The Spaniards Hold Florida

Americanist History, George Bancroft: History of the United States

Volume I, Chapter 4, The Spaniards Hold Florida

Editor’s Summary: Spain sets its eye on taking Florida for itself, and through the instrumentality of Melindez massacres 900 French Huguenots — men, women, children, the aged, and infirm — justifying the crime by saying these were not Frenchmen they executed, but heretics. Under the leadership of Challus, and his charge to trust in God rather than “these men,” a few escape to tell the grizzly tale. Spain does not deny the massacre, but lowers the number killed. Dominic de Gourgues, leaves France intent on a retaliatory raid, and succeeds, this time he refuses to acknowledge that his victims were Spaniards or mariners but rather “traitors, robbers, and murderers.” France, however, backs off her claim to Florida.

Steve Farrell


Such is the history of the first voyage of Europeans on the Mississippi; the honor of the discovery belongs to the Spaniards. There were not wanting adventurers who, in 1544, desired to make one more attempt to possess the country by force of arms; their request was refused. Religious zeal was more persevering; in December, 1547, Louis Cancello, a missionary of the Dominican order, gained through Philip, then heir apparent in Spain, permission to visit Florida and attempt the peaceful conversion of the natives. Christianity was to conquer the land against which so many experienced warriors had failed. The Spanish governors were directed to favor the design; all slaves that had been taken from the northern shore of the Gulf of Mexico were to be manumitted and restored to their country. In 1549 a ship was fitted out with much solemnity; but the priests, who sought the first interview with the natives, were feared as enemies, and, being immediately attacked, Louis and two others fell martyrs to their zeal.

Death seemed to guard the approaches to that land. While the Castilians were everywhere else victorious, they were driven for a time to abandon the soil of Florida, after it was wet with their blood. But under that name they continued to claim all North America, even as far as Canada and Newfoundland. No history exists of their early exploration of the coast, nor is even the name of the Spanish navigator ascertained who, between the years 1524 and 1540, discovered the Chesapeake, and made it known as “the bay of St. Mary.” Under that appellation the historian Oviedo, writing a little after 1540, describes it as opening to the sea in the latitude of thirty-six degrees and forty minutes, and as including islands; of two rivers which it receives, he calls the north-eastern one Salt river, the other the river of the Holy Ghost; the cape to the north of it, which he places in the latitude of thirty-seven degrees, he names Cape St. John. The bay of St. Mary is marked on all Spanish maps, after the year 1549. But as yet not a Spanish fort was erected on the Atlantic coast, not a harbor was occupied, not one settlement was begun. The first permanent establishment of the Spaniards in Florida was the result of jealous bigotry.

For France had begun to settle the region with a colony of Protestants; and Calvinism, which, with the special cooperation of Calvin himself, had for a short season occupied the coasts of Brazil and the harbor of Rio Janeiro, was now to be planted on the borders of Florida. Coligny had long desired to establish a refuge for the Huguenots and a Protestant French empire in America. Disappointed in his first effort by the apostasy and faithlessness of his agent, Villegagnon, he still persevered, moved alike by religious zeal and by a passion for the honor of France. The expedition which he now planned was intrusted to the command of John Ribault, of Dieppe, a brave man, of maritime experience, and a firm Protestant; and was attended by some of the best of the young French nobility, as well as by veteran troops. The feeble Charles IX conceded an ample commission, and in February, 1562, the squadron set sail for the shores of North America. Land was first made by the voyagers in the latitude of St. Augustine the noble river which we call the St. John’s was named the river of May, from the month in which it was discovered. The land seemed rich in gold, silver, and pearls, and its caterpillars were taken for “fairer and better silkworms” than those of Europe. As they sailed toward the north, three streams were named the Seine, the Loire, and the Garonne. In searching for the Jordan, they came “athwart a mightie river,” which they called Port Royal. Casting anchor at ten fathom of water, Ribault landed with a party at Hilton Head, where they saw “high oaks and an infinite store of cedars,” and heard “the voices of stags and divers other sorts of beasts.” Some who threw nets wondered at the number of fish which they caught. After sheltering his ships in the sound, he explored the country on Broad river many leagues high, and was at first feared and then welcomed by the red men whom he chanced to meet. The stags were of “singular fairness and bigness.” Palm-trees abounded. A stone engraven with the arms of France was set up to mark possession of the country, and a party of twenty-six was left on the bank of Beaufort river to hold it. Their earth-work fort may have stood on the first firm land of Port Royal island above Archer’s creek; in honor of Charles IX it was named Carolina.

