Don't Know Much

Don’t Know Much About the “First Pilgrims”

[Entry originally posted on September 20, 2015]

On September 20, 1565, America’s first Pilgrims were wiped out in a dawn raid –a religious bloodbath — in what was then Spanish Florida.

September 8, 1565 is traditionally noted as the date that the Spanish arrived and settled St. Augustine, identified as the first permanent European settlement in the future United States. But what were they doing there?

They had come to eliminate a French Protestant settlement called Fort Caroline. That is a piece of America’s Hidden History.

Old etching of Fort Caroline, from the Florida State Archives.

Old etching of Fort Caroline, from the Florida State Archives.

America’s first Pilgrims were wiped out in a dawn raid –a religious bloodbath — in what was then Spanish Florida. Leaving their base at the newly established St. Augustine, Spanish troops led by Admiral Menéndez assaulted the small French colony of Fort Caroline –near present-day Jacksonville:

Attacking before dawn on September 20, 1565 with the frenzy of holy warriors, the Spanish easily overwhelmed Fort Caroline. With information provided by a French turncoat, the battle-tested Spanish soldiers used ladders to quickly mount the fort’s wooden walls. Inside the settlement, the sleeping Frenchmen—most of them farmers or laborers rather than soldiers—were caught off-guard, convinced that no attack could possibly come in the midst of such a terrible storm. But they had fatally miscalculated. The veteran Spanish harquebusiers swept in on the nightshirted and naked Frenchmen who leapt from their beds and grabbed futilely for weapons. Their attempts to mount any real defense were hopeless. The battle lasted less than an hour.

Although some of the French defenders managed to escape the carnage, 132 soldiers and civilians were killed in the fighting in the small fort. The Spanish suffered no losses and only a single man was wounded. The forty or so French survivors fortunate enough to reach the safety of some boats anchored nearby, watched helplessly as Spanish soldiers flicked the eyeballs of the French dead with the points of their daggers.

Excerpt from America’s Hidden History 

[Admiral] Menéndez had many of the survivors strung up under a sign that read, “I do this not as to Frenchmen but as to heretics.” A few weeks later, he ordered the execution of more than 300 French shipwreck survivors at a site just south of St. Augustine, now marked by an inconspicuous national monument called Fort Matanzas, from the Spanish word for “slaughters.”

Fort Matanzas Courtesy National Park Service

Fort Matanzas Courtesy National Park Service

A brief account of this story is told in this New York Times Op-Ed, “A French Connection.”

The full story is recounted in “Isabella’s Pigs,” the first chapter of America’s Hidden History.  An excerpt from this book, “America’s First True ‘Pilgrims,'” was published in Smithsonian magazine (May 2008).

America's Hidden History, includes tales of "Forgotten Founders"

America’s Hidden History, includes tales of “Forgotten Founders”

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