Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (February 15, 1519 – September 17, 1574) was Comendador of the Holy Cross of Zarza of the Knights of Santiago, Captain-General of the Ocean Sea, Governor of Cuba, Captain-General of the West, Adelantado of Florida, and Founder of St. Augustine. He faithfully served the Spanish Crown as a Captain-General of the Royal Armadas for 32 years.
The young mariner from Avilés:
A native of northern Spain, Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés was born on Saturday, February 15, 1519, in the Principality of Asturias, in the seaport of Avilés. He was one of the younger sons of Juan Alfonso Sánchez de Avilés, who had valiantly served the Catholic Monarchs in the Conquest of Granada (1482-92), and María Alonso de Arango.
A descendant of minor gentry, Menéndez was connected by blood and marriage to several noble families, but, as one of the youngest of 20 children, he could expect little in the way of inheritance. Raised by relatives after his father’s death (c. 1550) and his mother’s remarriage, Menéndez wed a distant cousin – Maria de Solís Cascos – to whom he had been affianced as a child and with whom he would have four children. The young Menéndez invested his patrimony in building a patache (a small, fast-sailing vessel) and began privateering against the French.
War against the pirates:
Between 1543 and 1545, Menéndez served in the fleet of Don Álvaro de Bazán y Guzmán, Marqués de Santa Cruz and a noted pirate-hunter. In 1548, at the age of 29, Menéndez obtained his own letter of marque, armed a vessel, and began capturing French shipping in the Bay of Biscay, on the western coast of Spain and France.
Two years later, a second letter of marque granted by Carlos V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, licensed him to pursue pirates in the Indies. By this time, funds from Menéndez’ captures allowed him to procure a 200-ton nao, a large merchant vessel named the Santa Maria de la Antigua, and begin participating in the Indies trade. There, in 1552, Menéndez was captured by French pirates off the coast of Cuba and, while arranging a ransom of 1,098 gold pesos for himself and his ship, learned of French plans to raid the Indies.
After gaining his freedom, Menéndez gave warning in New Spain (present-day Mexico), Cuba, and Santo Domingo. He then went on to Spain to present a strategic defense plan to the Council of the Indies, the supreme governmental body overseeing Spain’s colonies in the Americas. Though his proposed plan was rejected by the Council, by 1553, Menéndez’ valor and zeal had gained the notice of the Spanish court and he was made a Captain-General of the Armada of the Indies, at the age of 34.
In England and Flanders:
While waiting for a commission, Menéndez commanded one of the 150 ships sent to escort Felipe II, Prince of Asturias and heir to the Spanish throne, to England to wed Queen Mary Tudor in July 1554. There, he made a favorable impression on the English court and upon Queen Mary, who held him in high regard.
Menéndez successfully conducted his first fleet to and from the Indies in 1555-56, avoiding both hurricanes and pirates. He served two years in the Armada of Flanders, convoying vital men, money, and supplies to Spain’s armies and allies in Low Countries (modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands) during the Habsburg-Valois War of 1551-59. In the course of that war, necessity once required Menéndez, accompanied by his son, Juan, to travel in disguise by horse across France, through enemy territory. Following the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559, he brought Felipe II, now King of Spain, back to Spain from Flanders.
Although France and Spain were nominally at peace, the two nation’s privateers continued their depredations in the Americas unchecked, swollen by legions of unemployed veterans, bitterly divided by their Catholic and Protestant faiths. Returning to his duty of safely convoying Spain’s treasure fleets, Menéndez continued his trading, accumulating enough capital to acquire his own small fleet of ships, which he leased to the Crown.
Litigation and Loss:
In 1563, factions in the House of Trade, the governmental agency which controlled Spain’s New World exploration and trade, brought questionable legal charges against Menéndez and one of his older brothers, Bartolomé Menéndez de Avilés. While imprisoned in Seville’s Royal Arsenal, then the Tower of Gold, waiting for his case to come to trial, Menéndez’ debts mounted and his vessels and crews sat idle.
Far worse news came in September. Juan Menéndez, General of the Fleet commanding the New Spain squadron of the Armada of the Indies – Don Pedro’s only son – ignored his father’s express orders and sailed from Havana on August 11, 1563, during the Caribbean’s hurricane season.
The fleet of 13 ships was struck by a hurricane on September 7 and Juan’s ship was last seen somewhere near the latitude of Bermuda. After 20 months of suffering in prison and agonizing over his son’s fate, Felipe II finally intervened on Menéndez’ behalf.
The king directed the House of Trade to immediately expedite the trial and find in Menéndez’ favor. Felipe now needed his most able sea-officer to defend the royal interests in Florida – Spain’s name for all of North America from the Florida Keys north to Labrador, in Canada, and west to Mexico. Hoping that Juan might be a shipwrecked captive of the Indies natives, part of Don Pedro’s future efforts to colonize Florida would be the search for his lost son.
