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THE HISTORY OF
CASTILLO DE SAN MARCOS & FORT MATANZAS

From Contemporary Narratives and Letters
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sketch of Fort Matanzas
Fort Matanzas in 1872. From Harry Fenn, Picturesque America, 1872.


1. THE MASSACRE AT MATANZAS

Following the discoveries of the adventurous Ponce de Leon in 1513, Spanish navigators came to realize that the shortest and best return route from Spain's rich American possessions was along the Gulf Stream, through the narrow Bahama Channel, past the shores of Florida. Thus it was that this peninsula, at the very wayside of the treasure fleet passage, became of great strategic importance, and when in 1564 the French Huguenots successfully established Fort Caroline in Florida on the St. Johns River, King Philip lost no time in sending Don Pedro Menéndez Avilés to remove this threat to Spanish commerce.

On the same day (August 28, 1565) that Menéndez made his landfall, Jean Ribaut arrived at the French colony with reenforcements. A few days later, Menéndez established a base which he named SAN AGUSTÍN (St. Augustine). Ribaut, with superior forces, sailed to the attack, but his fleet was blown down the coast and wrecked. Meanwhile, under cover of the same storm, Menéndez executed the master stroke of surprising Fort Caroline and annihilating most of its garrison. Next he learned that the French castaways were tramping up the coast to return to their fort, and he quickly marched with 40 men to the south end of Anastasia Island. About 150 Frenchmen were gathered on the shore opposite this coastal island, halted there by the swift waters of an inlet which was later given the name MATANZAS, Spanish word for "slaughters". Mendendez did not reveal the small size of his force, and when the French were convinced that Fort Caroline had fallen, they decided to surrender. On September 29, 1565, they were put to the knife on the site which is now included as part of Fort Matanzas National Monument.

A few days later, under almost duplicate circumstances, Menéndez met a second band of the shipwrecked Frenchmen led by Jean Ribaut, whom the Spanish called "Ribao." What happened is related below in detail by eyewitness Gonzalo Solís de Metas, brother-in-law and biographer of Menéndez. The narrative begins with the Adelantado (Leader) Menéndez back in St. Augustine, after the destruction of the first band of Frenchmen at Matanzas. The day is October 10, 1565.

One day after the Adelantado arrived in Sant Agustín, the Same Indians came as before, and they Said that many more Christians were at that part of the river where the others had been. The Adelantado realized that this must be Juan Ribao, land and sea commander of the Lutherans, who was named viceroy of this land by the king of France, and presently he departed with 150 soldiers in good order, and at midnight bivouacked where he had the first time. At dawn he stationed himself next to the river, with his men scattered, and as the day brightened, he descried at two harquebus shots away, on the other bank of the river, many people and a raft made to take the people across to the place where the Adelantado was. Presently, the French, when they saw the Adelantado and his men, sounded alarm and unfurled a royal standard and two field banners, fifers and drummers playing smartly; and they offered battle to the Adelantado, who had commanded his men to sit down and breakfast, and not to make any show of hostilities. He himself walked by the shore with his admiral and two other captains, taking no notice of the French commotion and show of battle, so that the French must have become confused, because they halted in battle array and the fifers and drummers stopped playing, and with the sound of a bugle they raised a white flag of peace.

The Adelantado at once called to an excellent bugler he had with him and drew from his pocket a handkerchief, which he waved in a manner signifying peace.

A Frenchman got on the raft and shouted loudly for us to come across to them.

By order of the Adelantado he was told that since they had the raft and had called first, if they wanted anything they should come to the Spaniards. The man on the raft replied that it was a poor raft for the crossing because the current was strong, and asked that an Indian canoe, which was at hand, be sent to him.

The Adelantado replied that the Frenchman could swim across for it under safe conduct. Soon a French sailor came, but the Adelantado did not let him speak; he ordered him to take the canoe and go tell his captain that since the French had called first, if their captain wanted anything, he should send a [suitable messenger] to say so. Next the sailor came with a gentleman, who said he was sergeant major to Juan Ribao, viceroy and captain general of this territory for the king of France, and that Juan Ribao had sent him to say that he had been wrecked with his armada in a storm at sea, and that about 350 French were there, that it was important for them to go to a fort [Caroline] he had about 20 leagues away, that he wanted the Adelantado to lend him small boats for crossing this and another river distant about 4 leagues, and he also wanted to know if they were Spaniards and who was their captain.

The Adelantado replied that Spaniards they were, and their captain was the same man with whom he spoke, named Pe[d]ro Menéndez. He told him to tell his general that the fort he said he had 20 leagues away had been taken and its Frenchmen destroyed, as were other men from the lost armada, because they had been badly commanded; and they walked to where the dead were, and he showed them to him; and [told him to tell his general that now] he had no reason to cross the river to his fort.

The sergeant, with great composure, making no show of grief over what the Adelantado told him, asked the Adelantado whether he would do him the favor of sending one of his gentlemen to tell these things to his general [Jean Ribao], so that a safe conduct might be discussed, because his general [Jean Ribao] was weary [from his long march]; and the gentleman asked whether the Adelantado would go across to see him, in a boat there at hand, and the Adelantado replied to him:

"Brother go with God's blessing and give the reply given you, and if your general wants to come talk with me, I give him my word that he can come and return safely, with about 5 or 6 companions from the men of his council, so that he may take the advice which suits him best." So the gentleman left with this assurance.

