The hurricane that struck Florida's northeast coast in September 1565 bore no colorful name and gave
no advance warning of its coming. But for this interference of nature, the history of this region might
well have been different, for it was here in the aftermath of that storm that Spain crushed the French
attempt to control Florida and began the continued occupation of this site.
Throughout the late 16th century, France was wracked by religious warfare between Catholics and
Protestants (Huguenots). In the hope of uniting his countrymen against a common enemy, Admiral Gaspard
de Coligny, leader of the Huguenots, sent Jean Ribault, also a Huguenot, to establish bases within
Spanish America in the name of the King of France.
His first attempt in 1562 at Charlesfort, on present-day Parris Island near Beaufort, South Carolina,
failed in less than a year. Two years later, a second expedition under Ribault's second in command, Rene
de Laudonniere, built Fort Caroline on the St. Johns River.
The Spanish, who claimed ownership of Florida going back to the explorations of Juan Ponce de Leon in
1513, were alarmed by news of the French colony. Just as repugnant to the Spaniards was the fact that
almost all of these French colonists were Huguenots, for the Spanish regarded Protestants as heretics.
Fort Caroline also threatened the route of merchantmen and treasure galleons returning to Spain from the
Caribbean via the Gulf Stream just off the coast of Florida. The French already had a long history of
plundering Spanish ships, and in fact, Ribault was known as one of their most successful corsairs.
To remove the twin threats of French encroachment and of Protestant heresy, King Philip II of Spain
dispatched Pedro Menendez de Aviles, an able seaman and devout Catholic, to rid Florida of this French menace.
Enroute, the Spanish encountered a fierce storm. Only two of the seventeen ships that left Cadiz
arrived safely in Puerto Rico. He was able to obtain three more small ships, and headed north. On August
28, 1565 Menendez sighted Cape Canaveral. Coincidentally, this was the same day that five ships commanded
by Jean Ribault reached Fort Caroline with reinforcements.
Menendez turned north and followed the coast looking for the French. On September 5 his small fleet
arrived at the St. Johns River. Although the Spanish were outnumbered, words were exchanged, and a few
shots were fired.
Menendez then sailed south to a small inlet he had noticed on the voyage north, a place where he could
find refuge and make plans to comply with the King's order "to burn and hang the Lutheran French."
On September 8, he entered this inlet and founded a town near the site of a Timucuan Indian village. He
named his settlement "St. Augustine" after the saint honored in the church calendar on August 28,
the day on which he had first sighted Florida.
As the Spanish began building St. Augustine, the French plotted an attack. Ribault reasoned that it was
best to take the initiative while he enjoyed numerical superiority. So with 500 men in five ships, he left
Fort Caroline on September 11 against the advice of Laudonniere who warned about storms and the possibility
of a Spanish attack on Fort Caroline.
Pedro Menendez de Aviles, sent by King Phillip II of Spain, Established St. Augustine in 1565
This fear proved to be prophetic. Just as the French were about to attack St. Augustine, they were hit
by a storm that drove their ships south, out of control, along the coast.
Jean Ribault brought reinforcements to Fort Caroline in 1565 and died at Matanzas
Taking advantage of the weather, Menendez marched his men north to Fort Caroline
through a driving rain. They easily captured the lightly-guarded fort and killed 130 civilians and
soldiers who had not accompanied Ribault. They claimed the fort for Spain and renamed it Fort San
Mateo. The women and children were sent by ship to Puerto Rico. A few Frenchmen, including Laudonniere
and the artist Le Moyne, had managed to board a ship and escape to France. No Spanish soldier was killed
in this attack.
Meanwhile, the French ships were driven against the shore and wrecked, some near present-day
Daytona Beach and others at Cape Canaveral. The survivors started north on foot toward Fort Caroline
only to be stopped at an inlet south of St. Augustine.
Menendez led about 70 Spanish soldiers to the inlet and convinced the French that their only hope
was to allow themselves to be taken prisoner. Never promising to spare their lives, Menendez said he
would do to them whatever God directed him to do. Famished and exhausted, the French surrendered. The
Spanish ferried them across the inlet in small groups and led them into the dunes where they were
killed. In this first wave 111 died, and 16 were spared. Menendez reportedly told the French that
he was killing them not because
they were French but because they were Luteranos, the Spanish term
for all Protestants.
The rest of the Frenchmen, including Jean Ribault, who had been shipwrecked at Cape Canaveral, arrived at
the inlet twelve days later on October 11. The Spanish once again convinced these men to surrender, promising
to ferry them across the inlet the following morning. During the night, half the French had second thoughts,
and fled to the south. The next morning, those who remained were ferried across the inlet, led into the dunes
and suffered the same fate as those who had come before. In this second group, 134 were killed and another
16 spared. A few weeks later, Menendez sought out those Frenchmen who had fled south. Some escaped to the
Indians, but those who were captured were sent as prisoners to Havana, Cuba. Matanzas had received its
name--the Spanish word for "slaughters".
The Massacre of the French by Menendez and his men at
Matanzas Inlet 15 miles south of St. Augustine