The Guales, as Dr. Grant B. Jones notes, were "among the first indigenous peoples met by European explorers on the North American continent north of Mexico."
Recently a group of scholars gathered to discuss this earliest venture looking to European colonization on the East coast of La Florida.1 The focus of the colloquium was the attempt made by Lucas Vazquez de Ayllón to found a colony in La Florida in 1526. That historical episode is interesting not only as a milestone in Guale history, but also because of its association with the future story of the martyrdom of 1597.
In mid-July of 1526, Ayllón headed north from the Caribbean island of Santo Domingo, with five hundred persons in six ships, seeking a favorable site for a settlement on the mainland of La Florida. It was the first serious attempt to found a colony of Europeans in the area of La Florida – and of all the future United States.
Ayllón undertook to make a preliminary examination of possible sites before deciding precisely on the most promising for the planned colony. He and his colonists went as far north as Winyah Bay and the Santee River in South Carolina, there making a tentative beginning. At the site, Ayllón's flagship ran aground, with the loss of his precious supplies. Not finding any Indian villages nearby where the colonists could obtain supplies and help, the leader resolved to tum south again. Disillusioned by several more reverses, Ayllón sent out a searching party, which in time returned with information about what seemed to be a providential discovery on Sapelo Island in present-day Georgia, near St. Catherines Island.
The site, on the Sapelo River and Sound, not far from present-day Eulonia, has not been precisely established. But it was in the general area where, half a century later, the Franciscan mission, eventually known as Nuestra Seiiora de Guadalupe, would function for the spiritual care of the native Guales. Especially sacred in the Franciscan saga of La Florida, that mission was the scene in 1597 of the martyrdom of Fray Pedro de Corpa, who by the time of his death had spent eight years in La Florida laboring to Christianize the Guales.
Ayllón's colony, established on Sapelo Sound, foundered under the impact of sickness and disease, the want of nourishing food, the "hardships following the onslaught of an early winter. Of the colonists many succumbed, as did Ayllón himself, to the rigors of the primitive situation. Less than a third of the courageous colonists who had started out four months earlier, were still alive when finally that experiment was terminated.
There is record of some contacts made by the would-be colonists with the natives. Not able to eat the native food – roots and acorns and other produce of the woods – the Spaniards began to starve. When some of them took to abusing the natives in a senseless display of frustration, the natives understandably turned violent toward them. The early friendly relations had soured under the impact of adversity.
This first attempt to establish a European colony on the east coast of North America ended in defeat.2 The bitter memory perdured for several decades. It was not until 1564 that Santa Elena (in present-day South Carolina) and until 1565 that San Agustin were established.
"Columbus and the Land of Ayllón," September 25-27, 1990, at Darien, GA. See Columbus and the Land of Ayllón: The Exploration and Settlement of the Southeast, ed. Jeannine Cook (n.p.: Lower Altamaha Historical Society, 1992).
On Ayllón's colony, see Paul E. Hoffinan, "Lucas Vazquez de Ayllón," in Cook, 27- 49. See also above, I, 5-6; below, 43.