In early 1562 the government of France dispatched Captain Jean Ribault with a small fleet to explore the South Atlantic Coast; claim it for the King of France; and identify potential locations for colonies. Ribault brought along with him three stone columns displaying the coat of arms of the King of France. He placed one of these columns at the mouth of the River May, which contemporary scholars assume to be the St. Johns River. Ribault’s fleet then sailed northward along the coast, mapping the islands and river outlets, until it reached was is now assumed to be Port Royal Sound. Ribault planted a second column at the mouth of the sound.
Most of the expedition’s energies during the short stay of Captains Ribault and René de Laudonniére were focused on constructing a fort and buildings for the 28 men, who were to stay at the new colony while the remainder went to France for more supplies and colonists. Captain Albert de la Pierria was placed in command of Charlesfort. Because a religious civil war had broken out in France during their absence, neither Ribault nor de Laudonniére was able to return to Charlesfort as soon as promised. The garrison faced starvation and was saddled with a increasingly neurotic commander. Captain Albert was killed by the garrison. The survivors then built a sail boat. All but one sailed to Europe. One man decided to take his chances living with the Indians. Instead, he became a prisoner of the Spanish.
In early 1564 peace was declared in France. The Admiral of Châtillon met with King Charles to discuss the situation of the colony in New France. Nothing had been heard from them. However, by then they were in England. The king ordered a second expedition to embark for New France as soon as possible. A three ship fleet commanded by René Goulaine de Laudonniére departed Le Havre de Grâce, France on April 22, 1564 with 300 colonists. The fleet first re-provisioned on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands. They then sailed to the Spanish owned island of Dominica in the Lesser Antilles. At the time, it was solely occupied by Carib Indians.
When the natives learned that the three ships were French, not Spanish, they were overjoyed. The Frenchmen were treated as guests and given many fresh pineapples. However, the French were also warned not to come near the Carib gardens or houses. A small band of Frenchmen disobeyed this request. One was killed. The entire island immediately became hostile as if the French were Spanish. The French ships departed the harbor with a mass of Carib canoes at their tail, firing showers of arrows.
After learning of the fate of the small garrison left behind at Port Royal, Captain René Goulaine de Laudonniére decided not to attempt expansion of Charlesfort. In his memoirs he stated that surviving colonists described Port Royal as a wonderful place to anchor a ship, but a difficult place to survive. However, there is no record of the garrison planting crops or doing some serious fishing. They completely relied on the generosity of their Native American neighbors for their food. Most of it was given to the Frenchmen. Undoubtedly, the neighbors were glad to see them leave.
De Laudonniére’s continued reasoning is quite logical, considering that he accepted the Charlesfort’s colonists’ assessment. He was a semi-professional botanist in addition to being a skilled sea captain. His memoirs provided Europeans with the first scientific descriptions of North America’s flora and fauna.
On his first voyage, de Laudonniére’s had noticed that the soils of the Atlantic Coast of Florida were infertile and the climate was semi-tropical. Its sparse native population did very little farming and their gardens seemed stunted. The French first encountered large Native populations around the bays and tidal creeks of the mouth of the May River northward to what he called the Jordan River, probably the Savannah. In this region, called Guale by the Spanish, corn, beans and squash thrived.
Captain de Laudonniére reasoned that the ideal location to build a permanent colony would be somewhere between the May and Jordan Rivers. Interestingly enough, the first Spanish attempt to plant a colony was in that same region, on an island in the mouth of the Altamaha River of Georgia. Six hundred colonists landed on or near Sapelo Island in 1526. Within a few months over half of the colonists had died of disease. The main killer apparently was some bacteria or parasite living in the surface water on that island. Also, the planners of the expedition failed to bring enough food to supply the colony until crops could be planted and harvested.
A caveat should be mentioned when discussing de Laudonniére’s description of the second voyage. He and artist, Jacques Le Moyne, barely got out of Florida with their lives. Apparently, de Laudonniére was not able to bring all of his journals and ships logs with him as he fled the fort. Le Moyne was not able to bring his sketches. Accounts and drawings of the second expedition were made from memory about a decade later, when Laudonniére was writing his memoirs. De Laudonniére died at age 45 in 1574. He was obviously a bright man of dependable character, but his memory of precise numbers such as latitudes and distances cannot be fully trusted. His descriptions of visual memories are probably more reliable because he was a sea captain.
The Fleet arrived on the shore of what they called New France on June 22, 1564. De Laudonniére determined that they were at latitude of about 30 degrees and near the mouth of a small river he called the River of Dolphins. He stated that his fleet was about 30 French leagues (+/- 75) miles south from the mouth of the River of May and 10 leagues (+/- 25 miles) north of Cape François.
