10: 1567-1583. Dominique de Gourgues.
<< 9: 1565-1567. Charles IX. and Phillip II. || TOC
There was a gentleman of Mont-de-Marsan, Dominique de Gourgues, a
soldier of ancient birth and high renown. It is not certain that he was
a Huguenot. The Spanish annalist calls him a "terrible heretic;" but the
French Jesuit, Charlevoix, anxious that the faithful should share the
glory of his exploits, affirms that, like his ancestors before him, he
was a good Catholic. If so, his faith sat lightly upon him; and,
Catholic or heretic, he hated the Spaniards with a mortal hate. Fighting
in the Italian wars,—for from boyhood he was wedded to the sword,—he
had been taken prisoner by them near Siena, where he had signalized
himself by a fiery and determined bravery. With brutal insult, they
chained him to the oar as a galley slave. After he had long endured this
ignominy the Turks captured the vessel and carried her to
Constantinople. It was but a change of tyrants but, soon after, while
she was on a cruise, Gourgues still at the oar, a galley of the knights
of Malta hove in sight, bore down on her, recaptured her, and set the
prisoner free. For several years after, his restless spirit found
employment in voyages to Africa, Brazil, and regions yet more remote.
His naval repute rose high, but his grudge against the Spaniards still
rankled within him; and when, returned from his rovings, he learned the
tidings from Florida, his hot Gascon blood boiled with fury.
The honor of France had been foully stained, and there was none to wipe
away the shame. The faction-ridden King was dumb. The nobles who
surrounded him were in the Spanish interest. Then, since they proved
recreant, he, Dominique de Gourgues, a simple gentleman, would take upon
him to avenge the wrong, and restore the dimmed lustre of the French
name. He sold his inheritance, borrowed money from his brother, who held
a high post in Guienne, and equipped three small vessels, navigable by
sail or oar. On board he placed a hundred arquebusiers and eighty
sailors, prepared to fight on land, if need were. The noted Blaise de
Montluc, then lieutenant for the King in Guienne, gave him a commission
to make war on the negroes of Benin,—that is, to kidnap them as
slaves, an adventure then held honorable.
His true design was locked within his own breast. He mustered his
followers,—not a few of whom were of rank equal to his own, feasted
them, and, on the twenty-second of August, 1567, sailed from the mouth
of the Charente. Off Cape Finisterre, so violent a storm buffeted his
ships that his men clamored to return; but Gourgues's spirit prevailed.
He bore away for Africa, and, landing at the Rio del Oro, refreshed and
cheered them as he best might. Thence he sailed to Cape Blanco, where
the jealous Portuguese, who had a fort in the neighborhoods set upon him
three negro chiefs. Gourgues beat them off, and remained master of the
harbor; whence, however, he soon voyaged onward to Cape Verd, and,
steering westward, made for the West Indies. Here, advancing from island
to island, he came to Hispaniola, where, between the fury of a hurricane
at sea and the jealousy of the Spaniards on shore, he was in no small
jeopardy,—"the Spaniards", exclaims the indignant journalist, "who
think that this New World was made for nobody but them, and that no
other living man has a right to move or breathe here!" Gourgues landed,
however, obtained the water of which he was in need, and steered for
Cape San Antonio, at the western end of Cuba. There he gathered his
followers about him, and addressed them with his fiery Gascon eloquence.
For the first time, he told them his true purpose, inveighed against
Spanish cruelty, and painted, with angry rhetoric, the butcheries of
Fort Caroline and St. Augustine.
"What disgrace," he cried, "if such an insult should pass unpunished!
What glory to us if we avenge it! To this I have devoted my fortune. I
relied on you. I thought you jealous enough of your country's glory to
sacrifice life itself in a cause like this. Was I deceived? I will show
you the way; I will be always at your head; I will bear the brunt of the
danger. Will you refuse to follow me?"
At first his startled hearers listened in silence; but soon the passions
of that adventurous age rose responsive to his words. The combustible
French nature burst into flame. The enthusiasm of the soldiers rose to
such a pitch that Gourgues had much ado to make them wait till the moon
was full before tempting the perils of the Bahama Channel. His time came
at length. The moon rode high above the lonely sea, and, silvered in its
light, the ships of the avenger held their course.
