BY GEORGE GARDNER
In April 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon landed in Florida, the first of many Europeans to come. Historians generally believe that Juan Ponce came to shore somewhere between the mouth of the St. Johns River in Jacksonville and Cape Canaveral, however Juan Ponce’s last known longitude places his historic landing somewhere near or at St. Augustine.
In March, 1565, it was the year after Michelangelo’s death, Shakespeare’s birth and some 52 years since Ponce de Leon first sighted La Florida. It all began in the court of Spain’s Philip II, who was determined to establish a permanent Spanish settlement on land discovered by Spain’s Juan Ponce de Leon 52 years earlier. It was compounded by news that French Huguenots had established a settlement and were preparing to reinforce it.
King Phillip summoned Don Pedro Menéndez de Aviles. He was of aristocratic birth, with wealth as a merchant and distinction as a naval officer and known as a man of great firmness of will and tenacity of purpose, a brave commander and military tactician with a honed sense of human nature. He was also a devoted Catholic and fierce defender of the faith. It would be for Menendez an honor to drive the hated French Protestants from Spain’s Florida. Don Pedro Menéndez arrived in St. Augustine in 1565 with 800 colonists to settle the New World in the name of Spain. It was an ambitious attempt at colonization, one that would become the foundation for the most enduring settlement in the United States.
Menendez was named Adelantado, or leader, for the Florida project, under contract to the crown. He would establish Spain’s rights, settle the land, and share in its riches. It would also give him an opportunity to search for his son. Philip charged, “You will explore and colonize Florida; and if there be settlers or corsairs of other nations not subject to us, drive them out.” In France, Captain Jean Ribault, preparing to reinforce Fort Caroline near present-day Jacksonville, was given his charge: “Do not let Menendez encroach upon you, any more than he would let you encroach upon him.”
The asiento was a legal contract. Menendez’ asiento with King Philip II specified, “Take, with a year’s supplies, 500 men, of which 100 farmers, 100 sailors, rest skilled men-of-war; must, within 3 years, place a total of 500 settlers, including skilled tradesmen, 10-12 religious, and 4 addl. Jesuits, 100 horses, mares, 200 calves, 400 hogs, 400 sheep; take galleass San Pelayo.” In exchange, the king gave Menendez extraordinary concessions, among them governmental and military powers in the new world “for two lives,” land grants of “25 leagues squared,” and “1/15th of profits, perpetual,” largesse well beyond that granted to four previous, failed expeditions.
It was for Menendez to assemble all the necessary elements, while adding his own. For in addition to being one of Spain’s ablest seamen, he was also a businessman, and the asiento gave him tremendous trade advantages in the active Indies market. (Period documents refer to the Caribbean as the Spanish Indies on Columbus’ insistent claim that he had reached India.) From the signing of the asiento on March 20, 1565 to the final departure June 29, Menendez pulled the pieces together. His title of adelantado representing the king, his reputation as a keen businessman, and his proven ability as a commander at sea, gave him extraordinary capability to assemble an extraordinary fleet.
With key positions filled by trustworthy family and associates, Menendez now reached across the nation for experienced soldiers and sailors, and for specific skills. He combed the Andalusian coast of southern Spain to assemble a chief gunner and 18 artillerymen. For the necessary ships and supplies, he turned again to family and associates who’d proven their value in previous business dealings. And they relied both on Menendez’ abilities and his lucrative asiento.
Loaded aboard his ships were basic sea rations of wine and sea biscuit, along with olive oil, vinegar, rice, and beans. But that was just the beginning. For the military, 16 large cannon with abundant gunpowder and iron shot, 250 arquebuses, 100 helmets, 30 crossbows and pikes, breastplates, and harnesses for 50 horses.
For the settlement, Menendez selected 138 soldiers also skilled as artisans and craftsmen. Another 117 were listed as farmers. And 26 would bring their wives and children. There were stonemasons, carpenters, tailors, shoemakers, smiths, barbers and surgeons. Hose makers, metal smelters, cloth weavers, and cloth shearers went aboard, along with specialists in the making of lime and mortar, tanners, farriers, wool carders, a hatmaker, a bookseller, and an embroiderer. There were coopers, bakers, gardeners, a silk dealer, blanket maker, apothecary, granaries keeper, and a master brewer.
Six tons of bulk iron and a half-ton of steel were loaded on Menendez’ San Pelayo. Fifty axes and 450 shovels and mattocks of iron were stowed to clear and work the land; 200 fishnets and shoe-making supplies were included, and cloth for trade with the Indians. For religious life, the adelantado contributed eight church bells and altar furnishings to celebrate the Mass.
Menendez also made room for an Escribano Público – a Notary Public – and 12,000 sheets of paper, to record the expedition’s formal actions. He was preparing a full-scale transfer of Castilian civilization to the cities he planned to found in Florida. He carried in his ships enough skilled persons to service the needs of the colonies and to aid in the development of their agriculture.
Menendez began his epic journey with 1,504 aboard eight ships: the 1,000-ton flagship San Pelayo, the large galeota La Vitoria, the bergantin La Esperanza – a smaller, swift warship, the 150-ton caravel San Antonio, and four shallops, 75 tons or lighter – the Magdalena, San Miguel, La Concepción, and San Andrés.
The ducat, a gold coin, was used as a trade currency throughout Europe for centuries. One modern estimate of its worth at the time was $2. Inflating it to $125 today, Menendez’ investment in this voyage in the summer of 1565 was $5,920,625, while the Spanish Crown invested $4,622,625.
“The Lord having granted us favorable weather from the first, five days’ sailing brought us in sight of the Lanzarote Islands and Fuerte Ventura. The following Wednesday, July 5, 1565, we reached the Canary Islands, which are two hundred and fifty leagues (750 miles) from Cadiz, where we stopped three days to lay in a supply of wood and water,” recorded Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, principal priest with Pedro Menendez de Avilés on his 1565 voyage, who documented the epic voyage in a 10,000-word memoir.
He further recounts that “very often the sea washed completely over the deck where we were gathered, one hundred and twenty men having no other place to go, as there was only one between-decks, and that was full of biscuit, wine, and other provisions.” They were in such great danger that it was found necessary to lighten the vessel, and they threw a great many barrels of water into the sea, as well as cooking apparatus and seven millstones.
On Tuesday, the 28th of August, 1565, Menendez and his crew made landing in Florida. Millions of lives have been affected by what happened in St. Augustine throughout 450 years. The history, art and culture of the Spanish city showcase a spirit of discovery and adventure. It is a living classroom for people of all backgrounds to learn about hope, freedom, traditions, opportunity and even defeat. The message of St. Augustine is both inspiring and thought-provoking. It is a tale of the continuing quest of a community and its people for unity among diversity, including ethnic, cultural, religious and other differences.