Our St. Lucie Connection

St. Lucie

Many places on the Treasure Coast are named for St. Lucie. The name was given when explorers for Gov. Pedro Mendéndez de Avilés established a brief outpost in the region on Dec. 13, 1465, her feast day. Lucie, a virgin known for her beautiful eyes, is the patron saint of the blind, and legend has it that her eyes were gouged out during her martyrdom. PAINTING BY ANTHONY BRATINA COMMISSIONED BY INDIAN RIVER MAGAZINE

Had it survived, the Treasure Coast outpost named after the patron saint of the blind would be celebrated today as the nation’s second-oldest community


The Treasure Coast, which seems so new to us, is really rich with ancient history. Some clues have always been in front of our eyes. We just overlooked them. Take the name St. Lucie, for instance. You hear it everywhere. St. Lucie County, St. Lucie River, St. Lucie West, Port St. Lucie. All are derived from the name of the patron saint of the blind — Saint Lucie. But why would her name loom so prominently among us? The story goes back exactly 450 years ago.

Someday, when heaps of jumbled bones and rusted swords are unearthed from a mass grave in our region, the world will know where a powerful drama took place. For now, the dead are resting somewhere between the outskirts of Fort Pierce and the mouth of the Loxahatchee River to the south. They were the first Europeans to make an attempt to settle the Treasure Coast, but the odds were stacked against them. Most likely they lie beneath the sands of a promontory high enough for ships on the ocean to have spotted their brightly colored banner waving in the air. Somewhere inland near the river, within easy reach of resupply. The high tip of Sewall’s Point might have been a logical place for a company of more than 200 desperate soldiers to have made its stand. We can only guess the location. Ancient Spanish records are conflicting and unclear.

The soldiers called their foredoomed fortress Santa Lucía, the Spanish name for Saint Lucie, because they chose the location on her special saint’s day. It was Dec. 13, 1565. But the men could not have felt like celebrating. Skeletal and grim, they had moved downriver from a makeshift settlement where Gov. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés left them more than a month before. The governor said he would send back supplies from Havana, but they hadn’t come quickly enough. How many of their 100 French prisoners were still among the living when they abandoned their first encampment near the city of the Ais (pronounced eyes)? We won’t know until archaeologists find and count the skulls.


Gov. Menéndez’s plan for subduing South Florida’s primitive tribes had hit a snag. The cornmeal his men carried down from St. Augustine ran out, so they had to live off the scrubby land, but no one had taught them its secrets. Rivers were crowded with fish, but the soldiers must have lacked the means to catch them. Vast oyster beds sustained the Native Americans of the region, but the Spaniards didn’t know where the shellfish were hiding. Instead, they struggled to survive on roots and saw palmetto berries. Palmetto berries, which taste like rancid blue cheese with just a hint of sweetness, weren’t enough to keep them from wasting away. Soon, the men would be gnawing on the leather of their sword belts and in the end they would eat their shoes.

These martyrs to miscalculation had been adventurous youths of Spain, some as young as 17. They had crossed the dangerous ocean to reconquer northern Florida from the French. During the three preceding months, three all-too-easy victories at Fort Caroline, Matanzas and Cape Canaveral must have made their governor feel invincible. Without a line of resupply, he led the men on an invasion of the Treasure Coast. Hernán Cortez had brought down the mighty Aztec Empire in Mexico with just as small a force, so why couldn’t they tame a tribe of Stone Age Indians? After all, the Spaniards were carrying swords and lugging harquebuses — a cumbersome prototype of a rifle. The Ais Indians only had sharp shells and fish bones stuck on the end of sticks.

Although Spain had claimed ownership of Florida for more than half a century, various native populations still retained control of the peninsula. The Ais of the Treasure Coast had been a particularly dangerous nuisance to seafaring Spaniards, who had lost many vessels along the reefs. Heads of passengers were said to be used in the Indians’ pagan rites. Gov. Menéndez later described the early natives of South Florida as “infamous people, Sodomites, sacrificers to the devil of many souls in their ancient ceremonies.” He decided to lead his soldiers straight into the devil’s den to let the Indians know that he and the king of Spain were the rulers of Florida now.

Anthropologists have recently suggested that the paramount town of the Ais stood somewhere near Pelican Island, south of present-day Sebastian. That’s where their chief — or cacique as the Spaniards called him — lorded over his subjects. On the inland side of their city, beside the Rio de Ais, known to us as the Indian River, there loomed a massive midden — a mound of shells and Indian artifacts. It was said to be 1,000 feet long and 50 feet high. Later known as Barker’s Bluff, the midden was plundered in the early 1900s to use as roadbed material. For hundreds, if not thousands of years, the Ais must have had their capital there.