Meanwhile, it had fared ill with the Spaniards in Florida; the good-will
of the Indians had vanished. The French had been obtrusive and vexatious
guests; but their worst trespasses had been mercy and tenderness
compared to the daily outrage of the new-comers. Friendship had changed
to aversion, aversion to hatred, and hatred to open war. The forest
paths were beset; stragglers were cut off; and woe to the Spaniard who
should venture after nightfall beyond call of the outposts.
Menéndez, however, had strengthened himself in his new conquest. St.
Augustine was well fortified; Fort Caroline, now Fort San Mateo, was
repaired; and two redoubts, or small forts, were thrown up to guard the
mouth of the River of May,—one of them near the present lighthouse at
Mayport, and the other across the river on Fort George Island. Thence,
on an afternoon in early spring, the Spaniards saw three sail steering
northward. They suspected no enemy, and their batteries boomed a salute.
Gourgues's ships replied, then stood out to sea, and were lost in the
shades of evening.
They kept their course all night, and, as day broke, anchored at the
mouth of a river, the St. Mary's, or the Santilla, by their reckoning
fifteen leagues north of the River of May. Here, as it grew light,
Gourgues saw the borders of the sea thronged with savages, armed and
plumed for war. They, too, had mistaken the strangers for Spaniards, and
mustered to meet their tyrants at the landing. But in the French ships
there was a trumpeter who had been long in Florida, and knew the Indians
well. He went towards them in a boat, with many gestures of friendship;
and no sooner was he recognized, than the naked crowd, with yelps of
delight, danced for joy along the sands. Why had he ever left them? they
asked; and why had he not returned before? The intercourse thus
auspiciously begun was actively kept up. Gourgues told the principal
chief,—who was no other than Satouriona, once the ally of the French,
—that he had come to visit them, make friendship with them, and bring
them presents. At this last announcement, so grateful to Indian ears the
dancing was renewed with double zeal. The next morning was named for a
grand council, and Satouriona sent runners to summon all Indians within
call; while Gourgues, for safety, brought his vessels within the mouth
of the river.
Morning came, and the woods were thronged with warriors. Gourgues and
his soldiers landed with martial pomp. In token of mutual confidence,
the French laid aside their arquebuses, and the Indians their bows and
arrows. Satouriona came to meet the strangers, and seated their
commander at his side, on a wooden stool, draped and cushioned with the
gray Spanish moss. Two old Indians cleared the spot of brambles, weeds,
and grass; and, when their task was finished, the tribesmen took their
places, ring within ring, standing, sitting, and crouching on the
ground,—a dusky concourse, plumed in festal array, waiting with grave
visages and intent eyes. Gourgues was about to speak, when the chief,
who, says the narrator, had not learned French manners, anticipated him,
and broke into a vehement harangue, denouncing the cruelty of the
Since the French fort was taken, he said, the Indians had not had one
happy day. The Spaniards drove them from their cabins, stole their corn,
ravished their wives and daughters, and killed their children; and all
this they had endured because they loved the French. There was a French
boy who had escaped from the massacre at the fort; they had found him in
the woods and though the Spaniards, who wished to kill him, demanded
that they should give him up, they had kept him for his friends.
"Look!" pursued the chief, "here he is! "—and he brought forward a
youth of sixteen, named Pierre Debre, who became at once of the greatest
service to the French, his knowledge of the Indian language making him
an excellent interpreter.
Delighted as he was at this outburst against the Spaniards, Gourgues did
not see fit to display the full extent of his satisfaction. He thanked
the Indians for their good-will, exhorted them to continue in it, and
pronounced an ill-merited eulogy on the greatness and goodness of his
King. As for the Spaniards, he said, their day of reckoning was at hand;
and, if the Indians had been abused for their love of the French, the
French would be their avengers. Here Satouriona forgot his dignity, and
leaped up for joy.
"What!" he cried, "will you fight the Spaniards?"
"I came here," replied Gourgues, "only to reconnoitre the country and
make friends with you, and then go back to bring more soldiers; but,
when I hear what you are suffering from them, I wish to fall upon them
this very day, and rescue you from their tyranny." All around the ring a
clamor of applauding voices greeted his words.
"But you will do your part," pursued the Frenchman; "you will not leave
us all the honor."
"We will go," replied Satouriona, "and die with you, if need be."
