The oldest known work by a European artist in North America is a watercolor of a near-naked giant, his arm slung around a tiny fop in tights. The giant is chiseled, like a bodybuilder, and covered in tattoos. He wears bracelets and anklets made of berries; a fringe of beetle wings skirts his muscled thighs. The little man beside him looks dressed for an Elizabethan farce: blue stockings, scarlet garters, slashed doublet, velvet tassels and a plumed hat as showy as his twirled mustache.

I discovered this odd couple in an art history book. As startling as the image was, the accompanying text surprised me even more. It said the watercolor depicted the meeting of a Florida chief and a French captain, in 1564. The captain had just landed to found a colony of Huguenots, or French Protestants, who suffered religious persecution at home.

Hang on, I thought. This art historian has his facts mixed up. The first Protestant refuge in North America was established by English Pilgrims at Plymouth, in 1620. Not by some French dandy in Florida, in 1564. Every schoolkid knows that.

I was wrong. The captain in the watercolor was René de Laudonnière. He and his fellow Huguenots were followers of John Calvin, a French exile in Geneva who sought to cleanse Christian worship of ceremony, superstition and papal “abomination.” Huguenots also formed morals boards to punish drinking, dancing and fornication, and abolished all holidays, including Christmas.

Laudonnière first appears in the historical record in 1561, when the Spanish seized a ship under his command. Cataloguing the contents of his wardrobe, they found a “tooled-leather collar from Morocco, a doublet of white taffeta decorated with crimson silk, a gray cloak with a velvet border two feet in width, and a pair of black woolen cloth shoes trimmed with velvet.” Laudonnière’s austere Calvinism evidently left room for Gallic vanity—as well as for a “poor chambermaid” he later brought with him across the Atlantic as his mistress.

Huguenots were similarly flexible in their relationship with France’s monarchy. The Protestant leader in France, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, sought radical reform of the established church and took up arms against Catholics. Yet he remained a fixture at the royal court and a close adviser to France’s Catholic regent, Catherine de Médici. In 1562 Coligny won royal backing for the creation of a Huguenot colony on the Atlantic coast of North America.

The colony would give Huguenots an overseas haven and Catholics a way to get rid of them. But it also gave common cause to mercantile Protestants and a French Crown that had just emerged from a decade of war with Spain. By the middle of the 16th century, Spain had become bloated on American bullion, which came to Europe aboard galleons that followed the Gulf Stream, along the coast of Florida and the Carolinas. This shore was therefore highly strategic and potentially profitable: a base for maritime raiding, for salvaging the frequent wrecks and for challenging Spain’s suzerainty over the Americas.

As leader of the expedition, Admiral Coligny chose a Huguenot sea captain, Jean Ribault. Accompanying him was the dandy René de Laudonnière and another 150 or so Protestants. On May Day, 1562, the French arrived at a wide river that Ribault christened Rivière de Mai in honor of his landing date. He erected a stone column engraved with the fleur-de-lis, then coasted north, naming the rivers he passed for those of his homeland: the Seine, the Somme, the Loire and so on. The finest he called Port Royal; its mouth, near Beaufort, S.C., is still known as Port Royal Sound.

In contrast to the Spanish voyages that preceded it, Ribault’s was peaceful. The French, then as now, preferred conciliation to confrontation, and seemed to possess social graces that other Europeans lacked. Their accounts of meeting Indians are laced with phrases such as “wishing not to appear ungrateful,” “knowing their feelings” and “we sought to appease them”—sentiments foreign to hard-handed conquistadors. The French also conformed to national stereotype in their sensuous appreciation of natives. They admired “well-formed” women wearing skirts of moss; painted deerskins “so naturally charming and still so consistent with the rules of art”; and native cuisine such as alligator flesh, which one Frenchman likened to veal.

At Port Royal, Ribault chose a site for a fort and gave his men a stirring speech. Any who volunteered to stay would “always be revered as those who were the first to live in this strange land,” he said. “Your fame shall hereafter shine inextinguishably in the heart of France.” Thirty men heeded his call and Ribault sailed off, pledging to return in six months with supplies and reinforcements.

