The killing of the French at Matanzas Inlet is a well-known and important part of St. Augustine’s founding story. The two encounters at the inlet between Spanish troops from St. Augustine and shipwrecked French from Fort Caroline took place within six weeks of the establishment of our city — on Sept. 29 and Oct. 12, 1565.
The French had sailed from Fort Caroline to attack the two-day old St. Augustine settlement on Sept. 10. A storm kept them offshore and ultimately wrecked their ships, strewing the vessels along the coast south of New Smyrna Beach. The French survivors headed north toward Fort Caroline and encountered Spanish troops at Matanzas Inlet. Many of us are familiar with these essential aspects.
There on the banks of the narrow inlet the rivalries and enmities exported from Europe to the Americas played out on a small stage with the Spanish Catholics on one bank and the French Protestants on the other. Spain and France were rival nations, although not officially at war in 1565. But religious wars plagued Europe.
In the end, the Spanish prevailed and took only a few prisoners. From those basics the story has been recounted in a wide range of tales. In a blending of the Matanzas incidents with Biblical story of Pharaoh, Moses and the Israelites, I have heard over and over about how the Matanzas Bay in St. Augustine ran red with French blood. There is the lesser known tale of recent vintage about the 50-plus infants that the Spanish carried from Matanzas to St. Augustine and buried them in the old part of the city.
Less known of the documented information is the crossing back and forth across the inlet as the French attempted to negotiate and to bribe Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the leader of the St. Augustine settlement. According to the reports, the French did not want just freedom, but requested as well ships from the Spanish to sail back to France. Menendez sat down in St. Augustine to write a letter to the king of Spain soon after the first encounter (Sept. 29) with the French at Matanzas Inlet. Menendez stopped writing in the middle of his letter on Oct. 10, when he received news of another group of French at the inlet and headed there.
As with most reports over the centuries about battles or other face-offs, the numbers of troops, of the wounded or dead, or of captives do not agree. Perhaps the first group of French were not aware that they outnumbered Menendez’s forces almost three to one — 140 French, 50 Spanish, according to Menendez’s letter. On the second trek to Matanzas, Menendez took 150 soldiers with him. Menendez was still initially outnumbered, according his brother-in-law, Gonzalo Solís de Merás, who wrote that there were 350 French on the south side of the inlet. At first, the French sounded the call to arms and went into formation as if ready to fight the Spanish. Menendez ignored them and ordered his own men to sit and eat.
Menendez’s letter briefly discusses the requests made by the French at both encounters to negotiate — and especially the request by the French leader Jean Ribault “for some greater degree of security for himself.” Ribault came across the inlet to parley with Menendez, wanting ships or to stay in St. Augustine until ships were available for the French to leave Florida. Ribault and the nobles with him offered a substantial sum of money.
The talks took more than a day. Menendez refused the offers and, according to Solis de Meras, said that the French could head back south, that “they were “free to do whatever suited them best.” About 200 of the French chose to leave Matanzas and head back down the coast.
On Oct. 12, Menendez reported that 70 French crossed over and he ordered them to be killed. Solis de Meras gives the number at 150 — a big discrepancy. Father Francisco Lopez Mendoza de Grajales, another eyewitness, put the number at 111.
When Menendez returned to St. Augustine, “some people believed he had been cruel and others thought he had acted as a very good captain.” Menendez took the position that if he had not finished them off, “they would have killed us, for they were more numerous, or we would all have died of hunger due to the scarcity of supplies.”
Menendez completed his letter to the king on Oct. 15. He could not know at that time that his actions at Matanzas and the earlier capture of Fort Caroline had effectively discouraged the French from attempting more settlements in the southeast.
Contributed to the St. Augustine Record by Susan R. Parker who holds a doctorate in colonial history. 12.3.2017