"Then, if we fight, we ought to fight at once. How soon can you have
your warriors ready to march?"
The chief asked three days for preparation. Gourgues cautioned him to
secrecy, lest the Spaniards should take alarm.
"Never fear," was the answer; "we hate them more than you do."
Then came a distribution of gifts,—knives, hatchets, mirrors, bells,
and beads,—while the warrior rabble crowded to receive them, with
eager faces and outstretched arms. The distribution over, Gourgues asked
the chiefs if there was any other matter in which he could serve them.
On this, pointing to his shirt, they expressed a peculiar admiration for
that garment, and begged each to have one, to be worn at feasts and
councils during life, and in their graves after death. Gourgues
complied; and his grateful confederates were soon stalking about him,
fluttering in the spoils of his wardrobe.
To learn the strength and position of the Spaniards, Gourgues now sent
out three scouts; and with them went Olotoraca, Satourioria's nephew, a
young brave of great renown.
The chief, eager to prove his good faith, gave as hostages his only
surviving son and his favorite wife. They were sent on board the ships,
while the Indians dispersed to their encampments, with leaping,
stamping, dancing, and whoops of jubilation.
The day appointed came, and with it the savage army, hideous in
war-paint, and plumed for battle. The woods rang back their songs and
yells, as with frantic gesticulation they brandished their war-clubs and
vaunted their deeds of prowess. Then they drank the black drink, endowed
with mystic virtues against hardship and danger; and Gourgues himself
pretended to swallow the nauseous decoction.(25)
These ceremonies consumed the day. It was evening before the allies
filed off into their forests, and took the path for the Spanish forts.
The French, on their part, were to repair by sea to the rendezvous.
Gourgues mustered and addressed his men. It was needless: their ardor
was at fever height. They broke in upon his words, and demanded to be
led at once against the enemy. Francois Bourdelais, with twenty sailors,
was left with the ships, and Gourgues affectionately bade him farewell.
"If I am slain in this most just enterprise," he said, "I leave all in
your charge, and pray you to carry back my soldiers to France."
There were many embracings among the excited Frenchmen,—many
sympathetic tears from those who were to stay behind,—many messages
left with them for wives, children, friends, and mistresses; and then
this valiant band pushed their boats from shore. It was a hare-brained
venture, for, as young Debre had assured them, the Spaniards on the
River of May were four hundred in number, secure behind their ramparts.
Hour after hour the sailors pulled at the oar. They glided slowly by the
sombre shores in the shimmering moonlight, to the sound of the surf and
the moaning pine-trees. In the gray of the morning, they came to the
mouth of a river, probably the Nassau; and here a northeast wind set in
with a violence that almost wrecked their boats. Their Indian allies
were waiting on the bank, but for a while the gale delayed their
crossing. The bolder French would lose no time, rowed through the
tossing waves, and, landing safely, left their boats, and pushed into
the forest. Gourgues took the lead, in breastplate and back-piece. At
his side marched the young chief Olotoraca, with a French pike in his
hand; and the files of arquebuse-men and armed sailors followed close
behind. They plunged through swamps, hewed their way through brambly
thickets and the matted intricacies of the forests, and, at five in the
afternoon, almost spent with fatigue and hunger, came to a river or
inlet of the sea, not far from the first Spanish fort. Here they found
three hundred Indians waiting for them.
Tired as he was, Gourgues would not rest. He wished to attack at
daybreak, and with ten arquebusiers and his Indian guide he set out to
reconnoitre. Night closed upon him. It was a vain task to struggle on,
in pitchy darkness, among trunks of trees, fallen logs, tangled vines,
and swollen streams. Gourgues returned, anxious and gloomy. An Indian
chief approached him, read through the darkness his perturbed look, and
offered to lead him by a better path along the margin of the sea.
Gourgues joyfully assented, and ordered all his men to march. The
Indians, better skilled in wood-craft, chose the shorter course through
The French forgot their weariness, and pressed on with speed. At dawn
they and their allies met on the bank of a stream, probably Sister
Creek, beyond which, and very near, was the fort. But the tide was in,
and they tried in vain to cross. Greatly vexed,—for he had hoped to
take the enemy asleep,—Gourgues withdrew his soldiers into the forest,
where they were no sooner ensconced than a drenching rain fell, and they
had much ado to keep their gun-matches burning. The light grew fast.
