand ducats as a ransom he promptly declined, saying "that although he was poor he would not do that weakness; when he wanted to be liberal and merciful he would be so without self-interest."24 After consultation the Frenchmen decided to surrender. All of them, over a hundred in number, except twelve Breton sailors who had been kidnapped and four carpenters and caulkers, were put to the knife in cold blood. Ever since the spot has borne the name Matanzas ("Slaughters").

Next came the turn of Ribaut and those with him. October 10, Menendez received news of their approach, and went out to meet them with a body of one hundred and fifty men. The French asked for a parley, which was granted, and Menendez was then informed that it was Ribaut with some three hundred and fifty men, and that they desired safe passage to p184their fort. Again came the unrelenting answer that "I was his enemy and waged war against them with fire and blood, for that they were Lutherans, and because they had come to plant in these lands of your majesty their evil sect and to instruct the Indians in it."25 Ribaut himself desired an interview, which was granted. It was hard for him to believe that his fort was captured, the garrison slain, and that the other party of refugees from the wreck had been killed, but the sight of the dead bodies on the sands convinced him. In response to his request for terms, if they should surrender, Menendez made the same answer that he had made a fortnight earlier.

Ribaut consulted his men and found them divided. He returned and explained the situation to Menendez. Some wished to throw themselves on his mercy and others not. Menendez answered it made no difference to him; they might all come or part of them or none; they might do as they liked. Ribaut then said that half of them would pay one hundred and fifty thousand ducats ransom and that the other half would pay more, as there were rich men among them. Menendez replied that it was hard to lose such a sum, as he was in need of it. This answer gave an encouragement to Ribaut for which one sees little ground, for if Menendez had intended to deceive him it would have been as easy to say "he should be glad to have it."

Grasping at the chance, whatever it was, Ribaut p185and one hundred and fifty of his men gave themselves up. They were led by tens back of the sand-dunes and then asked whether they were Catholics or Lutherans, "and then John Ribaut replied that he and all that were there were of the new religion, and began to repeat the psalm, 'Domine, memento mei,' and when he had finished he said that they were of the earth and to the earth must return. Twenty years more or less, it was all the same thing."26 Then all were put to the knife save two young gentlemen about eighteen years of age and a drummer, a fifer, and a trumpeter. Menendez wrote to King Philip: "I hold it the chief good-fortune that he [Ribaut] is dead, because the king of France would do more with him with five hundred ducats than with others and five thousand, and he would do more in one year than another in ten, since he was the most expert sailor and corsair known, and very skilful in this navigation of the Indies and coast of Florida."27

Three weeks later Indians brought information that the rest of Ribaut's party, who refused to surrender, were building a fort and a ship. Menendez set forth against them by forced marches with three hundred men. This time, affected perhaps by adverse criticism at St. Augustine,28 or because he saw p186that it would be impracticable to capture them and felt "that it would not be proper that so wicked a sect should remain in the land,"29 and possibly because his own heart had softened, he offered them their lives if they would surrender. One hundred and fifty did so and were well treated. The captain and about twenty rejected the offer, sending word "that he would be eaten by the Indians rather than surrender to the Spaniards."30

The story of this tragedy has been told from the Spanish side,a for the accounts of Menendez and Solis bear upon them the marks of truth so far as these are discoverable. They do not blink the facts nor do they show signs of consciousness that there was need of concealment or apology. The accounts of the French who escaped accuse Menendez of having promised on oath to save the lives of those who surrendered. This it is difficult to believe in view of the whole tone of Menendez's correspondence with the king.31 That a man of honor and religion could have done such a deed seems impossible to‑day. Yet if the perplexed student will read Oliver Cromwell's account of the massacre at Drogheda, and if he will read Carlyle's comments, he may be able to understand why the historian Barcia accorded admiration to Menendez.32

p187 The French king, Charles IX, and his stronger mother, Catherine de' Medici, demanded reparation urgently and repeatedly; but Philip II only said that he was sorry for what had happened, and insisted the Admiral Coligny was responsible for having authorized the French to occupy Spanish territory, and that he ought to be punished; redress he refused to give.33 To Menendez, however, he expressed his approval of his conduct. In the state of politics and religion in France a breach with Spain seemed to the leaders of the Catholic party out of the question; they did not venture beyond protests.

A private adventurer, Dominic de Gourgues, so the accepted story runs, then took upon himself the responsibility of avenging his countrymen, setting out from France in the summer of 1567 with three vessels, under a commission to capture slaves in Africa. After selling his cargo in Española, when off the western end of Cuba he revealed his project to his men. They soon fell in with the plan, and De Gourgues made his way to the St. John's River to attack the Spanish fort San Mateo, which was the successor of Laudonnière's Fort Caroline. First two outposts lower down the river, then the fort itself, were taken by assault. All the Spaniards p188that escaped the sword were hanged, with the inscription placed above them: "Not as Spaniards, but as traitors, robbers, and murderers." He then razed the forts, and returned to France, hoping for a recognition which only the Huguenots gave.34

It is a singular fact that a most careful search of the Spanish archives failed to find "the slightest allusion to any such capture of San Mateo and the two adjacent forts";35 nor do the papers of the Menendez family appear to have contained any material on this incident, since the Spanish historian Barcia, who utilized those papers, had no sources save the French narrative. That account says nothing of the existence of St. Augustine, and, on the other hand, the existence of two forts besides San Mateo is unknown to the contemporary Spanish sources.36 To these perplexities may be added the fact that Juan Lopez de Velasco, the cosmographer of the Council of the Indies, writing in 1571‑1574, in his account of Florida, knows nothing of De Gourgues's raid in 1568, but says that Fort San Mateo was abandoned in 1570.37

Historians have told the tale as one of poetic p189justice, and religious sympathies have naturally been enlisted on the side of the avenger. Yet it should not be forgotten that, merciless and cruel as was Menendez's deed — the nearest parallel to the bloody massacres of the Crusades or the religious wars in Europe that ever happened in our country's historyb — he was the constituted authority in Florida, and was acting in general pursuance of instructions from his king. He looked upon the French colonists as corsairs, which, in fact, at least some of them were. That the French had a right to establish a colony in Florida can hardly be maintained; their own claim was based on a purely fictitious discovery in the fifteenth century. De Gourgues, acting as a private adventurer, had no color of law on his side.

