The Birth of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and Franco-Spanish Relations

menende1_smAs we approach 2015, the 450th anniversary of the founding of our city, many members of the public are becoming interested in knowing more about the people and events that culminated in the founding of St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest port. Below is the first in a series of posts that will share some of our fascinating history for all to enjoy.


In the year 1519 Juan Ponce de León’s eldest daughter Juana was married to Garcia Troche on the island of Puerto Rico. Ponce was taking care of all of his political and familial obligations so that he could finally return to Florida and establish a permanent settlement that would effectively bring the new territory into the Spanish realm.  It was not to be. Ponce de León’s failed attempt would cost him his life and the task of successfully founding a settlement in Florida would fall to another born that same year. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in the northern port city of Avilés a child was born into a family of minor nobility. The child, a boy, was christened with the name Pedro Menéndez. Like the name of Juan Ponce de León, that of Pedro Menéndez would forever be associated with Florida.

Map of the north coast of Spain showing the location of the city of Avilés, the birthplace of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.
Map of the north coast of Spain showing the location of the city of Avilés, the birthplace of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.

In 1521, the year Ponce de León made his attempt to settle Florida, France and Spain went to war. This war set the tone of Franco-Spanish relations for decades to come and served as the backdrop to Pedro Menéndez’s child hood and coming of age. The war began in the north and clashes occurred on the Bay of Biscay and in the Pyrenees Mountains which separate Spain and France. One of the consequences of this war was the onslaught of French privateers, known as corsarios, which for the first time began a serious assault on the wealthy Spanish shipping from the Indies. This began in 1523 with the capture of three Spanish ships carrying Mexican Aztec treasure from Hernán Cortéz to the court of Charles V.

These very rich prizes gave the French a taste for Spanish gold and corsairs appeared in great numbers off the coasts of the Azores, the Canaries, and San Lúcar de la Barrameda, the entrance to the Guadalquivir River and the port of Seville. In response to this, in 1526 the Spanish prohibited the sailing of individual vessels to and from the Indies and organized them into an annual convoy system that would remain a Spanish practice for centuries. This resulted in a decrease of Spanish losses and also led to the capture of numerous French corsairs by the Spanish defenders of the fleet known as “la guarda de flotas”. With this change in tactics, French corsairs expanded their horizons to the Indies themselves where they assaulted vessels engaged in the inter-island trade and sacked Spanish coastal settlements.

When Pedro Menéndez was ten years old in 1529, the Spanish Emperor Charles V gave permission to a number of northern ports to engage in trade with the Indies. Among these was Avilés in Asturias. These northerners, or norteños, had a long established reputation for maritime excellence in both the shipbuilding trade and in warfare. The iron and timber resources of northern Spain and its coast line on the Bay of Biscay made shipbuilding a natural industry. Warfare between Spain and its neighbors and the consequent maritime losses contributed to the shipbuilding industry by providing a continuing need for new shipping.

In times of war the Spanish crown gave letters-of-marque to captains who would outfit and arm ships at their own cost, often in share holding companies, to make war on the enemies of Spain and which operated independently of la guarda de flotas.  Spanish privateers who went after French corsarios were called contra corsarios, and when it came to warfare the norteños had a fearsome reputation as privateers on the Bay of Biscay and elsewhere.  Norteños are very well represented among mariners who undertook to protect Spain’s trade. These included such men as Juanot de Villaviciosa, Domingo de Villaviciosa, Bartolomé Carreño, and Álvaro Sánchez de Avilés, the elder brother of Pedro Menéndez from whom Menéndez would learn much about seamanship and fighting. This was the world in which Pedro Menéndez de Avilés grew and came of age and which shaped his historical trajectory.

Lighthouse Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS

Yesterday we staged a group Ice Bucket Challenge at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum to help raise funds and awareness for the fight against ALS, our Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Two of us have lost close family members to this cruel disease, including myself, so this was a special and meaningful moment for me and we dedicated it to my mom, Frances Meide Bell. I’m sure she would have appreciated watching me get doused with ice water!

Search for the French Fleet in the News!

The cover of FYI, a supplement to Jacksonville’s newspaper, the Florida Times-Union, announcing the search for the lost French Fleet!

We’ve recently had some more news stories out on our ongoing search for the lost French fleet of Jean Ribault. Shortly after our first week of survey we were interviewed by Jessica Clark of First Coast News. You can see the video here, its a really great newstory!