Gourgues plainly saw the fort, the defences of which seemed slight and
unfinished. He even saw the Spaniards at work within. A feverish
interval elapsed, till at length the tide was out,—so far, at least,
that the stream was fordable. A little higher up, a clump of trees lay
between it and the fort. Behind this friendly screen the passage was
begun. Each man tied his powder-flask to his steel cap, held his
arquebuse above his head with one hand, and grasped his sword with the
other. The channel was a bed of oysters. The sharp shells cut their feet
as they waded through. But the farther bank was gained. They emerged
from the water, drenched, lacerated, and bleeding, but with unabated
mettle. Gourgues set them in array under cover of the trees. They stood
with kindling eyes, and hearts throbbing, but not with fear. Gourgues
pointed to the Spanish fort, seen by glimpses through the boughs. "Look
I" he said, "there are the robbers who have stolen this land from our
King; there are the murderers who have butchered our countrymen!" With
voices eager, fierce, but half suppressed, they demanded to be led on.
Gourgues gave the word. Cazenove, his lientenant, with thirty men,
pushed for the fort gate; he himself, with the main body, for the
glacis. It was near noon; the Spaniards had just finished their meal,
and, says the narrative, "were still picking their teeth," when a
startled cry rang in their ears:—"To arms! to arms! The French are
coming! The French are coming!"
It was the voice of a cannoneer who had that moment mounted the rampart
and seen the assailants advancing in unbroken ranks, with heads lowered
and weapons at the charge. He fired his cannon among them. He even had
time to load and fire again, when the light-limbed Olotoraca bounded
forward, ran up the glacis, leaped the unfinished ditch, and drove his
pike through the Spaniard from breast to back. Gourgues was now on the
glacis, when he heard Cazenove shouting from the gate that the Spaniards
were escaping on that side. He turned and led his men thither at a run.
In a moment, the fugitives, sixty in all, were enclosed between his
party and that of his lieutenant. The Indians, too, came leaping to the
spot. Not a Spaniard escaped. All were cut down but a few, reserved by
Gourgues for a more inglorious end.
Meanwhile the Spaniards in the other fort, on the opposite shore,
cannonaded the victors without ceasing. The latter turned four captured
guns against them. One of Gourgues's boats, a very large one, had been
brought along-shore, and, entering it with eighty soldiers, he pushed
for the farther bank. With loud yells, the Indians leaped into the
river, which is here about three fourths of a mile wide. Each held his
bow and arrows aloft in one hand, while he swam with the other. A panic
seized the garrison as they saw the savage multitude. They broke out of
the fort and fled into the forest. But the French had already landed;
and, throwing themselves in the path of the fugitives, they greeted them
with a storm of lead. The terrified wretches recoiled; but flight was
vain. The Indian whoop rang behind them, and war-clubs and arrows
finished the work. Gourgues's utmost efforts saved but fifteen, not out
of mercy, but from a refinement of vengeance.
The next day was Quasimodo Sunday, or the Sunday after Easter. Gourgues
and his men remained quiet, making ladders for the assault on Fort San
Mateo. Meanwhile the whole forest was in arms, and, far and near, the
Indians were wild with excitement. They beset the Spanish fort till not
a soldier could venture out. The garrison, aware of their danger, though
ignorant of its extent, devised an expedient to gain information; and
one of them, painted and feathered like an Indian, ventured within
Gourgues's outposts. He himself chanced to be at hand, and by his side
walked his constant attendant, Olotoraca. The keen-eyed young savage
pierced the cheat at a glance. The spy was seized, and, being examined,
declared that there were two hundred and sixty Spaniards in San Mateo,
and that they believed the French to be two thousand, and were so
frightened that they did not know what they were doing.
Gourgues, well pleased, pushed on to attack them. On Monday evening he
sent forward the Indians to ambush themselves on both sides of the fort.
