Pedro Menéndez de Avilés was born in Avilés, in Asturias, Spain. He was about forty-six years old by the time he had risen to the highest rank (Admiral) in the Spanish navy. He was a man of wealth, with a huge family fortune; he was an Hidalgo.
He is best remembered for his founding of St. Augustine, Florida, on August 28, 1565, and also for the subsequent destruction of the French settlement of Fort Caroline. Menéndez was the first governor of Spanish Florida.
Explorations In 1554, he commanded the royal galleon which carried Prince Philip (who would later become King Philip II of Spain) to England so that he might wed Queen Mary.
In 1561, Menéndez commanded the galleons of the great Armada de la Carrera (Spanish treasure fleet) on their voyage from Mexico to Spain. When he had delivered the treasure fleet to Spain, he asked permission to go back in search of one lost vessel, but was refused. This was the vessel on which he had lost his son, other family members, and friends. After a lengthy delay, his request was granted on the condition that he would explore and colonize La Florida as King Philip II’s adelantado.
Menéndez fitted out an expedition for this purpose, personally bearing the associated expenses. When he was about to sail, orders came to him from King Philip II, commanding him to “hang and burn the Lutherans” he might find in Florida (at the time, “Lutheran” was a catchall term for Protestant).
Upon arriving in the New World, Menéndez established St. Augustine. To this day, the locals of St. Augustine claim that it was here that Menéndez held the first Catholic Mass in the New World, thus making it the first place where a Mass was held in (what would one day become) the United States. After holding Mass, Menéndez proceeded to attack Fort Caroline, the stronghold of Protestant French settlers.
Menéndez’ military experience allowed him to surprise and destroy the French outpost of Fort Caroline on the St. Johns River, and with the help of a storm, defeat the French fleet there. With the coast of Florida now firmly in Spanish hands, he then set to work finishing the construction of a garrison in St. Augustine, establishing missions to the natives for the Catholic Church, and exploring the east coast and interior of the peninsula.
Years later, Menéndez traveled to Southwest Florida, where he made contact with the Calusa tribe, an advanced maritime people. He negotiated an initial peace with their leader, King Carlos, which was solidified by Menéndez’ marriage to Carlos’ sister, who took the baptismal name Doña Antonia. The peace was uneasy, as well as his negotiating with the Calusas’ enemies, the Tocobagas, contributed to a decline to all out war, which continued intermittently into the next century.
Establishing a Spanish garrison of 200 men further up the coast, he sailed to the Georgia coast making contact with the local Indians of St. Catherines Island before returning to Florida and expanded Spanish power throughout southeastern Florida. In 1567, he marched south encountering the Ais (Jece) as he reached the Indian River near present day Vero Beach.
The Ais, like the Tekesta and Calusa tribes, proved hostile to Spanish settlement as war continued on and off until 1670. He later made contact with the less hostile Tekesta at their capital in el Portal and was able to negotiate for three chieftains to accompany him to Cuba as translators to the Arawak. Although Menéndez left behind Jesuit missionaries Brother Francisco de Villareal and Padre Rogel in an attempt to convert the Tekesta to Roman Catholicism, the tribe was indifferent to their teachings and the Jesuits returned to St. Augustine after a year.
Menéndez eventually reached Cuba, and was appointed governor of the island shortly after his arrival. Consequently, Spain’s military presence in Florida decayed to the extent that the British began moving into the region by the end of the century.