Less than two generations after Columbus landed in 1492, and while his son Diego served as governor of Spain’s New World headquarters on Hispaniola, another Spanish colony was planted in South Carolina, the first on what is now part of the United States. Since its 490 years there has been no official recognition of its appearance or its dramatic story. But its struggles and ultimate fate speak to today’s unresolved racial issues.
In June 1526, Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón, a wealthy Spanish official in the city of Santo Domingo, Hispaniola, founded a colony at or near the mouth of the Pee Dee River in eastern South Carolina. Six decades before Roanoke Island (1587), eight decades before Jamestown (1607), and almost a century before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock (1620), Ayllón began his North American dream.
Ayllón’s effort has been overlooked, perhaps because most people prefer to believe that US life began with the arrival of English-speaking Anglo-Saxons living under British law. Perhaps his settlement is neglected because of its tragic fate— death by mismanagement, disease, and slave revolt. Perhaps it is unmentioned because of its unique rebirth in the woods by people not considered a worthy part of the US heritage.
Ayllón prepared for his great adventure in 1520 by sending Captain Francisco Gordillo to locate a good landing site and build friendly relations with the local inhabitants. The captain instead teamed up with a slave hunter, Pedro de Quexos. While failing to survey a site or build good relations with anyone, the two men captured seventy Native Americans and brought them back to Santo Domingo as slaves. The first European act on what is now US soil was making slaves of free men and women.
The two adventurers returned to Ayllón with enchanting tales of naming a great river in honor of St. John the Baptist and cutting Christian crosses in trees. Ayllón was not impressed with their seizure of seventy Native Americans and brought the issue to the attention of a commission presided over by Diego Columbus. The Indians were declared free and ordered returned, but Spanish records do not show whether the order was carried out.
But they do show that Ayllón, to make amends with the natives who lost their loved ones, sent back the slaver Quexos who started the problem. Once again Quexos returned with other captured natives he this time claimed volunteered to serve as guides for the Spain’s expedition.
Ayllón also retained one of the original seventy, Ferdinand Chicorana, as his New World interpreter. Impressed with his skills and knowledge of the mainland, he brought Chicorana to Spain to meet the king. After this meeting King Ferdinand issued an order permitting Ayllón to sail for the coast of North America. The king’s orders forbade enslavement of Indians, and added “you be very careful about the treatment of the Indians.” Three Dominican missionaries were sent to protect Native Americans from the Europeans.
With this record as a backdrop, Ayllón prepared to launch his expedition to North America. After some delays his fleet of six vessels sailed from Puerto de la Plata. Aboard were five hundred Spanish men and women, one hundred enslaved Africans, six or seven dozen horses, and physicians, sailors, and several Dominican priests.
Mishap and disaster dogged the enterprise as it landed on the wrong coast, lost a ship, and Chicorana deserted. The other Indian interpreters seized by Quexos also fled. The Europeans were on their own.
Determined to succeed, Ayllón drove his people until they came to a great river, which was probably the Pee Dee. Selecting a location in a low, marshy area, Ayllón ordered his men to set up camp. He paused to name his settlement “San Miguel de Gualdape.” When he ordered the Africans to begin building homes, he launched black slavery in the United States.
The neighboring natives fled inland and stayed away. It was probably enough for them that the Europeans who had seized seventy of their loved ones had now returned with Africans in chains.
Europeans, arriving to exploit land and labor, contrasted in many ways with the peaceful natives. The Indians lived harmoniously with nature and shared huge pine, weather-insulated homes that slept about three hundred people each. Europeans tried to construct homes that kept men and women in separate rooms. Europeans wrote that these Indians lived long lives and “their old age is robust.” While European men dominated their women, Indian women doctors served their people plant juices to cure fevers.
While native life moved peacefully ahead, the foreigners slipped toward into crises. Disease and starvation ravaged the colony and internal disputes tore it apart. The river was full of fish, but few Europeans were healthy enough to fish. Then an epidemic swept the settlement and before housing was in place wintery winds blew in. Ayllón became gravely ill and died on October 18, after having named his nephew, Johan Ramirez his successor. But Ramirez was in Puerto Rico, and the leaderless Spaniards split into bitter armed factions.
Men drew swords and marched in howling winds to arrest and sometimes execute those who wished to become leaders of the colony. Some survivors complained that in the midst of their tribulations Africans began setting fires, and Native Americans sided with them and made trouble.
In November a crisis erupted when Africans rebelled and fled to Indian villages. One authority on slave revolts believes the revolt was instigated by Native Americans angry over whites using their land. Africans, used to freedom in their homeland, probably needed no outside prodding to strike for liberty. They understandably fled enslavement in a dying European colony to start new lives in the woods among people who also rejected European enslavement.
The surviving 150 Spanish men and women, no longer able to face a freezing winter without shelter or their labor supply, packed up and sailed back to Santo Domingo. It would be another quarter of a century before Spanish colonists would arrive to build another North American colony with slave labor.
San Miguel de Gualdape was not a total failure as the first foreign colony on US soil. The Europeans left after five months, but Africans remained to build their society with Native Americans. In the unplanned way that history meanders and careens, a new community emerged in the woods – one that also included foreigners from overseas, the Africans. This new mixed Indigenous and foreigner settlement would soon sprout many American models, often called Maroon colonies.
