Where was Fort Caroline?
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A very important historical fact should be considered with evaluating alternative locations for Fort Caroline. The cities of Darien, Brunswick and St. Marys on the Georgia coast were booming ports for many decades before Jacksonville, FL even existed. Their harbors were naturally deep enough to handle sea going vessels. At that time the St. Johns River was so shallow in places that cattle could be driven across; hence the city’s original name, Cowford. It was only after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged and widened the St. John River’s outlet that the port of Jacksonville was able to attract large sea-going vessels. Jacksonville was really not a seaport until the 1850s.
De Laudonniére described Fort Caroline as being triangular. The west side faced forests and prairieland. It was protected by a moat. The north side adjoined the freshwater creek that contained potable water. The other side faced the May River and tidal marshes. A drawing by Jacques Le Moyne showed the May River to be relatively narrow near Fort Caroline. René de Laudonniére’s commentary suggests that crossing the river between the fort and his beloved “modest mountain” was a fairly easy task, not one requiring several hours of rowing across a wide bay.
The May River was consistently shown in the same location as the Altamaha River by French colonial maps. Most maps show the May River beginning in the Piedmont, south of the Appalachian Mountains, and then flowing southeastward to what is now the coast of Georgia. This is exactly what the Altamaha River does. Its two largest tributaries, the Ocmulgee and the Oconee, begin as a series of small rivers flowing off the Peachtree Plateau, on which much of Metropolitan Atlanta is situated. Most French maps show Fort Caroline to be on the west side of the May (Altamaha) River, slightly inland. Beginning at its present day state line, northeastern Florida’s rivers are shown on old French maps to begin at some large lakes, then flow northward, then turn east to the Atlantic Ocean. This is exactly what the St. Johns River does.
Theordor de Bry’s etching of a map supposedly drawn by Jacques le Moyne shows the correct configurations of both the St. Johns and Altamaha Rivers, but has them join near the sea. One later (and very confused) European map also showed the Altamaha and St. Johns Rivers to have the same outlet. The outlet for this fictional river was called the May. However, absolutely no maps show Fort Caroline on the St. Johns River with the Altamaha being a separate river to the north.
The only rise near the outlet of the St. Johns River is St. Johns Bluff. It is about 40 feet above the surface of the river. There is a small Indian mound a few hundred feet west of the hill. At that distance from the ocean, the river is an inland bay. The terrain along the remaining length of the St. Johns River is flat and swampy, with many lakes on both sides. In fact, the St. Johns is a relatively young river that was created by barrier islands and sand bars along the Atlantic Coast. The region would have looked like the Outer Banks of North Carolina about 10,000 years ago.
After over a hundred years of searching along the St. Johns River, archaeologists and artifact collectors have never been able to find the location of Fort Caroline, or the Spanish Fort Mateo that was built over it. A reconstruction of Fort Caroline was built on a peninsula, about 7 ½ miles from the ocean, jutting into St. Johns Bay. There is a very small stream on the west side of the fort. It is not deep enough to swim in as de Laudonniére described his stream. Its water is brackish and stagnant. Rather than being across the May River as de Laudonniére described, the bluff is immediately behind the fort.
Today, the Port of Jacksonville is one of the major harbors of the eastern United States and the location of a large base of the United States Navy. It was not always a place for large ships. That is why the Spanish never constructed a town there. The St. Johns River forms a large, deep basin in the vicinity of Downtown Jacksonville, but the last eight miles of the river’s slow march to the sea was once characterized by shallow waters and a maze of tidal marshes. This can be seen on precise maps drawn by British engineers in 1763. The single entrance to the bay was originally narrow and shallow.
The St. Johns Channel has been dredged repeatedly by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to allow for aircraft carriers and oil tankers. In 1564 the outlet of the St. Johns River would have appeared to be a shallow, narrow river unsuitable for even 16th century ships. It was probably the Dolphin River described in de Laudonniére’s book.
In contrast, the mouth of the Altamaha River was the first choice by the Spanish for a colony in 1526. Missions were established on the Altamaha Sound immediately after the founding of Santa Elena and St. Augustine. Forts were later constructed to protect these missions. It is clear that the Spanish intended to develop the Altamaha Sound into a major center of colonial activity, had not the entire mission system collapsed. St. Marys Sound, St. Andrews Sound and Altamaha Sound are all deep enough for navigation by large nuclear submarines and cargo ships.
While the terrain around Fort Caroline as described by de Laudonniére was not like the delta of the St. Johns River, it does resemble three locations in extreme southeastern Georgia. There is a large ridge on the east side of the Altamaha River in McIntosh County, GA that is about 80 feet high. It is about seven miles from the mouth of the river. There is another ridge which is about 50-60 feet high on the west side of the river near Darien. Farther south, there is an 80 feet high ridge on the east side of the Satilla River in Camden County, GA (St. Marys.)
The largest sound on the South Atlantic Coast is the outlet for the Satilla River. The river flows past the northern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp and enters the Atlantic near Woodbine, GA. There is an 80 feet hill overlooking the Satilla River. However, the Satilla does not flow northward to the edge of the mountains as de Laudonniére described the May River doing. De Laudonniére may have considered the Satilla River as an outlet of the Altamaha River, since they are interconnected by tidal channels.
The actual location of Fort Caroline could be somewhere on the St. Johns River or it could have been on one of the rivers between there and the Altamaha. Without any architectural or artifact evidence to support a specific location, the final determination of the forts whereabouts must remain in the area of speculation. A broad archaeological survey of the coastal estuaries between Darien, GA and Jacksonville, FL will be required to identify its actual site.