A couple years ago I took an afternoon to visit to the Spanish fortress at St. Augustine, Florida. I'm somewhat of a history fan, so I like to stop at sites that make your typical teenager groan. But this day I left my teens at the condo in Orlando and made the trek to the Atlantic coast. On the way I saw a sign for Fort Matanzas National Monument and decided to check it out.
Being a student of American history I had heard of the massacre of the French Huguenot settlers in Florida, but I had not visited the sites where it took place. As I joined the tour at Fort Matanzas (meaning "slaughters" in Spanish), I learned the details of this North American extension of the religious, political, and military struggle that resulted from the Reformation.
In 1564 a group of French Protestants known as Huguenots settled in Spanish-claimed territory near present-day Jacksonville. They built Fort Caroline on the St. John's River in Florida, in present-day Jacksonville. On June 30, 1564, they set a day of Thanksgiving and offered the first Protestant prayer in North America:
"We sang a psalm of Thanksgiving unto God, beseeching Him that it would please Him to continue His accustomed goodness towards us."
According to Bill Federer's American Minute, in 1989, Rep. Bennett recited the history. "Three small ships carrying 300 Frenchmen led by Rene de Laudonniere anchored in the river known today as the St. Johns. . . On June 30, 1564, construction of a triangular-shaped fort . . . was begun with the help of a local tribe of Timucuan Indians . . . (Fort Caroline was) home for this hardy group of Huguenots . . . their strong religious motivations inspired them."
When the king of Spain discovered this encroachment on what he considered his property, he dispatched an army under Don Pedro Menéndez to drive out the French and to establish a Spanish colony in La Florida. This was the beginning of St. Augustine.
The National Park Service provides these details of the conflict:
Spanish treasure fleets sailed along the Florida coast on their way to Spain and Fort Caroline provided a perfect base for French attacks. Worst of all to the devoutly Catholic Philip, the settlers were Huguenots (French Protestants). Despite Philip's protests, Jean Ribault sailed from France in May 1565 with more than 600 soldiers and settlers to resupply Fort Caroline.
General Pedro Menéndez de Aviles, charged with removing the French, also sailed in May, arriving at the Saint Johns River in August with some 800 people, shortly after Ribault. The Spanish came ashore on September 8 and established and named their new village "St. Augustine" because land had first been sighted on the Feast Day of St. Augustine, August 28.
Jean Ribault sailed on September 10 to attack and wipe out the Spanish at St. Augustine, but a hurricane carried his ships far to the south, wrecking them on the Florida coast.
At the same time, Menéndez led a force to attack Fort Caroline. Since most of the soldiers were absent, Menéndez was easily able to capture the French settlement, killing most of the men in the battle. He then learned from Timucuan Indians that a group of white men were on the beach a few miles south of St. Augustine. He marched with 70 soldiers to where an inlet had blocked 127 of the shipwrecked Frenchmen trying to get back to Fort Caroline.
With a captured Frenchman as translator, Menéndez described how Fort Caroline had been captured and urged the French to surrender. Rumors to the contrary, he made no promises as to sparing them. Having lost most of their food and weapons in the shipwreck, they did surrender. However, when Menéndez then demanded that they give up their Protestant faith and accept Catholicism, they refused. 111 Frenchmen were killed. Only sixteen were spared - a few who professed being Catholic, some impressed Breton sailors, and four artisans needed at St. Augustine.
Two weeks later the sequence of events was repeated. More French survivors appeared at the inlet, including Jean Ribault. On October 12 Ribault and his men surrendered and met their fate, again refusing to give up their faith. This time 134 were killed. From that time, the inlet was called Matanzas -- meaning "slaughters" in Spanish.
The Capitol Hill Prayer newsletter recently featured a story on the anniversary of the French Huguenot massacre.
"Although they died as martyrs 444 years ago, the sacrifice of the French Huguenots in Florida still stands in eternity, and the price has been paid in the heavens for our freedom on this land, here on earth. Praise God. . . . they loved not their lives unto death." (Rev. 12:11)
The newsletter explains that a mural in the United States Capitol reveals this part of Florida's history and provides a map depicting the three oldest cities in our nation:
"An often overlooked site of interest in the U.S. Capitol is a historical map that is shown in the ceiling of the Cox Corridor in the House wing of the Capitol Building. Titled 'Fort St. Augustine,' this mural is in the ceiling of the corridor, and shows the dates of the founding of the first three cities in our land: St. Augustine (1565), Jamestown (1607), and Plymouth (1620)."
"The Spanish conquistadors founded St. Augustine, Florida on September 8, 1565 while they carried out the command of King Philip II of Spain, to 'do away with' the 'French problem' on land that Spain had claimed."
"Later, the Spanish built the Castillo de San Marcos -- a fearsome-looking fortress, designed to serve as a signal to all others that this land belonged to Spain! The Castillo de San Marcos, which took 30 years to build, is also shown on this map."
"St. Augustine, Florida, is the oldest city in America today, having been founded by Europeans who have resided there ever since."
These are significant and beautiful historic sites and, in combination with Fort Caroline in Jacksonville, and Fort Matanzas, just south of St. Augustine on the Atlantic Coast, are worth a visit.
Next time, I'm taking my teenagers with me. They'll thank me later!
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