Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Letter to King Philip II

1565 was an eventful year. The Florida coastline witnessed violent exchanges between the imperial forces of France and Spain, the continuation of cultural interactions between indigenous and European peoples, and the failures and successes of colonial footholds on the North American continent. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Captain-General and Adelantado of Florida, is well known for his endeavors in founding the city of St. Augustine, located about an hour south of present-day Jacksonville. For the first time in 50 years (and after numerous, failed attempts), he was able to establish Spanish control over the contested lands of La Florida. He is both a pivotal and influential figure in the history of Spain and the Americas, and one of the many campaigns in his long, maritime-driven career is his infamous expulsion of the French presence at both Fort Caroline and Matanzas, or “slaughter,” Inlet. Purging the land of “heretics” and implementing the Catholic faith in its place, Menéndez relays to His Majesty, King Philip II, his successful venture in the letter provided below.

Though having occurred approximately 450 years ago, the events that transpired between the Spanish and French in La Florida are fervently remembered as moments of triumph and loss. This specific letter crafted by Menéndez not only illustrates the struggles experienced by he and his men in executing their orders to expel the French presence, but also stresses the vital importance of the contested land. According to Menéndez, control of it would only be fruitful as its monetary potential had yet to be unlocked. Enterprise aside, its position was strategic in defense, and the number of Indian souls in need of saving was, as Menéndez expresses, of paramount importance. Examined rhetorically, the Adelantado’s tone is highly persuasive. Despite Florida not yielding the mineral wealth as compared to New Spain or Peru, King Philip II held onto it, spending hefty sums of money to support its continued existence. The paranoia of foreign encroachment, potential wealth, and concern for the conversion of Indian souls is a device employed not only by Menéndez, but also future Adelantados of Florida, to justify a Spanish presence on the continent should it ever come into question.

Edited by Kate Godfrey, University of South Florida St. Petersburg

Further Reading

Avilés, Pedro Menéndez de. Cartas sobre la Florida (1555-1574). Edited by Juan Carlos Mercado. Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2002.

Bennett, Charles E. (ed.), Laudonnière & Fort CarolineHistory and Documents. Tuscaloosa, AL: U Alabama P, 2001.

Deagan, David Hurst Thomas and Kathleen (eds.). Spanish Borderlands Sourcebooks: America’s Ancient City, Spanish St. Augustine, 1565-1763. New York: Garland, 1991.

Hoffman, Paul E. Florida’s Frontiers. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 2002.

Lyon, Eugene. The Enterprise of Florida: Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and the Spanish Conquest of 1565-1568. Gainesville: U P of Florida, 1974.

Lyon, David Hurst Thomas and Eugene (eds.). Spanish Borderlands Sourcebooks: Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. New York: Garland, 1995.


From Spanish Borderlands Sourcebooks: Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. Translated by Eugene Lyon.

October 15, 1565

Catholic Royal Majesty:

I wrote to Your Majesty on the tenth of September from the galleon San Salvador, the day it departed this port … then, within that same hour, being off the bar with a shallop and two small boats loaded with artillery and munitions, there came upon us the four French galleons which we had pursued, towing two or three pinnaces [from their sterns]. [They came] to prevent our disem­barking and to seize our artillery and supplies. And even though the weather was rough on the bar, I still wished to cross it (the bar), at risk of drowning in it with the one hundred fifty persons who came with me (and losing) the bronze cannons, rather than see myself in their power and reinforce them. And, miraculously, Our Lord wished to save us, since it was low tide and the bar was covered by scarcely 8.4′, while the ship drew more than 8.4′.

And they, seeing that I had escaped, after they had come to speak to me about surrender and to assure me not to be afraid, went to sea to seek the galleon [San Pelayo], which it is understood they believed could not escape them. And within two days, a hurricane and very great storm came upon them. And it seeming to me that they could not [therefore] return to their fort, and ran a risk of being lost and that, coming to seek me as they did, they had to bring the most and best of the people they had, and that their fort [Fort Caroline] remained in a weak state, [I determined] that it was the opportune time to go and attack them. I consulted with the Captains about the good enterprise which we could do, and it seemed the same to them. And then I had five hundred men prepared, three hundred of them arquebusmen and the pikemen and shieldbearers—even though there were few of those. And we made up our packs, wherein each one put six pounds of seabiscuit, which he was burdened with, and his wineskins of an azumbre and a half [about 3.24 liters] and of two [about 4.32 liters], filled with wine, and their arms. And each Captain and soldier, and I the first, as example, carried this food and arms as our burdens.