The Enterprise of Florida:
Every Spanish expedition – from Don Juan Ponce de León to Don Hernando de Soto to Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano – that had tried to found a settlement in the Florida peninsula had failed.
But now the Spanish Crown had heard of France’s interest in this vital military position, directly astride the route of Spain’s New World treasure fleets. The Crown feared that the noted French naval officer, Jean Ribault, might succeed in making permanent the colony of French Protestants he had established in 1562 at a garrisoned fort on Port Royal Sound (present-day Parris Island, SC).
By March 15, 1565, Menéndez had a royal contract appointing him Adelantado (“frontier governor”) of Florida and charging him, within three years and without cost to the Crown, to explore and colonize the land and begin its conversion to the Catholic faith.
When, 10 days after the contract’s signing, Felipe II learned of a new French settlement on the St. Johns River (Fort Caroline – near today’s Jacksonville) under René Goulaine de Laudonnière – he added 300 royal soldiers and 15,000 ducats to his contract with Menéndez. The “Enterprise of Florida” was a now joint venture between Menéndez and his king.
When Spanish spies in France reported that Ribault was on his way to Florida to reinforce the French settlement, the need for haste became critical. Menéndez readied the Florida armada, consisting of two fleets – one to sail from Cadiz under his direct command and the other from ports along the Asturian coast – to rendezvous in the Canary Islands. The race for Florida had begun!
Without waiting for his second fleet at the appointed rendezvous in the Canaries, Menéndez pressed on to Puerto Rico, then, with a force of more than 1,000, through the Bahamas and up the Gulf Stream to the mouth of the St. Johns River. On August 28 – “the feast day of the glorious St. Augustine” – Menéndez’ fleet first sighted the Florida coast near Cape Canaveral.
The Founding of St. Augustine:
However, Ribault had won the race for Florida, arriving at Fort Caroline on August 28. He unloaded his ships, too large to cross the sandbar at the mouth of the St. Johns River, and anchored them in the ocean, just off the channel. Sailing north along the Florida Coast, Menéndez’ fleet sighted the unknown warships and closed in to investigate.
Menéndez himself gave the challenge to the strangers, shouting that he had come to burn and hang any “Lutheran French” he found in his king’s lands and waters. As the Spanish vessels moved in to attack, the French ships cut their cables and fled, followed by Menéndez’ cannon-fire.
Realizing that his ships, too, could not cross the sandbar at the mouth of the St. Johns, Menéndez fell back to the nearest harbor to establish a base and to lighten his flagship, the “super-galleass”, San Pelayo, for battle. Treating with the local Native Americans, the Timucua, Menéndez had his men dig entrenchments and fortify the native’s village against French attack.
There, on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 8, 1565, Menéndez stepped ashore and formally established the Spanish municipality of St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest continuously occupied, European city, port, and parish in the continental United States.
Being an experienced Indies sailor, Menéndez knew that a hurricane was approaching and that his larger ships, still laden with supplies, had to be sent to safer waters. He also suspected that Ribault’s ships and most of his forces would be searching for the Spanish fleet. In a bold move, Menéndez divided his forces, leaving his brother Bartolomé to command the militia in defense of St. Augustine.
On September 18, Menéndez marched the rest of his troops 40 miles, through dense woods and swamps, in the midst of the hurricane, to surprise and attack the French at Fort Caroline on September 20. As the Spanish stormed the fortifications at dawn, only the noncombatants were spared. Menéndez garrisoned the fort with Spaniards and renamed it “San Mateo.”
Returning triumphantly to St. Augustine to write a report to his king, Menéndez learned from natives that Ribault’s warships had been wrecked by the hurricane on the Florida coast to the south. Knowing he could not possibly leave such a large number of dangerous enemy troops roaming the countryside, and in obedience to his king’s command, Menéndez marched south to rid the land of Spain’s enemies.
Not realizing that Fort Caroline had fallen to the Spanish, two groups of French survivors, Ribault among them, marched north along the Florida beaches. Menéndez and his troops met the French at an impassable inlet, took them prisoner, and put most of them to the sword at a place still known today as Matanzas (Spanish: “slaughters”) Inlet. The French expedition sent to destroy the Spanish settlement at St. Augustine had, in turn, been destroyed by the Spanish.
Menéndez later spared a third group of French survivors found near Cape Canaveral and made them galley oarsmen, trusting that rations for them would soon be resupplied from Cuba. These prisoners told him that their expedition was part of yet another design to seize the Caribbean for France.
The Consequences of Victory:
Menéndez acted swiftly. As reinforcements arrived from Spain – the second squadron of his initial Florida expedition and another fleet in 1566, supplied by the Spanish Crown – Menéndez established five garrisons in the Antilles Islands and nine on the North American mainland at harbors from Tampa Bay around to Port Royal in present-day South Carolina.