The tragedy was the end of French colonization on the southern main-land for nearly a century and a half; and the end forever of the attempts to establish a Huguenot refuge and power on this side of the sea. Their contribution to American life was to be made as individuals, a sturdy leaven in a congenial though foreign society. On the other hand, neither Menendez nor his heirs or descendants succeeded in founding a flourishing Spanish community in Florida. Equally without permanent success were the repeated efforts of missionary bands to convert the Indians.


The Author's Notes:

1 Lopez de Velasco, Descripcion de las Indias, 157.

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2 Lowery, Spanish Settlements, 357.

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3 Lowery, Spanish Settlements, 374‑376.

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4 Laudonnière, in Hakluyt, Voyages, XIII, 417‑441; Parkman, Pioneers of France, 33‑47.

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5 Laudonnière, in Hakluyt, Voyages, XIII, 473.

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6 Ibid., 479.

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7 Parkman, Pioneers of France, 93.

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8 Ibid., 94; Hakluyt, Voyages, XIII, 511.

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9 Shea, in Winsor, Narr. and Crit. Hist., II, 261.

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10 Menendez to the king, Mass. Hist. Soc., Proceedings, 2d series, VIII, 435, 456.

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11 Barcia, Ensayo Cronologico, 67; Parkman, Pioneers of France, 100.

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12 Ribaut's instructions contemplated hostilities. Parkman, Pioneers of France, 115, n.

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13 Shea, in Winsor, Narr. and Crit. Hist., 261, 275. See the certified statement in Buckingham Smith, Col. de Docs. de la Florida, 202‑208. Jacques de Sorie is described as a Picard or Norman, and, "grandisimo hereje Luterano," the churches were burned and the images mutilated.

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14 Barcia, Ensayo Cronologico, 69.

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15 Menendez to the king, Mass. Hist. Soc., Proceedings, 2d series, VIII, 420; Mendoza Grajales, the chaplain of the expedition, in French, Hist. Coll. of Louisiana and Florida, II, 211.

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16 Mendoza Grajales, ibid., 217‑219.

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17 September 20, Menendez to the king, ibid., 426. The statements about the number vary somewhat. Cf. Parkman, Pioneers of France, 127, and Shea, in Winsor, Narr. and Crit. Hist., 272.

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18 Barcia, Ensayo Cronologico, 1.

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19 Menendez to the king, Mass. Hist. Soc., Proceedings, 2d series, VIII, 427. He sent them to Santo Domingo as soon as possible — Barcia, Ensayo Cronologico, 87; in English in French, Hist. Coll. of Louisiana and Florida, II, 218.

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20 Mass. Hist. Soc., Proceedings, 2d series, VIII, 426, 427.

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21 Mass. Hist. Soc., Proceedings, 2d series, VIII, 428.

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22 Ibid., 429.

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23 Extract in Barcia, Ensayo Cronologico, 86; in English in French, Hist. Coll. of Louisiana and Florida, II, 218.

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24 Ibid.

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25 Mass. Hist. Soc., Proceedings, 2d series, VIII, 438.

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26 Barcia, Ensayo Cronologico, 88, 89; in English in French, Hist. Coll. of Louisiana and Florida, II, 220‑221.

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27 Parkman, Pioneers of France, 114, n.

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28 Cf. Solis, in Barcia, Ensayo Cronologico, 89; French, Hist. Coll. of Louisiana and Florida, II, 222.

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29 Menendez, in Mass. Hist. Soc., Proceedings, 2d series, VIII, 440.

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30 Solis, in Barcia, Ensayo Cronologico, 90.

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31 Shea, whose account is critical in impartial, rejects the French assertions on this point.

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32 The massacre of the English at Amboyna by the Dutch in 1623, although the numbers were much smaller, was attended by more pitiless cruelties than was the case in Florida. Cf. Gardiner, History of England, V, 242.

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33 Parkman, Pioneers of France, 151‑156.

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34 Parkman, Pioneers of France, 157‑177; La Reprinse de la Floride par le Cappitaine Gourgues, in French, Hist. Coll. of Louisiana and Florida, II, 267‑289. The story of De Gourgues's expedition first appeared in detailed form in 1586, nineteen years after the event, in Basanier, L'Histoire Notable de la Floride.

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35 Shea, in his edition of Charlevoix, New France, I, 338.

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36 Shea, in Winsor, Narr. and Crit. Hist., II, 280, 297.

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37 Juan Lopez de Velasco, Geografia y Descripcion Universal de las Indias desde el año de 1571 al de 1574, 162.


Thayer's Notes:

a For the more usual, less Hispanophile view of these Florida massacres, see Bolton, The Spanish Borderlands, pp135 ff.

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b Noting — in case you should not have noticed the 1904 date of publication of this book — that these massacres were far exceeded by the Moslem murders of nearly three thousand people in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC on September 11, 2001.


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