St. Augustine, First American City

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The oldest permanent European settlement in North America was not Jamestown, but rather St. Augustine.

Saint Augustine was established by a Spanish Admiral and Governor named Pedro Menendez de Aviles on September 8, 1565. The founding of this settlement is actually part of a much larger story. The French, having witnessed the wealth Spain was gaining from the New World were becoming interested in establishing a foothold there themselves.

The French King, being Catholic, had a small problem of Papal recognition of the Spanish as the rightful owners of all the lands there, even those they had not attempted to settle. One such area was “Florida.” To the Spanish, this name applied to basically all the lands north of Cuba. Taking advantage of the “heretic” status of French Hugenots in the eyes of the Pope, the French King (or more likely his scheming de Medici mother) made secret arrangements for a colony of these protestant Frenchmen in “Florida.”

A Hugenot naval officer named Ribaut was placed in charge of establishing a colony, and he did this by establishing a fort on Parris Island off the coast of what is now South Carolina which he named Charlesfort. He then returned to Europe for supplies, and was temporarily incarcerated in England where he also wrote and published a book. Meanwhile, Charlesfort came under repeated Indian attacks.

Rene de Laudiniere who remained in America to lead the French moved the colony south to the mouth of what was then called the May River, but would eventually become the St. John’s river near modern day Jacksonville, Florida. Here he built a strong fortification on a bluff which he named Fort Caroline (after the then reigning Charles IX of France).

Word of the French presence reached the Spanish King who made Aviles governor of Florida, and ordered him to remove the French. Meanwhile Ribaut regained his freedom and returned with a large force. Ribaut and Aviles both arrived in Florida at about the same time, and both commanders soon had word of the other’s presence and strength.

The French force was actually somewhat larger, and de Aviles avoided a naval battle, and sailed south where he founded San Augustin (which would become St. Augustine). Aviles hastily fortified his new position, and the French wasted several days arguing as to the correct course of action. When Ribaut finally set out with all but two of his ships and about 600 men to attack the Spanish, a storm destroyed his fleet. Taking advantage of this De Aviles marched overland with a large force to attack the sparsely garrisoned Fort Caroline. The French fort was taken by surprise, and about 200 Frenchmen were killed.

Only women, children, and those who would swear themselves to be Catholics were spared, although two ships, and Laudiniere did escape to eventually return to France. Aviles then regained his ships, and discovered Ribaut and those of his men who had not drowned on a small sandbar. The survivors, including Ribaut himself, and excluding only sworn Catholics were summarily executed. If one remembers the times and the recent Spanish Inquisition, this sort of religiously based cruelty does not seem quite so shocking.

The French threat to Spanish land claims was put to an end for awhile, and the cruelty of the massacre was given both religious and logistical excuses, as Aviles truly did not have supplies to feed such a large number of prisoners for any period. And so it was that St. Augustine rather than Fort Caroline became the first permanent Eurpean settlement in North America. Ribaut became something of a martyr for anti-Spanish sentiment, and Aviles won a reputation as a cruel butcher.

Despite his victory and generous grants from the crown, Aviles never managed to attract Spanish Settlers to Florida in large numbers, and focused more on admiraling treasure fleets than governing. He eventually died a poor man, and his family’s claims to hereditary rights in Florida would come up occasionally as Florida changed hands several times, and acquired geographic boundaries closer to what we think of today . Both Aviles and Ribaut are fascinating historical figures, and may be treated a bit more thoroughly in upcoming articles.