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Early European Explorers
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Throughout the late 17th century and first 2/3 of the 18th century, Great Britain and France competed for control of North America. Some have called this period, the Second Hundred Years War. Although the European troops were not always fighting each other, their Indian allies were. Spain had challenged Great Britain’s colonization efforts in the 1600s, but by 1705 its mission system in what is now Georgia had been wiped out by Native American and English raiders.
English fishermen established camps and villages on the coast of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia the 1490s. It is quite possible that they had visited Newfoundland prior to Columbus’s first voyage. These fishing camps were later to be the basis of Great Britain’s claim on Canada.
Spain attempted to establish the first colony in North America in 1526 somewhere on the South Carolina or Georgia coast, but it failed in six months. Between 1540 and 1543 the Hernando de Soto Expedition traveled across a semi-circular route that passed through all of the lower Southeast. He claimed all of the Southeast and Mississippi Basin for the King of Spain. That region had already been named the Province of La Florida.
In 1562 Captain René Goulaine de Laudonnière led a group of French Huguenots up the Savannah River from Charlesfort on the coast. Probably taking the Unicoi Trail past Brasstown Bald Mountain, they entered the gold-bearing region of northeast Georgia and enjoyed amicable relations with its Apalachee Indian occupants. They evidently also traveled north of the Hiwassee River Basin into the Nantahala Mountains or Snowbird Mountains, because Laudonnière’s book also mentions finding some silver ore. The only known silver ore in the Southern Highlands is in the higher elevations of these mountains. Laudonnière names the Southern Highlands, les Montes Apalachiens, in honor of his new Apalachee friends.
Laudonnière’s memoires, L’histoire notable de la Floride, contenant les trois voyages faits en icelles par des capitaines et pilotes français, were published in 1586, 12 years after his death. Soon thereafter, cartographers throughout Europe started showing a reasonably accurate rendering of the entire Savannah River Basin plus the mountains around the upper Hiwassee River Basin.
French Huguenots also established colonies in what are now, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida in 1562-64, but they were brutally destroyed by the Spanish in 1565. Spain had just established the first permanent settlement in North America at St. Augustine.
Nevertheless, France continued to claim what is now South Carolina until 1763. France’s claim was supported by all European maps, except those printed in Great Britain. They labeled what was to become South Carolina as Florida Francois until 1763. The French also established a little known colony on the St, Mary’s River in southeast Georgia, which seems to have held its own with the Spanish, but eventually was abandoned.
Between 1604 and 1608 two French Protestants, Samuel de Champlain and Pierre Du Gua, Sieur de Mons, explored New England and the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. They established French colonies at St. Croix, Maine and Quebec in 1608. For the next seventy years, the focus of French exploration and colonization efforts on the Great Lakes Basin, Ohio River and Upper Mississippi River. While under French dominion, the Mississippi was called the Saint Louis River. A trading post was established on the Cumberland River near present day Nashville, some time in the 1660s.
After Charlestowne (SC) was settled in 1674, the French had become alarmed and accelerated their exploration of the interior of the Lower Southeast. La Salle attempted to establish a French colony at the mouth of the Mississippi in 1684, but pirates, storms and bad luck caused the expeditions survivors to establish a short-lived colony on the coast of Texas. The following year 1685 the Colony of Carolina established a fort and trading post on the Savannah River in order to attract Native American customers for English goods.
One of the primary reasons that the French colonies in North America ultimately were captured by Great Britain was France’s failure to send sufficient numbers of middle class settlers. In 1685 there were only 10,275 Frenchmen in all of North America, while there were at least 250,000 English subjects.
A very important factor in the scarcity of French middle class colonists was France’s persecution of Protestants and Jews beginning in the 1560s. France had almost become a Protestant country in the 1500s. Although French Huguenots has led the first French colonies in the New World, members of these two religious groups were officially forbidden in French colonies by the late 1600s. The majority of French middle class merchants and manufacturers during that era were Protestant or Jewish.
Many affluent French Protestants and Jews immigrated to Great Britain, the Netherlands or Switzerland during the 1600s, but eventually became some of the leading families of New Amsterdam, Baltimore, South Carolina and Georgia. Not only did their education and skills add to the success of these colonies, but they hardened the resolve of British colonists toward their continued co-existence with French and Spanish colonies that were nominally Roman Catholic.
In 1699 a fleet commanded by Pierre Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville established a colony near what is now Biloxi, MS. The fort he built was designated the first capital of the French Province of Louisiana and his brother, Jean-Baptiste de Bienville was named its first governor. Pierre Le Moyne was one of the most successful and brilliant military leaders in French history. He devised the “Project Sur de Carolina.” Its text and maps described a long range plan to drive the colonists of South Carolina into the ocean. It was one of the first, or one of the first, examples of long term military strategy being organized into a printed document. Iberville proposed to use the Indian allies of France and Spain first to eliminate all English trading posts, then with lightning attacks on the frontier settlement wipe out the militia and drive thousands of women and children into the walls of Charleston. Here they would be starved into surrender with a conventional blockade by the French Navy and Marines.
Part Two describes the founding of first colonies and forts in the Gulf Coast Region.
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