Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés Arrives at Fort Caroline

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Early Fort at St. Augustine
Early Fort at St. Augustine

One September 2, 1565, just after Ribault had sailed in three of his small ships to Fort Caroline, six large Spanish ships appeared at the entrance to the May River.  It was the force commanded by Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés that the king of Spain had ordered to drive out the heretic French colonists.    The Frenchman, who had elected to stay behind at Charlesfort had been captured by the Spanish.  He had told the Spanish approximately where the other colony was located.

Many of the tribes may have been in cahoots with the Spanish, not knowing that the Spanish would be far worse masters than the French. In fact, the invitation to travel to the Appalachian Mountains might well have been a trap.  The fort would have been weakened by the lost of a large party of soldiers headed north.   An attack on the gold-hunting party could have been planned once they were in the province of their enemies.  Whatever was planned, it turned out not to be necessary.

During the 1500s the Spanish style of naval warfare was to grapple an enemy ship then board it with large numbers of soldiers.  English ships relied on superior cannon and gunnery skills. Probably, the French and Dutch Protestant ships were fairly similar to the English ones.  The big Spanish ships were probably galleons, for Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés played a major role in the development of the Spanish galleon.  He was also one of Spain’s most respected field commanders.  He had extensive experience fighting the Protestants in the Netherlands and hated them.

Jean Ribault continued to show bad judgment in the tradition of storing one’s food supply 600 feet outside a fort.  Rather than increasing Fort Caroline’s defensive strengths by raising walls and transferring some cannon to the fort from the ships, he decided to make a preemptive strike on the Spanish.

Stormy weather prevented the French gunners from aiming their cannon accurately at the large Spanish targets, but also prevented the Spanish ships from being able to grapple onto the more nimble French ships.  Menéndez ordered his fleet to break off the engagement and sail southward.

Florida history books state that the Spanish established a base camp at St. Augustine Bay on August 28, 1965, near the Timucua village of Seloy.  This is what one will read in virtually all other references.  However, very few people are aware that most of the current history of late 16th century Florida was developed in the mid-twentieth century.  The persons, who wrote that history ignored French archives and maps.  Apparently, they also ignored Spanish maps, because the name of does not appear on 16th century Spanish maps.  On French maps, Seloy, is located upstream a bit on the St. Marys River from St. Marys, GA.  Apparently, there were initially Spanish camps on both the St. Marys River and in St. Augustine Bay.  A 1578 Spanish map shows the Spanish settlement on the St. Marys River, San Matheo, to be larger than San Augustine.

Wherever the Spanish actually were, they directed the local Indians to build field fortifications out of earth and palm logs.   They also built small Indian style huts for the garrison.  The Spanish expected to be attacked by the French at any time, and assumed that the French outnumbered them.  The French did outnumber the Spanish by about 200 men, but many of the Frenchmen were artisans, not professionally trained soldiers.

Perhaps the biggest blunder of the Fort Caroline fiasco was Jean Ribault’s decision to remove 2/3 of the men at Fort Caroline that included all but ten of its soldiers. He also took two barques that held much of Fort Caroline’s flour supply, along with the biscuits that had been baked for the return to France.  All but one of his officers were ordered to get board the ships. Messengers from the friendly province of Emola had tipped the French off that the Spanish had landed at the village of Seloy and were sleeping in the villagers’ huts.  African slaves owned by the Spanish were erecting fortifications.

Ribault set sail on September 10, 1565.  His fleet sailed right into a hurricane.  All of the French ships were sunk or beached.  Those few that survived were scattered to the winds . . . literally.  All but about 150 of the men on the French ships perished.

At the same time that Ribault sailed southward, Menéndez led his best troops northward overland to attack Fort Caroline. Many descriptions of the attack on Fort Caroline state that Timucuans provided guides to lead the expedition across the watery landscape.  This is a propaganda story put out by the Spanish. During the battle, de Laundonniére saw François Jean, one of the leaders in the Fort Caroline mutiny in the swarms of Spanish soldiers entering the fort along side Menéndez.   The traitor pointed at de Laudonniére, and shouted in Spanish, “There is the captain.”

De Laudonniére does not state it, but there is a strong possibility that all along there were Spanish Catholic agents among the Frenchmen, whose mission was to sabotage the colony.  It should be remembered that these men’s first demand was that the colony sail as whole to Spanish Mexico.  In recent years, it has been proven that there were English Catholics, hired as agents by the Spanish, among the original settlers of Jamestown, whose mission was to sabotage that colony.  They have been linked to a series of arsenic poisonings at Jamestown. Perhaps de Laundonniére’s sudden illness as Ribault was departing, was no act of nature.

