Most history books and online encyclopedia sources state unequivocally that Fort Caroline was built on the St. Johns River in present day Jacksonville. They state that the May River named by de Laudonniére, was the same as the San Juan (St. Johns) River named by the Spanish. Virtually none of the articles tell you that Fort Caroline National Memorial is a reproduction of what some people “think” the fort looked like, constructed at a location that was good for tourism. No artifacts have been found in the Jacksonville area that can be definitely tied to French colonial activities in the 1560s.
Early French explorers verbally described a great lake along the May (Altamaha River.) It was shown on all French maps until the late 1600s. The French said that the May River flowed into this lake and then flowed out. The location of this lake appears to have been south-central Georgia, immediately southeast of Macon. Traders and government representatives traveling through central Georgia in the early 1700s did not mention seeing a large lake, only several large swamps.
There is no reason to doubt René Goulaine de Laudonniére’s description of the Great Lake. Everything other physical feature that he described in his memoir has been confirmed by this research project. There are two explanations for the lake not being visible in the 1700s. The first is that it was created by a log jam that eventually became un-jammed. The second is that the large lake turned into the Little Ocmulgee River Swamp. Through much of its path, the Little Ocmulgee River is essentially a channel through a path. Early European explorers described the Okefenokee Swamp as a large lake, which they named Serape. Since that time, it has been gradually covered by natural islands built by vegetation. No geologist or archaeologist has ever looked for the Great Lake that appears in maps until the 1700s.
All official French maps from the 1580s through 1783 labeled the Altamaha River as being the May River or Secco or Setto River, names used for a period of time by the Spanish. Most of these maps also specifically locate Fort Caroline on the west side of the Altamaha River, slight upstream from Darien, GA. Cape François is shown on these maps as the northern tip of Amelia Island, FL.
On Map 10, Charlesfort, the first French colony in 1562, is shown exactly where South Carolina archaeologists say it was, on Parris Island, SC. Map 4 is an official Spanish map, dated 1578, that contains the same locations for Fort Caroline and Charlesfort as the official French maps – except that it mixes up the names of Charlesfort and Fort Caroline.
Map Five, published in 1690 by Theodor de Bry, is said to be based on a sketch made by Jacques Le Moyne, shortly before his death in 1674. Le Moyne lost all but one of his sketches in the destruction of Fort Caroline. If he sketched the map at all, it was from memory shortly before his death. That map shows the Altamaha and St. Johns Rivers to be tributaries of the May River, which enters the ocean somewhere near St. Marys, GA.
So where did scholars get the idea that Fort Caroline was in Jacksonville? There is no map that shows Fort Caroline to be located on Jacksonville Bay. The idea first appears among local economic boosters and historians in Jacksonville in the early 20th century. They ignored the dozens of official Spanish and French maps and focused on the De Bry map, even though its portrayal of the Altamaha and St. Johns Rivers was inaccurate. The two rivers are shown as tributaries of the May River, but are reasonably accurate images of these rivers otherwise. The rivers are shown to join about 50 miles from the ocean.
When no signs of Fort Caroline could be found, Jacksonville’s economic leaders arbitrarily placed the fort’s location seven miles inland on the south banks of the St. Johns River, immediately north of a rise that now is called “Fort Caroline Hill.” It is a dramatic site that marks the entrance to the inner harbor and is near an Indian mound. However, prior to the arrival of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the chosen site of the fort would have been inaccessible to seagoing ships such as those used by de Laundonniére and Menéndez. Jacksonville’s original name was Cowford, because the water was so shallow between inner harbor and the ocean that herds of cattle could be driven across the river!
The site selected by the leaders of Jacksonville, FL became part of the National Park System in 1950. In 1964 the National Park Service constructed a facsimile of Fort Caroline based on what information was available in René de Laudonniére’s memoir. De Laudonniére did not provide the dimensions of the fort. He did say that the back wall of the fort with a moat faced the southwest. Another wall adjoined a freshwater creek, deep enough to swim in, on another side. The third side was defined by the May River.
The re-creation of Fort Carolina has a back wall that faces the south. The Jacksonville site adjoins the Johns River tidal basin. There is no large freshwater creek in the vicinity of the re-created fort.
De Laudonniére described his beloved “modest mountain” as being on the north side of the May River and Fort Caroline being about 12 miles inland from the ocean. The fort was built immediately inland of the tides so that potable water would be available. In fact, there is a dramatic 80 feet high ridge, 12 miles inland, overlooking the north side of the Altamaha River. There is another 80 feet high ridge 12 miles inland on north side of the Satilla River in Georgia, further south. De Laudonniére stated that one side of the fort was defined by a broad freshwater creek that was deep enough to swim in and dock his smaller boats. Such a stream exists across the Altamaha River from the high ridge.
The Fort Caroline Memorial Site was given to the National Park Service, through pressure from Florida senators and congressmen. About that time, anthropology programs were developing at FSU and UF. The Jacksonville location of Fort Caroline was used by generations of Florida anthropologists and historians as a base point to determine where the Timucua provinces were originally located prior to being clustered in missions and ravaged by non-submissive Muskogeans from Georgia.
Most history books and online sources justify the location of Fort Caroline based on where the neighboring tribes were known to be in 1564! Florida scholars don’t seem to realize that the various provinces visited by the French spoke different languages. Strange thing . . . the farther south one gets on Florida’s version of the May River, the more Muskogean words appear, such as the political title, Olata (Oratv) which means “implementer” or “one who gets things done.”
Two hundred miles inland on the “St, Johns River” in the foothills of Florida’s beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, was a province that the Timucua called the Maya-qua or Maya-coa. That means “Maya People” in English. They controlled the trade of gold, copper and greenstone mined in Florida’s magnificent gold-bearing mountains. Hmm-m-m, something doesn’t jive here.
Since designation of the Fort Caroline National Memorial occurred, there has never been an effort by archaeologists to find the real location. Very few Jacksonville, FL residents today are even aware that the Fort Caroline they see is a late 20th century creation or that the actual location is not known. Apparently, the vast majority of Georgia historians and archaeologists are also not aware that Jacksonville is probably not the location of Fort Caroline.
Source: Sixteenth Century French Exploration of the Southeast, by Richard Thornton, People of One Fire, Blairsville Georgia, © 2012.