Instead, on reaching France, Ribault became caught up in the civil war between Catholics and Protestants that had erupted in his absence. Meanwhile, the colonists at Port Royal also fought among themselves, eventually murdering the officer whom Ribault had left in charge. After waiting in vain for relief from France, they built a small boat and set off for home. Becalmed midway across the Atlantic, the French ran out of food and ate their shoes and jackets; “as for drink, some used sea water, others their urine.” Ever since Columbus’ landing in 1492, Europeans had expressed horror of cannibalism, which they believed to be rife among natives. Now they resorted to the practice themselves, selecting one man for slaughter so the others could live. “His flesh was equally divided among them. Then they drank his warm blood.”

The survivors were eventually rescued by an English ship. Ribault, by then, was also in English hands, having fled the strife in France and offered his services to Queen Elizabeth. Distrustful of the French captain, she threw him in the Tower of London. So when the fighting ceased in France, and the Huguenot leader, Admiral Coligny, renewed his colonizing plans, he chose René de Laudonnière as commander.

This time about 300 Huguenots sailed, including women, artisans, an apothecary and a painter. Returning to the River of May in the summer of 1564, they found the column Ribault had erected two years before. Indians had garlanded it with magnolias, and adorned the base with baskets of fruit, vases of perfumed oil and bundles of corn. They also greeted the French by kissing the column and raising their arms, as if in prayer. The watercolor I’d seen, of a tall chief with his arm around Laudonnière, depicted this worshipful welcome.

“Being delighted by this good treatment,” Laudonnière chose the riverside as the site for a new settlement. “The place was so pleasant that melancholics would be forced to change their nature,” he wrote. A forest of cedar, palm and magnolia “gave a fragrance so delightful that perfume could not improve upon it.” The riverside also abounded in vines laden with plump grapes. “On the request of my soldiers,” the captain claimed, he named the loveliest part of this landscape after himself: “the Vale of Laudonnière.”

The settlers built a fort called La Caroline, in honor of their king, and erected the birthright of every Frenchman: a bakery. They made wine and bartered with Indians for corn. Laudonnière kept a falcon as a pet. The French also shipped home sassafras, an alligator skin and tobacco, which had just been introduced to France by an ambassador to Portugal, Jean Nicot, whose surname is the root of the word “nicotine.”

But the French at La Caroline, like so many early colonists in America, proved incapable of sustaining themselves. Few knew how to farm or to catch the region’s fish and game. In any event, they preferred to hunt for precious metal. Indians possessed small quantities of gold, which they claimed was abundant in the interior. In reality, Indians’ gold plates and jewelry came from Spanish ships, many of which wrecked on Florida’s coast en route from Mexico and South America.

Before long, the French ran out of trade goods to barter for food. They started stealing native crops and kidnapped an Indian chief to ransom for corn. Laudonnière, a clumsy diplomat, played one chief against another until he squandered the goodwill of all of them. He also lost the confidence of the colonists, some of whom stole off by sea to raid Spanish ships and outposts in the Caribbean. When one group of pirates returned, Laudonnière had their ringleaders shot and hung on a gibbet. As colonists, French Protestants were proving just as greedy and violent as the Spanish Catholics they so despised.

By the summer of 1565, a year after their arrival, the French were living on acorns, berries and roots. Some “ate privately the bodies of newborn puppies,” Laudonnière wrote. He decided to abandon the colony. But just as the French prepared to depart, three very different fleets appeared in the River of May, in rapid and unexpected succession.

The first was commanded by John Hawkins, an English privateer. Astonished that La Caroline’s colonists were starving in so lush a land, one of Hawkins’ men wrote scornfully of the lazy Gallic desire “to live by the sweat of other mens browes.” This was a richly ironic comment, given that the English were on their way home from a slavetrading expedition in the West Indies.

Hawkins, however, pitied his fellow Protestants, giving them food and exchanging one of his ships for cannons from the fort. After he left, Laudonnière again prepared to sail home— at which point, the second fleet arrived. This one brought Jean Ribault, who had led the earlier French voyage to Florida. Released from the Tower of London, he’d been sent by the French to resupply the colony and to remove Laudonnière. Reports had reached France that La Caroline’s commander was hoarding food and keeping his chambermaid as a mistress, while threatening to execute any of his men who cohabited with native women. Lau – donnière denied the charges and then fell ill, “depressed by the false rumors that had been spread about me.”

It was at this juncture that the third fleet appeared in the river. The fleet’s flagship drew beside one of Ribault’s vessels and a man aboard the arriving ship called out, “What people?” “From France,” replied an officer on Ribault’s ship, who then asked the identity of his interrogator. The answer must have stunned him.

“Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Captain-General of the King of Spain, who has come to hang all the Calvinists I find here.”

Pedro Menéndez was an expert seaman, veteran soldier and devout crusader of the Counter- Reformation. This made him the perfect agent for the mission he embarked on in the summer of 1565. Earlier that year, Menéndez had contracted with King Philip II to colonize and fortify Florida, and convert its inhabitants. Then, as news reached Spain of the growing French presence at La Caroline, the king strengthened Menéndez’s military force and commanded him to expel all interlopers: “Free those lands, and give no quarter to the enemy to take root in them.”

By the time Menéndez caught up with the French, Ribault’s newly landed fleet had turned La Caroline into a formidable bastion of 800 soldiers and settlers, about equal in number to the Spanish force. Ribault’s vessels were also nimbler than the heavy Spanish ships. After a brief engagement in the River of May, Menéndez retreated to an inlet he’d reconnoitered 40 miles to the south. There, on a shore Menéndez christened St. Augustine, the Spanish set up camp.

Ribault, emboldened by his repulse of the Spanish, decided to give chase and defeat Menéndez before he could dig in or be reinforced. La Caroline’s deposed leader, Laudonnière, opposed the plan. He warned of the fickle weather—it was September, the height of hurricane season—and the danger of leaving the fort undermanned.

“Having more regard for his own opinion than for the advice that I had given,” Laudonnière wrote, Ribault sailed off with almost all the ships and soldiers at his disposal. He left the still ailing Laudonnière in command of only a few dozen men capable of bearing arms, as well as more than a hundred others, many of them women and children.

Ribault’s bold stroke almost succeeded. He surprised several Spanish ships just outside St. Augustine and was about to attack when the tide shifted, forcing the French back from the shallow inlet. Then a hurricane hit the coast, driving the French ships far out to sea.

Like Ribault, Menéndez was a daring tactician and a “friend of his own opinion,” his chaplain wrote. Gambling that the tempest would keep Ribault from resuming his attack or returning to La Caroline, Menéndez left St. Augustine undefended and took 500 soldiers to seize the French fort, by land.

In coastal Florida, “land” is a relative term. The terrain Menéndez had to cross was swampy and swollen by rain. Toting muskets, pikes, swords and ladders, the Spaniards slogged through stormy weather in water up to their waists. At dawn on the third day, they came within sight of the French fort and paused to pray for “victory over these Lutherans,” as the Spanish generally referred to all Protestants.

Most of the French were asleep. Even the officer in charge of sentry duty had retired, “thinking that the Spanish would not come in such unusual weather,” Laudonnière wrote. The Spanish quickly breached the fort and attacked men as they came from their beds.

Laudonnière rose from his sickbed and fought briefly before fleeing the fort, along with his chambermaid and several dozen others. They crept along the marshy shore and reached the few French ships left in the river. Seeing no other option, Laudionnière wrote, “We decided to return to France.” Six weeks later the refugees reached Europe. “During the passage we had nothing to eat but biscuits and water.”

Those left behind at La Caroline suffered a much worse fate. The few whom Laudonnière had judged capable of bearing arms included a cook, an aged carpenter, a beer maker, two shoemakers, a spinet player and four youths “who served Captain Ribault in taking care of his dogs.” They didn’t put up much of a fight. “Some came out naked and others in shirts, saying ‘I surrender,’ ” a Spanish priest wrote. “Notwithstanding this, there was a slaughter of 142.”

Menéndez needed only an hour to take the fort and didn’t lose a single man. A French survivor wrote that the Spanish “plucked out the eyes from the dead bodies, stuck them on their dagger points, and with exclamations and taunts” threw them at fleeing Huguenots. Menéndez spared about 50 French, mostly women and children, though he did so reluctantly. “It causes me deep sorrow to see them among my people on account of their horrid religious sect,” he wrote. He was also disgusted by the material evidence of heresy he found in the fort: “Lutheran books,” playing cards “burlesquing things of the Church,” and “a thousand other bad things” belonging to a Protestant preacher. “All this was ransacked by the soldiers,” Menéndez wrote. “Nothing escaped them.”

