A poor nobleman from Asturia, Spain, Pedro Menendez de Aviles became a successful and prosperous Captain-General of the Spanish Indies fleet.
On March 20, 1565, Charles V selected this intensely loyal Catholic soldier to drive the French from Fort Caroline and develop a Spanish colony in La Florida. Unlike earlier missions, Menendez directed his wealth and interest in building a strong colony at St. Augustine, placating the Indians with bribes, and building forts along the coast to stop pirating. He was extremely disappointed in the lack of financial help he received from Spain to colonize Florida and built additional settlements.
Philip II was indeed planning to remove the French Huguenot colony from Florida. Ironically copying the French example, the Spanish King discovered his choice for leader in the prison of the Golden Tower in Seville. Pedro Menendez de Aviles had been jailed by the House of Trade for disobeying orders. Philip II nevertheless knew this former Captain-General of the West Indies would be the perfect Adelantado for Florida. Pedro Menendez de Aviles was a skilled sailor, a wealthy supporter of Spain, and a staunch Roman Catholic, all qualities needed to take control of La Florida.
In August of 1565, Menendez's attack fleet reached the mouth of the St. Johns River in Florida, only to discover that the Frenchman, Jean Ribaut, and his five ships were blocking the entrance in an advantageous position. Menendez withdrew to a deep and protected harbor he had seen on August 28, 1565, St. Augustine's day. He started a camp in the place he called "St. Augustine," not knowing he would be starting the oldest continuous settlement in what became the United States.
Jean Ribaut realized he had to be daring to confront the Spanish so he set sail to attack the Spanish while they unloaded supplies. Unfortunately for the daring Frenchman, a sudden storm pushed his fleet past St. Augustine's protected harbor. Most of the French ships crashed on the Atlantic shore near present-day Daytona Beach.
Menendez, realizing the French were caught in a storm south of St. Augustine, decided to start his own surprise attack, an overland march to Fort Caroline. He left his fleet guarding the entrance to St. Augustine, while he sent five hundred professional soldiers through the swamplands of northeast Florida. Despite a driving rain storm and waist deep water, the troops marched north for three days.
The men thought their leader was insane, but Menendez's plan worked perfectly. He had a French traitor as an informant. They reached Fort Caroline in the early morning and discovered the fortress unprepared for any landside attack. Laudonniere's fort was even lower than surrounding bluffs so the Spanish could denote every French defensive position and sentinel.
The Spanish rushed the defenseless garrison on three sides. Most of the French were not trained soldiers and quickly deserted their positions. Laudonniere and artist Jacques Le Moyne, whose paintings of the Indians are important today, fled to the coast with some fifty survivors. The Spanish killed 142 French before the survivors surrendered. The Spanish lost one soldier. Menendez renamed the fort San Mateo.
Ribaut's forces, crushed on the Daytona Beaches, had no other option but to march northward in hopes of attacking St. Augustine. The effort might have succeeded if they were not stopped at Matanzas Inlet, the southern entrance to St. Augustine Harbor. Without tools and sufficient lumber, the French could not cross the waterway.
Menendez found the worn French on the south side of the inlet. Some rich Frenchmen offered payment for their lives, but Menendez refused. He brought Ribaut across the inlet in a rowboat and accepted formal surrender. Ten Frenchmen at a time were brought across the waterway, and with their hands tied behind them, marched behind sand dunes to be executed.
When it was Ribaut's turn to die, he told Menendez he was proud to be a Lutheran. Only ten Catholic French and six cabin boys were spared from the ordeal. The inlet became known as "Mantanzas" or "massacre" inlet.
Pedro Menendez de Aviles had placed the Spanish flag at San Mateo and St. Augustine and finally established a Spanish foothold on the Florida peninsula. He had promised Spain he would spend his entire fortune to assure a successful colony. He would soon realize, as Florida's first Spanish colonial Governor, that it would take that money and more to keep Spanish Florida operating.
In January, 1566, Menéndez received a report that the Frenchmen were going to attempt to establish another settlement in Florida, so he gathered a fleet of ships and sailed north from St. Augustine to counter that effort. He did not encounter any sign of French presence on this trip, but he decided to establish an outpost on present-day Parris Island near Beaufort, South Carolina. He chose this spot because Ribaut's initial settlement in Florida had been on or near Parris Island in 1562-1563, and he was concerned that the Frenchmen might return to that same area.
Thus Santa Elena became the second of the "two or three towns" Menéndez had agreed to establish in Florida under his contract agreement with Phillip II.
Menéndez' outpost at Santa Elena consisted of a small
fort, Fort San Salvador (the location of this fort is currently
unknown), with a garrison of about 80 men. In late summer, 1566,
Captain Juan Pardo arrived at Santa Elena with an additional
force of 250 men, necessitating construction of a larger fort,
Fort San Felipe. In December, 1566, Captain Pardo and 125 of
his men were sent inland on an expedition intended to establish
friendly relations with interior Indians and ultimately to find
an overland route to Mexico. This was to be the first of two
Pardo expeditions inland in 1566-1568; neither of Pardo's expeditions
reached beyond the Appalachian Mountains.
Jesuit missionaries worked to convert the Indians around Santa Elena to Catholicism beginning in 1569. These missionaries, including Juan Rogel who had previously served in southwest Florida among the Calusa, soon encountered difficulties in their task because the Indians near Santa Elena were mobile and refused to settle in permanent towns.
