In another week our country recognizes "a civil holiday observed annually in the United States of America on the last Thursday in November", which we know as Thanksgiving. "The custom originated in 1621, when Governor Bradford of the Plymouth colony appointed a day for public praise and prayer after the first harvest, and the practice spread throughout the other New England colonies." (Catholic Encyclopedia 1912)
You might be asking what this has to do with the Catholic Pioneers of Florida? The Plymouth colony and the New England colonies were all Protestant (with the exception of a few Catholics in Maryland). Thus this civil holiday is Protestant in its history. This weeks Keeping It Catholic Monday, we wanted to share about the Catholic Pioneers of Florida, which is the first location of a Catholic Thanksgiving (a.k.a. the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass). Though some of the history is little known, our country started out as a Catholic country with its Catholic Pioneers.
CATHOLIC PIONEERS OF AMERICA
By: John O'Kane Murray, M.A., M.D.
HERNANDO DE SOTO - The Conqueror of Florida, and Discoverer of the Lower Mississippi -
Died A.D. 1542
About twenty-seven years after the veteran Ponce de Leon had visited Florida, in search of the fabled fountain of youth, a more renowned pioneer stepped on its lonely shores, and struck boldly into the wilderness of north America. It was Hernando de Soto. He was born in Spain about 1501. Though of a noble family, the young cavalier began life with no fortune but his sword and buckler., His checkered career opens in the New World, where, as the companion of Pizarro and commander of a corps of cavalry, he rose to distinction, and had no small share in the conquest of Peru and the spoils that fell to the victors.
It will be remembered to the honor of De Soto that he gained the confidence and affection of the unhappy Inca Atahualpa; and, on finding, that during his absence from the camp, the monarch was put to death, he did not conceal his just indignation. "You have acted rashly," he said to Pizarro. "The Inca has been basely slandered. He should have been taken to Spain, and judged by the Emperor.
De Soto returned to his native land with wealth and reputation. Success of al kinds awaited him at home. He appeared at the Court of Charles V. with a magnificent retinue; and his commanding figure and attractive manners made him the "observed of all observers." He gained the favor of the Emperor. He married the daughter of a distinguished nobleman, and might now have settled down to a life of ease and honor. But De Soto's imagination took fire whenever he thought of the New world, overhung as it was with countless wonders, and promises of wealth, adventure, and the spread of the Catholic Religion. He cast his eyes towards Florida. The various expeditions to that famous but unexplored land had hitherto failed, and he asked and obtained permission of Charles V. to undertake his conquest at his own risk and expense. He was appointed Governor of both Cuba and Florida.
A well-equipped armament stood across the Atlantic, touched at Cuba, and on the 25th of May, 1539, De Soto landed at Tampa Bay, Florida, "with six hundred and twenty chosen men, a band as gallant and well-appointed, as eager in pursuit and audacious in hope, as ever tod the shores of the New World. The clangor of trumpets, the neighing of horses, the fluttering of pennons, the glittering of helmet and lance, startled the ancient forest with unwonted greeting. "Amid this pom of chivalry, religion was not forgotten. The sacred vessels and vestments, with bread and wine for the Eucharist, were carefully provided; and De Soto himself declared that the enterprise was undertaken for God alone, and seemed to be the object of his especial care." )Parkman) The conversion of the savages was considered a matter of first importance, and twelve priests accompanied the expedition.
The Governor took possession of the country in the name of the Emperor Charles V. It is said he dreamed of nothing but success, and moved by the example of Cortes, sent most of his ships back to Havana. The savages did not like the new-comers and gave vent to their wrath in hideous yells and showers of arrows. But a well-directed charge of the cavalry gave fleetness to the heels of the greasy, loud-mouth warriors. The loss of a fine charger, however, warned the Spaniards that the Indian arrow was no mean weapon. The fatal shat had flown with such force as to pass through the saddle and bury itself between the ribs of the horse.
When Sunday or some festival came, a halt was ordered. A temporary altar was erected, perhaps beneath some lordly tree which towered to the skies, like the steeple of the Gothic cathedral. Mass was celebrated, and the gallant De Soto and his cavaliers devoutly knelt on the grass around. Every religious practice was observed, and as the little army cut its way through the wilderness of Florida, the beautiful ceremonies of the Church were duly performed. The Governor used every effort to gain the friendship of the Indians. HE assured them that his mission was peaceful, and that all he desired was a passage through their territories. But in vain were his assurances. Full of hatred and suspicion, the dusky warriors would i.e. in ambush, discharge a volley of arrows, and then fly to the thicket of the woods. Thus the army was ever exposed to the attacks of lurking savages, and unceasing vigilance was necessary. The moment a Spaniard strayed fro mthe camp, he was likely to be shot down, and instantly scalped.