In the morning he followed with his Frenchmen; and, as the glittering
ranks came into view, defiling between the forest and the river, the
Spaniards opened on them with culverins from a projecting bastion. The
French took cover in the woods with which the hills below and behind the
fort were densely overgrown. Here, himself unseen, Gourgues could survey
whole extent of the defences, and he presently descried a strong party
of Spaniards issuing from their works, crossing the ditch, and advancing
On this, he sent Cazenove, with a detachment, to station himself at a
point well hidden by trees on the flank of the Spaniards, who, with
strange infatuation, continued their advance. Gourgues and his followers
pushed on through the thickets to meet them. As the Spaniards reached
the edge of the open ground, a deadly fire blazed in their faces, and,
before the smoke cleared, the French were among them, sword in hand. The
survivors would have fled; but Cazenove's detachment fell upon their
rear, and all were killed or taken.
When their comrades in the fort beheld their fate, a panic seized them.
Conscious of their own deeds, perpetrated on this very spot, they could
hope no mercy, and their terror multiplied immeasurably the numbers of
their enemy. They abandoned the fort in a body, and fled into the woods
most remote from the French. But here a deadlier foe awaited them; for a
host of Indians leaped up from ambush. Then rose those hideous war-cries
which have curdled the boldest blood and blanched the manliest cheek.
The forest warriors, with savage ecstasy, wreaked their long arrears of
vengeance, while the French hastened to the spot, and lent their swords
to the slaughter. A few prisoners were saved alive; the rest were slain;
and thus did the Spaniards make bloody atonement for the butchery of
But Gourgues's vengeance was not yet appeased. Hard by the fort, the
trees were pointed out to him on which Menéndez had hanged his captives,
and placed over them the inscription, "Not as to Frenchmen, but as to
Gourgues ordered the Spanish prisoners to be led thither.
"Did you think," he sternly said, as the pallid wretches stood ranged
before him, "that so vile a treachery, so detestable a cruelty, against
a King so potent and a nation so generous, would go unpunished? I, one
of the humblest gentlemen among my King's subjects, have charged myself
with avenging it. Even if the Most Christian and the Most Catholic Kings
had been enemies, at deadly war, such perfidy and extreme cruelty would
still have been unpardonable. Now that they are friends and close
allies, there is no name vile enough to brand your deeds, no punishment
sharp enough to requite them. But though you cannot suffer as you
deserve, you shall suffer all that an enemy can honorably inflict, that
your example may teach others to observe the peace and alliance which
you have so perfidiously violated."
They were hanged where the French had hung before them; and over them
was nailed the inscription, burned with a hot iron on a tablet of pine,
"Not as to Spaniards, but as to Traitors, Robbers, and Murderers."
Gourgues's mission was fulfilled. To occupy the country had never been
his intention; nor was it possible, for the Spaniards were still in
force at St. Augustine. His was a whirlwind visitation,—to ravage,
ruin, and vanish. He harangued the Indians, and exhorted them to
demolish the fort. They fell to the work with eagerness, and in less
than a day not one stone was left on another.
Gourgues returned to the forts at the mouth of the river, destroyed them
also, and took up his march for his ships. It was a triumphal
procession. The Indians thronged around the victors with gifts of fish
and game; and an old woman declared that she was now ready to die, since
she had seen the French once more.
The ships were ready for sea. Gourgues bade his disconsolate allies
farewell, and nothing would content them but a promise to return soon.
Before embarking, he addressed his own men:—"My friends, let us give
thanks to God for the success He has granted us. It is He who saved us
from tempests; it is He who inclined the hearts of the Indians towards
us; it is He who blinded the understanding of the Spaniards. They were
four to one, in forts well armed and provisioned. Our right was our only
strength; and yet we have conquered. Not to our own swords, but to God
only, we owe our victory. Then let us thank Him, my friends; let us
never forget His favors; and let us pray that He may continue them,
saving us from dangers, and guiding us safely home. Let us pray, too,
that He may so dispose the hearts of men that our perils and toils may
find favor in the eyes of our King and of all France, since all we have
done was done for the King's service and for the honor of our country."
Thus Spaniards and Frenchmen alike laid their reeking swords on God's
Gourgues sailed on the third of May, and, gazing back along their
foaming wake, the adventurers looked their last on the scene of their
exploits. Their success had cost its price. A few of their number had
fallen, and hardships still awaited the survivors. Gourgues, however,
reached Rochelle on the day of Pentecost, and the Huguenot citizens
greeted him with all honor. At court it fared worse with him. The King,
still obsequious to Spain, looked on him coldly and askance. The Spanish
minister demanded his head. It was hinted to him that he was not safe,
and he withdrew to Ronen, where he found asylum among his friends. His
fortune was gone; debts contracted for his expedition weighed heavily on
him; and for years he lived in obscurity, almost in misery.
