The First Permanent European Settlement in America and its Founder

Text by | Texto por ADOLFO MRONGOWIUS BARCIELA Images by | Imágenes por FERNANDA SILVA

When discussing the topic of the first European settlements in North America, many people are quick to think of the English settlements of Plymouth and Jamestown as being the first of their kind, with Jamestown being founded in 1607. This, however, is a popular misconception. The distinction of “First permanent European settlement in America” actually goes to St. Augustine, Florida, which has incredulously been inhabited for over 450 years. Having been founded in 1565, this makes St. Augustine over 40 years older than its counterpart, Jamestown. Shortly after it was founded, St. Augustine became a center for trade between the Western and Eastern hemispheres, and was a stronghold, as well as the capital city for Spanish Colonial Florida.

Perhaps even more interesting though, is the man who founded the city, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. One of twenty children to his Asturian parents, Menéndez de Avilés sought to make a name for himself in the Spanish Navy. Quickly rising in rank, he became the first corsair, or privateer, within the Spanish Navy. He gained many accolades as a result of his fruitful missions all across the Atlantic Ocean; such as his famous defeat of French pirate, François LeClerc, also known as “Jambe de Bois” (Peg Leg)

He became a notable figure within the Spanish Navy, and was eventually recognized for his many successes by the King of Spain, Phillip II, himself. After being granted the title of Captain General of the West Indies, Menéndez de Avilés led an expedition to rid the New World of Protestant settlements, inhabited by French settlers. One such settlement was Fort Caroline, in what is now known as Jacksonville. Menéndez de Avilés launched an invasion of the settlement, and successfully drove the French out once and for all. He and his troops then relocated south and established the settlement of St. Augustine, named by Menéndez de Avilés after the patron saint of Menéndez’s home city of Avilés.

Menéndez de Avilés had a lasting and impactful career, though he passed away from typhus just years before  what would have been his most important assignment: to command the “Invincible” Spanish Armada’s invasion of the English isles. Menéndez de Avilés was arguably King Philip’s right-hand man, and would have been the top candidate for the position. Had he been present to lead the Armada instead of his incompetent and inexperienced counterpart, The Duke of Medina, the invasion’s outcome would likely have been wildly different.

To this day, the influences of Menéndez de Avilés’—and by extension, Spain’s—rule over St. Augustine are still clearly visible, with historic Spanish colonial buildings, the Spanish San Marcos star fort, and even a street bearing Mendendez’s city’s name being popular tourist attractions, as well as a beautiful part of the city’s rich cultural history.