Angel de Villafane

Angel de Villafane, Spanish navigator, was born in the beginning of the 16th century and wrecked on the Florida coast in 1548. He was a skilful navigator, and had made voyages to Santo Domingo and to Mexico when he was appointed toward the end of 1547 commander of an expedition that sailed from San Juan de Ulua to explore the coast of Florida. He began the first Spanish settlement in that country, but had difficulties with the Indians, and, being short of provisions, re-embarked to find a more convenient place to plant a colony. During the voyage he was wrecked, and perished with most of his men, only a few of whom found their way to Santo Domingo. The papers relating to his expedition have been published by Henry Ternaux-Compans in his " Recueil de pieces sur la Floride." See also Francis Parkman's "Pioneers of France in the New World" (Boston, 1865).

Ángel de Villafañe was born about 1504, the son of Juan de Villafañe and Catalina de Valdés, natives of León, Castile, who had served King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela. In 1513, at age nine, he accompanied his father in Pedrarias Dávila's fleet to Darién. The next notice of Villafañe is ten years later, when he went to Pánuco in the company of Francisco de Garay. With Garay checkmated in his plans to establish a colony by Hernán Cortés, Villafañe joined the Cortés faction and went to Mexico City. In the capital he married Doña Ynés de Caravajal, a relative of Pedro de Alvarado of conquest fame. Villafañe became known as "one of the principal caballeros" of that city, and he and his wife were recognized as "gentle people, hidalgos, and of great fortune."

Villafañe took part in the conquest of Michoacán and Colima and helped subdue the Chontal Mayas, the Zapotecs, and the Mixes. For such service he was awarded an encomienda at Xaltepec. He then participated in the pacification of Jaliscos and, as a ship captain, in Cortés's exploration of the Pacific coast. In 1553, Villafañe found himself in a tight spot after acting on the viceroy's orders to arrest the king's inspector, Diego Ramírez. Caught between the viceroy and the royal audiencia, he sought to extricate himself by writing to the emperor Charles V. His letter was dispatched in April 1554 on the ship San Andrés, the only ship of the four sailing at that time to make port. The other three were wrecked by storm on Padre Island, Texas. When word of the disaster reached Mexico City early in June, the viceroy immediately sent Villafañe marching overland to find the treasure-laden vessels. He proceeded to Pánuco and there hired a ship to take him to the site, which had already been visited from that community. He was on hand to greet García de Escalante Alvarado, commander of the salvage operation, when the latter arrived by sea on July 22. The team labored until September 12 to salvage the Padre Island treasure. This loss, in combination with other disasters around the Gulf of Mexico, gave rise to concern for establishing a settlement on the northern Gulf Coast to protect shipping and rescue castaways.

To this end the expedition of Tristán de Luna y Arellano landed at Pensacola Bay on August 15, 1559. Villafañe was involved in the Luna enterprise from the beginning. Before it sailed, he took charge of the camp at Jalapa while Luna himself proceeded to Veracruz to complete arrangements and drew a muster roll and inventory. Afterward, in command of the San Juan de Ulúa garrison at Veracruz, he was able to keep tab on the operation and report to the viceroy, Luis de Velasco. Then, when Luna proved incapable of managing the undertaking, Velasco sent Villafañe to succeed him. Villafañe reached Ochuse (Pensacola) in early March 1561 and assumed authority as "governor of the provinces of La Florida and Punta de Santa Elena" on April 9, as Luna withdrew.

Leaving fifty men at Ochuse, he began moving the rest of the colony (about 230 persons) to Santa Elena (South Carolina). After several landings on the Carolina coast while seeking a suitable port, the fleet was struck by a hurricane. Villafañe took his storm-battered remnant to Hispaniola, then to Havana, where his soldiers scattered. After three months in Cuba, he returned to Pensacola Bay to remove the rest of the colony. Villafañe returned to Mexico and, with other participants in the Florida-Santa Elena attempt, was summoned by Viceroy Velasco to give advice on future undertakings. The conferees gave a negative assessment of both the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic. Future efforts on the Atlantic seaboard were to be made from Spain, and no new enterprise was undertaken on the northern Gulf shore until after René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle's Texas landing more than a century later.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Herbert Ingram Priestley, The Luna Papers (2 vols., Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1971). Robert S. Weddle, Spanish Sea: The Gulf of Mexico in North American Discovery, 1500-1685 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1985).

Angel de Villafañe cruised along the Carolina coast in 1561 prior to establishing Santa Elena, and went as far north as Cape Hatteras in that year. He also sent Captain Velasquez with a small contingent to the Chesapeake Bay area that same year.


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