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Location: Fort Caroline

Castaways, Deserters, Refugees and Pirates

There is no accurate measure of the number of shipwrecks along the South Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, but the number must be in the hundreds or even over a thousand. Also not known is how many shipwrecked sailors and passengers survived in North America during the 1500’s and 1600’s, or how many Sephardic Jews, Muslim Moors and European Protestants, escaping the Spanish Inquisition, landed on the shores of the present day Southeastern United States. Surviving archives, however, do furnish credible evidence of these peoples settling in the interior of the Southeast, while officially England was only colonizing the coastal regions.

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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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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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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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Where was Fort Caroline?

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...

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Second Voyage Commanded by René Goulaine de Laudonniére

In early 1562 the government of France dispatched Captain Jean Ribault with a small fleet to explore the South Atlantic Coast; claim it for the King of France; and identify potential locations for colonies. Ribault brought along with him three stone columns displaying the coat of arms of the King of France.  He placed one of these columns at the mouth of the River May, which contemporary scholars assume to be the St. Johns River.  Ribault’s fleet then sailed northward along the coast, mapping the islands and river outlets, until it reached was is now assumed to be Port Royal Sound.  Ribault planted a second column at the mouth of the sound. Most of the expedition’s energies during the short stay of Captains Ribault and René de Laudonniére were focused on constructing a fort and buildings for the 28 men, who were to stay at the new colony while the remainder went to France for more supplies and colonists. Captain Albert de la Pierria was placed in command of Charlesfort.  Because a religious civil war had broken out in France during their absence, neither Ribault nor de Laudonniére was able to return to Charlesfort as soon as promised. The garrison faced starvation and was saddled with a increasingly neurotic commander.  Captain Albert was killed by the garrison.  The survivors then built a sail boat. All but one sailed to...

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Where were Cape François and the May River?

Scholars have long assumed that Cape François was either present day Cape Canaveral They have also assumed that the May River was the St. Johns River.  However, the distances between these points and Beaufort, SC (Port Royal Sound) don’t seem to correlate with the time that French fleet spent to travel. De Laudonniére’s memoirs state that the fleet sailed directly from Cape François to the outlet of the May River in two weeks.  They spent two weeks more exploring a series of islands and rivers between the May River and Port Royal. They stopped to explore inlets and rivers. Late 16th century and 17th century French maps generally show Cape François to be north of the mouth of the St. Johns River. The numbers just don’t add up.  Jacksonville is 138 miles from Cape Canaveral (9.8 miles per day) and 27 miles from St. Augustine (1.9 miles per day.)  Jacksonville is 163 miles from Beaufort, SC (11.6 miles per day.)  If the May River was the St. Johns River at Jacksonville,  the time required to reach Port Royal Sound (Beaufort) should have been more like three weeks.  Furthermore, de Laudonniére’s memoirs state that the ships became lost in a fog as they approached Port Royal, losing much time. The question is significant because for well over a century, archaeologists and artifact collectors have searched along the mouth of the...

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First Voyage Commanded by Jean Ribault – 1562

On February 15, 1562 the government of France dispatched Captain Jean Ribault with a small fleet to explore the South Atlantic Coast, claim it for the King of France, and identify potential locations for colonies. Unlike colonial expeditions sponsored by Spain and England in that century, the French expedition was extremely well planned, at least on paper. It was financed by the French Crown, whereas Spanish and English colonial attempts were privately capitalized.  The members of the expedition included all skills necessary to survive in the New World, including carpenters and ship builders. Admiral de Cologny intended French Florida to become a major center of ship-building, because of the inexhaustible supply of wood on the Southeast. The colony would thrive from the profits of ship-building and not be dependent on support from the French Crown for very long.  That was the plan, at least. The expedition reached the coast of North American around April 15.  De Laudonniére’s memoirs do not give a specific date. The place is called a cape or headland that consisted of a white sandy beach and a horizon defined by trees.  This well could have been one of the larger barrier islands on the South Atlantic coast.  The French called this geographical landmark, Cape François.  De Laudonniére said that it was at about 30 degrees latitude. Almost all scholars assume that Cape François was Cape...

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