“They be all naked and of goodly stature, mighty, faire and as well shapen…as any people in all the worlde, very gentill, curtious and of good nature… the men be of tawny color, hawke nosed and of a pleasant countenance…the women be well favored and modest…”
— French explorer Jean Ribault
Fort Caroline was an early French colony in the United States, originally thought to be established in what is now Jacksonville, Florida, on June 22, 1564. However, in recent years, this has come into dispute, and scholars announced in 2014 that the actual ruins of Fort Caroline might have been found in Georgia (See Dispute Below).
The fort was built under the leadership of René Goulaine de Laudonnière as a refuge for the Huguenots, who were members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France.
During the 16th century, France was determined to expand its empire. Spain, the world’s leading power, already had a foothold in the Americas, and France wanted a share of the riches the Spanish were gaining through trade and plunder. France’s first attempt to stake a permanent claim in North America was at La Caroline, a settlement thought to be near the mouth of the St. Johns River in Florida. Native American researchers have recently found that the settlement is actually on the Altamaha River.
When French explorer, Jean Ribault, arrived at the river in 1562, he was impressed by the first native peoples he encountered. The Timucuan, under Chief Saturiwa, who met the French at the mouth of the river, was one of several Timucua-speaking tribes who inhabited central and north Florida and southeastern Georgia. They were in the final stage of a culture whose way of life had remained unchanged for over 1,000 years.
The French expedition, organized by Protestant leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, landed briefly in 1562, and Jean Ribault and his men erected a monument at the river. They then moved north to Port Royal Sound in present-day South Carolina. On Parris Island, Ribault left 28 men to build a settlement known as Charlesfort. Ribault then returned to Europe to arrange supplies for the new colony; but was arrested in England due to complications arising from the French Wars of Religion, which prevented his return. Without supplies or leadership and beset by hostility from the native populations, all but one of the colonists sailed back to Europe after only one year. During their voyage in an open boat, they were reduced to cannibalism before the survivors were rescued in English waters.
In the meantime, Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere, Jean Ribault’s second-in-command on the 1562 expedition, led a contingent of around 300 new settlers back to the Florida and Georgia area, where historians have said they founded Fort Caroline atop St. Johns Bluff on June 22, 1564. However, that location has been called into question as recently as 2013 when Cherokee historian Marilyn Rae discovered that William Bartram, a famous botanist of the 1700s, had visited ruins of a French or Spanish fort on the Altamaha River and had even left specific instructions on how to find them. After Rae’s revelation, Glynn County, Georgia officials provided images that allowed researchers to locate the footprints of a large triangular fort and a smaller tetragonal fort.
The colonists included some of the leading families of France, wearing gilded armor and brightly colored clothes. Other representatives of French society included artisans to provide entertainment and laborers to build the fort. The group also included French artist Jacques le Moyne de Morgues, whose job was to paint images of the people, flora, fauna, and geography of this part of the New World. The desire for permanency was illustrated by the inclusion of women, of whom at least four had husbands. Most were Huguenots, but there were also Catholics and agnostics.
At first, the settlement was to be a commercial venture, but religious conflict in France broadened the goals so that the settlement was also a refuge for Huguenots. The soldiers and artisans then began to build, with help from the Timucuan Indians, a village and fort on the river’s south bank.
In Florida, Spain and France hoped to claim their piece of the “new world.” By the time the French planted their settlement at La Caroline, Spain was entrenched in South and Central America, and its sea routes through the Caribbean were well established. Spanish ships bearing gold and silver from the mines of Mexico and Peru stopped at Havana before sailing for Spain. They rode the Gulf Stream through what is now the Straits of Florida and up the southeastern coast of North America. The Spanish were uneasy about a French settlement because of their treasure ships. At the same time, they followed the Florida coast, which could be easy prey for suspected French raiders in their nearby haven at La Caroline.
The settlement barely survived that first year. Good relations with the Indians eventually soured, and the colonists were close to starvation by the following spring. Twice, mutinous parties had sailed off to make their own fortunes; some were eventually captured by the Spanish, revealing the presence of the French colony. The remaining colonists were about to leave Florida in August 1565 when they spotted sails on the horizon. Jean Ribault had arrived with a relief expedition of supplies and 600 soldiers and settlers, including more women and some children.
On learning of Ribault’s departure for Florida, Phillip II of Spain sent Admiral Pedro Menendez to remove the French from Florida. Menendez established a base to the south at St. Augustine. Ribault sailed down the coast seeking to attack the Spanish, but his ships were scattered by a hurricane and beached far to the south.
Seizing the opportunity, Menendez marched north with 500 soldiers to attack the weakly guarded colony. It is believed that the Spanish camped overnight nearby and attacked early. Forty or fifty French people, including Laudonniere and the artist, Jacques le Moyne de Morgues, escaped and sailed for France. Out of the remaining 200 people, only about 60 women and children were spared.
Menendez next marched south and found the shipwrecked Frenchmen, Ribault among them. They threw themselves on his mercy, but, to Menendez, they were heretics and enemies of his king. At a place later named Matanzas (Slaughter), he put to the sword about 350 men – all but those professing to be Catholics and a few musicians. France never again strongly challenged Spanish claims in North America.
Today, the Fort Caroline National Memorial is a unit of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. Fort Caroline memorializes the short-lived French presence in 16th-century Florida. Here, visitors find stories of exploration, survival, religious disputes, territorial battles, and first contact between American Indians and Europeans. However, all that is now in question with recent discoveries putting the fort in Georgia instead. Read about and see links to further information under Dispute below.
Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve
12713 Fort Caroline Road
Jacksonville, Florida 32225
Compiled by© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2022.
Primary Source: National Park Service
It’s not often that we have to rewrite history such as this, but the story of Fort Caroline is obviously in flux. After receiving a communication from a Legends reader, we were alerted that good solid evidence now points to Fort Caroline in a completely different location, on the Altamaha River in Georgia. We expect to be making additional updates to this story as more facts and resolutions come out, but in the meantime, here are links to additional references and details about the ongoing dispute between Georgia and Florida.
Florida Highjacks Discovery of Fort Caroline – Examiner Feb 22, 2014
Oldest Fortified Settlement In North America May be Located in Georgia – Science Daily, Feb 21, 2014
Scholars say ancient Fort Caroline nowhere near Jacksonville (a 450-year mystery with much history at stake) – The Florida Times Union, Feb 21, 2014
Missions & Presidios in the United States