The year is 1526. Onto the wild and wooded lands of what is today Georgia in the United States, European feet had never permanently walked. These forests and river valleys, the wild rolling hills of untamed nature, were home to ancient and proud native tribes. The Apalachee dwelt there, and the Yamasee, the Guale, and the Mocama – warlike tribes that still clung to a Stone Age way of life.
And in that year, one Spanish explorer dared to set foot in these unexplored lands – to plant the royal banner of Spain and claim these lands in the name of king and Christ. But for him and his followers, the Lord’s mercy was nowhere to be found. What they discovered instead was suffering. They sought wealth and slaves – but they found death, disease, hunger and hate.
Join us as we explore this story of early exploration of the continental United States. Together we will relive this dramatic tale of surviving a hostile land.
Envisioning the San Miguel de Gualdape Settlement
The Spanish were the first to plant a permanent European colony in Americas , or what was then known as the New World . This was in 1496, when Columbus came upon the island which they called Hispaniola. There they established Santo Domingo , and it soon grew into a stepping stone for the exploration of the rest of the Americas.
Map of the island of Hispaniola, or Saint Domingue, which contains present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. (Fernandezmv / Public Domain )
This colony survived through gold mining and the cultivation of sugar cane. To do this successfully and quickly, the Spaniards required an ample work force. To achieve this, they utilized the labor of the indigenous people called the Arawak.
But illness decimated them. Their immune systems were unaccustomed to the Europeans and the viruses they brought. Disease spread and overwork took its toll.
And without an effective work force, the Spaniards were forced to find new sources, to explore new lands and enslave the populace if need be. And the man to find these sources was Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón – a wealthy owner of sugar plantations on Hispaniola, and the mayor of the town of La Concepcion. In short, a prominent political figure in the newly formed and rapidly rising Hispaniola.
To aid him in this, Ayllón hired the services of Pedro de Salazar. Between 1514 and 1516, Salazar would sail in search of new lands, but instead of sailing the tested routes to the south and west, he took a different approach, sailing to the north. They were determined to explore the lands beyond the Bahamas.
And so, they at last anchored on the coast of present day Georgia, where they encountered natives of great strength and stature. When Ayllón got this report, upon Salazar’s return, he knew that his work force was found.
When Salazar anchored at the coast of present day Georgia he meet the Native Americans. (Davepape / Pubic Domain )
He ordered a second expedition in 1521 and this time his mission was clear. The Spaniards once again reached those shores and managed to trick some 70 to 80 natives, luring them onto the ships with promises of gifts. But once they boarded, they became captives.
One of these captured natives was a young man, whom the Spaniards baptized and named Francisco Chicora. Chicora was his native land, he said, and it was a land of wealth. He became close to Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón, so close that he was provided with an education.
His tales of native prosperity were exactly what the Spanish needed to hear and they were so intrigued that Francisco Chicora was allowed to accompany Ayllón to Spain. He was one of the rare natives to be admitted to the Spanish court and to be allowed audience before the king.
The stories he told were sufficient to earn Ayllón an official contract with Charles V, King of Spain – he was to lead an expedition to these new lands and create a new settlement. And thus, his fate was sealed.
Detail of map showing land on the southeast coast of North America granted to Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón in 1523 by Spanish king, Charles V. (Glendoremus / Public Domain )
Into the Godless Land
Far from the Spanish shores, far from home and across the stormy waves of the Atlantic Ocean, Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón sailed his ships. The West Indies awaited and from there – the new lands. He returned to Hispaniola in 1525 and assembled his colonizing expedition.
All aspects of it pointed to the intent to settle there, to create a colony that would endure and prosper. And thus, the port of Hispaniola echoed with the busy work of preparation. Six large ships stood anchored at sea, awaiting the long journey north.
They were gradually stocked – with supplies, with food and water, cattle and tools, black slaves from Africa, Jesuit missionaries, and lastly with six hundred willing settlers, six hundred souls hurling into the maw of death and damnation.
They set out upon the vast blue realm, that endless oceanic kingdom which they fought to subdue, and journeyed into the sunset and the new home that awaited there. Six ships laden with hope. Six ships to conquer a realm.
But when they reached the shores of modern day North Carolina or Georgia, their misfortunes were first manifested. Their lead ship, the Capitana, struck a sandbar and sunk, submerging a good portion of their supplies into a watery grave. This was the first ill-omen, yet the expedition continued.
The ship Capitana sunk and they lost most of their supplies. ( Erica Guilane-Nachez / Adobe Stock)
They entered inland at what is perhaps today’s Sapelo Sound and at traveled to the mouth of it. A part of the expedition remained on the ships and took the water route. The other part took the route over land.
This was the more arduous approach and there they got the first taste of this new land. They trekked through unfamiliar territory, through swamps and dense forests, attempting to forage for food all the while. And as another ill-omen, their guide, the Francisco Chicora who had spun the tall-tales of this land – escaped.
He took the first opportunity to flee into the woods, abandoning his captors to their fate. Perhaps he did it because he knew of the fate that awaited them.