In addition to his dwindling army of 300, Gov. Menéndez forced at least 100 French prisoners to march with him into the city of the Ais. At Matanzas he had ordered his men to bind and systematically slaughter hundreds of French Protestant prisoners of war. The Spanish leader thought of Protestants as cultists of “an evil and detestable sect.” But he chose to spare all who surrendered at Canaveral, padding his ranks with their presence to make the size of his army look more threatening to the natives. The gambit worked. The outlying Indian villages along the march were deserted when they passed. By the time the Spaniards reached the Indian capital on Nov. 4, 1565, the cacique of the Ais decided not to resist.

The Ais Indians, naked except for crudely plaited palmetto thongs, wore painted faces when they met the soldiers. That may have signaled war, but the cacique of the Ais received the new governor of Florida with a local custom of friendship. He kissed him on the mouth. The Indian leader was genuinely thrilled to receive tokens of peace, including scissors, knives and mirrors. Did Governor Menéndez all-too-quickly conclude the cacique was just another primal simpleton who could be bought with trinkets? As with his pushover victories against the French, Gov. Menéndez may have presumed that God was paving his way.

And yet, it had to have been obvious that he had miscalculated when he assumed the Indians would supply his troops with plenty of food. Whether it was truth or craftiness, the cacique of the Ais claimed to have few provisions to share. During the four-day visit, the Indians gave the Spaniards only cocoplums and berries — and a little bit of fish — but not enough to restore them to full strength. Surely the Indian leader could read the depth of the invaders’ hunger in their eyes and their behavior. At dinner the first night, one ravenous soldier stuffed himself with so many berries that he died before midnight. There were other small omens that destiny might be leading the intruders into a quandary. One of the Ais busted the governor’s only compass, so Menéndez had to turn to a French navigator for help in finding his way.


Napoleon Bonaparte is credited with encapsulating the ancient military wisdom that an army marches on its stomach. Without a steady supply line, the only good choice for a thoughtful commander is retreat. But Governor Menéndez had led his army into a dilemma with no way out. They couldn’t go back. His newly founded St. Augustine settlement was running short on food provisions, too, and the three small boats he brought with him on the invasion weren’t big enough for everybody to sail away to well-stocked Havana. So he stuck with his main objective, which was to establish a fort from which Spain could rule his newly invented dominion: the Province of Ais. And so, God help them, the governor decided to settle most of his men in a place that the Indians helped pick out. It was an untenable position downriver, where they said you could find lots of those nauseating palmetto berries.

As soon as the soldiers moved their things into their first encampment, the governor left them with a farewell prayer. He took 50 of his luckiest soldiers and 20 of the most useful French prisoners, including the navigator, and sailed away on two of his little boats. He reached Cuba in only two days. Instead of turning around and coming right back with supplies to finish the job, Gov. Menéndez mustered up another expeditionary force and headed off to southwest Florida a few weeks later. Why? Well, in part because he had a more pressing personal mission in mind. He was looking for his shipwrecked son. The cacique of the Ais must have told him that surviving shipwreck victims on the east coast were generally sent westward, somewhere on the other side of Lake Okeechobee, where the mighty casique of the Calusa confederation turned the ones he didn’t sacrifice into slaves.


Capt. Juan Vélez de Medrano, a relentlessly steadfast officer, was left in charge as the Spanish governor of the newly declared Province of Ais. We could probably find a statue of him somewhere on the Treasure Coast today, if he had been successful. But nature made his men ungovernable. They began to starve. It wasn’t long before 100 of them deserted. The captain took a small boat downriver to look for his rebellious troops. He found bodies floating here and there. When the first supply ship arrived from Havana, he persuaded the surviving rebels to submit to his authority again. He chose a better location for their settlement. It was further down the river in the land of a cacique named Jega (pronounced hay-gah). Jega was the son-in-law of the cacique of the Ais.

Was it up in the land of Ais or down at Santa Lucía where the last of the French settlers in Florida disappeared? There was a point when the hunger became too intense — or so an artillerist named Diego López later testified. Then something too abhorrent had transpired. Only in passing did López mention the horrifying crime. And when he did, he swore it was others who committed it, not him. Clearly, conditions were dire enough to drive men mad. A voraciousness that led men to swallow shoe leather might make some devour anything. Official records are not really clear.