Disease epidemics plagued the Santa Elena colonists during their first years, with major outbreaks occurring in 1570 and 1571. Supply ships arrived at irregular intervals, and there were times when both settlers and soldiers suffered greatly as a result. Short supplies caused the residents of Santa Elena to turn to local Indians for help, and before long the Indians were in revolt due to ever increasing demands for food by the Spanish. Part of the garrison of Fort San Felipe was withdrawn by Menéndez in 1570, but it was subsequently reinforced to full strength.
While Menéndez' first settlement was at St. Augustine, he soon made Santa Elena his capital in Florida. When his wife and her attendants arrived in July 1571, they settled at Santa Elena. Santa Elena was a small, struggling community with a total population of 179 settlers and 76 soldiers in August of 1572. Settlers were primarily farmers, who by this time were growing a variety of crops including corn, squash, melons, barley, and grapes; livestock, including hogs and cattle, as well as chickens, had been introduced and were being raised with limited success.
Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Adelantado of Florida, died in 1574 while on a mission to Spain. During Menéndez' absence, Don Diego de Velasco, one of Pedro Menéndez' two sons-in-law and Lieutenant Governor, served as interim governor; he continued in that position following Menéndez' death. Menéndez' daughter, Catalina, inherited the title of Adelantado of Florida, and ultimately her husband, Hernando de Miranda, was appointed Governor. Miranda, however, did not actually arrive at Santa Elena until February, 1576. During the years that Velasco served as interim governor, he had several run-ins with settlers, and he mistreated the Indians residing in the vicinity of Santa Elena. This poor relationship with the Indians led to a series of attacks on Santa Elena. The loss of thirty soldiers in these attacks ultimately forced the temporary abandonment of both the fort and town at Santa Elena in late summer, 1576. As the soldiers and settlers waited to cross the bar in departing Port Royal Sound, they were able to see the town and fort being burned by Indians.
Second Spanish Occupation at Santa Elena (1577-1587):
In October of 1577, Santa Elena was reoccupied by a military force commanded by Pedro Menéndez Marqués, who had been appointed Governor of Santa Elena to replace Hernando de Miranda. Miranda was in Spain facing charges resulting from his abandonment of Santa Elena. Menéndez Marqués anticipated that the Indians might attack any force that tried to return to Santa Elena, so he took with him from St. Augustine a prefabricated fort that he and his 53 men were able to erect in only six days. At this point, Santa Elena was only a military outpost, and St. Augustine retained its new-found position as Florida's capital. Gutierre de Miranda, brother of former Governor Hernando de Miranda, was appointed to serve as Governor and Captain of the new fort which was called San Marcos. Menéndez Marqúes soon found other duties for Miranda, however, and Captain Tomás Bernaldo de Quirós was appointed interim governor at Santa Elena in August of 1578. Between 1577 and 1580, Santa Elena's Governor Miranda and interim governor, Captain Bernaldo de Quirós, in conjunction with Florida Governor Menéndez Marqués, attacked and subdued the several Indian groups who had been involved in the destruction of the first town of Santa Elena.
In the Fall of 1578, Captain Alvaro Flores de Valdés made two visits to Santa Elena on an inspection tour. His written accounts provide an excellent description of Fort San Marcos, its armaments, and its garrison. A plan of that fort presented here depicts it precisely as it was described by Flores; authorship of that plan is not known, but it may well have been drawn by Flores.
Once the Indians had been subdued, settlers returned to Santa Elena. Bernaldo de Quirós rebuilt the town during his tenure, and when he departed in November, 1580, the town contained more than thirty houses. By 1580, the population of Santa Elena had grown to about 400 people.
Gutierre de Miranda resumed his command at Santa Elena in November of 1580, and he built a sizable estate nearby. Following the defeat of local Indian populations, existence in Santa Elena was relatively peaceful, and it is easy to imagine that the people residing there must have had great optimism concerning their future in this new land.
This optimism may have been shaken by word of an English settlement to the north. In 1584, the English made their first effort to claim part of Spanish Florida by settling a colony at Roanoke on the North Carolina coast.
Two years after that first attempted settlement at Roanoke, word arrived in Florida that Francis Drake and a large expeditionary force had attacked several major Spanish settlements in the Caribbean, and that he might be intent on an attack against Florida. As a result of this warning, an effort was made to strengthen fortifications at both St. Augustine and Santa Elena. Gutierre de Miranda undertook the work at Santa Elena, and soon Fort San Marcos was surrounded by a newly excavated moat, reinforced curtain walls, and new casemates and gun platforms. A contemporary diagram detailing the work accomplished by Miranda at Fort San Marcos. In June of 1586, an English fleet commanded by Francis Drake attacked and destroyed the town of St. Augustine. Santa Elena was not subjected to attack by Drake. The destruction of St. Augustine forced the Spaniards to consolidate their limited supplies and personnel in a single Florida outpost, and St. Augustine was chosen due to its proximity to Cuba. Santa Elena was abandoned in the summer of 1587; the town and fort were dismantled, and materials not worthy of salvage were burned.
Following this second abandonment, Santa Elena was never reoccupied by the Spanish. In the subsequent decades, the Spanish maintained a series of missions extending along the Georgia coast with priests occasionally visiting the Indians in the vicinity of Santa Elena, but the town of Santa Elena was never reestablished.
Unrelated to the Carolinas but interesting, here is a short description of Potanou, a native Indian chief that defied Pedro Menendez de Aviles while he was in Florida.