Unsuccessful Ventures. Spain’s exploration of the region known as La Florida began in 1513 when Juan Ponce de León sailed to the area looking for riches and slaves. Within the next three years at least three other expeditions explored both the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. In 1521 Spanish slavers made it as far north as the Santee River in South Carolina. Other explorers also made their way to and through these southeastern regions. In 1528 Pánfilo de Narváez set out with some four hundred black and white men to explore and perhaps settle the Florida Gulf Coast. Only four men survived and in one of the great heroic sagas of the century made their way back to Mexico City after wandering for eight years. Between 1539 and 1543 Hernando de Soto and five hundred followers covered an area from Tampa Bay to Tampico,
Mexico. Two unsuccessful colonizing ventures also preceded the Spanish settlement of Saint Augustine. In 1526 Lucas Vásquez de Allyón led five hundred European settlers with African slaves and some Dominican friars to a colony near what is now Sapelo, Georgia. They lasted only three months before disease, starvation, hostile Indian attacks, and the loss of Allyón forced them back. Fewer than two hundred made it back to their base in Santo Domingo; some of the Africans chose to remain with the Indians. In 1559 Tristán de Luna y Arellano tried again, this time on the Gulf Coast in Pensacola Bay. He sailed with thirteen ships carrying five hundred soldiers and one thousand settlers, but they found insufficient foodstuffs on the coast, and a hurricane destroyed their supply ships. Moving into the interior proved useless, and the group broke up; some returned to New Spain, and the others were killed in a storm while attempting to relocate on the Atlantic Coast. In 1561 Philip II of Spain, having recently made peace with France, called off these settlement attempts whose aims had been to keep the French from establishing a beachhead so close to Spanish territory.
Saint Augustine. Philip II had misjudged the French, who were occupied with a series of religious wars at home but nevertheless had covetous eyes on the wealth Spain was extracting from the Americas. In 1562 and 1564 French Huguenots had tried to establish settlements on the Atlantic Coast both at Charlesfort on what is now Parris Island, South Carolina, and Fort Caroline, near modern Jacksonville, Florida. In 1565, in response to these threats, Pedro Menéndez de Aviles sailed with a fleet intent not only on destroying the French, which he did, but also on establishing a permanent settlement protecting this whole area. On 8 September 1565 Menéndez and his officers, announced by trumpets and an artillery barrage, knelt to kiss the cross carried to them by their chaplain, who then celebrated a mass in honor of the Nativity of Our Lady. With due ceremony Menéndez then took possession of the territory for the king of Spain. Menéndez had planned carefully: he had supplies, and among those with him were farmers as well as carpenters. Still, the first winter brought disease and starvation to Saint Augustine. The fort was little more than a ditch. In 1566 the Spanish began building a town that they laid out in a grid with narrow streets and small blocks. The houses were correspondingly narrow. Thus was settled the oldest city in North America. Saint Augustine grew slowly. Always vulnerable to attack by the French and English—in 1669 the pirate John Davis killed sixty townsfolk—the Spanish constructed eight or nine wooden forts before beginning in 1672 work on the great Castillo de San Marcos, which still stands. Saint Augustine was a presidio—a garrison town—and its population reflected its purpose. Its three hundred inhabitants included soldiers, craftsmen, traders, Native Americans, black slaves, and an occasional Frenchman or Portuguese. Religious needs were met by the Franciscans. In 1605 Bishop Juan de las Cabezas Altamirano arrived.
Population. By 1700 Saint Augustine’s population numbered around one thousand, and by 1763 some thirty-one hundred Europeans, Native Americans, Africans, and Canary Islanders lived there. Many had been born in America, especially the women since Spain continued to send over soldiers but had stopped sending women in the sixteenth century. Some three hundred black slaves lived in the city. The Indians lived outside the city in their own villages. In 1738 there were enough freed slaves, most of them escaped from South Carolina, to form a town of their own, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose. Saint Augustine was in many ways an anomaly born of the defensive needs of the Spanish Crown. Never self-sufficient in foodstuffs, goods, or population, it depended upon government subsidies to keep it going. This lifeline was cut off at various times during the many wars which plagued the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Hostile Native Americans, sometimes allied with European enemies, also threatened the city. In 1702 South Carolina’s governor, James Moore, attacked with a combined force of English, Creek, and Yamasee and destroyed everything outside the walls of the fort. What human enemies left standing was periodically leveled by the hurricanes that battered Florida from both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Epidemics killed Europeans but were especially disastrous to native populations, including the Christianized Indians around the city. As part of the 1763 Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ War, Florida was given to Britain, and all three thousand of Saint Augustine’s residents chose to evacuate to Cuba or Campeche, Mexico, even though they could have stayed. Florida would return to Spain in 1783 and remain Spanish until sold to the United States as East Florida in 1821.
Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose was a free black town in Spanish Florida just north of Saint Augustine, While freed and escaped blacks had settled themselves in other towns in the Caribbean and parts of Latin America, Mose, as it was called, was the only town of its kind in what would become the United States. In 1693 Charles II of Spain offered freedom to slaves who made their way to Spanish territory and converted to Roman Catholicism. This promise was known to at least some blacks living in South Carolina and later Georgia and was also known to white masters who feared its consequences. The earliest inhabitants of the town of Mose escaped from South Carolina in 1724 and included the man who would be the military and civilian leader of Mose, Francisco Menéndez. The actual town was established in 1738 by Gov. Manuel de Mondano two miles north of Saint Augustine. A military outpost, at its center was a fort. Settlers cultivated the lands nearby, hunted in the woods, and fished in Mose Creek. A Franciscan student priest, the only white person living there, attended to the community’s spiritual needs. Escaped slaves from the English provinces were sent to Mose by the Spanish authorities so that at its height perhaps one hundred persons lived there. English prdations forced the evacuation of Mose from 1740 to 1752, and the inhabitants moved to Saint Augustine. When the Spanish governor had the town rebuilt, the former inhabitants resisted his orders to return. After living in the capital city for twelve years, they viewed Mose as a mark of second-class citizenship. Forced back to the segregated settlement, the former slaves remained there until 1763 when the Treaty of Paris ending the French and Indian War gave Florida to the English. The residents of Mose, along with most others, were relocated to Cuba, still free people but soon to lose their identity as members of a cohesive settlement as they merged into the population of Havana.