Since we did not know the way, we expected to arrive there in two days, and believed that it was no more than six or eight leagues, as two Indians who went with us notified us. And departing from this fort of St. Augustine under this order and decision on September 18th, we came across rivers so swollen from all the rain that had fallen, since we travelled so little distance we did not arrive to set up camp one league from the fort until the evening of the nineteenth. We had come more than fifteen leagues, more or less, all of it through marshes and desolate places, by roads never travelled, in order to get around the rivers.

And on the twentieth, eve of the day of the blessed Apostle and Evangelist St. Matthew, having prayed to Our Lord and His Blessed Mother, supplicating them to give us victory against those Lutherans, because we had already agreed to take the twenty ladders we had brought along, to attack them by scaling the walls in their sight. And His Divine Majesty did us such mercy and guided it in such a way that, without the death of a single man, and with only one man knocked on the head [who is already well], we won the fort and everything within it. One hundred thirty-two men had their throats cut and, the next day, ten more who were taken prisoner in the woods. Among them were many gentlemen.

And he who was Governor and warder there, named Monsieur Laudonnière, a relative of the Admiral of France who had been his steward, fled to the woods. A soldier followed him, and gave him a pike-wound; we cannot find out what has become of him. Up to fifty or sixty persons fled swimming and to the woods, and in two small boats of three ships which they had [anchored] in front of the fort. Afterwards I sent a trumpeter to the ships to ask that they surrender and turn over the arms and ships, and they refused. We sank one ship with the artillery which was in the fort, and the other one recovered the people and went down river a league, where there were two other ships with many supplies; those were two of the seven which had come from France [with Jean Ribault], and had not yet discharged their cargoes.

Since it seemed unfitting to lose the prize, I went then to this fort to prepare three small craft I had there to go and seek them. And the Indians notified them; since they were few in number, they took the two best ships, sank the third, and within three days fled. Being advised of this, I ended my search. They wrote me from the fort [formerly Fort Caroline, now renamed Fort San Mateo] to say that up to twenty Frenchmen had appeared in the woods, in their nightshirts, many of them wounded. And they believe that among them goes Monsieur Laudonnière. I have sent orders to do all possible diligence to take and do justice to them.

Between women, babies and children younger than fifteen, I found almost fifty persons. I feel the greatest sorrow at seeing them among my men, because of their evil sect, but I fear that Our Lord would punish me if I treated them cruelly; eight or ten of the children were born here.

These Frenchmen have many Indian friends, and have demonstrated much concern for their perdition, especially two or three teachers of their evil sect who taught the caciques and Indians, and who followed them as the Apostles followed after Our Lord. One marvels at seeing how these Lutherans have enchanted these poor savage people. I will do everything possible to gain the will of these Indians who were friends of these Frenchmen, and avoid any reason that I should break relations with them. Because if in fact a man does not resist, they are such great traitors, thieves and greedy persons, that one cannot easily live with them. The caciques and Indians who are their enemies show me friendship. And I maintain and will maintain relationship with them, even if I might regret them—that I will not participate in their vicious inclinations….

On September 28th Indians came to notify me that there were many Frenchmen on the seacoast six leagues from here, who had lost their ships and had escaped swimming. And I took fifty soldiers in small boats. At dawn the next day I was up with them. Keeping my people hidden, I went with one companion along a river, because they were on the other side, and I spoke with them.

I told them that I was a Spaniard, and they told me they were French­men. They asked me to swim across the river to where they were, which was narrow, alone or with my companion. I responded to them that we did not know how to swim, and suggested that they pass over one of them under surety. They agreed to do it, and sent a man of good understanding, a ship-master.

