Fort Caroline National Memorial | FORT EXHIBIT

Fort Caroline National Memorial in Jacksonville, Florida

Fort Caroline National Memorial in Jacksonville, Florida

Construction on Fort Caroline began in June 1564 by the men of a second French expeditionary force that landed, it is thought, somewhere in the modern-day Jacksonville, Florida, area. The French were wiped out by the Spanish in September 1565, and after maintaining the fort themselves for a few years, the Spanish abandoned the area in 1569. Even if they had left the wooden structures in place, these certainly would have rotted or washed away long ago, leaving no visual evidence of Fort Caroline. Since there has never been an archaeological discovery of artifacts such as dated coins, garbage, discarded weapons, or human remains to pinpoint the settlement site, nobody knows for sure where the fort was located. Chances are that it now lies somewhere at the bottom of the St. Johns River, which had its course altered back in the 1880s. There is even recent speculation that the location was 70 miles farther north near Darien, Georgia, though that would make it nearly impossible for the Spanish to have marched from St. Augustine to attack the fort in the number of days claimed by Spanish Admiral Pedro Menéndez.

Fort Caroline National Memorial was created in 1953 to commemorate the French blip on American history. Because nobody can say for sure where the original settlement was, the modern-day park was designated a “National Memorial” and not a “National Historic Site.” Any spot near the mouth of the St. Johns River was as good as any for the park, and my guess is that the current location was chosen either because the federal government already owned the land or the land was donated so the park could be created.

In 1964, four hundred years after the French established the first settlement in North America, the National Park Service decided to build a replica of a fort that could have looked like Fort Caroline. Its design is based on historical descriptions of typical forts from the era, and on a sketch done by Jacques le Moyne, an artist who was part of the 1564 expedition and one of the few to escape alive after the Spanish attacked. Based on the reported number of colonists, the National Park Service fort is estimated to be only about a third the size of the original Fort Caroline.

The grounds of Fort Caroline National Memorial are open from 9 AM to 5 PM each day. To reach the fort exhibit you must walk about a quarter mile from the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve Visitor Center, the visitor center that serves both the Preserve and the Memorial. An information panel near the parking lot marks the start of the trail, which is essentially a narrow dirt road. In addition to taking visitors to the fort, it eventually connects to the 1-mile Hammock Trail if you want to get a little exercise. Follow the FORT signs along the trail to reach Fort Caroline.

Signs on the Hammock Trail point the way to the Fort Caroline exhibit

Signs on the Hammock Trail point the way to the Fort Caroline exhibit

In less than ten minutes you will arrive at the entrance to Fort Caroline. From the outside you can see the partial moat that was constructed by the National Park Service.

Entrance to the Fort Caroline exhibit at Fort Caroline National Memorial

Entrance to the Fort Caroline exhibit at Fort Caroline National Memorial

Moat around the Fort Caroline exhibit at Fort Caroline National Memorial

Moat around the Fort Caroline exhibit at Fort Caroline National Memorial

Inside the fort are information panels and a few cannon exhibits. Other than seeing how the fort might have been constructed, there’s not a lot to it. Ultimately, it’s hard to get excited about a place that isn’t real. I consider parks like this to be “forced history lessons,” meaning you learn something you might not have learned otherwise. After all, how many people knew the French made a settlement in North America nearly 20 years before the British set up house at Fort Raleigh? (Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is part of the National Park system).

Inside Fort Caroline, Fort Caroline National Memorial

Inside Fort Caroline (Fort Caroline National Memorial)

Cannon defend the entrance to Fort Caroline (Fort Caroline National Memorial)

Cannon defend the entrance to Fort Caroline (Fort Caroline National Memorial)

If you didn’t get a look at the St. Johns River on the way to the fort, you can get one now, for the fort is built right on the water.

View of the St. Johns River from Fort Caroline (Fort Caroline National Memorial)

View of the St. Johns River from Fort Caroline (Fort Caroline National Memorial)

Outside the fort walls is what appears to be an oven. Ovens were built outside as a precaution against igniting the gunpowder that was stored inside.

Oven outside the walls of Fort Caroline (Fort Caroline National Memorial)

Oven outside the walls of Fort Caroline (Fort Caroline National Memorial)

An out-and-back trip to Fort Caroline covers about .75 mile if you count walking around the fort, and it takes about 45 minutes of your time. If you would like some additional exercise I highly recommend the Hammock Trail, which you can pick up near the entrance to the fort. The trail is a loop and gets you back to the Visitor Center parking lot in a little less than a mile.

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Last updated on April 14, 2022
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