Our Georgia History

Conquest of the Land

John Cabot explores the American Coast

Earliest of the claims to Georgia dates back to 1498, when Italian explorer John Cabot (Giovanni Cabotto), sailing under the English flag explored coastal America. Cabot made two trips to coastal America (well, actually one and a half since he never returned from the second trip), one in 1497 where he discovered a place he called Newfoundland, and one in 1498 when he returned to "Newfoundland" and continued south along the coast of what is now the United States. The best support for the English claim of "rights of discovery" to the Southeastern coast of the United States comes from, interestingly, a Spanish map that was drawn a few years after his voyage.

Juan de la Cosa owned the Santa Maria, and as such, joined Christopher Columbus (an Italian sailing under a Spanish flag) on two of his early voyages. On those journeys Columbus' efforts were directed at island hopping through the Caribbean and not exploration of the Atlantic coast. Still, de la Cosa accurately depicted the Caribbean, which he knew, and the Atlantic side of North America, which he could not have known, on a map dated 1500, but probably drawn over a period of about 10 years early in the 16th century. Additionally, five English flags (royal standards) are drawn on the map, and a notation "discovered by the English."

From this map the English claimed most of the land that comprises today's United States. Very little else remains describing Cabot's voyage. Letters, payments for discoveries, pensions, warrants, but the facts of Cabot's exploration have been the subject of wild speculation and very few believe he actually got as far south as Georgia. Still, the English used his travels to strengthen their claim to the land.

Does Verrazano reaches Georgia?

Little is known about enigmatic Verrazano, a shipbuilder from Florence, Italy. His voyage to the New World was doubted, mostly because only copies of his letter describing the journey exist. The original, penned in 1524 when he completed his voyage is lost to time.

Leaving the island of Madeira on January 17, 1524 Italian Giovanni Da Verrazano (Jean de Verrazane), sailing under a French flag explored the coast of America as far south as the 34th parallel. He is occasionally recognized as the first explorer to reach Georgia. This is wrong. No portion of Georgia touches the Atlantic at 34 degrees latitude.

Spanish found first mainland colony

Spanish explorers, no longer convinced that the route to the riches of the Far East lay in a route through the Caribbean began to spread north, exploring the mainland continent. Juan Ponce de Leone, who had "discovered" small islands found Florida on Easter Sunday, 1513. According to Spain, La Florida extended from Key West to Nova Scotia. In 1521 two Spanish traders, Francisco Gordillo and Pedro de Quejo sailed along the Georgia coast in search of Indian slaves, eventually ending their journey at Cape Fear, North Carolina and returning home.

Lucas Vasquez de Ayllón, another early, albeit less well-known, explorer also plowed the waters of coastal Georgia. Having received a grant in 1523, based on the 1521 exploration by Gordillo and Quejo, Ayllón sent about 60 men north in two ships to find a good place to build a colony. In May, 1525, the slaver Quejo again visited the coast of Georgia, scouting the coast for Ayllón. The following year, based on the information garnered by Quejo, Ayllón returned with a group of 600 men, women, children and both black and Indian slaves in an attempt to establish a mainland colony. Some people speculate that this colony was on Georgia's Sapelo Island. Wherever it was, Ayllón did land on continental North America and founded the first colony (San Miguel de Guadalupe). Ayllón died within a month, as did the colony shortly thereafter. Less than 150 of the 600 colonists returned to Hispaniola

Journey of Hernando deSoto

Landing on the western coast of La Florida and moving north, Hernando de Soto would be one of the first Europeans to explore the Georgia heartland. There is no disagreement on the fact that de Soto explored present-day Georgia. There is a good deal of disagreement on where he went in the state. Regardless, deSoto began his journey in the southwest corner of the state early in March, 1540. He crossed the state to the northeast and found the Savannah River, about 20 miles south of Augusta. On a number of occasions deSoto's men felt they had found evidence of Ayllón's colony, whether it was east flowing rivers or rosaries with crosses.