Each fort in native territory represented a diplomatic coup and potential military alliance. To secure a treaty with the Calusa, a powerful sea-going chiefdom in southwest Florida, Menéndez underwent a native form of “marriage” with the sister (and former wife) of the Calusa’s paramount chief, Calos. Menéndez took her with him, as an honored part of his household, to Havana, where she later succumbed to illness. Menéndez’ actual wife, Doña María, had remained in Spain.
Still, Florida had yet to be explored, converted, and settled. As governor of the Florida colony, Menéndez established religious feast days and promulgated the first European laws and government in North America. To populate his three, initial municipalities – Santa Elena, St. Augustine, and San Mateo – Menéndez brought farming families from Spain and gave them building lots, fields, seeds, and livestock.
From his initial capitol at Santa Elena (modern-day Port Royal, SC), Menéndez sent two expeditions (in 1566-67 and 1567-68) under Captain Juan Pardo into the American interior, intending to open a route to Spanish Mexico, with a connector south to the Gulf.
Arriving in 1566, Jesuit missionaries established a school in Havana for the sons of Florida’s native chiefs. In 1570, the Jesuits sent a mission to Ajacán on the Chesapeake Bay, in today’s Virginia, where Menéndez hoped to discover a “Northwest Passage” – a waterway through the continent, linking the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. None of these ambitious endeavors was ultimately successful.
Captain-General of the West:
In June 1567, Menéndez returned to Spain to negotiate an extension of his contract with the Crown and present a new plan for the naval defense of the Indies. Felipe II loaded him with honors: a court portrait by Titian, membership in the knightly Order of Santiago, including the revenues of the seigneurship of Santa Cruz de la Zarza, a coat of arms, and the right to entail his estate upon his heirs. Menéndez, ever the innovator, was also granted a patent for an instrument to measure longitude.
The Crown had already appointed him as Governor of Cuba, to help resolve his supply problems in the Indies. Menéndez’ new defense strategy called for using shallow-draft galleys and frigates to patrol the coasts of the Greater Antilles and intercept pirates in the “narrow waters” of the northeastern Caribbean. To better execute this new plan, the king awarded Menéndez with command of the Armada de Española and the newly created title of “Captain-General of the West.”
In Menéndez’ absence, however, the Florida colony was nearing extinction, being misgoverned by his lieutenants and assailed by pirates, famine, garrison mutinies, flood, desertion, and disease. Relations with the powerful native groups had degenerated, with war parties destroying fort after fort, until only Santa Elena and St. Augustine remained.
After multiple martyrdoms and unable to make any real progress with native evangelization, the Jesuits withdrew from the colony. After experiencing shipwreck among the natives of Cape Canaveral in late December 1571, Menéndez returned to Spain and requested royal authority to wage open war to subdue the “treacherous” natives of Florida. The Crown offered, instead, to support a supplemental, permanent force of 300 soldiers and missionaries, this time Franciscans – one of the steps which would eventually lead to transferring the original proprietorship of Florida to a Crown colony.
Heartened by the royal vote of confidence, Menéndez made plans to move his wife and extended household from Spain to Santa Elena, which would be the capitol of his intended marquisate in the interior.
His family was much on his mind – of his four legitimate children, María was a professed nun, Juan had been lost at sea, Ana had been murdered by her father-in-law, and if Catalina’s marriage to Hernando de Miranda continued childless, Menéndez’ direct bloodline would become extinct. In that case, he chose to have his estate and his titles, including “Marquis de Florida,” pass to a nephew, bypassing his fifth child, his illegitimate daughter María, wife of Don Diego de Velasco.
However, Felipe II was not ready to let his trusty servant retire to an American marquisate. With one hand, the king extended Menéndez’s government around the Gulf of Mexico to meet the borders of New Spain, while with the other, he recalled Menéndez to Spain to begin preparing, in 1574, an “Invincible Armada” for use in northern Europe. The Adelantado did as he was commanded, leaving his son-in-law, Don Diego de Velasco, in his place in the Indies.
Menéndez never saw Florida again. On September 17, 1574, the Adelantado of Florida died in the shipyards of Santander, Spain, of one of the “contagions” to which such ports were prone. He was originally buried at Llanes. In 1591, Menéndez’ body was transferred to the Church of San Nicolas de Bari in his native city of Avilés, where it now reposes in a niche on the Gospel side of the altar, with this inscription:
“Here lies interred the very illustrious cavalier Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, native of this town, Adelantado of the Provinces of Florida, Commander of the Holy Cross of La Zarza of the Order of Santiago and Captain-General of the Ocean Sea and of the Catholic Armada which the Lord Philip II assembled against England in the year 1574, at Santander, where he died on the 17th of September of the said year being fifty-five years of age.”
Distributed by Florida Living History, Inc.
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