He told me privately that they had left the fort with four galleons and eight pinnaces, each rowed by twenty-four oarsmen, with four hundred picked soldiers, and two hundred sailors, and Jean Ribault was Commander. And Monsieur LaGrange was General of the footsoldiers, with other good Captains, soldiers and gentlemen. [They left] with the intention to seek me out at sea and attack me. And, if I had landed, to disembark the people with those pinnaces and attack me. And if they wished to disembark, they could well have done so, but they had not dared. And, while they were wishing to return to their fort, a storm and hurricane came upon them. From twenty to twenty-five leagues from here three of them were lost. And they had brought up to four hundred persons, of which only one hundred forty were alive there. Of the rest, some had drowned, others had been killed by the Indians, and the Indians captured and took away up to fifty. And that Jean Ribault with his Capitana was five leagues from them, anchored in 16.4′ of water on the land side of some sandbars, without masts—which they had cut—and he had a few less than two hundred persons within. They believe that he is lost, and that all the bronze artillery and munitions, which is very much and very good, was lost in these three ships, and a part of it was in Jean Ribault’s ship, and they felt for themselves that it was certainly lost.

And he told me that his companions, those Captains and soldiers who had survived, asked me for safe passage to go to their fort, since they were not at war with Spaniards. I responded to him that we had taken their fort and cut the throats of those who were within, because they had established it there without permission of Your Majesty, and because they spread the Lutheran sect in these provinces of Your Majesty. And [I said] that I, as Governor and Captain-General of these provinces, would carry out fire and blood war against all who might come to these parts to settle and plant the evil Lutheran sect, seeing that I had come by order of Your Majesty to plant the Gospel in these parts in order to enlighten the natives about what the Holy Mother Church of Rome says and believes, in order to save their souls. And thus, I would not give them passage; rather, I would follow them on land or at sea until I took their lives.

He asked me if he might go with this message, and would return by swimming, at night; and he asked if I would spare his life. And I did it, seeing that he spoke truth and could enlighten me about many things. And then, when he had returned to his companions, there came a gentleman, Lieutenant of Monsieur Laudonnière, very knowledgeable in these parts, to feel me out. And having had a give-and-take with me, he offered me that they turn over their arms and in return I would grant them their lives. I responded to him that they could turn over their arms and put themselves under my mercy in order that I might do with them what Our Lord might order me. And more than this he could not get from me or God Our Lord could expect from me. And thus they went along with this answer, and came and surrendered their arms to me. And I had their hands tied behind them and put them to the knife. There only remained sixteen, of which twelve were Breton seamen, whom they had taken, and the four were craftsmen—carpenters and caulkers—people of whom I have need. And it seemed to me that to punish them in this way would be serving God Our Lord, and Your Majesty. From this point on, they will leave us free of their evil sect in order to plant the Gospel in these parts and enlighten the natives and bring them to the obedience of His Majesty. That, since the lands are extensive, it is well that one must work [at their development] for fifty years. But good beginnings are hopes of good endings, and thus I have hopes in Our Lord that he might give me in all of it a successful outcome, in order that, for my descendants, we might give these kingdoms to Your Majesty, pacified, and the people of them become Christians. My particular interest, as I have written to Your Majesty, is this: we are gaining much reputation with the Indians, and we will be feared by them, even though we make them many gifts.

And considering what Jean Ribault had done, I find that since within ten leagues of where he was anchored with his ship, he had lost three ships of his company, and if they were lost or left to be lost, they would have landed the people and made their fort, putting ashore the supplies which they could from his ship, and employing themselves in salvaging whatever bronze artillery they could from the three ships [may mean “from his ship”] and, if it was not lost, salvaging the masts and rigging from the other three ships, fitting himself out as best he could, and coming to the fort [Caroline] … making up the best force he could and coming by sea. And if he does this, I will await him in such a way that, with the aid of Our Lord, he will be lost. And he might also go inland to a cacique, friendly to him, who is located thirty leagues from him, and who is powerful. And if he does that, I will go to seek him out there, for it is not fitting that he or his companions remain alive. And, if he comes with the ship to the fort, I have prepared and have sited two salvage cannons and two demi­culverins (smaller type of cannon) at the entrance of the [St. Augustine] bar, in order to sink him after he enters; I have prepared a bergantín (two-masted, oar-driven sailing vessel) to take his people there and in every way make it impossible for him to escape.

