September 20, 1565: Spain attacks France in Florida
Most people know about the American Revolutionary War, lasting from 1775 to 1783. However, long before the British fought the Americans, there was another European battle on American soil. On September 20, 1565, Spanish forces captured the French Huguenot settlement of Fort Caroline, near present-day Jacksonville, Florida. It was a deadly battle— the first European battle of its kind in America.
France versus Spain
Before the Mayflower arrived with the Pilgrims on November 11, 1620, America was occupied by two opposing forces: the French Huguenots [Protestants] and Spain. But their settlements weren’t joyful. In 1564, the French Huguenots settled on the Banks of May, a valuable strategic point on the Florida coast. Prior to this establishment, Spain had occupied much of Florida. When France moved in, King Philip II of Spain was immediately threatened by this new challenge to the Spanish authority in the New World.
As a result, he sent Spanish admiral and explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to Florida to expel the French Huguenots. King Philip II wanted the area to be entirely controlled by Spanish colonies, not the French. Following his orders, Avilés founded San Augustin in early September 1565, which would later become Saint Augustine—the oldest city in North America.
A bloody battle
Establishing San Augustin wasn’t enough for Spain. Two weeks later, on September 20, Avilés attacked and destroyed the French settlement of Fort Caroline. The French, commanded by Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere, lost 135 men in the first battle between European powers in America. To make matters even worse, Avilés allegedly had the slain men hanged on trees beside an inscription, which read, “Not as Frenchmen, but as heretics.”
Laudonniere and 40 other Huguenots managed to escape the attacks, knowing they could never return to Florida. Instead, they traveled north to refocus their colonial efforts. They finally colonized in areas now known as Quebec and Nova Scotia in Canada, where many French influences are still present today.