by Taryn Rodriguez-Boette
When Pedro Menéndez de Avilés sighted the coast of Florida on the 28th of August of 1565, the peninsula of Florida had been part of the Spanish Empire for 52 years. In 1513 Juan Ponce de León had claimed the land he called Florida for Spain. During that first voyage Ponce de León was searching for riches for himself and for the Spanish Crown. He had arrived in Hispaniola with Christopher Columbus during his second voyage to the new world. Ponce de León had become governor of Puerto Rico but his destiny and fortune had changed and by the time he signed a royal contract with the King of Spain to explore new territory he was almost bankrupt. When he first sighted land, which he called Florida because it was the eve of Easter Sunday or Pascua Florida, Ponce de León though he had discovered a new island. By the time he returned to Florida in 1521, he knew that this island was really a peninsula and he re-claimed the land extending from Key West to Nova Scotia for the King of Spain. Many more would follow Ponce de León’s footsteps to settle Florida with disastrous consequences, until the King of Spain forbade any more expeditions.
In the meantime, France was experiencing the results of the Protestant Revolution. In search of religious and political freedom a group of French Protestants or Huguenots led by Jean Ribault arrived in the coast of Florida in 1562.They erected a column in the south bank of the St. Johns River which the Spanish called Rio de Corrientes and the French called River of May, claimed the land for France and continued their voyage to South Carolina. At Parris Island they erected another monument marking the northern boundary of the land claimed for France and left 30 men to start a colony which they named Charlesfort. Although this colony was not successful, the Huguenots were able to outfit another expedition that landed in Florida in 1564, led by Rene de Laudonniere.
The King of Spain was aware of the French intrusion in Florida and commanded Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to come to Florida, get rid of the French Protestants and start a settlement. Northeast Florida was important for the Spanish because the Treasure Fleet that left Mexico and South America followed the Gulf Stream (that was also discovered by Ponce de León) on its trip to Spain. And Menéndez did just that. On September 8th, 1565 Menéndez de Avilés disembarked and called the new settlement St. Augustine, in honor of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church whose feast day is celebrated on August 28th.
St. Augustine is the oldest continually occupied European settlement in the continental United States. Before Ponce de León and Menéndez de Avilés ever reached the Florida shores, there were Native Americans that had lived in this area for thousands of years. Before Ponce and Menéndez ever set foot in the peninsula, other European towns throughout the Americas had been settled. Before Menéndez founded St. Augustine, other colonies had been established in Florida. But none of these towns survived for 450 years – only St. Augustine. When you visit St. Augustine, you are walking in the same town plan that was established by the Spanish crown in 1572 for all other American colonies to follow. St. Augustine is the site of the first Catholic parish church, the first city government and the first free black settlement in the continental United States. The City of St. Augustine has been inhabited by Europeans, Africans and their descendants since that day in 1565 when Menéndez de Avilés landed with 800 colonists and merged with hundreds of Timucua and Mocama Indians in the first melting pot in the continental United States.
There is indeed reason to celebrate – St. Augustine’s history is the history of Florida and the history of Florida is the history of the United States. Viva St. Augustine! Viva Florida!
–Taryn Rodriguez-Boette is Associate Director and Archivist for the Jacksonville Historical Society and former Executive Director of the St. Augustine Historical Society.
Today, September 18, Taryn was included in a special audience at a reception in St. Augustine for about 50 individuals invited to meet the new King and Queen of Spain. King Felipe VI and his wife, Queen Letizia were visiting St. Augustine in celebration of the 450th anniversary of its founding. In 2001, Taryn dined at the Santa Monica in St. Augustine when King Felipe’s parents, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, visited.