The things found in the [French] fort were only four bronze guns of a thousand to fifteen hundred pounds each, because the rest he brought from France, dismounted, as ballast in the galleons which went to seek me, with all the other munitions. There were also found twenty-five bronze muskets, of two hundred pounds, and they found up to 2,000 lbs. of gunpowder … most of the days since they arrived they have spent in good celebrations, with their happiness at the arrival … of news that, a hundred leagues to the north-northwest of Santa Elena, are the mountains which run from Zacatecas, which contain much silver. And Indians had come from there with many pieces of silver, and they found themselves with the silver that the Indians had brought them, to the quantity of five or six thousand ducats. We also found about three thousand ducats worth of clothing and other valuables ….

[Menéndez discusses the Hawkins ships which had visited Fort Caroline] … It was agreed between these English and French that Monsieur Laudonnière, who was Governor here, should await the French reinforcement here until September. If it did not come, he would go to France to seek it. And, next April, they would bring a heavy armada to wait for and take the New Spain and Nombre de Dios fleets, which necessarily must pass by here … and Jean Ribault, with the eight hundred men who remained here with him, wished to go in January to the Florida Keys, which face Havana twenty-five leagues away, and make a fort in a very fine port which it is said they have reconnoitered and, from there when in summer they should have had their whole fleet together, to take Havana and free all the blacks who might be there, and from there send to offer the same to all those from Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and all of the mainland. The skilled Frenchman to whom I gave his life has informed me of this very sufficiently.

The river on which Fort San Mateo, which we took from the French, lies, goes inland for sixty leagues and, turning southwest, does not come to an end until it comes out almost at the Bay of Juan Ponce. From there to New Spain and to the port of San Juan de [U]lua are no more than upwards of two hundred fifty leagues. Next year, they thought to build a fort in that Bay of Juan Ponce, since it is so near to New Spain, and some one hundred fifty leagues from Honduras, and about the same distance from Yucatan ….

This port is in twenty-nine and a half degrees, and the port of the fort of San Mateo which we won is in thirty and a quarter; the French and their pilots were mistaken about this, and I caused the sun[sight] to be taken on land to verify it. From here to Cape Canaveral is fifty leagues, with three inlets and ports in between. And from here to Havana is a little less than a hundred leagues, which can be navigated [in the waterway] between the islands of Canaveral and of the Keys, and cross from there to Havana, a distance of no more than twenty fi­ve leagues. I have agreed to take two very good pinnaces I took from the French, with a hundred men, and go along the coast, the ships being at sea and spending the nights on land. Being within Cape Canaveral, where the sea is like a river, to discover inside the islands of Canaveral and the Keys the best port in which to make a fort ….

For next May it will be fitting to go to settle Santa Elena—which is fifty leagues from here, the route having three inlets and ports within three leagues—having left these two forts in the best possible position, with three hundred men in each, and taking five hundred soldiers and a hundred sailors in shallow draft vessels. [The sea-islands] one navigates within from port to port. There, [at Santa Elena] I will build a fort, leaving three hundred soldiers within it to finish it, and go forward to the Bay of Santa Maria, which is located in thirty-seven degrees, 130 leagues beyond Santa Elena, which is the land of the Indian [D. Luis Velasco], who is in Mexico [City], and construct another fort and leave in it another two hundred soldiers.

The key to the fortification of all these lands must be this: that from that point on towards Newfoundland, one need not settle, because north of this port, inland eighty leagues, are some mountains, and at their foot an arm of the sea which flows out at Newfoundland, and which is navigable for six hundred leagues. This arm of the sea enters in Newfoundland and ends there eighty leagues inland from the land of the Indian, which is this Bay of Santa Maria, in thirty-seven degrees. And within a half-league there is another arm of the salt water which goes north-northwestward, which is suspected to lead to the South Sea… At the foot of the mountains it would be four hundred leagues from the mines of San Marlin and New Galicia.

And for them to have mastered all of this, it would have been convenient for them [the French] to fix their frontier lines here, control the Bahama Channel, and later enter there and control the mines of New Spain. And it is wholly fitting that Your Majesty have this key and force, and be the master of it, and you will be the Lord of Newfoundland. With galleys in that arm of the sea, no ship would be allowed to fish unless it paid tribute and recognized it to be the land of His Majesty, and assure the safety of all the Indies. And if the arm of the sea, as is certain, goes to the South Sea, it is near China, which is important for the enlightenment of those peoples and the Malaccan trade….

