SPAIN had established the centers of her American empire in the West Indies, on the Isthmus of Darien and in Mexico. From Mexico the Spaniard had steadily pushed northward toward the regions that came to be known as Texas an California. But Spanish claims did not end with the southern areas of the continent. They extended indefinitely to the north. So, when the news came to the West Indies that a party of Huguenots from France were planning a settlement on the western shore of the Atlantic not far north of Cuba, the Spaniards were bound to bestir themselves. In spite of more than one exploring expedition the Spaniard had failed to establish himself on the mainland of North America either in Florida or northward. The reason was not hard to find. The gold and silver which was the life of New Spain did not exist on the Atlantic coast plain which Ponce de Leon and others had explored. New Spain was, therefore, not well prepared to meet an invasion of this region by the French.
The Huguenots were Frenchmen who had come under the influence of the Protestant movement that had originated in Germany in the sixteenth century. René de Laudonnière was a Huguenot who, in June, 1564, led a fleet to what is now the coast of Carolina. Most of the people with him were folk of the new Protestant faith and they came to found a colony in the New World.
But Laudonnière was merely carrying out the work which Jean Ribaut of Dieppe, a seaman of renown, had begun. Two years before, he had crossed the sea to explore the American coast and had sighted land near the present St. Augustine. He had nosed his way northward along the shore until he came to what seemed to him a great river which he called the "River of May" because it chanced to be May Day when he entered the estuary. It is now known as the St. John's. Landing here, the Frenchmen found the region "the fairest, fruitfulest, and pleasantest of all the world." They believed that the famed Cibola with its seven cities was but twenty days' journey away. Leaving the River of May without attempting to reach the Seven Cities, Ribaut skirted the coast to the northward and finally turned east to France. He left at Port Royal Sound a force of thirty volunteers to hold the land. But hunger and mutiny broke up the colony. Killing their leaders, the mutineers put to sea in a rough boat they had shaped, and undertook the desperate adventure of a voyage across the Atlantic.
Laudonnière, coming out with a fleet in 1564, was attempting to advance the French claim which Ribaut had established. But the colonists were taking grave risks. They were trespassing on soil claimed by a rival nation, and most of them belonged to the Protestant faith, between which and the Church which Spain defended was a growing enmity. They must expect to fight to maintain their foothold.