St. Augustine's Written History

  • Ponce De Leon's Discovery

    The culture of North America changed forever in the year 1513. In April, the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon landed while searching for the fabled isle of Bimini. The exact landing spot where Ponce and his men came ashore remains unknown, but it was apparently somewhere between the Cape Canaveral area and the mouth of the St. Johns River. Searching for this historic site, archeologists have conducted numerous "digs" at the Fountain of Youth, a National Archeological Park, where a Timucuan Indian village called Seloy was located and where the city of St. Augustine had its beginning.

    Ponce de Leon was on a mission of exploration, not settlement, and his visit to northeast Florida was brief. Because he arrived during the Easter season, known as the Pascua Florida, Ponce named his new discovery La Florida – a name still used today. Besides naming the land and claiming it for Spain, Ponce de Leon made a discovery that was to lead to the creation of St. Augustine. Sailing along the Florida coastline, Ponce de Leon realized that a strong current was carrying his ships rapidly northward. This would aid in quickly returning Spanish ships home and was later called the Gulf Stream. Although Timucuans may not have had much contact with the Spanish after Ponce de Leon sailed away, Native Americans in other parts of Florida welcomed, battled with and fled from numerous Spanish expeditions. Ponce turned his attention to the west coast of Florida where he died from a poisoned arrow.

    Men like Tristan de Luna, Cabeza de Vaca, and Hernando de Soto followed Ponce de Leon to Florida and reluctantly concluded that major investment in this land was not worthwhile. It was filled with dangerous animals like alligators and snakes, as well as insects. Heat, humidity, hurricanes and other storms were serious unavoidable problems. Some parts of Florida welcomed the Spanish, but it soon became apparent that the war-like natives would not be as easily subdued as those from other parts of the New World. Natives from these far more lucrative areas could be forced to work as slaves while Spain took their gold and silver. Also, European agriculture did not take hold on the coasts. It seemed apparent that a colony would have to depend on help from Spain to survive. Based on these conclusions, the Spanish simply ignored risky Florida.

    French Intruders

    In 1562, French Protestants known as Huguenots arrived in Florida. Led by Jean Ribault, their goal was to establish a colony in the New World as a possible haven. Despite the Spanish claim to a vast La Florida-- from modern-day Florida to Labrador and as far westward as the King of Spain could imagine-- the Frenchmen established a small settlement near the mouth of the St. Johns River. Unfortunately for them, their food supply shipment never arrived. Though Timucuans happily shared their beans and squash with their visitors, eventually the French faced starvation and mutiny. Thus, the Frenchman devoted their efforts to building a boat and wasted no time in sailing away from Florida.

    In 1564, a much larger and better prepared French expedition -- Huguenots including women and children-- arrived at the earlier settlement. Led by Rene Laudonniere, Fort Caroline was built from the remains of the previous village.

    In 1561, Spain’s King Phillip II had declared that no more effort would be made to colonize Florida. It was explained to Phillip by his advisors that the arrival of the French was a trespass on Spanish territory, and as Protestants, they were heretics. Beyond that, the presence of a French base on the eastern shore of La Florida would pose a very dangerous threat to the Spanish treasure fleets returning home.

    Diplomatically, the Spanish reminded Queen Catherine of France that the Pope had confirmed that La Florida was the property of Spain. They asked her to remove her subjects, but soon learned that the French were preparing an even larger fleet to sail for Florida. The French would have to be removed by force. King Phillip knew the best man to complete such a task was Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles.

    Menendez and his Mission

    Admiral General Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles was born in Aviles, Spain in 1519. When Menendez was only 30, King Charles of Spain directed him to pursue and capture a French corsair named Jean Alfonse who had recently seized ten Spanish ships. Although the king provided neither money, ships nor troops for the mission, Menendez headed out to sea where he freed five of the ships and killed Alfonse. In 1554, the king placed him in charge of the treasure fleets sailing between Spain and her colonies in the New World. The Casa de Contratacion, previously in charge, had lost fleets to corsairs. Menendez excelled without bribery and successfully led the fleets on their long journeys. Another war between Spain and France resulted in new duties for Menendez. He distinguished himself in battles, and at the war’s end, he was given the honor of transporting King Phillip home to Spain.

    Confident that he had the direct support of the throne, Menendez became more and more disrespectful of the Casa, who had become increasingly annoyed with his success and honesty. In one famous incident, he insulted the Casa members publicly by personally removing the King’s banner from one of their small boats. When he returned from the 1563 voyage, the Casa accused him of numerous infractions and he was imprisoned in the Almohades treasure house in Seville.