Still, the first days at Santa Lucía went well. Cacique Jega shared some provisions. Conflicting accounts also suggest that another passing ship on its way to St. Augustine may have seen them and brought more supplies. The Indians traded with the invaders and began to seem like friends. But one day a crowd of 500 gathered around the newcomers, and the moment turned violent before anyone knew it. Sixteen Spaniards were slain.


Only 30 of the captain’s men responded to an order to fight back. Celebrated chronicles have missed the boldness of a gallant counterattack that might have rivaled the likes of Pickett’s Charge, the Charge of the Light Brigade, or one of history’s more successful assaults. The hero who saved the day was Lt. Gabriel de Ayala. He was another man whose courage made him fit to be memorialized in bronze. Armed with only swords, Ayala led the armored company of 30 against 500 native archers, whose clouds of sharp-stick missiles must have peppered them as if they had been pin cushions. The desperate fearlessness of the charge proved to be so strikingly severe that all the Indians ran away. For a full eight days, the Indian warriors did not reappear.

During that pause in hostilities, the Spaniards erected a protective blockhouse at Santa Lucía. Day and night they felled trees and strengthened their defenses in anticipation of another attack. When it came one morning, the Indians had doubled their strength to 1,000. After the first four-hour onslaught, the Spaniards counted 6,000 arrows that had landed in their fortress. Capt. Vélez de Medrano and Lt. Ayala were among the seriously wounded. Eight other soldiers had been pierced to death. From that day on, the arrows fell so frequently that soldiers rarely risked leaving the fort to hunt for food. The Indians’ siege did not let up. The starving time returned. A rat for dinner was said to be luxury. So was a snake. And some chewed on leftover bones.

After many weeks, it was decided that fearless Lt. Ayala and a vicar should attempt to sail to Havana for help in the little boat they had kept. But the winds and currents were much too strong. Forsaken of all hope, the two men returned to the fort. For six more endless days of suffering, the 60 or 70 survivors continued to endure. And then in March of 1566 another ship appeared.

The story has no happy ending for most of the suffering mob. The boat from Havana had not come to rescue them. It was only dropping off another batch of supplies, so they could carry on with their ordeal. Someone started a rebellion. Capt. Vélez de Medrano and Lt. Ayala stood in the way and were wounded yet again. The ungovernable brawlers seized the supply ship and sailed away. But few in history have ever been more cursed, because in all the big blue sea, the first ship they met on the way was carrying none other than
Gov. Menéndez himself. Of course, the mutineers were summarily arrested. But was this karma-like justice for men who committed war crimes against French prisoners at Matanzas and turned into savage cannibals on the Treasure Coast? Their story might end with a noose. On a better note, a few, like faithful Capt. Vélez de Medrano and valiant Lt. Ayala, lived to return home to Spain.

For eight more years, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés struggled to tame primitive Florida with very little success. He never found his son. He is, of course, best remembered as the founder of St. Augustine, which recently celebrated its 450-year anniversary as the nation’s oldest city. If only he had hatched a better plan for conquering the Treasure Coast, Santa Lucía might be celebrated today as the nation’s second oldest city. Ever after, whenever Menéndez sailed past his lost Province of Ais, did he think of it as the Tragic Coast?


The happiest ending to our story belongs to the Treasure Coast Indians. They didn’t have a written language with which to chronicle their amazing achievement, so no one remembers history from their isolated point of view. They were the naked Stone Age people who accomplished what the mighty empires of the Aztecs, Incas and Mayans failed to do. With sharp sticks and willpower, they defeated the world’s leading superpower. And so, they won the right to be left alone for many generations that followed. Until the Ais melted away sometime in the 1700s, they and their nearby subtribes continued to cling to a primeval way of being.

Throughout the centuries, maps retained the name of the lost settlement on a wide-mouthed river, variously referenced as Santa Lucía, S. Lozia and Santa Lucea. The British translated the name into English by the 1770s, and it became a popular place name ever after. But time otherwise closed its eyes to the soldiers’ ordeal. The parable of their endeavor never captured the smallest segment of the world’s imagination. Even residents of the Treasure Coast have been insensible to the narrative of their tribulation, in spite of unmistakable clues all over our maps, if not on our lips every day. It almost seems too ironic that their vague remembrance would be darkly disclosed by the patron saint of the blind. But verily, there is a landmark on time that lost men bequeathed in an anglicized name. St. Lucie. Think of them once in a while when you see it.

See the original article in the print publication

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