The romance of the founding of Saint Augustine, Florida, by Spain’s brilliant adelantado, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, is one of the great episodes of the North American continent. Popular accounts have combined legend and a modicum of historical truth about this heroic figure who was born in 1519. It was just two years after Martin Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation in Germany and the same time that Zwingli was doing the same in Switzerland. The struggle between Catholic Spain, on the one hand, and her rivals, Protestant England and the Huguenots from France on the other, would all play a role in the settlement of Florida.
Just a decade before his death in Santander in 1574, General Menéndez carried out Philip II’s policy of creating Spanish municipios, supported by agriculture and commerce, and carrying out traditional Spanish policy of converting the natives—by any means possible, often including genocide. The tradition that Philip II sent his general to drive out the French under Jean Ribaut and René de Laudonnière, who had settled Fort Caroline near the mouth of the St. John’s River the preceding year, has been repeated by most historians.
What Eugene Lyon has done with elegant style and scientific inquiry is to reexamine the full documentation in such Spanish archives as Escribanía de Cámara from the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, where he located the valuable documents dealing with the royal contract between Menéndez and the crown in which the full details of the grand plan are sketched.
In focusing his attention on the 1560s considerable information on early Florida history corrects earlier studies of Menéndez and adds considerably to the Francis Parkman sketch in the Dictionary of American Biography, Alfonso Camín’s El adelantado de la Florida, and even Albert Manucy’s 1965 study of Menéndez. Lyon says the full story must add the years from 1574 to the termination of the institution of the adelantado in 1634. One hopes that when the sequel to this excellent study is finished, the same care given to bibliographical leads may be followed and that Lyon or his editors learn that the last names of some key Spanish explorers were Soto (not de Soto) and Luna (not de Luna).
Among the interesting features of this book are the photographs, including a nostalgic shot of the interior of the revered AGI, and a glossary of terms used in Spanish colonial government and economics. This is an attractive and significant book, one of the most important volumes to come from the excellent University Presses of Florida in recent years. One can only hope to see more of the same.