At length his prospects brightened. Elizabeth of England learned his
merits and his misfortunes, and invited him to enter her service. The
King, who, says the Jesuit historian, had always at heart been delighted
with his achievement, openly restored him to favor; while, some years
later, Don Antonio tendered him command of his fleet, to defend his
right to the crown of Portugal against Philip the Second. Gourgues,
happy once more to cross swords with the Spaniards, gladly embraced this
offer; but in 1583, on his way to join the Portuguese prince, he died at
Tours of a sudden illness. The French mourned the loss of the man who
had wiped a blot from the national scutcheon, and respected his memory
as that of one of the best captains of his time. And, in truth, if a
zealous patriotism, a fiery valor, and skilful leadership are worthy of
honor, then is such a tribute due to Dominique de Gourgues,
slave-catcher and half-pirate as he was, like other naval heroes of that
Romantic as was his exploit, it lacked the fullness of poetic justice,
since the chief offender escaped him. While Gourgues was sailing towards
Florida, Menéndez was in Spain, high in favor at court, where he told to
approving ears how he had butchered the heretics. Borgia, the sainted
General of the Jesuits, was his fast friend; and two years later, when
he returned to America, the Pope, Paul the Fifth, regarding him as an
instrument for the conversion of the Indians, wrote him a letter with
his benediction. He re-established his power in Florida, rebuilt Fort
San Mateo, and taught the Indians that death or flight was the only
refuge from Spanish tyranny. They murdered his missionaries and spurned
their doctrine. "The Devil is the best thing in the world," they cried;
"we adore him; he makes men brave." Even the Jesuits despaired, and
abandoned Florida in disgust.
Menéndez was summoned home, where fresh honors awaited him from the
Crown, though, according to the somewhat doubtful assertion of the
heretical Grotius, his deeds had left a stain upon his name among the
people. He was given command of the armada of three hundred sail and
twenty thousand men, which, in 1574, was gathered at Santander against
England and Flanders. But now, at the height of his fortunes, his career
was abruptly closed. He died suddenly, at the age of fifty-five. Grotius
affirms that he killed himself; but, in his eagerness to point the moral
of his story, he seems to have overstepped the bounds of historic truth.
The Spanish bigot was rarely a suicide; for the rites of Christian
burial and repose in consecrated ground were denied to the remains of
the self-murderer. There is positive evidence, too, in a codicil to the
will of Menéndez, dated at Santander on the fifteenth of September,
1574, that he was on that day seriously ill, though, as the instrument
declares, "of sound mind." There is reason, then, to believe that this
pious cut-throat died a natural death, crowned with honors, and soothed
by the consolations of his religion.
It was he who crushed French Protestantism in America. To plant
religious freedom on this western soil was not the mission of France. It
was for her to rear in northern forests the banner of absolutism and of
Rome; while among the rocks of Massachusetts England and Calvin fronted
her in dogged opposition, long before the ice-crusted pines of Plymouth
had listened to the rugged psalmody of the Puritan, the solitudes of
Western New York and the stern wilderness of Lake Huron were trodden by
the iron heel of the soldier and the sandalled foot of the Franciscan
friar. France was the true pioneer of the Great West. They who bore the
fleur-de-lis were always in the van, patient, daring, indomitable. And
foremost on this bright roll of forest chivalry stands the
half-forgotten name of Samuel de Champlain.
(25) The "black drink" was, till a recent period, in use among the
Creeks. It is a strong decoctiun of the plant popularly called eassina,
or nupon tea. Major Swan, deputy agent for the Creeks in 1791, thus
describes their belief in its properties: "that it purifies them from
all sin, and leaves them in a state of perfect innocence; that it
inspires them with an invincible prowess in war; and that it is the only
solid cement of friendship, benevolence, and hospitality." Swan's
account of their mode of drinking and ejecting it corresponds perfectly
with Le Moyne's picture in De Bry. See the United States government
publication, History, Condition, and Prospects of Indian Tribes, V. 266.
<< 9: 1565-1567. Charles IX. and Phillip II. || TOC