Colonization, 1562-1753

Author: John A. Doyle  | Date: 1562-1565

The Founding of St. Augustine and the Massacre by Menendez

In 1562 the French Huguenot party, headed by Coligny, made another attempt to secure themselves a refuge in the New World. Two ships set sail under the command of Jean Ribault, a brave and experienced seaman, destined to play a memorable and tragic part in the history of America. Ribault does not seem to have set out with any definite scheme of colonization, but rather, like Amidas and Barlow, to have contented himself. Menendez’s expedition of 1565 followed the earlier Spanish expeditions by Ponce de Leon, Narvaez and De Soto. It sailed from Cadiz and comprized eleven ships. Twenty-three other vessels followed, the entire company numbering 2,646 persons. The aim of Menendez was to begin a permanent settlement in Florida. On arrival he found a colony of French Huguenots already in possession, having been there three years. A conflict was inevitable, and one which forms a most melancholy chapter in the early history of American colonization. Menendez hanged Huguenots, "not as Frenchmen, but as heretics," while Gourgues hanged Spaniards "not as Spaniards, but as traitors, robbers and murderers." After the conflicts closed the Spaniards maintained themselves in St. Augustine until 1586, when St. Augustine was completely destroyed by Sir Francis Drake. Two years later the Armada of Spain was overthrown in the English Channel, largely as the work of Drake.

After he had laid the foundations of a fort, called in honor of the king Charlefort, Ribault returned to France. He would seem to have been unfortunate in his choice alike of colonists and of a commander. The settlers lived on the charity of the Indians, sharing in their festivities, wandering from village to village and wholly doing away with any belief in their superior wisdom and power which might yet have possest their savage neighbors….

France was torn asunder by civil war, and had no leisure to think of an insignificant settlement beyond the Atlantic. No supplies came to the settlers, and they could not live forever on the bounty of their savage neighbors. The settlers decided to return home. To do this it was needful to build a bark with their own hands from the scanty resources which the wilderness offered. Whatever might have been the failings of the settlers, they certainly showed no lack of energy or of skill in concerting means for their departure. They felled the trees to make planks, moss served for calking, and their shirts andbedding for sails, while their Indian friends supplied cordage. When their bark was finished they set sail. Unluckily in their impatience to be gone, they did not reckon what supplies they would need. The wind, at first favorable, soon turned against them, and famine stared them in the face. Driven to the last resort of starving seamen, they cast lots for a victim, and the lot, by a strange chance, fell upon the very man whose punishment had been a chief count against De Pierria. Life was supported by this hideous relief, till they came in sight of the French coast. Even then their troubles were not over. An English privateer bore down upon them and captured them. The miseries of the prisoners seem, in some measure, to have touched their enemies. A few of the weakest were landed on French soil. The rest ended their wanderings in an English prison.

The needs of the abandonment of the colony did not reach France till long after the event. Before its arrival a fleet was sent out to the relief of the colony. Three ships were dispatched, the largest of a hundred and twenty tons, the least of sixty tons, under the command of Rene Laudonniere, a young Poitevin of good birth. On their outward voyage they touched at Teneriffe and Dominica, and found ample evidence at each place of the terror which the Spaniards had inspired among the natives. In June the French reached the American shore south of Port Royal. As before, their reception by the Indians was friendly. Some further exploration failed to discover a more suitable site than that which had first presented itself, and accordingly a wooden fort was soon builtwith a timber palisade and bastions of earthen work. Before long the newcomers found that their intercourse with the Indians was attended with unlooked-for difficulties. There were three tribes of importance, each under the command of a single chief, and all more or less hostile to the other. In the South the power of the chiefs seems to have been far more dreaded, and their influence over the national policy more authoritative than among the tribes of New England and Canada. Laudonniere, with questionable judgment, entangled himself in these Indian feuds, and entered into an offensive alliance with the first of these chiefs whom he encountered, Satouriona….

A new source of trouble, however, soon beset the unhappy colonists. Their quarrels had left them no time for tilling the soil, and they were wholly dependent on the Indians for food. The friendship of the savages soon proved but a precarious means of support. The dissensions in the French camp must have lowered the new-comers in the eyes of their savage neighbors. They would only part with their supplies on exorbitant terms. Laudonniere himself throughout would have adopted moderate and conciliatory measures, but his men at length became impatient and seized one of the principal Indian chiefs as a hostage for the good behavior of his countrymen. A skirmish ensued, in which the French were victorious. It was clear, however, that the settlement could not continue to depend on supplies extorted from the Indians at the point of the sword. The settlers felt that they were wholly forgotten by their friends in France, and theydecided, tho with heavy hearts, to forsake the country which they had suffered so much to win….

