Indian Key was once called Cayouelo de Matanzas or, roughly translated, little slaughter island. The reason why is unclear as there is no documented slaughter associated with the island other than the well documented 1840 Indian attack the island is perhaps most famous for.
It is likely that the slaughter associated with Indian Key occurred nearly 400 miles away.
The genesis of that slaughter dates back to April of 1517 when a lecturer of biblical studies named Martin Luther stepped into a small German town where, in addition to the vegetables and fresh meats being sold in the town square, Luther witnessed a man selling Church documents. He was appalled.
The documents, sold by a representative of the Church and sanctioned by the Pope, absolved the purchaser of all sins, past and future—as well as those sins of the purchaser’s family. Martin Luther’s observation prompted him to draft a letter to his archbishop in which he stated 95 reasons why what the Church was condoning was wrong. While their intent was to raise funds for the church, the result was a splintering of Catholicism.
Martine Luther’s letter became widely distributed and the ideas espoused within it attracted a groundswell of support — so much so, in fact, that an emerging faction within the Church began to protest. The protestors began to organize and as they did, an alternate vision of Catholicism emerged. That period in history is known as the Protestant Reformation.
Jumping ahead a decade or two, a group of French Protestants, referred to as Huguenots, packed up and sailed off to the New World in search of religious freedom. The group landed on the northeast coast of La Florida near the St. Johns River. They formed a French stronghold dubbed Fort Caroline near where Jacksonville is today. In May, 1565, Jean Ribault, a French naval officer and explorer, set sail with 600 soldiers and settlers to refortify Fort Caroline. By late August, the French forces had successfully navigated the Atlantic crossing.
Now, Spain’s King Phillip II did not take news of the French poaching on a Spanish trading route lightly. The French fortification proved an excellent locale from which to attack the Spanish Treasure Fleets on their way home. King Phillip II sent General Pedro Menendez de Aviles to the St. Johns River area in May of 1565 with 800 soldiers and settlers under his command.
It was August 28, the Feast Day of St. Augustine, when the Spanish first sighted land. They came ashore to establish a colony September 8. The outpost was declared St. Augustine. St. Augustine is now considered to be the oldest city in North America.
Two days after the Spanish arrived, word reached Fort Caroline of their presence. Jean Ribault assembled forces and attempted to sail south to attack the Spanish. Unfortunately, he picked the wrong day and sailed straight into a hurricane. Strong winds and heavy surf pushed the French attack fleet farther south and the ships wrecked between what is present-day Daytona Beach and Cape Canaveral.
Coincidently, about the same time that Ribault’s forces set sail, General Menendez began marching troops north to attack Fort Caroline. His efforts proved the more successful and because Fort Caroline had been left undermanned, the Spanish takeover went relatively smoothly; the men who remained at the fort were killed and the women and children sent to Havana.
While the Spanish were conquering Fort Caroline, the shipwrecked French forces began walking north trying to get back home. Unfortunately a gaping inlet impeded their efforts and 127 French soldiers were left stuck on a beach just a few miles south of St. Augustine. When Menendez learned of the French presence, Spanish soldiers were dispatched. They marched to the beach with a French translator who explained the demise of Fort Caroline.
Confronted with the news and weakened by both the hurricane and their trek north, the French surrendered. The Spanish gave them the opportunity to renounce their Protestant faith. Sixteen of the 127 French soldiers did, survived the afternoon, and were sent to Havana. The other 111 were executed and not just because they were French interlopers, but because they were Huguenots, Protestants.
Two weeks later another group of French survivors appeared at the southern tip of the same inlet and again, Menendez dispatched a garrison which dealt with the French soldiers. This time the French commander Jean Ribault was among them. Ribault and his men were executed.
Though these events occurred hundreds of miles north of the Florida Keys, it is this slaughter that is most likely associated with the use of the place name Matanzas (along with all of its derivations) as an early identifier of the island now known as Indian Key.
Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.