In July, Ribault and the ships arrived safely in France. But the fires of civil war had been kindled in all the provinces of the kingdom; and the promised reinforcements for Carolina were never levied. The situation of the garrison became precarious. The natives were friendly, but the soldiers themselves were insubordinate, and dissensions prevailed. The commandant at Carolina repressed the turbulent spirit with arbitrary cruelty, and lost his life in a mutiny which his ungovernable passion had provoked. The new commander succeeded in restoring order. But the love of his native land is a passion easily revived in the breast of a Frenchman; and in 1563 the company embarked in such a brigantine as they could themselves put together. Intoxicated with joy at the thought of returning home, they had neglected to provide sufficient stores, and they were overtaken by famine at sea. A small English bark which boarded their vessel, setting the most feeble on shore upon the coast of France, carried the rest to the queen of England.

After the treacherous peace between Charles IX and the Huguenots, Coligny renewed his solicitations for the colonization of Florida. The king gave consent; in 1564 three ships were conceded for the service; and Laudonniere, who, in the former voyage, had been upon the American coast, a man of great intelligence, though a seaman rather than a soldier, was appointed to lead forth the colony. Emigrants readily appeared, for the climate of Florida was so celebrated that, according to rumor, the duration of human life was doubled under its genial influences; and men still dreamed of rich mines of gold in the interior. Coligny was desirous of obtaining accurate descriptions of the country; and James le Moyne, called De Morgues, an ingenious painter, was commissioned to execute colored drawings of the objects which might engage his curiosity. A voyage of sixty days brought the fleet, by the way of the Canaries and the Antilles, to the shores of Florida in June. The harbor of Port Royal, rendered gloomy by recollections of misery, was avoided; and, after searching the coast, and discovering places which were so full of amenity that melancholy itself could not but change its humor as it gazed, the followers of Calvin planted themselves on the banks of the river May, near St. John’s bluff. They sung a psalm of thanksgiving, and gathered courage from acts of devotion. The fort now erected was named Carolina. The result of this attempt to procure for France immense dominions at the south of our republic through the agency of a Huguenot colony, has been very frequently narrated; it forms a dark picture of malignant and merciless bigotry.

The French were hospitably welcomed by the natives; a monument, bearing the arms of France, was crowned with laurels, and its base encircled with baskets of corn. What need is there of minutely relating the simple manners of the red men, the dissensions of rival tribes, the largesses offered to the strangers to secure their protection or their alliance, the improvident prodigality with which careless soldiers wasted the supplies of food; the certain approach of scarcity; the gifts and the tribute levied from the Indians by entreaty, menace, or force? By degrees the confidence of the red men was exhausted; they had welcomed powerful guests, who promised to become their benefactors, and who now robbed their humble granaries.

But the worst evil in the new settlement was the character of the emigrants. Though patriotism and religious enthusiasm had prompted the expedition, the inferior class of the colonists was a motley group of dissolute men. Mutinies were frequent. The men were mad with the passion for sudden wealth; and in December a party, under the pretence of desiring to escape from famine, compelled Laudonniere to sign an order permitting their embarkation for New Spain. No sooner were they possessed of this apparent sanction of the chief than they began a career of piracy against the Spaniards. The act of crime and temerity was soon avenged. The pirate vessel was taken, and most of the men disposed of as prisoners or slaves. The few that escaped in a boat sought shelter at Fort Carolina, where Laudonniere sentenced the ringleaders to death.

During these events the scarcity became extreme; and the friendship of the natives was forfeited by unprofitable severity. March of 1565 was gone, and there were no supplies from France; April passed away, and the expected recruits had not arrived: May brought nothing to sustain the hopes of the exiles, and they resolved to attempt a return to Europe. In August, Sir John Hawkins, the slave merchant, arrived from the West Indies. He came fresh from the sale of a cargo of Africans, whom he had kidnapped with signal ruthlessness; and he now displayed the most generous sympathy, not only furnishing a liberal supply of provisions, but relinquishing a vessel from his own fleet. The colony was on the point of embarking when sails were descried. Ribault had arrived to assume the command, bringing with him supplies of every kind, emigrants with their families, garden-seeds, implements of husbandry, and the various kinds of domestic animals. The French, now wild with joy, seemed about to acquire a home, and Calvinism to become fixed in the inviting regions of Florida.

