Five hundred years ago on October 30, 1517 a little-known priest named Martin Luther nailed a piece of paper to the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther’s “95 Theses” led to what is known today as the Protestant Reformation. Its influence reached around the world and is still being felt.
One of the most unlikely places affected by the Reformation was tiny Rattlesnake Island in Florida.
The inlet here earned its name — Matanzas, Spanish for slaughter — partly as a result of that piece of paper. This windswept estuary 14 miles south of the nation’s oldest city, at the mouth of the Matanzas River, sealed the Spanish heritage of Florida with the blood of 245 murdered French prisoners in 1565.
The drama revolves around two reckless European explorers, Pedro Menendez de Aviles and Jean Ribault.
Menendez was charged by the King of Spain to colonize the new land of Florida and drive out Protestant trespassers and heretics. He was dispatched in 1565 with a fleet that included more than 800 soldiers and settlers.
Meanwhile in France, where the Reformation had secured some followers, Jean Ribault received orders from the Admiral of France to protect the French colony of Fort Caroline in Florida. Ribault was a Huguenot, a Calvinist Protestant, as were most of the French colonists.
Ribault landed at Fort Caroline on the St. Johns River near what is now Jacksonville. Menendez landed near Cape Canaveral then turned north, eventually finding a good harbor in what he called “San Augustine.” On September 5th, the two men made first contact, Menendez on his “San Pelayo” and Ribault on his flagship “Trinity.” A few shots were fired and the French slipped away.
Menendez returned to officially establish the colony of San Augustine. When he realized his big galleons were vulnerable because they could not cross the shallow bar in the harbor, he sent them back to Santo Domingo on September 10. Ribault pursued the two Spanish vessels.
Fate intervened when a hurricane blew the French fleet before it with a vengeance that wrecked the ships. Menendez, realizing that the storm would prevent Ribault’s return to Fort Caroline in time, marched his men overland through swamps and swollen streams in the torrential downpour to Fort Caroline which he captured without any losses. Of the 240 Frenchmen at the fort, his troops killed 132. A few escaped but the victory was overwhelming. Menendez then returned to San Augustine, fearing Ribault might have survived the storm and would attack San Augustine while the main body of soldiers was away.
Meanwhile, two separate groups of shipwrecked Frenchmen were winding their way back towards Fort Caroline. When Menendez heard this, he began moving south with between 50 and 70 men until he reached the south end of Anastasia Island. There, at a small inlet, he encountered the first contingent of 126 Frenchmen. Already dispirited by the shipwreck and the weather, they surrendered to him.
The prisoners were fed and bound. Then they were then led down to the beach. With the exception of 15 Catholics, all were murdered. On October 12, Ribault and 350 remaining Frenchmen arrived at the inlet. About half of the Frenchmen surrendered and the rest decided to take to the woods rather than trust Menendez to show mercy. All but 16 prisoners were slaughtered in the already bloody marsh. France had forever lost her chance in Florida.
Today visitors come to see Fort Matanzas, built by the Spanish at this site in 1742 to protect the back door to St. Augustine. Fort Matanzas National Monument is administered by the National Park Service. The fort on tiny Rattlesnake Island is accessible only by water. It is built of native coquina to replace the earlier wooden watchtower the Spanish constructed to protect them from English invasion.
Today, a permanent stairway replaces the wooden ladder used by the soldiers. A shuttle ferry runs between the fort and the Anastasia Island portion of the park from 9 to 5 daily except Christmas.
The park consists of 298 acres including both Rattlesnake Island and part of Anastasia Island. The Anastasia side houses a visitor center with a small museum and a boardwalk nature trail. The trail winds through scrub and woodland that appear untouched since those fateful days in 1565. It abounds with birds and small wildlife. At places, patches of colorful wild flowers decorate the sandy soil.
All that remains today of the slaughter there is a small wooden sign commemorating the spot where it occurred. The boardwalk breaks through the palmetto at the river’s edge where you can see both the fort and the inlet to ocean.
The park is free and open daily except Christmas. It also has a picnic area and an ocean beach access. Only a small portion of The First Coast’s many tourists find their way here. Those who do are well rewarded. They get a chance to see a unique spot that marked a turning point in the beginnings of European culture in the New World.