There is very little physical evidence to support any of the proposed routes until entering the Nachoochee Valley in northeast Georgia. Strong evidence, including silver tongs of Spanish design, have been found. From this point deSoto traveled west to a moundbuilder site near the dam of Carter's Lake, then down the Oostanaula River to Rome. Additional physical evidence exists to confirm his visit to Rome, including a 1540's era Spanish saber found at the King site in the 1980's

Tristan de Luna

Don Tristan de Luna y Arellano, with orders to establish an overland route from the Gulf of Mexico to Santa Elena (Port Royal, SC), sails into Pensicola Bay and begins to explore the Southeastern interior. De Luna, who had been a part of deSoto's earlier expedition, was immediately challenged by his surroundings: a powerful storm destroyed much of his fleet. After establishing a colony he moved inland, frequently retracing the route of deSoto. He never reached Santa Elena. Members of his expedition did reach the Nachoochee Valley (near Helen, GA) of northeast Georgia, where they established a small community and worked mines in the area. Over the next 170 years Spanish miners would follow the route these men established to the gold fields in Nachoochee Valley.

In 1561 Angel de Villafane arrived with orders to relieve de Luna. Villafane offered transport to Santa Elena to any colonists who desired and almost all of de Luna's group accepted. While de Luna eventually set sail to Havana, this expedition sailed south around Florida and explored the coast as it sailed north, including many of Georgia's barrier islands. In May, 1561, Villafane arrived at Punta Santa Elana, where his fleet was struck by a storm. Badly damaged, they too set sail to Havana.

Early French Exploration

Jean Ribault (du Dieppe), whose mission was to explore the Southeast coast and establish a colony left France early in 1562 and sailed west, sighting land at the 30th parallel (roughly present-day St. Augustine, FL). From this point he sailed north, making landfall at "a great river." It is generally beleived that this river was the St. John's (Jacksonville, FL). Over the next month Ribault pushed north along the Georgia coastal islands, giving French names to the rivers. He eventtually landed at Port Royal (Punta Santa Elena), and established the colony of Charlesfort.

Origin of the Spanish Missions

Rene Laudonnière had been on Ribault's first expedition. In 1564 he returned with colonists to establish a community on the "great river." After moving inland a short distance they established Fort Caroline on a bluff on the south bank of today's St. John's River. When word of the French establishment reached Havana, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés organized an army of Spanish regulars and set sail for the coast of northern Florida, putting in and founding the city of St. Augustine on August 28, 1565.

Menéndez though, had a single mission: to eliminate the French presence in Spanish terrortory. About the time that Menéndez arrived in St. Augustine, Jean Ribault returned to Fort Carolina with ships, munitions and men. After confering with Laudonnière, Ribault decided to attack Menéndez by sea, destroying his fleet then systematically wiping out the Spanish colony. Ribault advanced to within sight of St. Augustine when a storm hit, destroying his fleet, and stranding some of his men on the Florida coast. Had he attacked, it would have been a victory because most of Menéndez's men were on a land route to Fort Caroline, where they massacred the inhabitants. The rest of Ribault's crew suffered the same end.

Menéndez wanted to ensure that the French did not return. He traveled north from St. Augustine to the land of Guale. Like the Timucua (Timuqua) and the Mocama, local Indian tribes with whom he was familiar, the Guale controlled coastal islands north of the Mocama. Guale was the powerful chief of the tribe and the name of an important city, hence the Spanish applied the name to the land. Menéndez negotiates the right to establish two missions in Guale terrortory. One, Santa Catalina de Guale, may have been located on Georgia's St. Catherine Island. A garrison of Spanish regulars, perhaps 100 in strength, occupied a nearby presidio (fort).

Originally, these missions were Jesuit, but over time they became Franciscan. In 1597 a Guale revolt led to the destruction of that tribe. With the death of the chief, a Guale warrior, Juanillo, was set to assume power. The priests knew that with Juanillo as chief they would face more unrest because of his violent nature. They supported another Guale chief in his place. Having secured the support of some of his tribe, and surrounding tribes Juanillo attacked the missions that had been established in their country, destroying them and killing the missionaries and the soldiers of the nearby garrisons.

Governor Canzo, of Florida, retaliated, killing many of the members of the Guale rebellion thanks to the help of local Guale who supported the Spanish missions. Still, the destruction of the Spanish mission by Juanillo was so complete that for the time, the missions ceased to exist.


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