In 1569, writing several years after the fact, the Spaniard Joan de la Vandera recorded the names of Native American villages and the potential bounty of agricultural lands he had encountered on Juan Pardo’s expeditions through what is today known as South Carolina’s Low Country. In his travels through the area that is Allendale and Hampton counties he would later note places like the village of Ahoya. Here, he wrote that, “land suitable for corn and also many grape stocks and many shoots” was found. At the larger village of Cozao he wrote that the land was suitable to cultivate, “corn, wheat, barley, vineyards, and all kinds of fruit and orchards, because there are rivers and sweet water brooks and land good for everything.”
The two Spanish expeditions led by Juan Pardo between 1566-67 and 1567-68 explored, documented, and reaffirmed Spain’s claims to this “land good for everything.” Not as large or as celebrated as the earlier Hernando De Soto expedition, Pardo’s expeditions succeeded in the practical but failed in the visionary. Beyond that, Pardo’s marches helped the Spanish to fill in missing geographical knowledge about the North American continent and solidified their claims to the region they called La Florida. The Vandera document and others kept about the expeditions provide some of the earliest accounts of the New World. They give us a colorful snapshot of what South Carolina was like during the European exploration and discovery period, how Native Americans lived, and how the first Europeans perceived the land and interacted with the natives. They also remind us about the area’s rich and diverse history. English settlers are usually associated with the early history of the region. However, the more ancient Native American and Spanish claims to this area were to remain in place until the English, with the founding of the Carolina colony in 1670, usurped them. Essentially, the area encompassing today’s present South Carolina, for a period of about one hundred and fifty years, was claimed as part of the kingdom of Spain.
Beginning in the 1520’s the Spanish attempted to explore, establish outposts, and settle lands that had primarily been scouted from the masthead of Spanish ships as they made their way along the south Atlantic American coast. This region of discovery, which presently encompassed the state of Florida and much of today’s Southeast was eventually named La Florida by Ponce de Leon during his ill-fated attempt to found a settlement there in 1521. A prominent headland was later spotted along this coast during a reconnoitering expedition in 1525. This headland was north of Ponce de Leon’s landfall and it became a mariner’s landmark known as La Punta de Santa Elena (The Point of Santa Elena) because its discovery was made on the feast day of Saint Helena: May 18th. The landmark, whose identification is not clear today, was probably Tybee Island that sits at the mouth of the Savannah River. La Punta de Santa Elena provided a geographical reference point for early European explorers and led to the subsequent discovery of the large, majestic sound to the north of it that is today known by its French name as Port Royal Sound. This sound is the deepest and most attractive anchorage along the south Atlantic coast. During the 1500’s and 1600’s the Spanish called the sound and surrounding lands Santa Elena after the nearby headland.
Santa Elena acquired strategic importance as the rivalry between the Spanish and the French grew to encompass the New World. The Spanish had grown wealthy on their exploitation of the Americas. Spanish treasure galleons loaded with gold and silver from Mexico and Peru gathered together in great fleets and sailed north from the Caribbean to catch the trade winds off the south Atlantic coast. These winds, acquired somewhere between Jacksonville, Florida and Wilmington, North Carolina, provided a quick and sure route back to Spain. Therefore, alarms were raised in 1563 when news arrived at the Spanish court that Protestant French Huguenots led by Jean Ribaut had built a small fort on an island in Port Royal Sound. Although this outpost proved a failure and was abandoned and burned within several months time, the French then moved south to build another fort on the Saint Mary’s River near present-day Jacksonville, Florida. This occupation of lands claimed by Spain in an area sensitive to Spanish interests set in motion a plan to protect and settle La Florida. It was hoped this would prevent unwelcome enemy fortifications there and discourage pirates and marauders who could use these coasts as basses to harass and pillage the Spanish treasure fleets. In addition, Protestant settlers in the New World who might recruit Native American allies were anathema to Catholic Spain in an age of religious strife. Immediate plans were made to eliminate this serious threat to Spanish economic security and to uphold the interests of the Catholic Church.
Pedro Menendez de Aviles was the man chosen by the Spanish monarch, Phillip II, to evict the French and lay a more strenuous claim to these lands. Menendez was a nobleman, a veteran sea captain, and a bit of a pirate. He had fought French corsairs in the Mediterranean and escorted treasure caravans home as captain-general of the Indies fleet. He was also a privateer who plundered French vessels that sailed along the coast of his native Asturias in northern Spain. Phillip II, however, entrusted the rakish Menendez with the settlement and security of La Florida. Menendez, although expected to bare an equal share of cost for colonization, readily accepted this honor. He believed it to be a lucrative opportunity. He had lost his son and a fortune in riches to an Atlantic hurricane in 1563. The king offered him a means to recoup his loses, search for his son, serve his king, country, and church against the Protestant French invaders, and fulfill his own imperial ambitions. Menendez quickly moved to murderously evict the French from the coast of La Florida. This act was to carry the violence of the Reformation in Europe to the New World. Menendez cruelly slaughtered the French Huguenots that he found along the La Florida coast without remorse and as a warming to other European interlopers. He established a fort and settlement nearby at present day St. Augustine and then erected a small fort on or near the abandoned ruins of the French fort in Port Royal Sound. Over one hundred and ten Spanish soldiers and settlers were sent to build and man this lonely island outpost at Santa Elena. It was at Santa Elena, on the Atlantic edge of the North American continent where Menendez decided to focus his efforts, both public and private. And it was at Santa Elena that the Juan Pardo expeditions were born out of necessity, duty, and Menendez’s ambition.
Bibliographic references of works used to prepare this blog will be presented in the last part of this blog..