The relationships of the French with Native provinces upstream on the May River worsened when they became hungry. The French then resorted to kidnappings of a king. The leader was held hostage until food was delivered. Of course, that was in contrast to the Spanish who frequently garroted or burned at the stake Native leaders they captured.
On several occasions in his memoir, de Laudonniére mentioned that small parties of Frenchmen left Fort Caroline for several weeks to explore the region north, northwest and south of Fort Caroline. For most of these ventures, he gives no specific information as to where they went. There is also very little information concerning the outings of the small garrison at Charlesfort, once Jean Ribault and René de Laudonniére had left for Europe.
As will be seen on the maps discussed in Part Six, considerable details appeared on European maps for the Edisto, Savannah, Altamaha and more southerly portions of the St. Johns River. Some maps of the Savannah River accurately describe its tributaries and its source in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The accuracy of the maps of the Edisto and Savannah River suggests that some members of the Charlesfort garrison traveled inland as far as the gold bearing mountains of Georgia in 1562, yet no records exists of such journeys today.
The information on the St. Johns River only appears in Theodor de Bry’s etching of a Jacques le Moyne-drawn map. De Bry’s map shows the St. Johns and May River joining together then flowing to the sea. This mistake suggests that whoever explored the upper reaches of the St. Johns River, reached it overland, and did not follow its channel to the sea. The de Bry map is virtually the only map produced which labels the Saint Johns River to either be or be part of the May River.
The food and morale situation began deteriorating rapidly in late 1564. Jean Ribault had not arrived when expected with new supplies and new colonists. The Frenchmen had worn out the traditional hospitality of the locale natives, then mutual hostility developed when the king of the Alekmani began misleading them in order to use the Frenchmen as hired guns against his enemies. De Laudonniére was forced to put the garrison on starvation rations.
De Laudonniére then paddled up the May River and cemented friendship with the Alekamani’s biggest enemy, the Utina. This temporarily brought in more food. Later in an act of desperation the Frenchmen began acting like Spaniards and bullied their way into getting more food from their neighbors.
A faction of the garrison mutinied. The officers were disarmed and de Laudonniére was placed in chains. He was not physically harmed, however. Some mutineers demanded that parties of their garrison be allowed to sail to Spanish colonies to obtain food. Others wanted the garrison to leave Fort Carolina and relocate northward to the Savannah River where their friend King Oueda ruled. De Laudonniére agreed to sign approval of their demands.
The leaders of the mutineers loaded the boat with most of the remaining supplies and sailed southward. De Laudonniére was freed after they left. The mutineers went around the Florida Peninsula and entered the Gulf of Mexico. They then followed the Gulf Coast line around to the northern edge of Mexico and became pirates. The remaining garrison had nothing to eat but blackberries and acorn meal. Apparently, it still had not dawned on them to try fishing, shrimping and crabbing in one of the most abundant seafood locations in the world – the South Atlantic tidal marshes. De Laudonniére made an interesting comment toward the end of his book. He had not allowed one of their chickens to be butchered, even though the garrison was starving. This was to insure that they would at least have eggs to eat in a final crisis.
In May of 1565 de Laudonniére directed the construction of a new boat for making the crossing to France. However, first he planned to sail around the region to look for food sources. He stated that the voyage was a little over 40 leagues 100 miles) long. The captain did not say where they went or even what direction they went in. De Laudonniére then sent word to the King of the Utina asking for help. The king sent back a small amount of corn and live oak acorns. Live oak acorns were an important source of nutrition to coastal Indians, but were not terribly appreciated by the French.
The French then paddled up the May River to abduct the king of the Utina. He was to be held for a ransom of food. Prior to the actual committing of the crime, a “princess” of the Utina gave de Laudonniére and his officers several fish to eat. Evidently, the fish were poisoned, because all of the men became seriously ill. During this period, two carpenters were killed when they ate corn cobs in a Native field.
The Frenchmen were eventually able to kidnap the astonished king. He was hauled away to an open space near the small river that flowed past the Utina capital; probably the Ohoopee River. The other leaders of the province agreed to exchange a bag of corn for each of de Laudonniére’s party for their king.
When the Frenchmen began walking to the boat with the ransomed food, they were ambushed. The Utina soldiers fired arrows in massed volleys from disciplined groups of about 300 archers. After the French fired their arquebuses the first time and killed several, the archers learned to flatten on the ground just before a volley. Only two bags of corn reached the boat. All the other baskets and bags had been dropped when the Frenchmen were ambushed. Two men were killed. Twenty-two men were seriously injured. Little had been gained from the sordid venture and now they had a mortal enemy, who blocked their route up the May River. Before the kidnapping, the Utina had been an ally.
While meditating on top of his beloved “modest mountain” on August 3, 1565 de Laudonniére saw the sails of four ships in the May River sound. At first he thought it was the fleet of Jean Ribault, then feared that it was the Spanish. The fleet turned out to be English. Martin Atinas, from the same home town as artist Jacques Le Moyne, had accompanied the first French fleet when it set up a column at the entrance to the May River. The fleet was commanded by the famous mariner, Sir John Hawkins.
Hawkins crews desperately needed fresh water, but had plenty of food on board the ships. Hawkins immediately sent bread and wine to the Frenchmen. The English guests stayed for four days. They invited the Frenchmen to sail back to Europe with them, but de Laudonniére declined. The gentlemen then agreed to a trade. Hawkins sold a ship to de Laudonniére for several cannons and a large quantity of munitions. The Frenchmen immediately began preparing the ship to sail back to France.
One of de Laudonniére’s comments tells much about the regional trade and communication network in the lower Southeast. Within two days after John Hawkins entering Fort Caroline, emissaries from numerous Native provinces began, arriving from south, west and north from as far as 100 miles away, to request treaties with the suddenly powerful white men at Fort Caroline. Several of these provinces had previously been hostile to the French. Some were even in a state of war with the Alekamani, who controlled the territory around Fort Caroline. This means that there was a communication system in place in the Lower Southeast that was faster than a person walking or canoeing. It also means that there were traditions that allowed ambassadors to pass through the territory of their enemies, unharmed.
De Laudonniére decided that Fort Caroline should be destroyed prior to the garrison’s departure for France so that it would not be immediately useful to the Spanish. The landward side was the most vulnerable for attack, since it was only protected by a shallow moat. The commander ordered the men to demolish its plank walls that protected gunners and crossbowmen. Thousands of biscuits were baked and placed on board the barques along with what remained of the garrison’s food supply. De Laudonniére planned to set the structures afire immediately before boarding the ships.
Source: Sixteenth Century French Exploration of the Southeast, by Richard Thornton, People of One Fire, Blairsville Georgia, © 2012.