Spanish admiral and first governor of Florida Pedro Menéndez de Avilés sat down with us for an exclusive interview to retell the history of St. Augustine’s founding—with some details that may just surprise you.
What was it like growing up in Spain in the 1500s?
I was the youngest son of 20 children, and in the feudal system the oldest son gets everything while the youngest son has three choices: army, navy or priesthood. When I was 12, I ran away and joined the Navy. I learned the trade of the sea and was forever smitten.
Where did your career take you next?
At 14, I sold some of my birth rites to one of my brothers and had just enough money to build a ship. I talked some of my family members into being my crew, and I went to serve King Carlos V. For the next 15 years, we won many battles; I was undefeated. This got me into the good graces of the king. I was given mission after mission, including protecting his son Prince Philip. So when the prince became king, he appointed me captain general of the treasure fleet, the most powerful admiral in the Spanish Armada.
What treasures did you bring the king?
Every year I brought gold and silver from the New World and porcelain and silk from China to the king. We picked up silver and gold in Columbia and Panama, took it to the Philippines and traded that for items you couldn’t get in Europe. This global economy, the first in the world, was built on the Spanish silver trade, and Spain was the most powerful in the world.
There are many legends about Christopher Columbus. What’s the real story?
Well, first of all, it was widely known the world was round, but Christopher Columbus believed the earth was smaller than it actually was and that he could reach China. It was through blind, dumb luck he found his way to the Americas. He thought the Indians were stone-age people, and since he knew the Chinese were advanced, he just assumed they were people living on the outer islands of India. Columbus died on his fourth voyage and never set foot on what would be the continental US.
When did you first set sights on Florida?
I hadn’t given Florida any thought until 1563 when my son got lost at sea. We had just gotten the largest treasure fleet that had ever been assembled. We were sitting in Havana getting ready to make the voyage across the Atlantic, but we were delayed. We would not be able to beat the storm season, and this troubled me greatly. If the king didn’t get his treasure, he would file bankruptcy, and I would personally be responsible. Not wanting to risk the whole fleet, I took half for Spain and left half with my son Juan in Havana. I made it to Spain, and my son left a few weeks later. But his ship was wrecked somewhere between Florida and the Bahamas. Meanwhile, my ship had been searched, and I was put on house arrest for avoiding taxes. I had been making money for years by selling cochineal, a brilliant red dye from Mexico, at an exorbitant price in Europe while never declaring it. I escaped and made my way to the king and told him I had to look for Juan.
And did the king agree?
The king had forbidden all trips to Florida since de Luna lost his fleet in Pensacola in 1559. But I told the king that if the French and the English got to Florida first, it would point like a dagger to our colonies in the Caribbean. I told him I would make friends with the Indians, Christianize them, and make Florida a fortress. He agreed and pardoned me. While I was preparing to go, King Philip discovered the French Protestants had settled on the mouth at St. Johns River at Fort Caroline. So what turned into a small trip to look for my son and build a fort became a mission to expel the French and establish a series of Spanish settlements in Florida.
What was like when you got there?
We first established a government where I became governor. We established St. Augustine, we quickly captured Fort Caroline and named it San Mateo, we settled Santa Lucia, (St. Lucia), San Carlos (Naples), Tocobago (Tampa) and Santa Elena (Paris Island), which I made the capital and brought my wife and children to live. My son Juan was never found.
What were the challenges?
I couldn’t spend enough time to keep one settlement from failing before running to another one. We began losing them one by one. And my daughter Ana, the apple of my eye, was brutally murdered by her father-in-law. I did not rest until he was publicly beheaded.
What heartbreak you faced. How did you manage?
I had boundless hope and optimism that La Florida would be the success that I wanted it to be.
What was different about St. Augustine? Why did it last while the others failed?
The peninsula that St. Augustine sits on and its isolated location make it very defendable. There’s plenty of fresh water there, and we kept cattle on Anastasia Island. And no small part was keeping friendly relations with the Indians. That, and plain old luck.