Leaving a garrison to hold the fort, he marched back to his base at St. Augustine, where he was met by a priest who donned his best cassock and raised a cross to bless the returning conqueror. In an account titled Memoir of the Happy Result, the priest wrote of Menéndez: “The fire and desire he has to serve Our Lord in throwing down and destroying this Lutheran sect, enemy of our Holy Catholic Faith, does not allow him to feel weary.”

Menéndez’s indefatigability was about to be tested again. Within a few days of his return, he learned from Indians that hundreds of French from Ribault’s storm-wracked fleet had come ashore on the coast just south of St. Augustine.

Menéndez followed the coast south and found a party of the French sailors huddled on the far side of a river too deep to ford. While Menéndez’s soldiers hid behind dunes, he went to the water’s edge with an interpreter. One of the French swam across and said Ribault’s ships had been wrecked by the storm. He asked for safe passage so the 125 French castaways with him could return to La Caroline.

Menéndez replied that he had taken the French fort and executed its Protestants. “I had to make war with fire and blood,” he said, “against all those who came to sow this hateful doctrine.” Nor would he promise safe passage to the castaways.

The French offered their weapons—and, one account claims, a ransom—in exchange for their lives. Again, Menéndez demurred. The French should “give themselves up to my mercy,” he declared, “that I might do with them that which our Lord ordered.”

Exhausted, half starved and unaware that Spanish soldiers lay in wait, the French surrendered to Menéndez’s mercy. “Since they were all Lutherans,” wrote a priest in the Spanish party, “his Lordship decided to condemn them all to death.”

The priest, however, prevailed on Menéndez to spare any French who declared themselves “Christian”—that is, Catholic. A dozen claimed to be so. Menéndez, in a letter to King Philip, said only that he spared “great big men” and carpenters and caulkers “for whom we have much need.” As for the rest, numbering about 110, “I had their hands tied behind them and had them stabbed to death.”

Twelve days later, at the same river and on the same terms, another group of French castaways surrendered, including the fleet commander, Jean Ribault. Again, they were ferried across the water, tied up and asked whether they were “Catholics or Lutherans.” Jean Ribault replied “that all who were there were of the new religion,” and began intoning a psalm. He was stabbed with a knife, stuck with a pike, and then be – headed. More than a hundred others were executed in similar fashion.

“He only spared the fifers, drummers and trumpeters,” a Spaniard wrote of Menéndez, “and four more who said that they were Catholics.” One French survivor later reported that the musicians were “kept alive to play for dancing.” The river where Menéndez slew the two parties of French became known as Matanzas, Spanish for “the Slaughters,” a name it still bears today.

“He acted as an excellent inquisitor,” a Spanish historian wrote of Menéndez in 1567, lauding his execution of unabashed heretics. “He was very merciful in granting them a noble and honorable death, by cutting off their heads, when he could legally have burnt them alive.”

Lurid accounts of the Florida massacres soon circulated in France, inciting outrage and calls for revenge. In 1568 a French force attacked the Spanish garrison at the former La Caroline, surprising soldiers who “were still picking their teeth” after dinner. The French slaughtered hundreds of Spanish, hanging some of them from the same trees where Menéndez had hanged prisoners three years before.

This massacre salved French anger and pride but did nothing to halt Spain’s reconquest of Florida. Menéndez was as efficient a colonizer as he was a killer. He recruited Spanish farm families, paying their passage and furnishing them with land, livestock and slaves—the first African slaves imported to a North American colony. He made peace with several of Florida’s warlike tribes, in one case accepting a chief ’s sister as his wife, although he already had a wife in Spain. Within a few years, Menéndez had founded a string of fortified settlements along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and supported the establishment of missions as far north as the Chesapeake Bay, a few miles from the future Jamestown.

Most of these beachheads were short-lived, as was Menéndez, who died in 1574 while readying an armada to attack northern Europe. But the camp he’d hastily erected at St. Augustine in 1565 grew into a substantial garrison. By the late 1500s, several decades before Plymouth’s founding, St. Augustine had a fortress, a church, a monastery, a hospital, shops and more than a hundred dwellings, all laid out in strict accordance with Spanish town planning.

Even so, it was a precarious outpost, beset by mutinies, pirate raids, plague, fires, Indian hostility and other woes. Much the same was true of every early colony on the continent. Between Ponce de León’s “discovery” of Florida in 1513 and the founding of Jamestown in 1607, Europeans planted dozens of settlements across the future lower 48 states. Neither St. Augustine nor any of the others thrived. But alone among them all, the Florida city survived.