But Spain had never abandoned her claim to that territory, where, if she had not planted colonies, she had buried many hundreds of her bravest sons. Should the proud Philip II abandon a part of his dominions to France? Should he suffer his commercial monopoly to be endangered by a rival settlement in the vicinity of the West Indies? Should he permit the heresy of Calvinism to be planted in the neighborhood of his Catholic provinces? There had appeared at the Spanish court a commander well fitted for reckless acts. Pedro Melendez de Aviles, often, as a naval officer, encountering pirates, had become inured to acts of prompt and unsparing vengeance. He had acquired wealth in Spanish America, which was no school of benevolence, and his conduct there had provoked an inquiry, which, after a long arrest, ended in his conviction. The heir of Melendez had been shipwrecked among the Bermudas; the father desired to return and search among the islands for tidings of his only son. Philip II suggested the conquest and colonization of Florida; and in May, 1565, a compact was framed and confirmed by which Melendez, who desired an opportunity to retrieve his honor, was constituted the hereditary governor of a territory of almost unlimited extent.

On his part he stipulated, at his own cost, in the following May, to invade Florida with five hundred men; to complete its conquest within three years; to explore its currents and channels, the dangers of its coasts, and the depth of its havens; to establish a colony of at least five hundred persons, of whom one hundred should be married men; with twelve ecclesiastics, besides four Jesuits. He further engaged to introduce into his province all kinds of domestic animals and five hundred negro slaves. The sugar-cane was to become a staple of the country.

The king, in return, promised the undertaker various commercial immunities; the office of governor for life, with the right of naming his son-in-law as his successor; an estate of twenty-five square leagues in the immediate vicinity of the settlement; a salary of two thousand ducats, chargeable on the revenues of the province; and a fifteenth part of all royal perquisites.

Meantime, news arrived, as the French writers assert through the treachery of the court of France, that the Huguenots had made a plantation in Florida, and that Ribault was preparing to set sail with re-enforcements. The cry was raised that the heretics must be extirpated; and Melendez readily obtained the forces which he required. More than twenty-five hundred persons—soldiers, sailors, priests, Jesuits, married men with their families, laborers, and mechanics, and, with the exception of three hundred soldiers, all at the cost of Melendez—undertook the invasion. The trade-winds of July bore them rapidly across the Atlantic, but a tempest scattered the fleet on the way; it was with only one third part of his forces that Melendez reached the harbor of St. John in Porto Rico. But he esteemed celerity the secret of success; and, refusing to await the arrival of the rest of his squadron, he sailed for Florida. It had been his design to explore the coast; to select a favorable site for a settlement; and, after constructing fortifications, to attack the French. On the twenty-eighth of August, the day which the customs of Rome have consecrated to the memory of one of the most eloquent sons of Africa, and one of the most venerated of the fathers of the church, he came in sight of Florida. For four days he sailed along the coast, uncertain where the French were established; on the fifth day he landed, and gathered from the Indians accounts of the Huguenots. At the same time he discovered a fine haven and beautiful river; and, remembering the saint on whose day he neared the coast, he gave to the harbor and to the stream the name of St. Augustine. Sailing then to the north, he espied a portion of the French fleet, and observed the road where they were anchored. The French demanded his name and objects. “I am Melendez of Spain,” replied he; “sent with strict orders from my king to gibbet and behead all the Protestants in these regions. The Frenchman who is a Catholic I will spare; every heretic shall die.” The French fleet, unprepared for action, cut its cables; the Spaniards, for some time, continued an ineffectual chase.

At the hour of vespers, on the evening preceding the anniversary of the nativity of Mary, the Spaniards returned to the harbor of St. Augustine. At noonday of the festival—that is, on the eighth of September—the governor went on shore to take possession of the continent in the name of his king. Philip II was proclaimed monarch of all North America. The mass of Our Lady was performed, and the foundation of St. Augustine immediately laid. It is, by more than forty years, the oldest town in the union, east of the Mississippi.

Among the French it was debated whether they should improve their fortifications and await the approach of the Spaniards, or proceed to sea and attack their enemy. Against the advice of his officers, Ribault resolved upon the latter course. Hardly had he left the harbor for the open sea before there arose a fearful storm, which continued till October, and wrecked every ship of the French fleet on the Florida coast. The vessels were dashed against the rocks about fifty leagues south of Fort Carolina; most of the men escaped with their lives.

The Spanish ships suffered, but not so severely; and the troops at St. Augustine were entirely safe. They knew that the French settlement was left in a defenseless state. Melendez led his men through the low land that divides the St. Augustine from the St. John’s, and with a furious onset surprised the weak garrison, who had looked only toward the sea for the approach of danger. After a short contest, the Spaniards, on the twenty-first, became masters of the fort, and soldiers, women, children, the aged, the sick, were alike massacred. The Spanish account asserts that Melendez ordered women and young children to be spared; yet not till after the havoc had long been raging.

