To understand why Captain René de Laudonniére would be drawn to either the Satilla, St. Marys or Altamaha Rivers as the location of France’s first permanent colony in North America, one has to first look at the “ground level” geography, i.e. what the officers would have seen from a mile or so out to sea. Maps of the Florida and Georgia coast are included with this article. The mouth of the St. Johns River would appear to be that of small, shallow river flowing through marshes. The outlet of the river was often blocked with dangerous sand bars until it became part of the United States. It would require a voyage of about eight miles to begin seeing a broadening and deepening of the channel. Nevertheless, the tidal shoals and sand bars near the outlet would have discouraged an experienced sea captain from planning a permanent colony.
This is why during the 200 years that Spain owned Florida, no attempt was ever made to build a major town on the St. Johns River. The Spanish eventually established Mission San Francis de Pupa and a small fort on the west side of the St. Johns River, northwest of St. Augustine. On the east side of the river was Fort Picolata. A ferry interconnected the forts. San Francis de Pupa was a terminal for a road interconnecting the Florida Panhandle with St. Augustine. Between Fort Picolata and St. Augustine was eventually built Fort Mose, a fortified town occupied by escaped African slaves from Georgia.
Immediately, north of Amelia Island, Florida is now the Georgia state line and a wide, deep bay that appears to be the outlet for a major river. Known as St. Marys Sound or Cumberland Sound, it would have been visible from several miles out at sea. The St. Marys River does empty into this sound, but its source is close to the coast. On the other end of Cumberland Island is St. Andrews Sound. It is even wider and deeper. Both bays are used by the nuclear submarines of the Kings Bay Naval Base.
The Satilla River originates about 70 miles west in the Okefenokee Swamp. For most of its length, the Satilla River would not be navigable for sea-going vessels. In contrast, steamboats regularly plied 200+ miles up the Altamaha River System during the 1800s. Nevertheless, the sounds on both ends of Cumberland Island, St. Marys Sound and St. Andrews Sound, are wide and deep. Large fleets of sea-going ships could have anchored there. The writer knows this well because he and two friends at age 22, spent two weeks living off the land on Cumberland Island after their sailboat was wrecked by a hurricane, and then, three days later, a waterspout struck their campsite at night – not fun.
About 43 miles north of St. Marys, GA is Darien. Darien is situated on a 40 feet plateau overlooking the Altamaha River. However, upstream a bit is the 80 feet tall ridge that matches the description of the “modest mountain” on the May River. The Darien Area does not match the latitude described for the May River, but its topography does. The Altamaha is the largest river on the Atlantic Coast of the United States. Its outlet is a large sound that would have been suitable for anchoring the biggest of 16th century ships. Around the sound is a maze of rivers and tidal creeks that create islands of varying size. These islands are composed of extremely fertile alluvial soil washed down from the Georgia Piedmont.
One of the more compelling pieces of evidence placing Fort Caroline near Darien is de Laudonniére’s description of journeys he made UP the May River to visit a powerful king named Olata Utina. De Laudonniére stated that he paddled 40 leagues (100 miles) up the May River then about 6 ½ miles northeast to the capital town. Twentieth century scholars in Florida have dutifully placed the Utina Province 100 miles south of Jacksonville because of this statement by de Laudonniére, but there is NO major river flowing into the St. Johns River from the east.
The Altamaha does have a major tributary 100 miles from its mouth. It is the Ohoopee River, which joins the big river from the east. This confluence was known as the Forks of the Altamaha in colonial times. Spanish maps show the Mission de Santa Isabel de Utinahica in the general vicinity of the original Forks of the Altamaha. Utinahica means “Place of the Utina” in the Arawak languages. There is a large Coastal Lamar Culture town site about 6 miles up the Ohoopee from its confluence with the Altamaha.
During de Laudonniére’s several visits to the Province of the Utina, he recorded several Muskogean words. The second in command of the province was an emole. That title was still being used in Itsate Creek towns during the 1800s. The modern Oklahoma Muskogee word is emothla. There were also some village names mentioned that appear to be Itsate-Creek words, such as Casti.
The Native American neighbors of Fort Caroline told de Laudonniére that large quantities of gold could be obtained in the mountains far to the north in the land of the Apalache. To reach the gold-bearing mountains, he would have to paddle the entire length of the May River then walk a couple of days. One of the tributaries of the Altamaha River is the Apalachee River. The Apalachee River originates in Gwinnett County, GA about 25 miles south of Gainesville. During the 1800s, there were commercial gold mines near Gainesville. Clearly, the May River and the Altamaha River are one and the same.
Perhaps the strongest evidence that the May River was the Altamaha River can found near the end of de Laudonniére’s memoir. A party led by Captain Voisseur went on a five week long expedition up the May River to near its source. The party may have actually gone into the North Georgia Mountains, but this is not what is said. It is possible that the French did not want a book published that gave specific directions to the gold bearing mountains.
De Laudonniére stated that he planned to locate the capital of New France farther up the May River in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. He intended to begin negotiations with the Natives living at the headwaters of the May River, as soon as Captain Jean Ribault arrived with 600 more colonists. Fort Caroline would remain as a fortified ship-building center and supply depot, but a capital in the interior would be better situated to access the gold, copper and silver deposits in the newly named mountains.