My First Coast
Pedro Menéndez de Avilés
We ask the founder of St. Augustine and Florida’s first governor (channeled through re-enactor Chad Light), how he would spend a perfect day in St. Augustine today.
Born in 1519 in Avilés, Spain as the youngest of 20, Pedro Menéndez went on to become the founder of St. Augustine and Florida’s first governor. Here, he recalls some details of our country’s founding that may just surprise you.
Tell us about your early career in the Navy.
At 14, I sold some of my birth rites to one of my brothers and had just enough money to build a ship. I talked some of my family members into being my crew, and I went to serve King Carlos V. For the next 15 years, we won many battles; I was undefeated. This got me into the good graces of the king. I was given mission after mission, including protecting his son, Prince Philip. So when the prince became king, he appointed me captain general of the treasure fleet, the most powerful admiral in the Spanish Armada.
What treasures did you bring the king?
Every year I brought gold and silver from the New World and porcelain and silk from China to the king. We picked up silver and gold in Colombia and Panama, took it to the Philippines and traded that for items you couldn’t get in Europe. This global economy, the first in the world, was built on the Spanish silver trade, and Spain was the most powerful in the world.
What was the reason for founding St. Augustine?
I originally wanted to look for my son who was lost at sea somewhere between Florida and the Bahamas. While I was preparing to go, King Philip discovered the French Protestants had settled at the St. Johns River at Fort Caroline. So what turned into a small trip to look for my son became a mission to expel the French and establish a series of Spanish settlements in Florida.
You founded many settlements up the East Coast, many of which failed. Why did St. Augustine last?
The peninsula that St. Augustine sits on and its isolated location make it very defendable. There’s plenty of fresh water there, and we kept cattle on Anastasia Island. And no small part was keeping friendly relations with the Indians. That, and plain old luck.
Re- enactor Chad Light (right) as Pedro Menendez