September 22, 1565: San Mateo Hurricane
In 1564, the French established a small base at Fort Caroline, near present-day Jacksonville, an event that did not escape the Spanish’s notice. Located on Florida’s east coast, the colony was in a perfect position to stage raids on Spanish treasure fleets returning to Europe. The French, of course, loved the idea. The Spanish, unsurprisingly, hated it, and the race was on. The colony struggled through its first year, but survived the waves of starvation, native attacks, and at least one mutiny.
Reinforcements, and desperately needed supplies, arrived the following summer under the command of the French Explorer Jean Ribault. Armed with a large fleet, Ribault brought hundreds of soldiers and settlers to the colony. The recently appointed Spanish Governor of Florida, Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, arrived with his own fleet within days of Ribault’s landing. Ordered to remove the French outpost, Menéndez moved against the colony immediately. A brief skirmish followed, and Menéndez retreated thirty-five miles south, where his ships landed and founded St. Augustine.
Each side prepared to attack the other. Menéndez decided to attack over land, and marched his forces north. Ribault launched a naval assault, loading most of the colony’s soldiers onto his ships. Prior to Ribault’s departure, his senior aide pointed out the assault left Fort Carolina vastly understrength and warned the explorer that he believed a powerful storm approached. Ribault ignored his aide. Two days later a hurricane swept over the fleet. All of his ships either sank or ran aground south of St. Augustine, and most of the sailors and soldiers died at sea. Left with few options, Ribault gathered his remaining men and marched northwards.
Unlike Ribault’s assault, Menéndez’s attack was a complete success. While the hurricane crushed Ribault’s fleet, Menéndez led a surprise dawn attack on Fort Carolina. The French defenders, numbering roughly 200 to 250, quickly succumbed to the superior Spanish forces. Menéndez executed most of the survivors, sparing about fifty women and children. Victorious, Menéndez marched south, located Ribault and his survivors, and ordered them to surrender. His glorious dreams destroyed by a storm, and believing his men would be well treated, Ribault agreed. Menéndez accepted Ribault’s surrender and executed the French explorer along with most of his surviving men. News of the massacre shocked France, and public enthusiasm for control over Florida waned. Thus, a hurricane, coupled with the bloodthirst of a colonial governor, ended French ambitions in Florida.