Sunday, January 4, 2015

First U.S. settlement was in Georgia?

St. Augustine, Florida
An array of cities and communities lay claim to being the "first" settlement or "oldest city" in the continental United States.

St. Augustine and Pensacola, both in Florida, engage in a bit of friendly rivalry over which is the nation's oldest city. The first settlement at Pensacola Bay, the remains of which have yet to be found, was planted by Tristan de Luna in 1559. The colony was a disastrous failure and was soon abandoned, with the modern city of Pensacola dating from a second more successful attempt in 1699. St. Augustine, meanwhile, was founded by Pedro Menendez in 1565 and has been there ever since. At 450 years old, the historic old city has been occupied for about 134 years longer than Pensacola.

Fort Caroline
Reconstructed French fort in Jacksonville, FL
Other communities also claim to be the "first." Paris Island, SC, for example, was first settled by France in 1562, the same nation that built Fort Caroline in Jacksonville, FL, two years later.The first English settlement in the United States was Sir Walter Raleigh's Roanoke in North Carolina, but its population disappeared in a mystery that has never been solved.

 Finally there is Jamestown. Established in 1607 it was the first permanent English settlement in the United States. The Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock were latecomers among early settlers, not arriving in Massachusetts until 1620.

The Georgia Coast
While each of these settlements has its own claim to fame and while St. Augustine is without doubt the oldest continuously occupied city in the United States, none of them was the actual first.

There were American Indians here for thousands of years before the arrival of the first European explorers, of course. Others believe that Vikings visited New England or even made it as far inland as Minnesota and Oklahoma!  There is a popular old legend in Alabama and other states that Prince Madoc of Wales explored and planted settlements long before Juan Ponce de Leon discovered the land that would become the United States in 1513.

Savannah River
With due respect to all of these claims and communities, the actual first recorded European/African settlement in the continental United States was in Georgia.

Named San Miguel de Gualdape, the colony was founded by Spanish explorer and slave trader Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon some four decades before either Pensacola or St. Augustine.

Ayllon had heard glowing reports of a wonderful land somewhere northwest of the Bahamas that was ideal for settlement and populated by American Indians of giant stature that would make desirable slaves for the Spanish. He sent an exploring party of two ships to find this land and report back. The scouts sailed north from Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas and reached land on June 24, 1521, at a place they called the Jordan River.

Coxspur Lighthouse with Tybee Island in the distance
No one knows exactly where the Jordan River was located. Some have speculated that it was either the Santee or Waccamaw Rivers in South Carolina, with the latter appearing most likely. The explorers captured 60 Indian slaves and took them back to the Spanish settlements in the Caribbean where they told fantastic stories of a marvelous new land.

Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon signed a contract with the King of Spain in 1523, agreeing to settle this new land. He second a second exploring party out in 1525 as he assembled the people, livestock and materials needed to found a permanent colony.

San Miguel was somewhere in the marshes
and islands of the Georgia coast.
The major expedition assembled by Ayllon consisted of 6 ships, 600 colonists (including women and children), cows, sheep, pigs and around 100 horses. The colonists included African slaves. Owned by Ayllon and other wealthy participants in the venture, they became the first slaves introduced into North America by Europeans.

The ships set sail in mid-July 1526 and reached land on August 9. The flagship Capitana immediately ran aground and went to the bottom, taking with it vital supplies for the success of the colony.

Ayllon was disappointed with the true appearance of the coast, which differed dramatically from the glowing descriptions provided by his exploring parties. Quickly deciding that the Jordan River was not suitable for permanent settlement, the conquistador sent out additional scouting parties to find a better place. Based on the reports of these explorers, he ordered a move south to the coast of what is now Georgia.

Looking downstream toward Sapelo Sound at Darien, Georgia.
There in September 1526, the Spanish established the city of San Miguel de Gualdape. The exact site has not been found but most scholars believe it was either on Sapelo Sound or Tybee Roads.

The situation quickly became desperate. The loss of so many supplies in the sinking of the Capitana doomed the colony and the settlers were stalked by hunger and disease. The local Guale Indians decided they didn't like the Spanish and soon started to attack them. The African slaves joined in, staging uprisings and setting fire to the homes of colonists. Ayllon died of an unknown illness and the town descended into chaos.

Unable to feed themselves or withstand the cold winter, the colonists gave up. They began to evacuate San Miguel in late October and the last of them sailed away in November 1526. The city of San Miguel de Gualdape, the first Spanish settlement in the continental United States, lasted only two months.

The site that caused such difficulty for Ayllon and his colonists is somewhere in the coastal islands and marshes of Georgia. The entire coast is now a major tourist destination that is noted for its historic sites, beautiful vistas and eco-tourism opportunities. Savannah and the islands of the Georgia Coast are widely regarded as one of the most beautiful places in the world.

To read more about some of the locations mentioned in this post, please follow these links:

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