Google+ Georgia On My Mind: February 2012

Friday, February 17, 2012

Historical Firsts...It's Just a Concept, Right?

The concept of “being first” is important to so many of us.   

The concept seems to take hold in the history arena as well.   No matter the subject matter students of history always seem to be interested in the concept of being first. 

Who was the first to fire a shot during a battle?  

Who was the first soldier to sacrifice his life? 

What was the first legislation passed by Congress once they moved into the U.S. Capitol building?

Who stepped off the Mayflower first?

….and of course, there are always “first” questions as far as Exploration goes.   Those types of “firsts” aren’t always set in stone though.  As new evidence is discovered the coveted title of “being first” changes…..and sometimes those changes are a little slow as far as making their way into our classrooms and into our collective memories.

If I asked most of you about the first European settlement in the present-day United States some of you would search your memories and answer Roanoke or Jamestown.  

You would be wrong.

Some of you might tell me St. Augustine, Florida.   That would be a logical choice since I’m asking for the first European settlement which could include lots of folks – the Dutch, the French, and in the case of St. Augustine…..the Spanish.   

St. Augustine actually holds the title for the oldest continually inhabited city in North America…since 1565.   I wrote about some of the interesting events that have occurred there in my post  My St. Augustine.

Actually, if we wanted to identify the first European settlement…..we would need to look to the Georgia coast.

I know…I know….nothing ever really happens here, right?


The settlement’s name was San Miguel de Gualdape.  A Spaniard named Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon is identified as its founder in 1526.   This means the settlement was founded six decades before Roanoke, eight decades before Jamestown and a century before the Mayflower.

Perhaps you never heard about it because like many settlements throughout our history it was abandoned, but it’s still an interesting bit of history, and its implications are great.

For one thing most historians agree that the settlement was  near Georgia’s Sapelo Island and de Ayllon not only took several dozen horses with him and 600 colonists but over 100 African slaves as well…….100 slaves that revolted against those that enslaved them in 1527.

Think about that for a minute……slaves in Georgia as early as 1526 and a shortly thereafter history records the first slave revolt.

It’s not surprising.   My research indicates the new settlement had issues from the very start regarding leadership, starvation and disease.  The slaves ended up disappearing into the surrounding countryside and melted into the Native American communities in the area.  

The Spaniards abandoned the colony leaving the runaway slaves.  

Get this clear in your head.    

The Spaniards left.   

The escaped slaves….the Africans, didn’t.  

 Hmmm….so, could it be argued the first long-term settlers happened to be African slaves rather than Europeans?

Many  people theorize the community of slaves developed into the Melungeons. William Loren Katz in his book titled Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage actually calls the area around the Peedee River the “first foreign colony in the United States.”

David Parker, a professor at Kennesaw State College provides more details regarding de Ayllon at his blog.  Parker advises: 

[The settlement of]San Miguel was the work of Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, a Spanish-born nobleman who came to Hispaniola (present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in 1504 as a judge. Columbus had “discovered” Hispaniola just a dozen years earlier, but the Spanish had developed it quickly, because of the island’s gold and its native population (which the Spanish found they could easily enslave). Judge Ayllón was able to win the favor of some of the wealthy Spanish officials on the island, and he soon began to build up his own landholdings and personal wealth. As the island’s gold began to peter out, Ayllón and others shifted to sugar plantations, still using the natives as slave labor.

The Spanish on Hispaniola found that they were using up the island’s natives at an alarming rate. Ayllón saw the potential profits of slave trading and entered that business, importing natives kidnapped from the Bahamas and other islands and selling them on Hispaniola.

Meanwhile, the Spanish in the Caribbean remained generally unaware of a much larger land mass just north of them. A few explorers had visited mainland North America (Columbus never did). Knowledge of the continent was very sparse, however, and in fact it was often referred to as just another “island.”

In 1521, Francisco Gordillo, one of Ayllón’s chief slave raiders, was unable to find a sufficient number of natives in the Bahamas, so he decided to try his luck elsewhere. He sailed northwest, making landfall near present day Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He briefly explored the area (called “Chicora”), then lured 60 natives onto his ship and set sail for Hispaniola.

In his report to Ayllón, Gordillo described Chicora as a beautiful place, full of natural resources, looking much like Spain itself, and full of natives. Ayllón was fascinated by the potential of Gordillo’s discovery. Who knew there were so many possibilities there? Earlier voyages, such as Ponce de Leon’s, had not begun to hint at such a thing. Ayllón quickly went to Spain and asked King Charles for the right to colonize Chicora. Charles granted Ayllón's wish.

In July 1526, Ayllón left Hispaniola with 600 people (including several African slaves), along with supplies and animals, on six ships. He reached the Carolina coast in early August, but failed to find any Indians there. The ships moved slowly south, hugging the coast, looking for a location that contained both a good site for a new colony and the Native Americans Ayllón was so interested in finding.

Finally they stopped in what is now Georgia. The exact location is still unknown. Historian Paul Hoffman put it near Sapelo Island; Douglas Peck puts it further north, near the mouth of the Savannah River. In any case, on September 29, Ayllón found his spot, named it San Miguel de Gualdape for the festival of Saint Michael (celebrated that day), and began building his colony.

The houses and the church at San Miguel went up quickly, as did the storage buildings for food and the livestock pens. But the new church’s graveyard began to fill up as Ayllón’s people started to die, from starvation and disease. Ayllón himself succumbed to an unknown disease on October 18. Surviving colonists tried to keep San Miguel going, but it was no good. Indians attacked, black slaves rose up and burned some of the buildings (the first slave revolt in what would become the United States), political disputes split the people, and a cold winter arrived much earlier than anticipated. A few weeks after Ayllón’s death, the colony disbanded. Of the 600 who had left Hispaniola to start the colony, only 150 returned.

And San Miguel de Gualdape, the first European settlement on mainland North America, was no more.

While the details surrounding the settlement are interesting the most facinating point in all this happens to be why the details aren’t commonly known.   William Loren Katz believes de Ayllon and the settlement attempt has been overlooked for two reasons…..most American histories tend to begin at the point where Anglo Saxons arrived (part of that whole “victors write the history” thing) and most historians tend to want to begin with a success instead of a failure. 

 It is much more palatable, right?

It would also be interesting to explore the Melungeon question in relation to de Ayllon’s slaves who most certainly were left behind and who more than likely merged their culture with Native Americans in the area.    

Even more interesting is the idea that the first non-Native American people who lived permanently in southeastern United States were Black and not White.

What do you think?

Do historical “firsts” really matter?

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...