by Wallace Ruff 33 degree




My peace of mind was disturbed by seeing on the front page of a

prominent daily paper a picture of many robed Catholic priests,

followed by a multitude of admirers, and underneath the picture was

this inscription: "Catholics of St. Augustine join the annual Low

Sunday pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of La Lache, site of

the first mass celebrated in the United States in 1565."


My peace of mind was disturbed because the Catholic celebration of

that mass was in reality a Catholic celebration of a Catholic

massacre of innocent Protestants, and I fear that none of the

admiring throng who trailed behind those handsomely robed priests

realized what they were doing or knew the truth about that first

mass. I resolved then and there to make known the facts to our own

membership as soon as time could be found in which to do so.


Few realize that the first battle for religious freedom fought in

America - and probably the most momentous battle of them all - was

fought on the banks of the St. John's River, near Jacksonville,

Florida, in 1565. That battle was fought forty-two years before the

English landed at Jamestown, fifty-five years before the Puritans

landed on Plymouth Rock, and fifty eight years before the Dutch

built their fort on Manhattan. At that battle the issue was this:

"Are you Catholics or Lutherans?"


The Spanish were the first white settlers to make any headway in

America but they were not the first white settlers in America. The

first white settlers in America were French Huguenots who had

embraced the Lutheran faith, and were seeking a place to live where

they could live according to the doctrines and faith of Martin



Martin Luther was born in 1483. His influence spread over Germany

and into France. At Tours, in France, his followers were accustomed

to gather at night at the gate of King Hugo, a French king, who

made it a habit to go out only at night, and from this fact a monk,

in derision, suggested calling these new religionists "Huguenots,"

and so they were named.


In 1564, a band of French Huguenots, under Rene de Laudonniere,

settled on the banks of the St. John's River, south and east of

Jacksonville, near the present village of Mayport. They built a

fort and called it Fort Caroline.


The St. John's River at that time was called the River of May,

because of the fact that another Frenchman, Jean Ribault, had

explored it in 1562, and, having arrived there on the first day of

May, he called it the "River of May." The first settlement there

was under the command of Laudonniere, and was made in 1564. A year

later a second Huguenot expedition arrived under the command of

Jean Ribault. If upon his arrival he had gone at once to Fort

Caroline, all might have been well, but instead he spent a wee k or

more exploring the coast line before landing. In the meantime a

Spanish fleet under Pedro Menendez de Aviles arrived. When Menendez

arrived off the entrance of the St. John's, the French Fleet was

unprepared for battle since most of the crew were on shore, and

those in command of the French vessels ordered a retreat. Two

vessels went north and three south. They outdistanced the pursuing

vessels of Menendez, who thereupon withdrew to the sou th, landed

at what is now St. Augustine, and at once began to f ortify his

encampment there.


During the attack by the Spanish Fleet, Ribault was on shore at

Fort Caroline directing the unloading of supplies and the

strengthening of the fort. Naturally, he was incensed at the

unprovoked attack of the Spaniards and, when on the following day

his own fleet reassembled, he determined to sail at once to St.

Augustine and give battle to the Spaniards. This plan met with

almost united opposition from those in command, and especially from

Laudonniere, who was sick with a fever. However, Ribault was a man

o f great courage and determination, all fighting men were ordered

on board, and the fleet set sail for St. Augustine to attack the

Spanish Fleet. Then followed a series of disasters to the French,

which for their continuity are unparalleled in history. Upon their

arrival at the inlet of the Matanzas River, opposite St. Augustine,

they almost succeeded in capturing the Spanish Flagship, but it

finally got safely into the harbour, and by this time the tide had

receded to such an extent that the French vessel s, which were of a

heavier draft than the Spanish, were unable to enter the harbour.

Thus the Spaniards were saved, and thereafter the victory was



The French were forced to withdraw to await a more favourable tide,

and, in the meantime, the Spanish commander, Menendez, reasoned

thus: "Yesterday the French vessels fled from me, today they return

and attack me. Evidently they have been reinforced and, if so,

those reinforcements have been taken from their Fort Caroline;

consequently the defense of Fort Caroline has been weakened and now

is my chance. I am cut off by sea, but I will march there by land

and make a surprise attack." At once he set out to d o so.


