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The Reasons Why
by Michael Gannon, Ph.D.

Occasionally, the City of St. Augustine, our nation’s oldest, does not understand itself. The most recent example that has come to my attention is an Associated Press article, published in the Florida Times-Union, dated May 14 of this year. In it a St. Augustine city official, citing the motivations of founding Father Pedro Menndez de Avils and his expedition of 1565, was quoted as saying that Spain established St. Augustine for military reasons:

“They didn’t come here to settle Florida,” the official said. “They didn’t come here to mine its riches. They didn’t come here to colonize. They came here to set up a military base….”

  Pedro Menndez de Aviles. His expedition sighted the coast of Florida near present-day St. Augustine on August 28, 1565.

The last serious historian to assert such a view was Carl Ortwin Sauer, in 1975, when he wrote that St. Augustine was “a garrison rather than a colony.” Sauer’s comment was seized on by advocates of Jamestown (1607) and Plymouth (1620) as “proof” that St. Augustine was not the first permanent European colony in North America north of Mexico.

But, just one year after Sauer’s comments were published, Florida historian Eugene Lyon, in his definitive work, The Enterprise of Florida blew his argument out of the water. Lyon demonstrated that Menndez’s principal reasons for coming to Florida in 1565 were not military but commercial and religious.

Menndez plainly was an entrepreneur. His great desire, Lyon tells us, was to be Florida’s first great land developer, miner, industrialist and agribusinessman.

Florida was not conceived in the beginning as a battlefield. It was regarded as a commercial enterprise, and one whose costs would be borne principally by Menndez himself.

Just as important, Menndez’s motives included conversion of Florida’s native population to Christianity. That evangelical impulse was nowhere more apparent than in his words at court, addressed to King Philip II in March 1565, when he asked for an asiento (license) to colonize Florida.

“Florida is peopled by a race sunk in the thickest shades of infidelity. Such grief seizes me when I behold this multitude of wretched Indians that I would choose the settling of Florida before any other command or dignity that Your Majesty might bestow upon me.”

The great U.S. historian Francis Parkman (1823-1893), himself no friend to things or persons Spanish, commented on that statement of Menndez’s: “Those who take this for hypocrisy do not know the Spaniard of the sixteenth century.”

Militarism was not Menndez’s primary errand. Nor, in its first 135 years of existence, did his city of St. Augustine prove to be much of a military bastion. It afforded no protection to the treasure fleets; its succession of wooden forts rotted away; and any passing English pirate could easily sack the city, as Francis Drake did in 1586 and Robert Searles in 1668.

Tellingly, nine days before his death in 1574, Menndez wrote to a nephew: “There is nothing in this world that I desire more than to see myself in Florida, to end my days saving souls.”