St. Augustine Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The first permanent European settlement in North America began with a failed quest to convert the indigenous peoples of Florida to Christianity. After fighting French Protestant settlers and the Florida Indians who supported them, the Spanish abandoned that settlement. The founding of St. Augustine, however, led to Spanish domination of Florida that would last for more than two centuries.

Summary of Event

In September, 1565, the Saturiba inhabitants of the village of Seloy welcomed the Spaniards who had sailed into the inlet’s shallow harbor by kissing them on their hands. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés stepped onto shore to the blare of trumpets and the echo of gunpowder. As banners were raised, Menéndez named the village San Agustín (St. Augustine) and claimed it for Spain and its king, Philip II. St. Augustine[Saint Augustine];founding of Colonization;Spain of Florida Menéndez de Avilés, Pedro Antonia, Doña Carlos, Chief Laudonnière, René de Philip II (king of Spain) Ponce de León, Juan Reinoso, Francisco de Felipe, Don Gourgues, Dominique de

Many countries saw the merit in gaining a foothold along the prized eastern coastline of North America. Spain, however, believed that the vast empire belonged to it because Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León had taken possession of Florida for the Crown in 1513. In addition, Philip II wished to protect the many unexplored waterways of Florida, thinking that one of them might be a passage to the East.

In 1564, however, French Huguenot René de Laudonnière established the settlement of Fort Caroline Fort Caroline on the St. Johns River. When the news reached Philip, he contracted the services of Menéndez for a period of three years. Philip named Menéndez adelantado (contractual conqueror and governor) of Florida and commissioned him to conquer and settle the land.

Menéndez, a native of Asturias, was an experienced seaman and leader. Although at one time he had been convicted and jailed for smuggling, Menéndez could boast of skills as a privateer, businessman, and captain-general of the Spanish fleet in 1555-1556, which had won him favor with the king. For Menéndez, the assignment took on many meanings. His only son, Don Juan Menéndez, had been shipwrecked along the coast, and he hoped to find him. He also wished to rid the land of heretic French Protestants, to convert the indigenous peoples to Catholicism, and to gain position and wealth.

After his successful landing at St. Augustine, Menéndez quickly launched an attack on the Huguenots Huguenots;in Florida[Florida] (French followers of Protestant reformer John Calvin), who had settled at Fort Caroline. Menéndez marched 40 miles north through the rain to the fort with a force of five hundred harquebusiers. Eager to be rid of the French, the indigenous Saturibas Saturibas aided the Spanish by leading the way. The soldiers met with little resistance, because most men of fighting age had struck out in pursuit of two ships from Menéndez’s fleet. The women and children were spared and sent to Puerto Rico, but a reported 130 men were killed. In a letter to the king, Menéndez justified the killing by saying that the men were from the “evil Lutheran sect.”

Menéndez renamed the fort San Mateo and, leaving a small garrison of soldiers to guard it, returned to St. Augustine. There, he learned that the French who had left Fort Caroline had been shipwrecked. Menéndez intercepted the survivors at a broad inlet 18 miles south of St. Augustine. The French offered to surrender, provided their lives would be spared. Menéndez agreed to the surrender, only to kill all but a few Catholics, adolescents, and some musicians and tradesmen. The site of the massacre retained the name Matanzas (slaughters). Again, Menéndez explained his action by claiming that it was a necessary strike against heresy.

Although Menéndez contended that both the indigenous and Protestant beliefs had the same Satanic roots, he believed that he could convert the indigenous in the area if he eliminated the French and kept the two cultures from becoming enmeshed. Conversion was one of his intentions when he visited the Calusa Calusas settlement in southwestern Florida in 1566. Menéndez also wished to find his son and establish a Spanish settlement in the same area to protect the coastal shipping lanes from the French, the English, and the Calusas, who were noted for their plundering of Spanish shipwrecks.

The cacique, Chief Carlos (also known as Escambaba or Escambaha), eagerly formed a friendship with Menéndez, hoping to arrange a political alliance with Spain. Carlos’s power was precarious, and he needed an ally to thwart his cousin and rival, Don Felipe. To cement his relationship, Carlos demanded that Menéndez take his middle-aged sister, called Doña Antonia by the Spaniards, to be his wife. Menéndez did not wish to offend the Calusas, and although he already had a wife, he acquiesced. The Calusas were not an agricultural people but rather survived through fishing and trading. The Calusa had a highly sophisticated culture, with art that included carved wooden figures and painted wooden masks. Scavengers of wrecked Spanish ships, they recovered gold, silver, and copper, then developed hammering and embossing techniques.

Menéndez did not succeed in converting the indigenous nor in settling Calusa lands. He did make peace, however, between Carlos and the Tequestas, who were blood relations. In a series of plots and counterplots, Menéndez’s captain, Francisco de Reinoso, murdered Carlos, placing Don Felipe in power. The Calusas nevertheless retaliated, and the Spanish abandoned their fort. The Calusas retained their power in southwestern Florida, and although they decreased in numbers over the centuries, it is believed that they still occupied the area in the mid-nineteenth century as part of the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes.