The French league varied widely, but averaged about 4 km. This means that Cape François was about 100 miles south of the May River. Although virtually all Florida scholars think Cape François was Cape Canaveral (which is 138 miles south of the mouth of the St. Johns River) comments by de Laudonniére make it clear that they were two different physical features, and that he did not sail that far south. Later in his memoirs, de Laudonniére described Cape Canaveral as a place on Spanish maps that he had never been. The latitude of Cape Canaveral is about 28ᵒ. All 17th century maps show Cape François to be north of the St. Johns River.
Today, there is no river outlet between Cape Canaveral and St. Augustine or between St. Augustine and the mouth of the St. Johns River. Cape François appears to be in the vicinity of the St. Johns River, perhaps the northern end of Amelia Island, on late 16th century and 17th century French maps.
The Dolphin River was determined to be too shallow, after he sailed a short distance up its channel. De Laudonniére’s description of the Dolphin River matches the situation of the St. Johns River prior to the mid1800s when it was dredged by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, to allow passage of seagoing vessels. Formerly, large herds of cattle were driven across the St. Johns near Fort Caroline National Monument. Jacksonville’s original name was Cowford. Also, de Laudonniére observed that the land did not seem very fertile around the river.
On June 23, de Laudonniére hoisted his anchors and headed north. He stated that two days later, he reached the mouth of the River May. Earlier in his memoirs, De Laudonniére stated that the Dolphin River was 30 leagues (75 miles) south of the May River. This estimate may not be accurate, however.
It is possible, but unlikely that de Laudonniére’s fleet to travel 75 miles along the Inter-coastal Waterway in two days. During the first French expedition, the ships had required two weeks to sail from Cape François to the May River. A more realistic distance in two days would have been about 18 to 20 miles. On open water 16th century ships averaged about 4 knots (4.6 mph) in open waters. Progress was slower in coastal waters or when fighting a wind. Also, ships could not sail at night in waters close to shore. A more typical speed in the shallow waters near barrier islands was about 2 mph. This is what the first French fleet, commanded by Jean Ribault, averaged
The River of May is today generally assumed by scholars to be the French name for the St. Johns River. There is no river mouth between St. Augustine, FL and the mouth of the St. Johns River in Florida, while many rivers flow into the sea along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts. St. Augustine’s latitude is 30ᵒ. Jacksonville’s latitude is 30ᵒ 19’. St. Marys, GA’s latitude is 30.76ᵒ, while Darien, GA’s latitude is 31.86ᵒ.
De Laudonniére decided to place their new fort somewhere near the mouth of the May River. It was to be sufficiently inland to be buffered from hurricanes and not be seen by Spanish ships. He initially explored the fringes of Cape May Sound, making contact with the local inhabitants in the process. In the company of the king of that region, he visited the stone column that had been erected by Jean Ribault in 1562.
De Laudonniére stated in his memoir that he sailed 3-4 leagues (12-16 km ~ 7.5-12 miles) up the May River until he saw a mountain of modest size beside the river. He could see the ocean from the top of this large hill. The site of the fort was farther inland, but de Laudonniére stated that they could still see the “modest mountain.” He located Fort Caroline on the opposite side of the river from the “modest mountain.” There was a large creek entering the river at the proposed construction site that contained fresh, potable water. It was sufficient depth that the explorers went swimming in it.
A young Frenchman wrote his father in Rouen a few months after Fort Caroline was built. He said that the fort was six leagues (24 km ~ 14 miles) from the ocean. Wild grapes were abundant in the forests near the fort site. This information, combined with presence of a large stream of fresh water is powerful evidence that Fort Caroline was at a location west of the tidal marshes. Muscadine grapes will not grow in tidal marshes containing brine water, or even in soil with a high salt content.
Another hint that Fort Caroline was somewhat inland comes near the end of de Laudonniére’s book. He mentioned that the Spanish were seen running down a hill in back of the fort. This was not the “modest mountain” on which the commander liked to gaze at the sea. Most of the landscape along the South Atlantic Coast is flat. One does not normally see any rolling terrain until penetrating at least 12 miles into the interior on a landscape where ancient islands once existed.
The second French attempt at colonization included a wide variety of persons. Some were professional soldiers, but many more were skilled tradesmen. The colony contained the complete range of French Middle Class society, included musicians to entertain the garrison. Inexplicably, there is no mention of professional fishermen or hunters being included in the colony. The fort contained approximately 50 women and children when it was later captured. Surviving memoirs do not say whether these dependents came on the second or third voyages, or a combination of the two. There is no mention in de Laudonniére’s memoir of how many babies were born in the fort.
Source: Sixteenth Century French Exploration of the Southeast, by Richard Thornton, People of One Fire, Blairsville Georgia, © 2012.