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Pedro Menéndez de Avilés

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519-1574) was a Spanish seaman and colonizer. Among the most renowned seamen of his time, he founded St. Augustine, the first permanent white settlement in what is now the United States.

Pedro Menéndez was born on Feb. 15, 1519, at Avilés, a seaport in Asturias. Being one of 20 brothers and sisters, he knew his inheritance would be small and decided to earn his livelihood as a seaman. At the age of 14 he ran away to sea, embarking on a ship which sailed from Santander to engage French corsairs. Upon his return he sold a portion of his patrimony and purchased a vessel of his own. One of his most celebrated feats occurred in 1549, when he encountered Jean Alphonse, the most feared of the corsairs. After boarding the pirate's ship he fought a singlehanded duel with Alphonse, mortally wounding him.

Menéndez's daring exploits and naval prowess won him fame, fortune, and increasingly important missions to command. In 1554 Emperor Charles V named Menéndez captain general of the Fleet of the Indies, a position which offered great opportunities for personal gain by irregular methods. But, unlike many of his predecessors, Menéndez was a man of integrity and refused to take bribes. In 1555 he made the first of six transatlantic voyages to America.

Philip II selected Menéndez to outfit and command a colonizing expedition to Florida. The first objective of the mission was to eradicate a French Huguenot settlement at Ft. Caroline at the mouth of the St. Johns River. The second objective was to plant fortified settlements along the coastline to provide refuge, from hurricanes and pirates, for the treasure fleets returning to Spain by way of the Bahama Channel.

Sailing from Spain on July 29, 1565, Menéndez first sighted Florida off Cape Canaveral on August 28. While sailing northward he discovered a harbor on September 6 where he established a settlement and fort, naming it St. Augustine. Meanwhile, the French had divided their forces, some remaining at Ft. Caroline but most boarding ships and sailing southward in search of the Spaniards. A hurricane struck, sinking or dismasting all of the ships. By October, Menéndez had captured Ft. Caroline and dispassionately massacred most of the shipwrecked French Huguenots. The site of the massacres is still known by its Spanish name of Matanzas (massacres).

In 1568 Menéndez was appointed governor of Cuba. Drawing upon his experiences as captain general of the Fleet of the Indies, he perfected the convoy-escort fleet, which helped protect the treasure fleets from the depredations of pirates.

In 1572 Menéndez returned to Spain, where Philip II appointed him captain general of the Armada that was to invade England. Menéndez unexpected death on Sept. 17, 1574, may have altered the course of history. The "invincible" Armada, which sailed on its disastrous mission in 1588, was subsequently entrusted to the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, a courageous man but an inept seaman.

Further Reading

Two biographies written by contemporaries of Menéndez have been translated: Gonzalo Solis, Pedro de Menéndez de Aviles: Memorial, translated by Jeanette Thurber Conner (1923), was written by Menéndez's brother-in-law, who participated in the expedition of 1565; and Pedro Menéndez de Aviles, Founder of Florida, translated by Anthony Kerrigan (1965), was written by a professor of Latin at the University of Salamanca. The most extensive and balanced narrative history of Menéndez's career is Woodbury Lowery, The Spanish Settlements within the Present Limits of the United States: Florida, 1562-1574 (1905). See also Albert Manucy, Florida's Menéndez: Captain General of the Ocean Sea (1965). Other useful accounts of his career are included in Edward G. Bourne, Spain in America, 1450-1580 (1904), and Herbert E. Bolten, The Spanish Borderlands (1921).

Additional Sources

Manucy, Albert C., Florida's Menéndez: captain general of the ocean sea, St. Augustine, Fla.: St. Augustine Historical Society, 1983.

Manucy, Albert C., Menéndez: Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Captain General of the Ocean Sea, Sarasota, Fla.: Pineapple Press, 1992.

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, New York: Garland Pub., 1995. □

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Pedro Menéndez de Avilés

1519-1574

Spanish mariner who founded what has since become one of the oldest European settlements in North America. Menéndez's career as a seaman began at the age of 14 when he joined a ship's crew. He gained fame at the age of 30 when he engaged in a duel with the notorious French corsair Jean Alphonse, and struck him down. Five years later, Menéndez accepted the title of captain-general of the Fleet of the Indies and began leading voyages to America. On his first trip to America in 1565, he established a settlement at St. Augustine, Florida. That settlement is now considered the oldest white settlement in the nation.