His judgment was good. Fort Caroline was taken by surprise; it was

wholly unprepared, and soon it was captured and destroyed, its

defenders killed, and a sign posted by the Spaniards reciting that

the inhabitants had been slain as heretics.


Hardly had this slaughter taken place before a hurricane swept down

the coast, driving the French Fleet to the south, wrecking a part

of them. A band of those who survived the shipwreck reached shore

and set out to return by land to Fort Caroline, but soon found

themselves marooned on a sand bar, with no food to eat, no water to

drink, no shelter from the blistering rays of the sun, and no way

to escape.


Indians carried the news of the shipwreck to Menendez , who set out

immediately to investigate. When he came near to the French, he

conducted a series of negotiations with the French for their

surrender that was bold, cunning and bloodthirsty, and utterly

disastrous to the French. He positively refused to accept their

surrender with any provision for safety to them, but assured them

he would treat them as might be best. Being parched from the lack

of water, half starved from the lack of food, blistered by t he

pitiless rays of the sun, sick from bites of mosquitoes, and on the

verge of despair, they were forced to surrender.


Then followed a unique performance. They were treated to a

sumptuous meal. Each ate to his heart's content. They were then

brought over to the mainland, a boat load at a time. On being

landed they were told that, as they were enemies of their captors,

they could not be entrusted to be taken back to St. Augustine

without being handcuffed, as otherwise they might arise against

their captors. This sounded reasonable, so each submitted to being

bound. Then they were asked this tragic question:


"Are you Catholics or Lutherans, and are there any who wish to

confess?" Upon answering that they were of the Lutheran faith, they

were led beyond a sand-dune, across a line which had been drawn

there in the sand, and as each crossed the line his head was cut



The following day native Indians came again with news that another

party of Huguenots was to the south of the point where this first

body had been found. Several of their vessels had gone on the

rocks, and were being broken up by the tide. Menendez again hastily

assembled his soldiers and set out for a point on the coast just

opposite the helpless vessels. There he found Jean Ribault himself

in command of such of the vessels as had been left afloat by the

hurricane, and again there ensued the same cunning a nd blood

thirsty negotiations. Again the French were told that, if they

surrendered they must do so unconditionally. Ribault believed that,

if he surrendered he would thereafter be able to buy the ransom of

himself and his followers, and accordingly he agreed to do so. How

ever, before surrendering he left it to each of his men to decide

for himself as to whether he would surrender or would take his

chances upon reaching land and thence the interior, with the hope

of ultimate assistance from the Indians. A large number refused to

surrender and jumped overboard, and such of them as were not

drowned before reaching shore disappeared into the woods, and were

never heard of again. The majority were too nearly famished to put

up much resistance, and they, in company with Ribault himself,

surrendered to the Spaniards.


As on the event of the former surrender, the Spaniards served their

new captives with a generous meal, and then, as before, they

shrewdly explained that, as there was enmity between France and

Spain, the Spaniards could not trust their French captives and that

it would be necessary that they be bound. Accordingly, the hands of

each were then tied behind his back and, this precaution having

been taken, Menendez likewise submitted to them the fatal question:

"Are you Catholics or Lutherans, and are there any who wish to



Then for the first time Ribault realized that his life's work was

about to be ended, but, being the brave man that he was, he

received his fate stoically, and philosophically remarked that

under ordinary conditions he would not have lived more than about

twenty years longer, and that "twenty years more or less were of

little account in the life of a man," and "from earth we come and

to earth we must return," and having spoken thus he was led across

the same fatal line in the sand and his head was cut off.


The word Matanzas, by the way, means "slaughter." That is why the

Beach there is so named.


Thus we see that on the banks of the St. John's River in the State

of Florida 42 years before the English landed at Jamestown, 55

years before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock, and 59 years

before the Dutch settled Manhattan, the first battle for religious

freedom in the New World was fought, and fought upon this issue:

"Are you Catholics or Lutherans?"


Too long have Virginians boasted of the settlement of Jamestown in

1607; too long have New Englanders boasted of the landing of the

Pilgrim Fathers upon Plymouth Rock in 1620; too long have New

Yorkers boasted of the settlement of Manhattan in 1623! It is high

time that the citizens of Florida, and particularly members of the

Lutheran Church, proclaim to the world that the first battle for

religious freedom was fought by Lutherans on Florida soil in 1565.