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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés

A naval officer of renown, bravery, and skill, Menéndez de Avilés became Captain-General under Philip II, who also commissioned him to colonize Florida, an indefinite area at the time stretching from New Mexico on the west to Newfoundland in the north. The mandate was permanently to colonize the territory and to expel the Huguenots who were threatening the Spanish trade route (see Laudonnière). Arriving at St. John’s River in 1565, Menéndez de Avilés surprised the French garrison at Fort Caroline, executed the Protestant prisoners, including Jean Ribault, and re-christened the site Fort Matéo. He also founded St. Augustine, now the oldest permanent city of European origin in the United States.

Unlike the aims of Narváez or de Soto, Menéndez de Avilés’s goal was not mineral riches but the settling of as large an area as possible, for his grant was to him and his family in perpetuity. As was the custom at the time, while his venture required official approval, the crown invested only a small percentage of the total funds needed. To outfit a formidable fleet, a military land force, and the colonizers needed to settle the land, Menéndez de Avilés had to organize investors, tapping his family’s and his friends’ fortunes. Success would bring them prosperity for generations; failure, ruin. So, in addition to soldiers, he recruited craftsmen from thirty-eight trades, over one hundred farmers, and twenty-seven families, including women and children. He had permission to take five hundred black slaves to perform the most difficult work. Determined to expand his holdings, he sent missionaries north into Santa Maria Bay (the Chesapeake), and built blockhouses from the coast of the present Carolinas to the Alleghenies. From St. Augustine the Camino Real would set out toward Tallahassee and points west.

But the desperate tone to his letters, in which he pleaded for equipment to hold the land and priests to christianize the natives, was well-founded. His mistake, perhaps, was to try to occupy too much territory with too few settlers at a time when the king was unwilling to invest more funds, once the immediate French threat had been eliminated. Menéndez de Avilés lacked the personal fortune to keep his lieutenants content in outposts where they were both incredibly uncomfortable and perilously outnumbered by hostile natives. The colonials mutinied continually, until the far-flung outpost had to be abandoned, leaving only the settlement concentrated around St. Augustine, which continued as the emporium of Spanish power in the area for almost three centuries.

Juan Bruce-Novoa
University of California at Irvine

In the Heath Anthology
from Letter to Philip II (October 15, 1565) (1565)
from To a Jesuit Friend (October 15, 1566) (1566)

Other Works

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Thomas Jefferson Papers
Digital reproduction of a detailed engraving of de Avilés.

Welcome to the First Coast
Page including historical information on de Avilés founding of St. Augustine and the French colonization in 16th century.

Secondary Sources

Henry Folmer, Franco-Spanish Rivalry in North America, 1524-1763, 1953

Roger Kennedy, Rediscovering America, 1990

Woodbury Lowery, The Spanish Settlements Within the Present Limits of the United States, v. 2, 1959