Pedro Menendez de Aviles

Pedro Menendez de Aviles

(1519-1574)

Pedro Menendez de Aviles was born in Aviles, Spain. At age 14, he ran away to become a sailor. By his early 20s, he owned his own ship. For the next 20 years he gained both a reputation and fortune by attacking pirates off the coast of Spain and making trade voyages to the West Indies. He played a major role in establishing the route and schedule under which Spain sent fleets of ships to and from the New World.

By 1565, Catholic Spain was becoming greatly concerned about reports of the French presence on the southeastern coast of North America. In particular, the Spanish did not like the idea of Protestants anywhere near what they regarded as their territory. King Philip II of Spain gave Menendez a contract to serve as captain-general of Florida.

The mission was clear: Menendez was not only to establish Spanish settlements, he was to expel all other Europeans from the region, in particular the French. He was also to establish forts that would protect the sea route for the treasure-laden Spanish ships making their way back to Spain.

Menendez and his fleer set sail in June 1565. That September, they encountered the French ships ofJean Ribaut (see no. 9) off the coast of Florida. The French fled to the safety of Fort Caroline, so Menendez landed about 40 miles south.

On September 20, after he discovered that the French had split their forces, Menendez approached Fort Caroline from the rear. During the brutal attack that ensued, the Spanish killed or executed some 132 Frenchmen. Forty-five Frenchmen escaped; women and children were captured and returned to France.

Menendez took over the fort and renamed it San Mateo. In the following weeks, he and his men killed most of the French who had been away from the fort and later returned, although he spared the few who could prove they were Roman Catholics. Menendez’s actions effectively ended French attempts to settle in that part of North America.

Menendez was a man of incredible energy. He immediately set about to secure Spain’s presence in the southeast. In 1565, at the spot where he had originally landed, Menendez established a fort he named San Augustin, at the site of modern-day St. Augustine. This became the core of the first European city established in North America.

He established another major fort at St. Elena in modernday South Carolina, and on the west coast of Florida he established a military-mission post, San Antonio de Carlos. Jesuit missionaries arrived in Florida in 1 567 to convert the native inhabitants.Menendez returned to Spain in 1567 where he was granted many honors for establishing the Spanish presence in the New World.