France's first attempt to establish a permanent settlement in North America
Although France's first attempt to establish a permanent settlement in North America was originally intended to be a purely commercial venture, religious conflict within France changed the goals. Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, a leader of the French Protestants (Huguenots), proposed that the colony also be a refuge for Huguenots; the proposal was accepted.
The first exploratory expedition, led by Jean Ribault, left France on February 18, 1562, and reached the Florida coast on April 30. After erecting a monument at the River of May (now known as the St. Johns River) on May 1st, Ribault moved north to Port Royal Sound. There, on present-day Parris Island, South Carolina, he left 28 men to build the settlement of Charlesfort. Ribault then returned to Europe to arrange for supplies, but was arrested in England due to complications arising from the French Wars of Religion and was unable to return. During his absence the settlement was beset by hunger, disease, and attacks from hostile Indians. Barely a year after their arrival all but one of the colonists decided to sail back to Europe. The return voyage proved even more hazardous than life in the New World, and by the time the remaining colonists reached Europe they had had to resort to cannibalism in order to survive.
Establishment of Fort Caroline
Despite the failure of its first attempt, France was unwilling to give up on the New World. A new expedition, led by René de Goulaine de Laudonnière, who had accompanied Ribault, left France on April 22, 1564, arrived off the Florida coast on June 22nd, and reached the River of May on June 25th. On June 30th, after a meeting with Saturiwa, Chief of the Timucua Indians, the 300 or so settlers set about building a village and fort on the south bank of the river (on the site of present-day Jacksonville). The region was named La Caroline, in honor of King Charles IX.
At first it looked as if Fort Caroline would succeed. In addition to the standard compliment of soldiers and administrators, the settlement also counted artisans, craftsmen, and even women and children amongst its colonists, a combination that until then was unheard of in this period of American history. It also had assistance from local Indians, also something unknown in those days. But the good times didn't last long, for on November 13, 1564, thirteen men deserted. By May of 1565 famine had set in, and by August of that year the surviving colonists were ready to head back to France. Just as they were preparing to leave, however, sails were spotted on the horizon. Jean Ribault had finally been freed by England and was returning with supplies and 600 more settlers; he landed at Fort Caroline on August 14, 1565.
The Spanish Massacre
During Ribault's absence, King Phillip II of Spain had sent Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to remove the French from Florida. Menéndez arrived within days of Ribault's return and set up camp in present-day Saint Augustine. On September 10, 1565, having learned of Menéndez's mission, Ribault left Fort Caroline with a small fleet to intercept him, but the fleet was struck at sea by a violent storm that lasted several days, wrecking most of the ships. Meanwhile, Menéndez, who had already begun his overland march, reached Fort Caroline (on September 20). With most of the settlement's soldiers on Ribault's fleet, Menéndez had little trouble overtaking the fort. He then proceeded to massacre most of the inhabitants, sparing only about 50 women and children and a few other colonists who managed to escape. On October 12, as he marched back south, Menéndez encountered the survivors of Ribault's fleet. Although the survivors gave themselves up believing they would receive needed medical care, Menéndez had them all killed, including Ribault.
In April of 1568, a group of Frenchmen landed in Florida, bent on taking revenge against the Spaniards. Two Spanish forts were taken on April 24, and Fort Caroline (by then renamed Fort San Mateo by the Spanish) was captured on the 27th. The French then proceeded to massacre every Spaniard at the fort before leaving Florida on May 3rd.
One of the men who managed to escape the Spanish massacre was French artist Jacques le Moyne de Morgues, whose job it was to paint images of the people, flora and fauna, and geography of the region. He planned to publish an account of his experiences, but died in 1587 before his work could be published. His paintings and narratives were subsequently purchased by Theodore de Bry, who "completed" some of the narratives and "improved" some of the paintings and then published the work.
Laudonnière, the original leader of Fort Caroline, was also amongst the massacre survivors. His narratives on the Fort Caroline experience were published under the title L'Histoire notable de la Florida, in 1586.
The Fort Caroline National Memorial was established on January 16, 1953, and is now part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve and Fort Caroline National Memorial.
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This page was last updated on April 10, 2014.