By PETER GUINTA, St. Augustine Register
A reflective yet self-justifying “Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles” took the stage Monday at Flagler College Auditorium and recounted details of his founding of St. Augustine in September 1565, his successful attack against Fort Caroline and his massacre of 150 shipwrecked French sailors.
Television actor Chaz Mena portrayed Menendez as passionate, noble, ambitious, callous and devout.“I am not a conquistador,” he told the packed 800-seat auditorium. “I want to be your founding father.”
The presentation was the second of seven in the Discover First America: Legacies of Florida series.Just before “Menendez” spoke, Kathleen Deagan, the University of Florida’s distinguished research curator of Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, described the search for archaeological evidence found in scores of digs at the Fountain of Youth and the Mission of Nombre de Dios.She said he arrived here in five ships of 11 he started with in Spain.
However, the location of his first fort has not been determined, she said.Two accounts contradict one another. The first says the Spanish soldiers dug a trench quickly to act as protection against the Timucuan. The second says Menendez was offered a large house in the Timucuan village of Seloy.He arrived with 800 people — 300 soldiers, 200 sailors and several hundred “useless” people, he reported. But by November of that year, the colony was down to 200 people
“It was a hard beginning,” Deagan said. “There was hunger and the Indians were becoming hostile.” In 1566, Menendez moved the city to Anastasia Island for seven years, she said.“No trace of that settlement has ever been found,” she said, adding that high tides, storms, seasonal floods and soil erosion may be the reason both sites have not been located.She did show photographs of the very few Timucuan artifacts uncovered by her digs.In 1572, Menendez moved the city back to the mainland, to where it is today.When he first arrived, Menendez held the first Thanksgiving in the New World.
“There wasn’t turkey, but garbanzo beans, ham, olives and fish and small game,” she said. “There were very few deer.”“We are fairly certain that the first fort was somewhere near the area of Hospital Creek,” she said.The energetic Mena acts in movies, such as “Miami Rhapsody” with Sarah Jessica Parker, plays a judge on Law & Order and performs in off-Broadway plays. His research and performance were so thorough that one might think Menendez had been channeled.“There is an old Asturian saying, ‘Once you have a reputation, especially a bad one, go to sleep, you cannot change it.’” he said.
He had been a merchant with his own ships when Phillip II, king of Spain, asked him to go to the New World to counter the French, who were already there, he said. He had been with his wife for only four of his 20 years of marriage, he said.He called the Gulf Stream “a river given to the Spanish people by God.”Trying to explain his sometime cruelty, he said, “I was reared in violence and governments depend on people like me.”