Nearly two hundred persons were killed. A few escaped into the woods, among them Laudonniere, Challus, and Le Moyne, who have related the horrors of the scene. But whither should they fly? Death met them in the woods; and the heavens, the earth, the sea, and men, all seemed conspired against them. Should they surrender, appealing to the sympathy of their conquerors? “Let us,” said Challus, “trust in the mercy of God rather than of these men.” A few gave themselves up, and were immediately put to death. The others, after the severest sufferings, found their way to the sea-side, and were received on board two small French vessels which had remained in the harbor.

The victory had been gained on the festival of St. Matthew; and hence the Spanish name of the river May. After the carnage, mass was said; a cross raised; and the site for a church selected, on ground still smoking with the blood of a peaceful colony.

The shipwrecked men were, in their turn, soon discovered. Melendez invited them to rely on his compassion; in a state of helpless weakness, wasted by their fatigues at sea, half famished, destitute of water and of food, they capitulated, and in successive divisions were ferried across the intervening river. As the captives stepped upon the opposite bank their hands were tied behind them; and in this way they were marched toward St. Augustine, like sheep to the slaughter-house. When they approached the fort, a signal was given; and, amid the sound of trumpets and drums, the Spaniards, sparing a few Catholics and reserving some mechanics as slaves, massacred the rest, “not as Frenchmen, but as Lutherans.” The whole number of victims here and at the fort is said, by the French, to have been about nine hundred; the Spanish accounts diminish the number of the slain, but not the atrocity of the deed.

In 1566 Melendez despatched a vessel from his squadron, with thirty soldiers and two Dominicans, to settle the lands on the Chesapeake bay, then known as St. Mary’s, and convert its inhabitants; but, disheartened by contrary winds and the certain perils of the proposed colonization, they turned about before coming near the bay, and sailed for Seville, spreading the worst accounts of a country which none of them had seen.

Melendez returned to Spain, impoverished, but triumphant. The French government made not even a remonstrance on the ruin of a colony which, if it had been protected, would have given to France an empire in the south, before England had planted a single spot on the new continent.

The Huguenots and the French nation did not share the indifference of the court. Dominic de Gourgues—a bold soldier of Gascony, whose life had been a series of adventures, now employed in the army against Spain, now a prisoner and a galley-slave among the Spaniards, taken by the Turks with the vessel in which he rowed, and redeemed by the commander of the knights of Malta—burned with a desire to avenge his own wrongs and the honor of his country. The sale of his property and the contributions of his friends furnished the means of equipping three ships, in which, with one hundred and fifty men, he, on the twenty-second of August, 1567, embarked for Florida, to destroy and revenge. He surprised two forts near the mouth of the St. Matthew; and, as terror magnified the number of his followers, the consternation of the Spaniards enabled him to gain possession of the larger establishment, near the spot which the French colony had occupied. Too weak to maintain his position, he, in May; 1568, hastily weighed anchor for Europe, having first hanged his prisoners upon the trees, and placed over them the inscription: “I do not this as unto Spaniards or mariners, but as unto traitors, robbers, and murderers.” The natives, who had been ill-treated both by the Spaniards and the French, enjoyed the consolation of seeing their enemies butcher one another.

The attack of the fiery Gascon was but a passing storm. France disavowed the expedition, and relinquished all pretension to Florida. Spain grasped at it as a portion of her dominions; and, if discovery could confer a right, her claim was founded in justice. In 1573, Pedro Melendez Marquez, nephew to the adelantado, Melendez de Aviles, pursued the explorations begun by his relative. Having traced the coast line from the southern cape of Florida, he sailed into the Chesapeake bay, estimated the distance between its headlands, took soundings of the water in its channel, and observed its many harbors and deep rivers, navigable for ships. His voyage may have extended a few miles north of the bay. The territory which he saw was held by Spain to be a part of her dominions, but was left by her in abeyance. Cuba remained the centre of her West Indian possessions, and everything around it was included within her empire. Her undisputed sovereignty was asserted not only over the archipelagoes within the tropics, but over the continent round the inner seas. From the remotest south-eastern cape of the Caribbean, along the continuous shore to the cape and Atlantic coast of Florida, all was hers. The Gulf of Mexico lay embosomed within her territories.


This version of George Bancroft’s “History of the United States,” with updated spelling, formatting, and editor’s summary, Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell and The Moral Liberal.