22 June 2011

22 June - Fort Caroline

The Building of Fort Caroline, Le Moyne

In 1564, two hundred French soldiers and settlers (including several women) under the command of René de Goulaine de Laudonnière established Fort Caroline (or La Carolyne as it is called on a 17th century French map) near the mouth of the St. Johns River in what is now northern Florida.   De Laudonnière had been second-in-command of the previous expedition in 1562 under Jean Ribault, who had attempted to make a foot-hold in the New World at the ill-fated Charles Fort, named, like Fort Caroline, for King Charles IX of France.

France, like most of Europe, envied the Spanish treasure ships which carried gold, silver, and jewels from Spanish-held lands in Central and South America, and naturally wanted to get a piece of the action.  A further impetus was the French religious wars of the time - it was proposed that the persecuted Huguenots (Protestants) could find sanctuary in a New World settlement, at the same time establishing a French presence.

The fort was far enough inland to escape detection from passing ships of the Spanish treasure fleet which followed the Gulf Stream from the Caribbean along the Florida coast before striking off across the Atlantic.  At this point, the Spanish had not done anything in the settlement of Florida, not deeming it worthwhile.  Could the little colony strengthen and hold its position, the French would have a very strong hold over the area and a firm base from which to operate.

But while the local Timucuan Indians has been friendly at the start, relations between them and the French soured, and before they had been there a year, the settlers of La Carolyne were in danger of starving.  Also, and equally dangerous, their position was now known to the Spanish, who learned of the location of the fort from captured mutineers who had set out to rob the passing treasure ships.

Before they could pack up and return to France, however, Ribault sailed in with a large fleet and six hundred more soldiers and settlers - and even more important, supplies. 

Philip II of Spain - advised that his treasure fleets would be in danger from French raiders based at the fort - sent Pedro Menendez d'Aviles to remove the French presence from the coast of Florida.  This he did rather thoroughly, with the aid of a hurricane.  Ribault had taken most of the soldiers and male settlers south in ships for a preemptive strike against the Spanish at St. Augustine.  After an overland march, the Spanish troops surprised the lightly guarded fort at dawn on September 20th.  While Laudonnière and between 40-50 men escaped, the remaining men of the fort were killed, and the women and children taken prisoner.

Meanwhile, a hurricane scattered and sank most of the French ships; Ribault and nearly four hundred of his surviving men found themselves cast ashore near modern Daytona.  They were captured by the Spanish, who executed most of them, including Ribault, as heretics, in an area near Matanzas Inlet.  Only a few professing Catholics and musicians were left alive.

This put an end to the French presence in the southeastern part of North America.

Fort Caroline was subsequently renamed San Mateo.  In 1568, another Frenchman, Dominique de Gourges, captured Fort San Mateo and massacred all of the Spanish there, in retaliation for the slaughter of Ribault and his men three years previous.  He then sailed away.  The Spanish rebuilt the fort, but abandoned it the following year.

While the actual location of La Carolyne is not known, you can visit the approximate site at Fort Caroline National Memorial, part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic National Preserve near Jacksonville, Florida.

Artwork: "The Building of Fort Caroline" by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, 1564.  Clipart from Florida Center for Instructional Technology.