An unmarked mass grave lies hidden in the dunes at Matanzas Inlet. Today the location is part of Fort Matanzas National Monument, protecting a Spanish fort, sand dunes and endangered animals, but in the fall of 1565 the Catholic Spaniards and Huguenot French met at this inlet in a struggle for power and survival.
The Spaniards under Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles had recently landed at what is now St. Augustine with the express purpose of driving the French from Spanish Florida. This outpost would serve to protect the treasure fleets which road the Gulf Stream up the coast to the Outer Banks before turning east. A year before, the French had created a settlement near the mouth of the St. Johns River – about 30 miles north. In addition to being a threat to Spain’s power in the New World, these settlers were heretical Huguenots.
The French had sent several ships down the coast to attack the Spanish before they could get settled, but they were blown south by a storm. Menendez grabbed the advantage by marching his men north to the French Fort Caroline where he attacked and killed most of its defenders. Meanwhile, the French ships had been wrecked near Cape Canaveral and the survivors had begun their march north. Menendez met the first group at an inlet south of St. Augustine and convinced them to surrender.
As the Spaniards ferried small boatloads of their French captives across the inlet, they were herded behind the dunes and massacred. A few days later the remaining French arrived at the inlet. When met by the Spanish forces, about 170 of the French refused to surrender and turned south again. The remaining 150 surrendered and were killed by the Spanish. Only a few professed Catholics and “youths not under arms” were allowed to live.
The Spanish had little food to spare and even less use for heretics. This victory increased the colony’s chance for survival and established Spain’s claim to Florida and the territories north. From that time on, the river and inlet have been called Matanzas, Spanish for slaughter.
- Gannon, Michael. The New History of Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.
- Waterbury, Jean Parker. The Oldest City: St. Augustine Saga of Survival. St. Augustine: St. Augustine Historical Society, 1983.
- Geiger, Matthew J. Mission of Nombre de Dios – Shrine of Our Lady of la Leche, St. Augustine, Florida: A Brief History. St. Augustine: Mission of Nombre de Dios, 2003.