Either way, the two parties got connected again and found the place to settle. This was at the shore of a river they named Gualdape – probably after the Guale Native Americans – a flat, sandy area which seemed adequate for a settlement. The little collection of wooden houses that arose here was the first Spanish settlement within the territory of what is today the United States.
They called their little village San Miguel de Gualdape. Storehouses and provisional homes were built. There was also a small church constructed. The settlers built a new, smaller ship to replace the one that had sunk.
But soon after, death crept into the settlement. Sickness slowly spread through San Miguel de Gualdape, brought on by the swamps that surrounded them and by the hunger that was a daily occurrence. Game was scarce in these marshes and the season was too late for planting crops.
Rationing supplies was mandatory. One main source of disease was the lack of suitable water. The marshy land was not suited for digging wells and soon they were drinking contaminated water.
Malaria and dysentery spread, taking lives with increasing frequency. And winter was fast approaching bringing a whole new level of misery.
Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón was struck by fever and died, while being cared for by a Dominican friar , on October 18th, 1526. His demise was the cause of San Miguel de Gualdape’s further descent into damnation. He was succeeded by Captain Francisco Gomez, who found himself unable to control the settlers which were growing increasingly discontent.
Two prominent men – Ginez Doncel and Pedro de Bacan – led the settlement in an increasingly mutinous direction. The indigenous in the area, with whom Gomez attempted to trade with to obtain food, were mistreated by the unhappy men. The natives retaliated by harassing the settlers from that point on, furthering the death toll.
Ginez Doncel and Pedro de Bacan led a mutiny at San Miguel De Gualdape. ( Morphart / Adobe Stock)
Eventually, Doncel and Bacan mutinied, imprisoning Francisco Gomez and mistreating others, the African slaves and Native Americans most of all. To add to the troubles, the African slaves rebelled, freeing the imprisoned Captain Gomez, and setting fire to the house of Ginez Doncel. He and Bacan, and their mutinous associates were all captured – and promptly executed.
The Home at the Heart of Despair
At that point, San Miguel de Gualdape was sunk into the mire of chaos, death and disease running rampant, surrounded by hostile natives and inhospitable nature. The settlers created a tragic and resounding painting of human suffering – a state that was created by their inability to conquer the overpowering force of nature. And when faced with imminent doom, the barriers of men fail, the boundaries of reason vanish and the beast rises from within.
And of those six hundred hopefuls, who sailed across the endless expanse of the ocean, with dreams of a new, fertile land of prosperity, now only a handful remained alive. Their eyes now witnessed a living hell – a miserable gathering of squalid shacks, a disease-ridden swamp where death was king, and their God didn’t dwell.
They saw their friends and family dying of dysentery, malnourished and frightened, and their hopes extinguished before their eyes. God and wealth meant nothing anymore – death was all there was in this new land. It was the foundation of all they saw here – the swamps and marshes, the water and food, the animals and savage men that dwelt here.
And in the first weeks of winter, all hope was lost in San Miguel de Gualdape. Of the original six hundred less than one hundred and fifty remained. Without any chance of surviving the winter, they abandoned their settlement and embarked on a journey back to the home from which they came – Hispaniola.
Yet death was not yet finished with them. This time it took the form of hunger and cold, and their arduous sailing across the Atlantic Ocean was yet another challenge. Several men froze to death and all were starving. One was driven insane by the hunger and he ate his own frostbitten flesh.
This was the ruthless fate of the Ayllón expedition. A journey into the heart of hell – a hell that is palpable and right here on the earth. They went with hope and met with death.
But the story of Ayllón and his expedition was not the only one of its kind. Around the time when its survivors finally reached Hispaniola once more, a new expedition set out. This was the infamous Narváez expedition – a journey that was started in 1527.
In fact, the members of this expedition saw the return of the ragged survivors from San Miguel de Gualdape, who warned them that nothing but demise awaited in the unexplored lands. Narváez and his men did not heed the warning. They set out to the region of the Florida panhandle and what followed was an astonishing tale of survival and damnation.
The approximate route of the Narváez expedition from Santo Domingo. (Lencer / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
It is a thrilling tale of exploration and conflict, of starvation and even cannibalism. The journey lasted eight years and out of six hundred men that set out on this new, Narváez expedition – only four survived. Five hundred and ninety six men left their bones in the soil of the Americas, as had the poor souls of Ayllón’s expedition before them.
One of those four survivors was the famous Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca – a man who endured eight years defying death and living at the side of the natives. When at last he came back home he wrote his memoirs, recounting the story of that arduous journey. But that is a tale for another time.
The Conquerors Conquered
The tragic tale of the failed settlement of San Miguel de Gualdape is a true glimpse into the history of colonizing the Americas. What the Spaniards attempted to win over with fire and sword, only came back to haunt them in the end.
Instead of bringing peace and trading and coexistence, they brought famine and conquest, slavery and plunder. And as Cabeza de Vaca learned in his ten year journey of torment: “the natives could only be won over by kindness, the only certain way”.
Yet the settlers learned the hard way. With lessons they paid for with their lives, coming face to face with the invincible will to survive against all odds. And when the inhospitable nature stood in their way – death reigned.
Top image: The residents of San Miguel De Gualdape were overcome with sickness in the swampy environment. (NPS / Public Domain )
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