Collection: Sixteenth Century French Exploration

16th Century French Exploration of North America

An AccessGenealogy Exclusive: Richard Thornton’s study of the Sixteenth Century French Exploration of North America – replete with maps and images – Much of the research in this report was drawn from two books by former Congressman Charles Bennett of Florida, which were interpolated with the author’s personal knowledge of Georgia coast – while fishing, canoeing, sailing and camping in the region between Darien, GA and Jacksonville, FL. The author was born in Waycross, GA, is a Creek Indian and is an expert on Muskogean culture. The first book by Bennett, Three Voyages, translated the memoirs of Captain René Goulaine de Laudonniére. The second book by Bennett, De Laudonniére and Fort Caroline, translated the memoirs and letters by other members of the French colonizing expeditions. These books are supplemented by the English translation of Jacques Le Moyne’s illustrated book, Brevis narratio eorum quae in Florida Americai provincia Gallis acciderunt,” Le Moyne was the official artist of the Fort Caroline Colony, and one of the few who survived its massacre by the Spanish.

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Historical Maps of Southeast United States

1.  1550 – Dutch map of the Western Hemisphere This map shows the accurate description of the shape of the Florida Peninsula before the late 1600s.  Later maps described its shape as being triangular.  Even though the survivors of the de Soto Expedition returned to Mexico City in 1543, this map does not show any information about the interior.  Note that Japan (Zimpango) is shown off the coast of North America.     2. 1562 – French map of the Western Hemisphere This map contains many of the rivers along the coast of North America and the Gulf Coast, but distorts Florida. It labels the Apalachen Mountains and portrays the Chattahoochee and Ashley River System fairly accurately.  However, the Suwannee River is shown as originating in the mountains.  The Suwannee begins only few miles south of the channel of the Altamaha River in southeastern Georgia.  The Altamaha and Savannah Rivers are not shown.  There is no information from the de Soto Expedition.  This is the year that Charlesfort was settled.   3.  1566 – Spanish map of North America This is the earliest map to show the new settlement of Santa Elena.  No mention is made of Charlesfort.  However the location of Fort Caroline or Fort Matheo is located on the south side of the Setto River.  The Altamaha River is labeled the Secco River.  St. Augustine is also...

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The Non-Search for Fort Caroline and a Great Lake

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...

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What If’s

An incredible series of “things gone bad” turned the 16th century colonization efforts of the French government into a tragic disaster.  French efforts were far better planned than their Spanish or English counterparts in the 16th century.  At the start, France seem destined to be the dominant power in North America.  If any one of many decisions had been made differently, the French Colony may have succeeded.  Here are some of the “what if’s.” If Jean Ribault and René Goulaine de Laudonniére had brought along a couple of fishing boats from Brittany on their voyages, the colonists would have had an abundance of food.  Excess fish could have been traded to the Natives for grains and vegetables. If France had established a powerful military and naval base prior to sending over large numbers of non-combatants and non-productive people such as musicians, it is unlikely that the Spanish would have been able to dislodge the colonists from La Florida. If the first phase of the Religious Wars had no broken out, Jean Ribault would have been able to resupply and reinforce both Charlesfort and Fort Caroline before starvation set in. If one man had not remained behind at Charlesfort, the Spanish would not have known that a second and larger colony had been planned to the south. If some of the Fort Caroline garrison had not mutinied, the Spanish would...

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Florida Françoise

The Kingdom of France continued to claim the region between the Santee River in present day South Carolina and the St. Marys River in present day Georgia until the Treaty of Paris in 1763, when ceded all its territory in North America to Great Britain. Most European maps, except those of Great Britain labeled this “wannabe” province Florida Françoise.  However, France did not officially participate in any further colonization efforts in the region after 1565.  It is important to note that France never claimed the St. Johns River Basin and always on its official maps, labeled the Altamaha River as the May River. King Henri IV of Navarre became the King of France in 1589.  Navarre in the northern tip of Spain was a Protestant country.  Henri was an important leader of the Protestant army in France.  However, in order to bring peace to his country and secure the support of the Catholic majority, he converted back to Catholicism – at least nominally.  There is no evidence that he ever changed his personal beliefs.  After securing his throne, Henri issued the Edict of Nantes which gave religious freedom to all Christians.  This brought peace to France. Henri became known as one of Frances greatest kings. The French prospered mightily under his reign.  Henri IV was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic in 1610. After the death of Henri IV, there...