Menéndez’s initial goal was to establish two or three fortified and populated settlements within three years. The first winter was harsh. Few supply ships came into port to provide the residents with food, and the palm thatch huts of St. Augustine barely kept out the elements. Those who took the advice of the indigenous to drink boiled sassafras tea survived. Despite all the hardships, within a year and a half Menéndez had established five forts along the east coast and two garrisons on the west coast.

Before long, however, the French rallied against the Spanish, allying again with the indigenous. The Saturiba had changed their allegiance after being assaulted by the Spanish soldiers and condemned by missionaries for their religious beliefs and practices. In 1568, they joined the French privateer Dominique de Gourgues in destroying Fort San Mateo. In retaliation for the earlier massacre of his fellow countrymen, de Gourgues hanged the remaining Spaniards from the same trees, it is said, that the Spaniards had used for hanging the French. The French destroyed all the Spanish garrisons except Santa Elena and St. Augustine.

Although Florida was a key element in protecting Caribbean interests, its lack of precious gems was a detriment. Unable to get funding from the Crown to reclaim lost settlements, and given the added office of the governorship of Cuba, Menéndez’s leadership began to wane. Menéndez could not comprehend the turnaround of the indigenous, and he condemned them as warlike and having bad dispositions. He recommended that the entire population of Florida Indians be sold into slavery in the Caribbean. The Spanish government opposed the move, however.


Menéndez died in 1574 in Spain, but not without a legacy: By founding St. Augustine and other forts, he has been credited with establishing a Spanish dominance in Florida that lasted for more than two centuries.

In 1576, Orista Indians forced Santa Elena to be abandoned, and, in 1587, it was dismantled. St. Augustine remained a Spanish colony, except for a twenty-one-year British occupation, for more than 250 years, until Spain ratified the Adams-Onís Treaty (1819), ceding Florida to the United States.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bushnell, Amy. The King’s Coffer: Proprietors of the Spanish Florida Treasury, 1565-1702. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1981. Uses correspondence to piece together the economic, social, and cultural histories of the early days of St. Augustine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Deagan, Kathleen A., ed. America’s Ancient City: Spanish St. Augustine, 1565-1763. New York: Garland, 1991. Selected writings by noted Florida historians on different aspects of the first period of Spanish occupation in Florida, through investigation of documents, archaeological findings, and cartography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gallay, Alan, ed. Voices of the Old South: Eyewitness Accounts, 1528-1861. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994. Menéndez’s account of his travels in Florida is one of many first-person narratives reproduced in this anthology of antebellum primary sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Glete, Jan. War and the State in Early Modern Europe: Spain, the Dutch Republic, and Sweden as Fiscal-Military States, 1500-1660. New York: Routledge, 2002. An account of the development of Spain into an empire founded upon military power and economic exploitation of foreign territories. Provides the larger context for Menéndez’s life and career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Larsen, Clark Spencer, ed. Bioarchaeology of Spanish Florida: The Impact of Colonialism. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001. Anthology detailing the effects of St. Augustine upon all aspects of indigenous life in Florida, from diet to disease to everyday behavior.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lyon, Eugene, ed. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. New York: Garland, 1995. Volume 24 in the Spanish Borderlands Sourcebooks series, this work explores Menéndez’s legacy with illustrations and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mancall, Peter C., and James Merrell, eds. American Encounters: Natives and Newcomers from European Contact to Indian Removal, 1500-1850. New York: Routledge, 1999. Republished academic essays, mostly from scholarly journals, describing first-contact encounters throughout North America.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Milanich, Jerald, and Samuel Proctor, eds. Tacachale: Essays on the Indians of Florida and Southeastern Georgia During the Historic Period. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1978. A thoroughly researched collection depicting the interaction of indigenous and European cultures at the time of conquest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waterbury, Jean Parker, ed. The Oldest City: St. Augustine, Saga of Survival. St. Augustine, Fla.: St. Augustine Historical Society, 1983. A detailed chronology of St. Augustine, with each chapter written by a Florida historian knowledgeable in a particular period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. A well-researched narration of the Spanish colonization of North America and its impact on the peoples, institutions, and lives of the explorers, the colonists, and the indigenous.

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

1493-1521: Ponce de León’s Voyages

1528-1536: Narváez’s and Cabeza de Vaca’s Expeditions

May 28, 1539-Sept. 10, 1543: De Soto’s North American Expedition

Feb. 23, 1540-Oct., 1542: Coronado’s Southwest Expedition

1542-1543: The New Laws of Spain

July 4, 1584-1590: Lost Colony of Roanoke

Jan., 1598-Feb., 1599: Oñate’s New Mexico Expedition

Categories: History