On one occasion De Soto's favorite dog- a splendid hound - made himself famous. Several Spanish soldiers and a band of Indians were talking in a friendly way on the banks of a river. But in an unguarded moment one of the treacherous savages truck a Spaniard with his bow, and plunged into the water. All his companions followed. The dog seemed to understand the whole affair, and in an instant rushed after the savages. He swam past the hinder most Indians until at length he came "to the one who had committed the assault, when, laying hold of him, he tore him to pieces."Ever skirmishing, and always on the march, De Soto held on his course towards the north of Florida. At one point an immense morass stopped his progress. It was surrounded by a thick forest of lofty trees and tangled underwood, and all points were guarded by hostile Indians. Bridges of trees, made with great labor, enabled the way-worn Spaniards to cross such portions as came above their middle. But every inch of this muddy route had to be won at the point of the sword; and it was only after a dreadful conflict of four days, in which all fought and many fell, that the troops found themselves safely across the great swamp.
After months of such toilsome marching, the cold weather came on. A halt was ordered at an Indian village called Apalachee, which stood on the site of Tallahassee, the present capital of Florida. And there, "in the midst of the wilderness, this band of adventurous Spaniards passed the winter together." The natives of this region proved to be large, fierce warriors; and in spite of the strict discipline of the camp, many a careless cavalier lost his life and scalp at the hands of prowling war-parties. De Soto left his winter quarters in March, 1540, and proceeded towards the north, earnestly bent on finding a rich region - some imaginary Peru or Mexico. "For month after onto, the year after year," writes Parkman, "the procession of priests and cavaliers, cross-bowmen, arquebusiers and Indian captives laden with the baggage, still wandered on through wild and boundless wastes, lured hither and thither by the ignis-fatuus of their hopes.
"They traversed great portions of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, everywhere inflicting and enduring misery, but never approaching their phantom El Dorado. At length, in the third year of their journeying, they reached the banks of the Mississippi, a hundred and thirty-two years before its second discovery by Marquette. One of their number describes the great river as almost half a league wide, deep, rapid, and constantly rolling down trees and driftwood on its turbid current. "The spaniards crossed over at a point above the mouth of the Arkansas. They advanced westward, but found no treasures - nothing, indeed, but hardships and an Indian enemy, furious, writes one of their officers, 'as mad dogs.' They heard of a country towards the north were maize could not be cultivated because the vast herds of wild cattle devoured it.
"They penetrated so far that they entered the range of the roving prairie-tribes; for, one day, as they pushed their way with difficulty across great plains covered with tall, rank grass, they met a band of savages who dwelt in lodges of skin sewed together subsisting on game alone, and wandering perpetually from place to place. Finding neither gold nor the South Sea, for both of which they had hoped, they returned to the banks of the Mississippi."
A short time before this an interesting religious ceremony occurred. The army halted at an Indian village, and the chief with a band of picked warriors came forth. "Seno" said he to De Soto "as you are superior to us in prowess and surpass us in arms, we likewise believe that your God is better than our god. These you behold before you are the chief warriors of my dominions. We implore you to pray to your God to send us rain, for our fields are parched for want of water!" De Soto replied that he and all his followers were sinners, but they would supplicate the God of mercy. A large pine cross was made, and raised on a high hill. The whole army formed in line, and marched in solemn processor towards the sacred emblem of man's salvation. The priests walked before, chanting the Litany of the Saints, while the soldiers responded. The chief took his place beside the Governor, and thousands of Indians crowded around. Prayers were offered up at the cross, and the imposing ceremony closed with the lofty strains of the Te Deum. Rain fell the next night, to the great joy of the Indians.
It is a pleasure to think that, over three centuries ago, the cross, the sign of our holy and beautiful religion, was planted by a famous Catholic pioneer on the banks of the Mississippi, and that its silent forests were awakened by the solemn hymn of praise and gratitude. The effect was vivid, but transitory. The "voice cried in the wilderness," and reached and was answered by every heart; but it died away and was forgotten, and was not heard again in that savage region for many generations. (Irving). Three years of unceasing toil, hardship, and disappointment now began to tell on the rugged farm of lofty spirit of De Soto. Assailed by fresh disasters, he was touched to the heart at the suffering of his diminished but faithful followers. A raging fever seized him, and his days drew rapidly to a close. But he met death like a fearless Catholic soldier. He made his will, bade an affectionate adieu to his officers and men, and having made a last humble confession, his soul calmly passed away, amid the tears of the whole army, on the 21st of May, 1542.