While reading Spanish accounts of the landing in 1565 at St. Augustine, Michael Gannon, a former priest, was struck by the mention of a thanksgiving Mass, after which Menéndez “had the Indians fed and dined himself.” In other words, 56 years before the Pilgrim feast at Plymouth, the Spanish performed a similar ritual in St. Augustine.

A tall, stooped man in his late 70s, Gannon had worked as a radio sportscaster, Coast Guardsman, war correspondent in Vietnam and official historian for the Catholic Church of Florida before leaving the priesthood and becoming a professor of history at the University of Florida. He made an educated guess of the menu for the meal based on what he knew of 16th-century diet and the foods listed on Spanish ship manifests. “It was probably a stew called cocido—salt pork and garbanzo beans, laced with garlic,” he said, “accompanied by hard sea biscuits and red wine.” Gannon had also made a close study of the native Timucuans and believed their contributions to the meal would have included corn, venison and tortoise.

In 1985, just before Thanksgiving, Gannon got a call from a Florida reporter who was seeking a fresh angle for a holiday story. “I told him, ‘I know an old angle,’ ” Gannon recalled. His comments to the reporter quickly hit the news wires and went national. “Was the First Turkey Really Salt Pork?” read a typical headline. Calls flooded in from across the country, particularly New England, where Gannon was dubbed “the Grinch who stole Thanksgiving.” The historian didn’t flinch from the controversy; he stoked it. When a TV interviewer in Boston told him that Plymouth officials had called an emergency meeting to discuss his remarks, the professor coolly replied: “By the time the Pilgrims came to Plymouth, St. Augustine was up for urban renewal.”

For Gannon the controversy sparked by his remarks spoke to a more consequential lacuna in our memory of early America. “For too long Florida has been a finger of land remote from the national scene—not even a fly-over state, just a destination for beaches and Disney,” he said. “Our history has not been treated seriously. There’s an inbred resistance in the powdered-wig states to accepting the primacy of Florida and St. Augustine in the story of America’s settlement.”

Gannon was delightful company, a raconteur who debunked myths with erudition, wit and the wonderfully resonant voice of a former priest and radio announcer. He even gave me a rendition of the Lord’s Prayer in Timucuan, as written down by an early Spanish priest. But when I questioned his characterization of Menéndez as a hero, citing the massacres of the French at Matanzas, the tone of our conversation changed.

“Menéndez had reason to kill them,” Gannon said. “He could hardly feed his own colony. And he had no means of guarding all those men. If he’d had AK-47s, he could do it, but not with swords and crossbows.”

What about La Caroline? I asked. Hadn’t Menéndez declared that he came to slaughter all the Protestants he found at the fort?

“That wasn’t an act of religious violence,” Gannon replied. “It was done in self-defense, to save his colony. Remember, it was the French who chased after Menéndez to St. Augustine with everything they had.”

Gannon argued the true martyrs of St. Augustine were Spanish missionaries, many of whom were killed by Indians. “They could have lived a life of some ease, but came out here in the snakes and mosquitoes and heat to improve the lot of the natives, spiritually and materially. Indians got great yields from their harvests thereafter.”

This might have been so. But before long, there weren’t many Indians left to take in the harvest. Lacking beasts of burden, the Spanish pressed natives into service as porters, carrying heavy loads between missions. The crowding of mission life, and close contact with Europeans, also bred disease.

Again, Gannon saw these events differently. “If there was a health disadvantage for mission Indians, it was from relative inactivity and new foods,” he said. “Hunters and gatherers were fine physical specimens, but when they settled down they declined in bone size and strength.”

Gannon’s phone rang, interrupting our debate. It was the week before Thanksgiving and the annual media circus had begun, with a call from a newspaper in Massachusetts.

“They wanted to know if I’d changed my views,” Gannon said, hanging up the phone. “I told them I can’t change what’s in the documents.”

Glad to be back on less contentious ground, I asked one final question: How did he and his family celebrate Thanksgiving?

“The traditional way, with turkey,” he said. “Salt pork is not a favorite of mine. Garbanzo beans I can leave on my plate. Hardtack? No thanks.”

He smiled. “But I’ll take the red wine and drink to Menéndez. And I hope I’ll always be remembered as the Grinch who stole Thanksgiving.”


Originally published in the August 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here