Source: Jane Lander, “Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose: A Free Black Town in Spanish Colonial Florida,” American Historical Review, 95 (1990): 9–30.
Catholic Church. La Florida exemplified two of Spain’s colonial objectives: forts to protect the valuable exports of Mexico and Peru and missions to fulfill the Pope’s charge to the Spanish Crown of converting the native peoples to Roman Catholicism. Early explorers had brought along priests, soon followed by missions and missionaries sent to America by the various religious orders. The 1521 expedition of Ponce de León marked the arrival of both secular (those not in one of the monastic orders) and regular priests to the shores of Florida as Ponce de León attempted to follow the instructions of his king “in every possible way to convert them [the Indians] to our Holy Catholic Faith.” This expedition failed, as did the next venture in 1526 of Lucas Vásquez de Allyón, among whose members were two priests and a lay Dominican brother. Hernando de Soto had brought twelve priests with him, of whom five lived to return to Mexico. The first successful mission came with the founding of Saint Augustine, but Pedro Menéndez de Avilés also raised crosses at various points on the Florida and Southern Atlantic Coast and left Spaniards there as lay missionaries to instruct the Indians. Without a mutual language it is hard to see how this might have worked. Menéndez set up three settlements with diocesan priests, but only Saint Augustine survived, under the pastorate of Father Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales. He was joined in 1566 by five more priests. One of these, Father Sebastian Montero, would become the first missionary in the Southeast, living at the Indian town of Guatari in what is now South Carolina for six years and teaching the Indians to read, write, and speak Spanish. In 1566 the first attempt by the Jesuits to establish themselves in Florida met the problems that plagued so many early settlers. Missing the harbor at Saint Augustine, they encountered hostile Indians onshore, and the boat bringing them was forced back by storms. The first Jesuit in Florida was killed within two weeks of landing. Two more arrived the next year and began missionary work. In 1568 about a dozen more came, but their major mission near Fredericksburg, Virginia, was destroyed by the Indians, and in 1572 the Jesuits were recalled to Spain.
Franciscans. The next year Franciscans arrived, and in 1595 they began a large-scale missionizing effort. By 1655 they had created a chain of thirty-eight missions from south of Saint Augustine, northward to South Carolina, and westward to Alabama. The Franciscan missions reached their peak in 1675 and then began to decline, helped by the expansion of the English into South Carolina and then south into Georgia. English trade goods proved to be too enticing for some of the Indian villages that chose to cast their lots against the Spanish. Warfare with English allies either destroyed whole groups or forced them to abandon their homes and move farther into the interior. European diseases continued to decimate Indian populations. In 1703 former South Carolina governor James Moore destroyed the Apalachee missions. The English also engaged in an Indian slave trade capturing and removing native peoples. By 1708 there were no more Florida missions. The remaining three hundred Christian Indians moved to Saint Augustine. In Saint Augustine itself the church followed another path since the people there were already Roman Catholics. A church structure undoubtedly existed, probably made of wood, but there are no descriptions. Sir Francis Drake destroyed this church in 1586. Thirteen years later a Franciscan monastery burned, and by 1606 another building, including a small seminary, housed the monks. Moore’s 1702 attack on Saint Augustine destroyed all the religious structures of the city, which included the church, a hermitage, convent, chapel, and library. The church was never rebuilt, and Mass was said in the chapel of the hospital until the Spanish left in 1763. Construction of a new monastery began in 1724 and was completed in 1737. With twenty-five cells it was too large for the number of friars in the city.
Rivalries. The fortunes of Roman Catholicism in La Florida were battered from within as well as from without. Franciscans and the secular clergy both wanted control over the church there. In 1746 the secular clergy finally won. By the 1720s the Franciscans were divided over the question of whether creóles (native-born friars), or peninsulares (Spanish-born friars) should control the order in Florida; the Crown sided with the latter. In 1738 twenty-five priests served all of the province; in 1759 ten remained. After the Spanish left in 1763 there were only eight Roman Catholics in all of La Florida.
John Francis Bannon, The Spanish Borderlands Frontier, 1513–1821 (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970);
Amy Bushnell, “The Noble and Loyal City, 1565–1668,” in The Oldest City: St. Augustine Saga of Survival, edited by Jean Parker Water-bury (Saint Augustine, Fla.: Saint Augustine Historical Society, 1983), pp. 27–55;
Michael V. Gannon, The Cross in the Sand: The Early Catholic Church in Florida 1513–1870 (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1965);
John W. Griffin, “The Men Who Met Menéndez, 8000 B.C.-1565 A.D.,” in The Oldest City: St. Augustine Saga of Survival, edited by Waterbury (Saint Augustine, Fla.: Saint Augustine Historical Society, 1983), pp. 1–26;
Jean Parker Water-bury, “The Castillo Years, 1668–1763,” in The Oldest City: St. Augustine Saga of Survival, edited by Waterbury (Saint Augustine, Fla.: Saint Augustine Historical Society, 1983), pp. 56–89;