"And thus died Hernando de Soto," writes the historian of early Florida - "one of the boldest and bravest of the many brave leaders who figured in the first discoveries, and distinguished themselves in the wild warfare of the Western World. How proud and promising had been the commencement of his career - how humble and helpless its close! Cut off in the vigor and manhood of his days, he was but forty-two years old when he expired." He was a true knight, "without fear and without reproach."
As the hostile savage might dishonor the body of the Governor, if buried on land, his officers formed a new design. An immense oak was cut down. A space large enough for the body was scooped out of the trunk, and planks nailed over the opening. This was De Soto's coffin. At the dead of night, in the mist of silence, a few boats were rowed to the centre of the river, and slowly and sadly the rude coffin was lowered to its strange resting-place. As it sank, the sorrowing stream took the precious remains in pity to its breast. The discoverer of the great river slept beneath its waters. "His soldiers," writes Bancroft, "pronounced his eulogy; and the priests chanted over his body the first requiem that was ever heard on the waters of the Mississippi." (After more hapless wandering and disaster, the followers of De Soto built a few rude vessels and found their way to Mexico.)
Died A.D. 1574
Peter Menendez (Sometimes written Melendez), one of the greatest of Spanish naval commanders, was born in 1519, of an ancient family. His daring nature and fondness for the sea were traits of character that showed themselves at an early age. He was but a mere boy when he ran away from home, boarded a man-of-war, and soon had his first flows with the corsairs of Barbary.
He rose rapidly from one grade to another, until as Admiral Menendez, his achievements on the Mediterranean ands the Atlantic made his name famous. But while a career of flory seemed to open before him, the clouds of misfortune suddenly gathered overhead. His son sailed from Mexico in a vessel that perished on the coast of Florida. Shortly after, Menendez was cast into prison on some frivolous charge; and it was nearly two years before he found himself a free man again.
He at once sought the presence of Philip II. He had a petition to make,. He longed to seek for his lost son, who might still be alive. He desired to conquer, settle, and convert that wild Florida which had defied Ponce de Leon and Hernando de Soto. "The blindness of so many thousands of idolaters," he said to the King, "has touched me so sensibly, that of all employment with which your Majesty could hone me, there is not one to which I would not prefer that of conquering Florida, and peopling it with true Christians."
Menendez received his commission as Governor of Florida, and was getting an expedition ins readiness, when he learned that a party of French Huguenots, under Laudonniere and Reibault had already seized a foothold in his territory. He increased his forces, and sailed from Cadiz, in June, 1565. After a stormy passage that scattered his fleet, he touched the mouth of the St. John's River, in Florida. Near by lay Fort Caroline and the little French settlement.
The spanish Admiral gave unsuccessful chase to a number of French ships in the vicinity, and then sailed towards the south along the coast. He entered a small inlet, and threw up a rude fort. It was the foundation of St. Augustine - to-day the oldest town in this Republic. Then follows the woeful tale of blood and butchery. Menendez "marched against Fort Caroline, took it by surprised, and put the garrison to the sword, only Laudonniere and a few of his followers escaping. ribald and most of his men afterwards surrendered, and were massacred in cold blood; a remnant of the Frenchmen were capture and sent to the galleys." (Hassard.) "It was he," says Parkman, "who crushed French Protestantism in America."
For years St. Augustine remained the only European settlement within the present limits of the United States. It was the headquarters of missionary effort. The Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits toiled like apostles among the wild, dusky children of the everglades. Many watered the soil of Florida with their blood. Not a few were scalped, and eaten by the savages. Pope St. Pius V. took such interest in these early missions that he addressed a brief to Governor Menendez. "In the conversion of these Indians and idolaters," wrote the great Pontiff, "nothing is more important then to endeavor by every means to prevent the giving of scandal, through the vices and immoralities of such as go to those western parts. It is the key of this holy work, in which is included the whole essence of your charge."
The genius of Menendez was so highly appreciated at home, that when Spain meditated the invasion of England, he was summoned from the wilds of America to command the Invincible Armada. Amid the din of preparations, however, the founder of St. Augustine closed his eyes on this world, "at Corunna, still vigorous and unbroken by age, in the height of his glory, a brave, loyal, and disinterested naval commander, but hose fame is blemished by one act of blood. His death was a fatal blow to the Spanish colonization of Florida."