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Hoisting the French Flag during the Search for Ribault’s Fleet

Fort Caroline National Monument Ranger Craig Morris and LAMP archaeologist/Flinders graduate student Brian McNamara pose with the French fleur-de-lys flag. It flew over Fort Caroline National Monument and will soon fly over the Roper as we search for the lost French Fleet of 1565.

Guest blogged by LAMP archaeologist Brian McNamara:
My spur of the moment decision to stop by the Fort Caroline National Memorial for a research visit on the way home from the airport could not have been better timed. I walked in one hour after a press conference formally announced they are fairly confident that the real location of the fort has been identified in Jacksonville. I must have looked conspicuous taking a million reference photographs in my LAMP tee shirt (and being the only visitor on site the whole three hours I was there). Ranger Craig Morris and Lynda Corley walked over and we had a long conversation about the new discovery of the fort and LAMP’s ongoing search for Ribault’s lost ships off of Canaveral. How fortuitous would it be to discover the wreck of Trinité within a couple weeks of the finding of the settlement that started the whole story?

The National Park Service staff at Fort Caroline National Memorial are very excited to see what comes of the search, and have honored us by presenting LAMP with Fort Caroline’s flag, to be flown at Roper‘s masthead when we resume our work in the field.

Fort Caroline Discovered?

Fort Caroline was built by the French in 1564 on the banks of the River of May, the present-day St. Johns River in Jacksonville, Florida. Its exact location has never been found.

One of our archaeologists, Brian McNamara, visited Fort Caroline yesterday. He was one of the first to hear of a potential new discovery. State Representative Lake Ray and his son Lake Ray IV made the announcement yesterday that they believe they have identified the exact location of Fort Caroline, on the St. Johns River in the Timucuan Preserve, a National Park Service property that also includes the Fort Caroline National Monument.
From the Florida Times-Union:

The nearly 450-year-old site of North America’s first French colony is on a small island between Mayport and Buck Island, state Rep. Lake Ray said Tuesday…

Ray said he’s confident the Jacksonville site is the real location of Fort Caroline. He asked that the location of the site not be disclosed to protect it from looters. The site is being protected by the Coast Guard and National Park Service, he said.

Finding the original site of Fort Caroline has been a hundreds-year-old mystery that Northeast Florida historians have long since tried to solve.
The French established the fort in 1564. Spanish soldiers from St. Augustine later attacked it and ultimately the French abandoned it.

Ray’s son, Lake Ray IV, has searched for the site of Fort Caroline since 2010.

Ray IV, who has a bachelor’s in history from the University of North Florida, brought his father in on the search about two months ago, and they used copies of maps they inherited from the state representative’s father.

Within those maps, they said, they found an original drawing of Fort Caroline, penned by a young man who sent the map back home to his father. They used geological survey maps from the early 1900s and found a small island that matched the map, Rep. Ray said.
He said moats that were known to have bordered the site are clearly visible on the land, and there’s an imprint of a triangular structure that was part of the fort and rectangular courtyard.

“If you get out on the island, there’s no doubt,” said Ray IV.

University of North Florida associate professor of anthropology Robert “Buzz” Thunen said researchers will need to find French and Spanish artifacts before the site can be verified.

No excavations have begun yet, but they may start within three weeks after researchers get the proper permits, Thunen said.

Barbara Goodman, National Park Service superintendent for the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve and the Fort Caroline National Memorial, said archeologists will start by digging 10 or 12 test holes. From there, researchers will determine whether there’s enough cause to continue excavations.

“Its a felony for anyone who isn’t authorized to go digging around on the property,” she said. “As soon as we have some information to share, we’ll share it. Until we know what we have, we need to keep the site protected.”

She said research will start as soon as certain details, such as funding for the dig, can be settled.

NPR and First Coast News also ran stories on the potential discovery.

They used aerial photographs to identify landforms that might correspond to the remains of the original fort and its moat. At this stage I would say their finds are preliminary in nature, and would need to be tested archaeologically before we could say with any confidence that they represent the actual site of the fort. They supposedly have artifacts from the site, which I have not seen (and which would be illegal to have removed from the site without a National Park Service permit), that when analyzed by archaeologists might also lend credit to their claim. Regardless, there is excitement in the air about Ribault, Fort Caroline, and the Lost French Fleet this year, the 450th anniversary of the French settlement!