In distant South Carolina forests, two and a half centuries before the Declaration of Independence, two people of color lit the first fires of freedom and exalted its principles. Though neither white, Christian, nor European, they established the first settlement of any permanence on these shores to include people from overseas. They qualify as our earliest inheritance.
There is no way of knowing how long this new settlement remained free of European intervention or how it carried on its life, customs and family survival. Within a century the march of foreign conquest and colonization would spill into their lovely streams and forests. But while this Black Indian community lived, it provided the Americas its earliest example of frontier hospitality, peace, and democratic camaraderie.
Some will mourn the symbolic loss of the white pioneers of Roanoke Island, Jamestown, or Plymouth. But can we not take heart from the daring heritage bequeathed us by the African freedom fighters who fled San Miguel de Gualdape and by the Native Americans who welcomed them in as sisters, brothers and family? The two peoples began a gallant American tradition carried forward by other Americans at Concord Bridge and Valley Forge.
This new community of color says that our vaunted democracy did not march into the wilderness with buckled shoes and British accents. Rather it danced around fireplaces in South Carolina wrapped in dried animal skins and sang African and native songs before any British colonists arrived. South Carolina’s dark democracy lived in family groups before London companies sent out settlers with muskets, Bibles, and concepts of private property.*
The Black Indians of the Pee Dee River in 1526 also became the first settlement on the continent to practice the belief that all people— newcomer and native—are created equal and are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Theirs is a story worth remembering and teaching our children.
*The nature and practices of the Black Indian settlements that followed the departure of the Spanish colonists in 1526 need further investigation. Douglas T. Peck, “Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon’s Doomed Colony of San Miguel de Gualdape,” Georgia Historical Quarterly, Summer 2001, details its history under Spanish rule, but not after.
San Miguel de Gualdape was the first European settlement in what is now the continental United States, founded by Spaniard Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón in 1526. It was to last only three months of winter before being abandoned in early 1527.
Records show that in 1521, de Ayllón, a wealthy sugar planter of Santo Domingo, had sent Francisco Gordillo northward to explore the continent. Upon reaching the Bahamas, he ran into his cousin, slave trader Pedro de Quexos (Pedro de Quejo), and the two of them set out together. They landed at the “River of St. John the Baptist”, possibly the Pee Dee River, where they kidnapped 70 natives to sell inHispaniola, including one, given the name Francisco de Chicora, who provided some ethnological information about his province, Chicora, and the neighboring provinces. Chicora was evidently one of several Carolina Siouan territories subject to their king, Datha of Duahe (Duarhe). The Siouan captives were described as white, dressed in skins, and larger than the average Spaniard.
Ayllón obtained a patent from Charles V in 1523, and in 1525 again sent Quexos, who made peace with the natives, explored the coastline from as far north as the Delaware Bay, and even obtained two men from each district to come home with him to learn Spanish, and act as interpreters.
By mid-July 1526, Ayllón was ready to establish a colony with 600 settlers and 100 horses. He lost one of his three ships at a river he named the Jordan, probably the Santee. They landed in Winyah Bay, near present day Georgetown, South Carolina, on September 29 (the Feast of Archangels), and Francisco de Chicora abandoned him here. They then proceeded ’40 or 45 leagues’, partly overland and partly by boat, visiting the king of Duahe en route as related by Peter Martyr, and finally arrived at another river, the Gualdape, where they built San Miguel de Gualdape on October 8.
Lucas Vasquez de Ayllón
The location of this colony has been disputed over a wide area, since it is never related in which direction from the Jordan (Santee) they travelled. Some have asserted that he went north to the Chesapeake; Francisco Fernández de Écija, chief pilot of Spaniards searching the Chesapeake Bay for English activities in 1609, claimed that Ayllón in 1526 had landed on the James somewhere near Jamestown. Ecija also claimed the natives at the Santee had told him Daxe (Duahe) was a town 4 days to the north. Swanton, on the other hand, suggested Ayllón may have gone ’45 leagues’ to the southwest, that the Gualdape was in fact the Savannah River in Georgia, and that his interactions there had been with the Guale tribe. More recent scholars concur that it was probably at or near present-day Georgia’s Sapelo Island and consider attempts to locate the San Miguel settlement (Tierra de Ayllón) any farther to the north to be unsubstantiated conjecture.
This colony was a failure and Ayllón himself died, purportedly in the arms of a Dominican friar. Ayllón’s rough-hewn town withstood only about a total of three months, enduring a severe winter, scarcity of supplies, hunger, disease, and troubles with the local natives. In the spring of 1527, Francis Gomez returned the 150 survivors to Hispaniola on two of the vessels, one of which sank, leaving only one of the three to return.
Slavery and rebellion
The first group of African Americans to set foot on what is now the United States were brought by Ayllón to erect the settlement. The employment of African slaves in the 1526 colony is the first instance of African slave labor within the present territory of the United States. Upon political disputes within the settlers, there was an uprising among the slaves, who fled to the interior and presumably settled with the native American people. This incident is the first documented slave rebellion in North America.
First Catholic Mass in the United States
Dominican friars Fr. Antonio de Montesinos and Fr. Anthony de Cervantes were among the San Miguel de Gualdape colonists. Given that at the time priests were obliged to say mass each day, mass was celebrated in what is today the United States for the first time in San Miguel de Gualdape, even though the specific location and date of the event remains unclear