And because these are extensive lands, with many good rivers and ports, and the people of this land are many, and because one cannot make much impression with a few Spaniards, it is not fitting to do this work over the long term. It is rather better to press on with it, spending in five years what one would ordinarily expend in ten, because in this way Your Majesty will master these so extensive provinces, enlighten the natives, and add greatly to your kingdoms. Because, in these provinces there will be many very good agricultural enterprises; for example, there will be much wine, many sugar mills, a great number of livestock—there are great meadows—much hemp, tar, pitch and lumber, which Your Majesty does not have in your kingdoms. One may build many ships; from what we have seen, there is not salt and wheat near these rivers. There will be all kinds of products. There are very good waters, very good disposition of the land, there will be much rice and many pearls in the rivers of Santa Elena, where we have notice that there are. Going farther inland, one may there raise much wheat and make much silk….

While writing this, on the tenth of this month, there came to me news that the fort we had captured from the French had burned one night, destroying all that we had sacked and our supplies; I sent aid to it, dividing our supplies here with them. Within an hour there came another notice, that Jean Ribault, with two hundred soldiers, was five or six leagues from here, where I had made justice upon the Frenchmen from the three lost ships which had been under his command.

Fearing that his Indian friends might join him and cause unrest, I went then to seek him with a hundred fifty soldiers. After dawn, at eleven the next day I came up with him; the river was between us, and no one could pass over it without swimming. Both sides made a demonstration with their people, each displaying two flags with fife and drum. Under a flag of truce he sent his sergeant-major to speak with me. He gave me a request by Jean Ribault and all his men to let them pass to their fort. I responded to him as I had to the others that I was their enemy, and had a fire and blood war with them, since they were Lutherans and had come to plant their evil sect in these lands of Your Majesty’s and to indoctrinate its Indians. I disabused him, [telling him] that we had taken his fort; that they could surrender their flags and arms and place themselves under my grace, in order that I do what I wished with their persons, and that there was no other thing to do or carry out with me.

And the sergeant-major having gone with this notice, late in that same day, under full security, Jean Ribault came to speak with me, to treat with me for some greater degree of security for himself. Since I did not wish to grant it, he said that the next morning he would return with the reply. Thus he returned, with up to seventy companions and many principal persons, among them three or four captains, and among those Captain Corceto, who was for a long time Captain of arquebusmen in Lombardy. Captain LaGrange, who was the Captain of land troops, was already dead. There also came with this Jean Ribault, among other people, four other Germans, relatives of the Prince of Porance, great Lutherans. I wished to determine if there were any Catholics among them, and not one was found.

I saved the lives of two young gentlemen of about eighteen years of age, and three others, the fifer, drummer and trumpeter. I passed Jean Ribault and all the rest under the knife, understanding that thus it befitted the service of God Our Lord and of Your Majesty. I hold it to be a piece of very great fortune that this man be dead, because the King of France could do more with him with fifty thousand ducats than others could do with five hundred thousand. He could do more in one year than others could do in ten, because he was the most skilled sailor and corsair known, very practiced in the Indies sailing and the Florida coast. He was so much a friend in England, and had so much reputation in that kingdom, that he was named Captain-General of all the English fleet against the Catholics of France these passed years, when there was war between England and France….

And now it is more fitting than ever with that with secrecy and diligence, I be provided with what I have asked, so that it might be there before the end of April; next spring I can master this Florida coast, and thus Your Majesty will quickly remain its master, without challenge or concern. Being the master of Florida, you will be master of the Indies and of the navigation. And I certify to Your Majesty that from now on you can sustain Florida at very little cost and Your Majesty will profit from it with much money. And for Spain it will be more valuable than New Spain, and even than Peru….

May Our Lord guard and increase the Royal Catholic person of Your Majesty, with increase of greater kingdoms and dominions, as Christianity has need and we, the servants of Your Majesty, desire. From these provinces of Florida, from the River of San Pelayo and the fort of St. Augustine, October fifteenth, 1565. Humble servant of Your Majesty, who kisses your Royal hands.

Pedro Menéndez