Within half an hour he returned to accept the assurance the Adelantado had given and to ask for the boat, which, [however], the Adelantado did not want to give, sending him back to say that the French might seize it; that Juan Ribao could cross in the canoe, which was safe, because the river was narrow; and so the gentleman returned with this message, and presently came Juan Ribao whom the Adelantado received very well, with 8 other gentlemen of authority and very fine address. The Adelantado received them all very well, offered them drink and a collation from a certain barrel of preserves, and he said he would give them food if they wanted it.

Juan Ribao responded with much humility, being grateful for the hospitality shown him, and said they wished to breakfast with the wine and preserves in order to cheer their spirits, which were saddened by the news of the death of their comrades, but for the present they wanted no other food; and thus they did.

Juan Ribao said that his companions lying dead there (and he saw those who were near) might have been deceived [about the capture of Fort Caroline], but he did not want to be: then the Adelantado commanded the soldiers there to come forward with the trophies each one had from the fort, and so many were the things Juan Ribao saw, that he was certain the news was true; he could not [previously] believe it, though he already had the news from a French barber, one of those [from the first group] whom the Adelantado had commanded to be destroyed, who had been left for dead among the others, for at the first thrust they gave him, he fell, pretending to be slain; and when Juan Ribao arrived, the barber swam across to him, and since the barber was sure the Adelantado had deceived them by saying the fort was won when it was not, so Juan Ribao had heretofore believed likewise.

In order that they might satisfy themselves, the Adelantado told Juan Ribao to speak apart with two Frenchmen there, and thus he did; and presently he again approached the Adelantado and told him he was sure every thing he had told him was true, but [said Juan Ribao] what was happening to him could also happen to the Adelantado; that since their kings were brothers [in law] and such great friends, the Adelantado ought to supply him as a friend, giving him ships and stores so that he could sail away to France.

The Adelantado replied as he had to the first French on whom he had worked justice, and talk as he would, Juan Ribao could obtain no concessions from the Adelantado. Then Juan Ribao told him that he wanted to report to his men, because there were many nobles among them, and he would return or send a reply about what he resolved to do. Within 3 hours Juan Ribao returned in the canoe, and said there were different opinions among his men, inasmuch as some wanted to throw themselves on his mercy, and others did not.

The Adelantado replied that it mattered nothing to him whether all, or part, or none of them surrendered; they should do whatever might be best for them, since they were free to do so.

Juan Ribao told the Adelantado that half of them wanted to ask for his clemency and would pay a ransom of more than a hundred thousand ducats; and the other half would be able to pay more, for among them were rich persons of much income, who were soliciting royal payment of their expenses in this territory.

The Adelantado replied: "I am very sorry if I should lose such rich spoils and ransom, since I have full need of this help to aid in the conquest and population of this territory; it is my duty to plant the Holy Gospel in it, in the name of my King."

Here, for what good it might do [as a possible means of saving himself and the others] Juan Ribao tried to exercise cunning. It seemed to him that the Adelantado, greedy for the money they would give him, would slay neither him nor those who yielded to his mercy; it appeared to Juan Ribao that by agreement [to avoid bloodshed], it would be worth more than 200,000 ducats to the Adelantado, and he told the Adelantado he would return to his people with the answer; and because it was late, he asked him as a favor to stay there until the next day, when he would return with the decision that might be agreed upon.

The Adelantado said yes, he would grant time, and since it was already sunset, Juan Ribao went back to his men; and in the morning he returned in the canoe and surrendered to the Adelantado two royal standards, one of the king of France and another of the admiral, two field banners, a sword, dagger and very good gilded helmet, a buckler, a pistolet, and a seal which the admiral of France had given him for sealing decrees and titles. He told the Adelantado that about 150 of the 350 men there would like to throw themselves on his mercy; but that the others had withdrawn that night, and asked that the boat be sent for those who wanted to surrender, and for their arms.

The Adelantado immediately directed Captain Diego Flórez de Valdés, admiral of his armada, to bring them across ten at a time, as he had the others [of the first group], and taking Juan Ribao behind the sand dunes among the shrubbery, where [he had taken] the others, the Adelantado made hem bind Ribao's hands behind him [and thus it was also done] to the others with him, as it had to the ones before, telling them they must march 4 leagues by land, and at night, so that he could not permit them to go unbound; and when all were tied, he asked them if they were Catholics or Lutherans, and if there were any who wanted to confess.

Juan Ribao responded that he and all who were [with him] here were of the new religion, and he began to say the psalm of Domine memento mei; and having finished, he said that from earth he was and unto earth must they return; and twenty years more or less did not matter, the Adelantado should do what he wanted with them. The Adelantado commanded them to march, as he had the others, and with the same order, and at the same line [that he had marked before in the sand], he commanded that what had been done to the others should be done to all; he spared only the fifers, drummers and trumpeters and four others who they said were Catholics, in all 16 persons; all the others were slain.

* * * That night the Adelantado returned to Santo Agustín, where some persons criticised him as cruel, and others said he had acted as a very good captain, and they decided that if the French had been Catholic and the Adelantado had not worked justice upon them as he did, some might have perished from hunger, due to the few provisions the Adelantado had (because the fort of San Mateo [Caroline], taken by the Adelantado, had burned with the loss of much property and supplies within eight days after it was won), and because they were more numerous, the French might have destroyed us * * *

Merás' Account of the Second Massacre at Matanzas, October 12, 1565.



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