Meanwhile, the colonists left at Fort Caroline did the best they could to repair the walls of the fortress that they had just restored.  However, they were weakened by months of starvation rations and most of their tools were on the barques that Jean Ribault had requisitioned. As of September 20th there was still two breaches.  One was in the west wall, while another, unfortunatel, was exactly where the gun powder for the cannons was stored!

De Laudonniére could only find nine men among Ribault’s crew left behind, who were capable of bearing arms, but believed that only two or three had ever even drawn a sword. Of the nine, four were teenagers who took care of Ribault’s dogs. Another was Ribault’s cook. Another was a spinet (piano) player.   There were several men in de Laudonniére’s remaining garrison, who had born arms, but his garrison were sick and emaciated.  De Laudonniére was still incapacitated with dysentery and remained in his bed most of the time.

In Medieval France, it was illegal for peasants, tradesmen and artisans to own military weapons.  Only the nobility could hunt.  Violation of these laws was a capital offense.  If a manor or castle was under siege, lower classes might be issued simple weapons like spears, but they were returned to the armory after battle.  The attacks on Protestant towns by Catholic forces changed the situation, but the armed citizenry were not experienced soldiers.  Skilled use of a sword required years of training and practice. When available, crossbows and arqubuses did somewhat remedy the vulnerability of the peasantry, but generally were unaffordable to members of the lower classes.

Torrential rain poured onto Fort Caroline on September 19 and 20.  On the night of the 20th, the single remaining officer, La Vigne, decided that the Spanish would not come in such miserable weather.  He allowed the guards to return to their barracks to sleep!  De Laundonniére’s loyal trumpeter stayed awake and at his post near the commander’s house.  One man was outside the fort on an errand, when he saw Spaniards charging down a hill in back of the fort.  He sounded the alarm, but was quickly killed. The trumpeter blew the alarm, which immediately caused de Laudonniére to awake and grab his sword.  The commander called for his few soldiers to come to him in the center of the fort’s plaza.

Meanwhile several brave men, still in their night clothes, grabbed makeshift weapons and ran to the breach in the west wall. They were quickly slaughtered by the fully armored conquistadors, who carried both swords and pikes. Firearms would have been useless in the torrential rain, since the argebuses were fired with burning fuse strings. Two Spanish battle flags were set up on the ramparts above the gun powder magazine.  Another Spanish force entered the breach in the west wall.  Immediately, two more battle flags were erected on the ramparts.

The Spaniards quickly overwhelmed the fort, since most of its occupants were non-combatants, who had been asleep when the attack began. De Laudonniére and a couple of companions fought their way out the west breach and escaped into the woods.  Some survivors were hiding in the woods.  Several were seriously wounded.  Most Frenchmen headed east toward the sea, where two small French ships were anchored.  A few decided to flee toward villages of friendly Indians. De Laudonniére spent the night with a single companion, waist deep in the marshes.

Captain Jacques Ribault, the son of Jean, brought his ship within two “gun shots” of the fort.  There he talked with Spanish officers, and even had François Jean on his ship for a period of time.  De Laudonniére does not say what was discussed.  Perhaps Ribault was trying unsuccessfully to get the non-combatants released.

Jean de Hais, Fort Caroline’s master carpenter escaped the Spanish onslaught in one of the barques.  He sailed directly toward two French ships in the mouth of the May River. The French ships entered the river and began sailing near its edges to look for survivors.  Eventually, de Laudonniére’s companion caught the attention of a ship.  A boat paddled over to the marsh to rescue him.  De Laudonniére could not walk because of his illness and battle wounds.  Six men carried onboard the small ship that the French had bought from John Hawkins.  De Laudonniére was shocked to find that Captain Jacques Ribault had removed all the equipment and most of the supplies from the ship.  Also, it did not have ballast or enough crew members to sail it to France.  Most of the survivors climbed into the remaining ship.  To make space for the crew, de Laudonniére transferred nine cannon to Jacques Ribault’s ship.  The survivors set sail for France on September 28, 1565.

Meanwhile, the survivors of Fort Caroline, who were captured by the Spanish, were tied up or put into chains.  Menéndez or one of his senior officers interviewed each one.  All were non-combatants. At least 50 were women and children.  French Catholics, a small minority, were unchained.   The others were offered freedom and their lives, if they converted to Roman Catholicism.  Very few, if any, took that option.

Menéndez decided to spare the lives of the children, women, teenage musicians and a few men who had special construction skills needed at St. Augustine.  All the other men were hung from trees outside the walls of the fort.



MLA Source Citation:

Thornton, Richard. Sixteenth Century French Exploration of the Southeast. Web. See Further: People of One Fire. Georgia, © 2012. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 23 November 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/america/don-pedro-menendez-de-aviles-arrives-at-fort-caroline.htm - Last updated on Aug 20th, 2012


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