What was the first European settlement in Georgia? James Oglethorpe founded Savannah in 1733. But over two centuries before Oglethorpe reached the Georgia coast, another settlement existed here: San Miguel de Gualdape, established in 1526.
St. Augustine is often called the oldest European city in the present United States, but San Miguel de Gualdape preceded it by almost 40 years. In fact, it is now considered the earliest European settlement (after the Vikings, a millennium ago) on mainland North America.
San Miguel was the work of Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, a Spanish-born nobleman who came to Hispaniola (present day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in 1504 as a judge. Columbus had “discovered” Hispaniola just a dozen years earlier, but the Spanish had developed it quickly, because of the island’s gold and its native population (which the Spanish found they could easily enslave). Judge Ayllón was able to win the favor of some of the wealthy Spanish officials on the island, and he soon began to build up his own landholdings and personal wealth. As the island’s gold began to peter out, Ayllón and others shifted to sugar plantations, still using the natives as slave labor.
The Spanish on Hispaniola found that they were using up the island’s natives at an alarming rate. Ayllón saw the potential profits of slave trading and entered that business, importing natives kidnapped from the Bahamas and other islands and selling them on Hispaniola.
Meanwhile, the Spanish in the Caribbean remained generally unaware of a much larger land mass just north of them. A few explorers had visited mainland North America (Columbus never did). Knowledge of the continent was very sparse, however, and in fact it was often referred to as just another “island.”
In 1521, Francisco Gordillo, one of Ayllón’s chief slave raiders, was unable to find a sufficient number of natives in the Bahamas, so he decided to try his luck elsewhere. He sailed northwest, making landfall near present day Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He briefly explored the area (called “Chicora”), then lured 60 natives onto his ship and set sail for Hispaniola.
In his report to Ayllón, Gordillo described Chicora as a beautiful place, full of natural resources, looking much like Spain itself, and full of natives. Ayllón was fascinated by the potential of Gordillo’s discovery. Who knew there were so many possibilities there? Earlier voyages, such as Ponce de Leon’s, had not begun to hint at such a thing. Ayllón quickly went to Spain and asked King Charles for the right to colonize Chicora. Charles granted Ayllón's wish.
In July 1526, Ayllón left Hispaniola with 600 people (including several African slaves), along with supplies and animals, on six ships. He reached the Carolina coast in early August, but failed to find any Indians there. The ships moved slowly south, hugging the coast, looking for a location that contained both a good site for a new colony and the native Americans Ayllón was so interested in finding. Finally they stopped in what is now Georgia. The exact location is still unknown. Historian Paul Hoffman put it near Sapelo Island; Douglas Peck puts it further north, near the mouth of the Savannah River. In any case, on September 29, Ayllón found his spot, named it San Miguel de Gualdape for the festival of Saint Michael (celebrated that day), and began building his colony.
The houses and the church at San Miguel went up quickly, as did the storage buildings for food and the livestock pens. But the new church’s graveyard began to fill up as Ayllón’s people started to die, from starvation and disease. Ayllón himself succumbed to an unknown disease on October 18. Surviving colonists tried to keep San Miguel going, but it was no good. Indians attacked, black slaves rose up and burned some of the buildings (the first slave revolt in what would become the United States), political disputes split the people, and a cold winter arrived much earlier than anticipated. A few weeks after Ayllón’s death, the colony disbanded. Of the 600 who had left Hispaniola to start the colony, only 150 returned.
And San Miguel de Gualdape, the first European settlement on mainland North America, was no more.