Spain’s Santa Elena


In 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon sailed to North America, claiming it for Spain. He named the land he discovered “La Florida” (place of flowers) because his crew arrived there at the time of “Pascua Florida” (Flowery Easter). The area the Spaniards called La Florida was much bigger than the state of Florida today.  Spanish Florida included present-day Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Virginia and Louisiana. The area was important to the Spaniards because of its proximity to the Caribbean and a major trade route to Spain. Settling there would mean Spain could use it as a base to protect their holdings from the French.

Throughout the 16th century, Spain and France both fought for territory in the Americas in a series of wars. For Spain and France, a settlement in La Florida would give a strategic advantage over the other. Unfortunately, the Spaniards had trouble establishing a settlement in La Florida.

The French knew the Spanish had failed and knew how important it was to succeed. They decided to establish their own settlement at Port Royal Sound, using Parris Island for a military advantage. The settlement would not only provide a way for the French to attack Spanish shipping, but also provide land to grow tropical crops they could not grow elsewhere.

In 1562, the French built a fort they called Charlesfort. Less than a year after arriving, they abandoned the fort because the settlers did not have enough supplies. In 1564, the French returned and settled at Fort Caroline on today’s St. John’s River in the state of Florida.

In 1565, after hearing about France’s settlements at Charlesfort and Fort Caroline, the Spanish decided to try to settle in La Florida again, including at Port Royal Sound, where they would eventually establish Santa Elena. There were many advantages to settling at Port Royal Sound. The site of Santa Elena provided a military advantage, favorable trade winds and some protection from hurricanes. The Spaniards hoped it would also provide rich farmland, a land passage to the Spanish Empire in modern-day Mexico and access to an American Indian population to increase the population within the Spanish empire.

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés was the Spanish government’s appointed adelantado, an individual responsible for the conquest of new areas. The Spanish government granted adelantados contracts that outlined exactly what adelantados  were supposed to do on specific missions. Menéndez was responsible for settling in Spanish Florida. When his contract was finalized, the French still occupied Fort Caroline near present-day Jacksonville, Fla. The Spanish government discovered the exact location after they captured three French ships sent to prey on the Spaniards in the Caribbean. The Spanish governor of Cuba sent the information to the king. The first thing Menéndez was to do after arriving in Florida was to remove the French from the territory.

Menéndez and the Spanish ships arrived at Fort Caroline in September 1565 and successfully took the fort from the French. With the French threat gone, the Spanish began preparations to establish a capital. Menéndez established settlements at St. Augustine and Fort Caroline (renamed Fort San Mateo) in 1565 and at Santa Elena on Parris Island in the spring of 1566.

A few months later, additional Spanish settlers arrived at Santa Elena and a concejo, or city government, was formed. The concejo issued town lots and farming plots to settlers. Some scholars think the Spaniards built 40 houses grouped around a central plaza, as well as nearby Fort San Felipe, by 1569. Menéndez brought his wife and their household to the settlement in 1570. The settlers faced hardships including food shortages, difficulties growing crops in sandy soil and growing hostilities with the American Indian tribes, the Orista and the Guale.

After several years, Menéndez returned to Spain to secure funding and develop a plan for expansion. While there, he died Sept. 17, 1574, passing his estate to his daughter Maria and the title of adelantado of La Florida to his son-in-law, Hernando de Miranda.

When Hernando de Miranda arrived in Santa Elena, the relationship between Spanish settlers and the Orista and Guale Indians worsened. Some Spaniards stole food from the Indians when settlers faced a shortage. This stealing pushed the Indians to attack Spanish ships and soldiers. The Spanish settlers left Santa Elena as a result of this attack. The Indians destroyed the fort and burned the settlement. After Santa Elena was abandoned in 1576, the capital of La Florida was moved to St. Augustine.

Shortly after, the Spanish crown ordered the reoccupation of Santa Elena. This time, the governor was Pedro Menéndez Márquez, the nephew of Menéndez de Aviles. However, Márquez was not given the title adelantado. La Florida was now under direct royal control. The Spanish rebuilt Santa Elena in 1577.

Sometime later, Indians told the Spaniards about a settlement in modern-day North Carolina. The new settlers were under the control of an Englishman, Walter Raleigh. Raleigh established the Roanoke Island colony in North Carolina in 1585. The English were now considered a threat to Spanish settlement in North America.

The English threat came to fruition when Sir Francis Drake’s large fleet sacked and burned Santo Domingo and Cartagena in the Caribbean and later St. Augustine.  But Drake missed the settlement at Santa Elena. He sailed north to Roanoke, rescued stranded colonists in North Carolina and sailed back to England.

Still, the threat of additional English attacks prompted the Spaniards to reconsider their settlements in La Florida. On August 16, 1587, Governor Pedro Menéndez Márquez took his royal orders to Santa Elena and evacuated the settlement, destroying the fort and houses as he left. The people moved to St. Augustine, effectively ending Spain’s settlement at Santa Elena. Today, St. Augustine is the oldest permanent city founded by Europeans in North America.

(Source: The U.S. National Park Service,