The Western Invasion: Franco-Spanish Conflict in North America

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The Western Invasion: Franco-Spanish Conflict in North America


Interests. By the early 1560s, Panfilo de Narváez and Hernando de Sotos failure to discover easily extractable wealth and the hostility of powerful Indian tribes such as the Calusa combined to diminish Spanish interest in the southeastern part of North America. La Florida, however, continued to attract the attention of Spain and other European states because of its strategic position just north of the course the annual Spanish treasure fleet took on its richesladen return trip to Seville. After the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559, the French crown in particular eyed Florida as an ideal location from which privateers could attack the treasure fleet and plunder Spains New World settlements. France consequently made plans to establish a fort on the peninsulas Atlantic coast. For the Spanish crown, on the other hand, Florida served as a critical bulwark that protected its Caribbean possessions from raiders. Much of Spains efforts to defend its New World empire consequently centered on ensuring that a European rival such as France never took possession of the peninsula.

Fort Caroline. Following the failure of the Tristán de Luna y Arellano expedition in 1562, King Philip II of Spain concluded that the Timucua and Calusa Indians were themselves powerful and hostile enough to keep Spains European competitors out of Florida. That same year, however, French admiral Gaspard de Coligny, a Huguenot, or French Protestant, sent an expedition to establish a short-lived colony on the site of present-day Port Royal, South Carolina. Though that settlement failed, Coligny decided to send a second force of two hundred soldiers and colonists under the command of René Goulaine de Laudonnière to Florida with orders to establish a permanent base. Arriving in June 1564, de Laudonnières group constructed Fort Caroline near the mouth of the St. John River on Floridas Atlantic coast. Conflict came quickly for them; not long after they built their settlement, they found themselves embroiled in the local Timucua Indians intertribal wars. More important, de Laudonnières men were soon raiding Spanish settlements and ships in the Caribbean.

Spanish Response. News of the French settlement soon persuaded Philip to reverse his recent decree against colonizing Florida. He consequently ordered Pedro Menéndez de Aviles, former commander of the Indies fleets, to lead an expedition to Florida, end the French menace, and establish a permanent Spanish settlement that could control the peninsula. Menéndezs powerful force of eight hundred men arrived in Florida in August 1565 only to discover that a French squadron carrying five hundred reinforcements had beaten them to Fort Caroline. Aware that the newly arrived Huguenot infantry made an amphibious assault on the fort impossible, Menéndez decided to sail forty miles to the south and establish a base before undertaking an overland attack on the French stronghold. Shortly after the Spanish came ashore and set up their camp, Timucua Indians hostile to the French informed Menéndez that the French naval commander, Jean Ribault, was stripping Fort Caroline of most of its defenders in order to launch a surprise amphibious assault on the Spaniards. Taking advantage of this information and of a severe storm that dispersed and wrecked Ribaults fleet, Menéndez marched his troops overland and stormed Fort Caroline in a successful dawn attack. In keeping with the savage and unforgiving nature of Reformation warfare, he subsequently charged more than one hundred of the recently surrendered Huguenots with heresy and had them executed on the spot. Most of the survivors of Ribaults fleetincluding its commanderreceived a similar fate. With the help of nature and the Timucua Indians, therefore, Spain had ended the French threat to Florida.

Consequences. The struggle between France and Spain for control of Florida had important consequences both for the colonization of the southeast and for European warfare in the New World. The Spanish victory ended a serious threat to future treasure fleets and greatly limited Frances capacity to meddle in Spains Caribbean territories. The ability of Spain and France to remain at peace in Europe while their forces fought in the New World, meanwhile, reinforced the implicit provisions in the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis that war beyond the Line did not affect relations in the Old World and that might makes right in the Americas. Most important, the conflict led Spain to conclude that it could ensure against another European power establishing a base in Florida only by maintaining a permanent settlement on the peninsula. St. Augustine, the base that Menéndez had established for his overland attack on Fort Caroline, thus became the first permanent European settlement in North America.


Eugene Lyon, The Enterprise of Florida: Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and the Spanish Conquest of 15651568 (Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1976);

Paul Quattlebaum, The Land Called Chicora: The Carolinas under Spanish Rule with French Intrusions, 15201670 (Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1956);

Ian K. Steele, Warpaths: Invasion of North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994);

J. Leitch Wright, Anglo-Spanish Rivalry in North America (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1971).

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