Just, however, as all the preparations for departure were made, the long-expected help came. Ribault arrived from France with a fleet of seven vessels containing three hundred settlers and ample supplies. This arrival was not a source of unmixed joy to Laudonniere. His factious followers had sent home calumnious reports about him, and Ribault brought out orders to send him home to stand his trial. Ribault himself seems to have been easily persuaded of the falsity of the charges, and prest Laudonniere to keep his command; but he, broken in spirit and sick in body, declined to resume office.

All disputes soon disappeared in the face of a vast common misfortune. Whatever internal symptoms of weakness might already display themselves in the vast fabric of the Spanish empire, its rulers showed as yet no lack of jealous watchfulness against any attempts to rival her successes in America. The attempts of Cartier and Roberval had been watched, and the Spanish ambassador at Lisbon had proposed to the King of Portugal to send out a joint armament to dispossess the intruders. The king deemed the danger too remote to be worth an expedition, and the Spaniards unwillingly acquiesced. An outpost of fur traders in the ice-bound wilderness of Canada might seem to bring little danger with it. But a settlement on the coast of Florida, within some eight days’ sail of Havana, with a harbor whence privateers might waylay Spanish ships and even attack Spanish colonies, was a rival not to be endured. Moreover, the colonists were not only foreigners but Huguenots, and their heresy served at once as a pretext and stimulus to Spanish zeal.

The man to whose lot it fell to support the monopoly of Spain against French aggression was one who, if we may judge by his American career, needed only a wider field to rival the genius and the atrocities of Alva. Pedro de Menendez, when he had scarcely passed from boyhood, had fought both against the French and the Turks, and had visited America and returned laden with wealth. He then did good service in command of the Spanish fleet in the French war, and his prompt cooperation with the land force gave him a share in the glories of St. Quentin. A second voyage to America was even more profitable than the first, but his misconduct there brought him into conflict with the Council of the Indies, by whom he was imprisoned, and heavily fined. His previous services, however, had gained him the favor of the court. Part of his fine was remitted, and he was emboldened to ask not merely for pardon, but for promotion. He proposed to revive the attempt of De Soto and to extend the Spanish power over Florida. The expedition was to be at Menendez’s own cost; he was to take out five hundred colonists, and in return to be made Governor of Florida for life and to enjoy certain rights for free trade with the West Indies and with the mother country….

The military genius of Menendez rose to the new demands made upon it. He at once decided on a bold and comprehensive scheme which would secure the whole coast from Port Royal to Chesapeake Bay, and would ultimately give Spain exclusive possession of the South Seas and the Newfoundland fisheries. The Spanish captain had a mind which could at once conceive a wide scheme and labor at the execution of details. So resolutely were operations carried on that by June, 1565, Menendez sailed from Cadiz with thirty-four vessels and four thousand six hundred men. After a stormy voyage he reached the mouth of the St. John’s river. Ribault’s party was about to land, and some of the smaller vessels had crossed the harbor, while others yet stood out to sea. Menendez hailed the latter, and after some parley told them that he had come there with orders from the king of Spain to kill all intruders that might be found on the coast. The French being too few to fight, fled. Menendez did not for the present attack the settlement, but sailed southward till he reached a harbor which he named St. Augustine. There the Spaniards disembarked and threw up a fortification destined to grow into the town of St. Augustine, the first permanent Spanish settlement north of the Gulf of Mexico. Various attempts had been made, and with various motives. The slave-hunter, the gold-seeker, the explorer had each tried his fortunes in Florida, and each failed. The difficulties which had baffled them all were at length overcome by the spirit of religious hatred.

Meanwhile a council of war was sitting at the French settlement, Charlefort. Ribault, contrary to the wishes of Laudonniere and the rest, decided to anticipate the Spaniards by an attack form the sea. A few sick men were left with Laudonniere to garrison the fort; all the rest went on board. Just as everything was ready for the attack, a gale sprang up, and the fleet of Ribault, instead of bearing down on St. Augustine, was straggling in confusion off an unknown and perilous coast. Menendez, relieved from immediate fear for his own settlement, determined on a bold stroke. Like Ribault, he bore down the opposition of a cautious majority, and with five hundred picked men marched overland through thirty miles of swamp and jungle against the French fort. Thus each commander was exposing his own settlement in order to menace his enemies.