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Fort San Mateo

Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés simultaneously built fortifications in Saint Augustine Bay and at La Florida’s planned capital of St. Elena on Parris Island, SC. Next he repaired and strengthened Fort Caroline, renaming it Fort San Mateo.  Efforts were made by the Spanish in 1566 to bribe Indian tribes within the interior of Florida to turn over the Frenchmen, who avoided execution in 1765.  Apparently, the Natives could not be bribed. Fort San Mateo was to be the center of a planned mission system run by the Jesuits. The excellent harbor near Fort Mateo was to be a place where Spanish treasure fleets could find haven from English privateers and hurricanes.  The fact that Spanish galleons could not even enter the St. Johns River is further evidence that neither Fort Caroline nor Fort Mateo were located there.  The Jesuits attempted to convert Native villages near the outlets of the Altamaha, Satilla and St. Marys Rivers around 1568, but did not have much success. Since the victims of the massacre were flying the flag of France, most Frenchmen, whether Protestant or Catholic, considered the murders to be an act of war by Spain.  Had not France been badly divided by the Wars of Religion, it probably would have declared war on Spain.  King Charles IX did nothing more than protest the massacre. Captain Dominique de Gourgue, a Catholic nobleman in...

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Two Massacres at Matanzas

Survivors of Jean Ribault’s fleet staggered onto the beach south of St. Augustine with nothing but their torn clothes.  Eventually, the castaways clustered into two groups. One, numbering about a hundred were under the command of Ribault.  A smaller group came together on a beach farther south.  Neither group had food or water.  Apparently, none knew how to catch fish in tidal pools or which coastal plants were edible. Ribault’s party staggered northward in search of potable water.  Eventually, the desperate men encountered a small search party dispatched by Menéndez to look for survivors of the French fleet.  Ribault assumed that his group of about 100 men would be treated decently and fed, since René de Laudonniére had treated two ship-wrecked Spaniards as guests.  This was not to happen. As soon as Menéndez heard about the surrender of the Frenchmen, he sent word to have their hands bound behind their backs.  They were then individually interrogated.  The few Catholics in the group were freed and given food and water.  Then following direct orders from King Phillip II, Menéndez  gave each Protestant a chance to renounce his faith and convert to Roman Catholicism.  Apparently, none did.  Ten at a time, they were marched to a river then rowed across to the other side. Their throats were slit behind a sand dune, where the others could not see their pending fate....

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Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés Arrives at Fort Caroline

One September 2, 1565, just after Ribault had sailed in three of his small ships to Fort Caroline, six large Spanish ships appeared at the entrance to the May River.  It was the force commanded by Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés that the king of Spain had ordered to drive out the heretic French colonists.    The Frenchman, who had elected to stay behind at Charlesfort had been captured by the Spanish.  He had told the Spanish approximately where the other colony was located. Many of the tribes may have been in cahoots with the Spanish, not knowing that the Spanish would be far worse masters than the French. In fact, the invitation to travel to the Appalachian Mountains might well have been a trap.  The fort would have been weakened by the lost of a large party of soldiers headed north.   An attack on the gold-hunting party could have been planned once they were in the province of their enemies.  Whatever was planned, it turned out not to be necessary. During the 1500s the Spanish style of naval warfare was to grapple an enemy ship then board it with large numbers of soldiers.  English ships relied on superior cannon and gunnery skills. Probably, the French and Dutch Protestant ships were fairly similar to the English ones.  The big Spanish ships were probably galleons, for Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés...

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Jean Ribault Arrives at Fort Caroline

On August 28, 1565 the two ships at Fort Caroline’s dock prepared to hoist anchors and sail for France.  Then sails were seen on the horizon.  It was Jean Ribault’s large fleet of at least seven ships, carrying 800 colonists.  Ribault had finally returned to France from England in June of 1565.  While in England he had almost been successful in convincing Queen Elizabeth to send a English colonists to Fort Caroline. Those colonists, who returned to France after the fort was constructed, told authorities that de Laudonniére was a tyrannical commander, who would resist militarily any attempt by other Frenchmen to occupy the fort.  Ribault was under orders to arrest de Laudonniére, if the information was found to be true.  If the allegations were not true, nevertheless, Ribault was to take command of the colony. Ribault quickly realized that de Laudonniére was innocent of the charges.  Ribault offered to name him is second-in-command.  De Laudonniére refused and asked to be allowed to return to France. The day after Ribault’s arrival Native leaders from throughout the region arrived at the fort to inquire.  Again we have proof of a very speedy communication system among the coastal provinces.  Presumably, in the flatlands, it was based on runners, rather than hill top signal fires.  However, de Laudonniére makes no mention of any communication system among the Natives. The indigenous visitors to...

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The Third Voyage to Fort Caroline

French combat teams went on expeditions several times to rival provinces, but only a few are specifically described by de Laudonniére. 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...

