Fort Caroline National Memorial | HISTORY OF FORT CAROLINE

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The conquest of the Americas began with the European discovery of the continent in the late 1400s, and it didn’t take long for people to start killing each other over it. The Spanish had conquered much of South America, and they knew the best way to sail back and forth between the New World and Europe entailed travel along the coast of Florida. This created a need to establish bases in Florida to keep enemies, both military rivals and pirates, from striking their treasure-laden ships returning to Spain full of plundered cargo from South America.

Word of the riches garnered by the Spanish conquistadors spread throughout Europe, and soon each major country rushed to make a claim to New World territories. While Spain was the first to occupy the Florida region with its military bases, it was the French who were the first to establish a civilian settlement: La Caroline—“the land of Charles”—named after King Charles IX. Other than a winter camp on St. Croix Island in Maine, the short-lived La Caroline was the only mark the French would leave on what would one day become the United States. Most all other French exploration of North America was done in what is now Canada.

In February 1562, a French expedition of three ships under the command of Jean Ribault departed for the New World. After arriving at the mouth of what is now called the St. Johns River, named River of May by Ribault, a stone column bearing the French coat of arms was erected to mark the territory for France. Ribault then turned north and eventually landed on Paris Island in South Carolina, where he set up a short-lived military post. He returned to France for supplies after leaving a garrison of 27 men behind. Unfortunately, when he arrived back in France he found that the Catholics and Protestants (aka Huguenots) were at war, preventing him from returning as promised.

Ribault, a Huguenot himself, was forced to flee to London after his home town of Dieppi fell to the Catholics. While there, he tried to raise money for a return voyage to Paris Island, but ended up in an English prison after being arrested as a spy. During this time, the men at Paris Island abandon the fort and returned to France.

After a treaty ended the religious fighting in 1563, the organizer of the first expedition, Gaspard de Coligny, was able to find financial support for a second expedition. With Ribault in jail, he appointed René de Goulaine de Laudonnière as the leader, and while first and foremost a commercial expedition, it evolved into an exodus for Huguenots who wanted to escape religious persecution, though there were some Catholics among them. While soldiers made up the majority of the settlers, artisans, farmers, and even women came along on the voyage to the New World. France’s ultimate goal was to establish a colony for the sake of commerce, not simply a military outpost, and if it could get rid of a few Huguenots in the process, all the better.

Laudonnière departed in April 1564 and arrived at the St. Johns River in June. Having been on the Ribault expedition, he knew the area, and it is believed that he landed near the mouth of the river to establish the new French settlement. Construction on a fort began immediately, and it was aptly named Fort Caroline.

French contact with the native people in the area was with the Timucuan Indians. The Timucuan helped them build the fort, supplying labor, food, and even precious metals. In return they wanted an alliance with the French to fight their enemies. The French had no real intentions of doing so and put forth a half-hearted effort at best. Once the Timucuan realized the French were not going to help them, they quit trading with them, and by the spring of 1565 relations had soured. As a result, the French resorted to violence in order to obtain the food and supplies they needed. This did not work out well, and the French colonists soon found themselves facing starvation. Some fled the area to take their chances elsewhere, while the rest were ready to sail back to France when Jean Ribault, having been released from prison, arrived with supplies in August 1565.

A year after La Caroline was established, the Spanish landed forty miles south and constructed a fort at today’s St. Augustine. Conflict was inevitable, and in September 1565, just a month or so after Ribault brought hundreds of new colonists to La Caroline, he took his fleet south to strike at the Spanish before they could strike at the French. As bad luck would have it, a hurricane struck and wrecked the ships; those who did not drown made it to shore near modern day Daytona Beach. With Fort Caroline virtually empty of soldiers, Spanish Admiral Pedro Menéndez marched north and attacked the fort on September 20th. Some colonists were able to flee into the woods or onto a few ships that had not been destroyed by the hurricane, but all others, except for 50 or so women and children, were killed. Menéndez later located Ribault and his surviving men and executed all of them after they had surrendered. Thus, St. Augustine is the oldest city in America and not Jacksonville.

The Spanish maintained Fort Caroline as their own fort, but it was burned to the ground during a French attack in April 1568. The French did not reoccupy the area, but instead returned to France after hanging 200 Spanish soldiers. The Spanish rebuilt the fort, but finally left the area in 1569.

The original location of La Caroline has long been lost to history. Even if the Spanish had left the wooden structures of the fort in place when they departed, 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 in the 1880s.

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 resembled the real 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 fort at Fort Caroline National Memorial is estimated to be only about a third the size of the original Fort Caroline.

For more information on the history of Fort Caroline, watch the following videos. The most complete telling of the story is in the second video, though you may want to skip past the way-to-long opening credits. The narrator misspeaks a couple of times, but what is told is in line with the true story of Fort Caroline.


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Last updated on March 26, 2021
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