In judging, however, of the relative prudence of the two plans, it must be remembered that an attack by land is far more under control, and far less liable to be disarranged by unforeseen chances than one by sea. At first it seemed as if each expedition was destined to the same fate. The weather was as unfavorable to the Spanish by land as to the French by sea. At one time a mutiny was threatened, but Menendez succeeded in inspiring his men with something of his own enthusiasm, and they persevered. Led by a French deserter, they approached the unprotected settlement. So stormy was the night that the sentinels had left the walls. The fort was stormed; Laudonniere and a few others escaped to the shore and were picked up by one of Ribault’s vessels returning from its unsuccessful expedition. Therest, to the number of one hundred and forty, were slain in the attack or taken prisoners. The women and children were spared, the men were hung on trees with an inscription pinned to their breasts: "Not as to Frenchmen, but as to Lutherans."

The fate of Ribault’s party was equally wretched. All were shipwrecked, but most apparently succeeded in landing alive. Then began a scene of deliberate butchery, aggravated, if the French accounts may be believed, by the most shameless treachery. As the scattered bands of shipwrecked men wandered through the forest, seeking to return to Fort Caroline, they were mercilessly entrapped by friendly words, if not by explicit promises of safety. Some escaped to the Indians, a few were at last spared by the contemptuous mercy of the foes. Those of the survivors who profest themselves converts were pardoned, the rest were sent to the galleys. Ribault himself was among the murdered. If we may believe the story current in France, his head, sawn in four parts, was set up over the corners of the fort of St. Augustine, while a piece of his beard was sent as a trophy to the king of Spain….

Dominic de Gourgues had already known as a prisoner of war the horrors of the Spanish galleys. Whether he was a Huguenot is uncertain. Happily in France, as the history of that and all later ages proved, the religion of the Catholic did not necessarily deaden the feelings of the patriot. Seldom has there been a deed of more reckless daring than that which Dominic de Gourgues now undertook. With the proceeds of his patrimony he bought three small ships, mannedby eighty sailors and a hundred men-at-arms. He then obtained a commission as a slaver on the coast of Guinea, and in the summer of 1567 set sail. With these paltry resources he aimed at overthrowing a settlement which had already destroyed a force of twenty times his number, and which might have been strengthened in the interval….

Three days were spent in making ready, and then De Gourgues, with a hundred and sixty of his own men and his Indian allies, marched against the enemy. In spite of the hostility of the Indians the Spaniards seem to have taken no precaution against a sudden attack. Menendez himself had left the colony. The Spanish force was divided between three forts, and no proper precautions were taken for keeping up the communications between them. Each was successively seized, the garrison slain or made prisoners, and as each fort fell those in the next could only make vague guesses as to the extent of the danger. Even when divided into three the Spanish force outnumbered that of De Gourgues, and savages with bows and arrows would have counted for little against men with firearms and behind walls. But after the downfall of the first fort a panic seemed to seize the Spaniards, and the French achieved an almost bloodless victory. After the death of Ribault and his followers nothing could be looked for but merciless retaliation, and De Gourgues copied the severity, though not the perfidy, of his enemies. The very details of Menendez’s act were imitated, and the trees on which the prisoners were hung bore the inscription "Not as Spaniards, but as traitors, robbers, and mur-derers." Five weeks later De Gourgues anchored under the walls of Rochelle, and that noble city, where civil and religious freedom found a home in their darkest hour, received him with the honor he deserved.


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Chicago: John A. Doyle, "The Founding of St. Augustine and the Massacre by Menendez," Colonization, 1562-1753 in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.2, Pp.3-13 Original Sources, accessed July 23, 2024,

MLA: Doyle, John A. "The Founding of St. Augustine and the Massacre by Menendez." Colonization, 1562-1753, in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.2, Pp.3-13, Original Sources. 23 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Doyle, JA, 'The Founding of St. Augustine and the Massacre by Menendez' in Colonization, 1562-1753. cited in , Great Epochs in American History, Vol.2, Pp.3-13. Original Sources, retrieved 23 July 2024, from