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Early Explorers in the Interior Coastal Region

La Roche Ferriére is our primary candidate for making direct contact with the gold-mining Indians of northern Georgia. The native peoples on the coast specifically told de Laudonniére that the most valuable export products from the mountains (to them) were the polished stone wedges used for splitting trees.  Greenstone does not exist in either Florida or southern Georgia. A small party that de Laudonniére trusted sailed up the Georgia coast to the province of King Oueda. Oueda still thought fondly of the Frenchmen.  He sent them food supplies and invited them to relocate their colony in his province. Pierre Gambie, who grew up in the household of Admiral Cologny, volunteered to travel into the interior to set up a trade network with the Indians. He apparently went up the May River at least as far as the Utina Province.  This is known because he married the king’s daughter.  He was living with her in Utinahaca, when the garrison at Fort Caroline was massacred.   He later was elected king of the Utina.  However, at some time during his reign, he became disliked and was assassinated.  It is quite possible that Pierre traveled up to the mountains while a trader or a political leader. Unfortunately, he never wrote memoirs and apparently communication with France was cut off, when the Spanish settled the Georgia coast. There is perhaps was an unknown connection...

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Gold, Silver, Copper and Greenstone

In many sections of his book, René Goulaine de Laudonniére discussed being given or seeing gold chains, gold sheets, gold nuggets, slabs of silver and silver ore.  The valuable metals were always in the possession of the provincial leaders or town chiefs.  Both at Charlesfort and Fort Caroline, the former owners of the gold and silver consistently stated that these precious commodities came from the mountains to the north.   This is exactly what the Natives in the Florida Panhandle told members of the de Soto Expedition and South Carolina Natives told Spanish Captain Juan Pardo in 1567. By late 1564 food had become scarce at Fort Carolina because local Indians had become somewhat hostile to the colonists. The Frenchmen had not committed any atrocities toward their neighbors, but the locals were getting tired of feeding a foreign people, who showed signs of wanting the take over their land.  A faction of the garrison staged a mutiny.   René Goulaine de Laudonniére was not murdered, but he was put in chains, while his officers were disarmed.  The mutineers resented rationing and their commander’s plans to build a boat and return to France.  They demanded the right to both contact the Spanish for food (not a good idea) and also make contact with the Apalachee gold miners in the Georgia Mountains. Three small parties or individuals were given permission to explore widely...

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Ethnicity and Political Divisions of Coastal Tribes

In recent years, several anthropologists have criticized the paintings of French Huguenot artist Jacques le Moyne because “the Indians look like they are from Brazil.”  That is exactly what the indigenous linguistics recorded by René de Laudonniére on the South Atlantic Coast suggest.  Most of these ethnic groups were not Muskogeans.  Most used a political title for king associated with the Moche culture; parcusi or paracusa.  Some worshiped a sun god named Toya like the Calusas.  Others spoke languages that contained Arawak elements.  South American anthropologists currently believe that the Arawaks originated in either the northern Amazon Basin or...

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Agriculture of the Coastal Native Americans

Anthropological literature from Florida is awash with statements that presume the coastal peoples of Georgia and South Carolina were primarily fishermen, hunters and gatherers.  This may have been the case for many ethnic groups in the coastal regions of the Florida Peninsula, but was not true for many areas of the Georgia and South Carolina coast. The primary reason listed by René Goulaine de Laudonniére for not placing a French colony on the coast of the Florida Peninsula was that the soil was infertile and the climate, hot.  On the first voyage he had noticed that the coast was sparsely inhabited south of the May River, while from the river’s mouth, northward to the Jordan River (Savannah River?) he observed intensive cultivation of the land.  The first French colonies would have to be located in a region where they could initially buy surplus food from their indigenous neighbors then be able to feed themselves from their own agriculture. Less de Laudonniére’s observations being assessed as the unfounded interpretation of the landscape by a mariner, the experience of Spanish St. Augustine can be used as added proof.  The mission Indians and Spanish peons around St. Augustine were never able to feed the relative small population of St. Augustine.  Former FSU history professor, Theodore Corbitt, estimated that in 1740 St. Augustine had a population of 2,143 persons.  During the 1600s, its...

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Geography Around the Coastal Region of Fort Caroline

To understand why Captain René de Laudonniére would be drawn to either the Satilla, St. Marys or Altamaha Rivers as the location of France’s first permanent colony in North America, one has to first look at the “ground level” geography, i.e. what the officers would have seen from a mile or so out to sea. Maps of the Florida and Georgia coast are included with this article. The mouth of the St. Johns River would appear to be that of small, shallow river flowing through marshes. The outlet of the river was often blocked with dangerous sand bars until...

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