REALLY OLD-TIME RELIGION — Long ago, a French ship dropped anchor off the churning bar of the St. Johns River. The time was dawn, May 1, 1562. Captain Jean Ribault and his soldiers rowed into the mouth of the wide brown channel and came ashore. They exchanged gifts with the Timucua Indians, giving a looking glass to a local leader, who sent back an article of his clothing as a token of friendship. Next, the Frenchmen made religious history. What did they do?
The Europeans went off a short distance and knelt down, offering a prayer of thanks for a safe arrival. This proved to be the first Protestant prayer that was said within the limits of the present-day United States. Ribault and his accomplices were Protestant Huguenots who came to America for religious freedom. They tried to find refuge from the anti-Protestant rage that swept their homeland.
FORT CAROLINE BY A NOSE — Who were the first Europeans to settle in Florida? In 1565, the Spanish founded their famous town, St. Augustine. One year before, however, the French established Fort Caroline near St. Johns Bluff. This stronghold stood on the St. Johns River, about mid-way between the Atlantic Ocean and present-day downtown Jacksonville. In fact, Fort Caroline proved to be the first Protestant settlement in North America.
THE FOUNDING OF FORT CAROLINE — Led by French naval officer Jean Ribault, the French Huguenot exploratory group came ashore near the mouth of the River of May (now the St. Johns River), and they were greeted by Native Americans called the Timucuans. Ribault, along with his lieutenant René Goulaine de Laudonnière, erected a stone column bearing the coats of arms of his French King.
Ribault and Laudonnière soon returned to Europe to arrange supplies for the new colony. In June 1564, Laudonnière sailed again to the mouth of the St. Johns River, and was once more welcomed by the Timucuans. Laudonnière led the colonists inland, where the French built a triangular fortification of earth & wood. It enclosed several palm thatched buildings, while other structures surrounded the palisade. In 1564, the French named their settlement they founded Fort Caroline; the fort was named for the reigning French king Charles IX.
In August 1565, Ribault returned to Ft. Caroline to resupply the settlement. Upon learning of the Spanish fortifying the colony of St. Augustine just 35 miles to the south, Ribault set out with several ships carrying 200 sailors and 400 soldiers to dislodge the Spanish, but he was surprised at sea by a violent storm lasting several days.
Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the governor of Florida for Spain, took advantage of this. Marching his troops overland, he surprised the Fort Caroline garrison at dawn on September 20, which then numbered about 200 to 250 people. The Spaniards attacked them and killed most of the defenders, except for about 50 women and children who were taken prisoner and 26 defenders who managed to escape, including de Laudonnière.
Meanwhile Ribault’s fleet of ships was wrecked on the coast south of St. Augustine. The Spanish picked up many of the survivors and killed them, including Ribault. This massacre put an end to France’s attempts at colonization in Florida.
FRENCH ANGER — Along the First Coast, many history lovers can tell you about the massacre of the French at Fort Caroline in 1565. Spanish solders killed 140 of their rivals, sparing only women & children. (Another forty individuals were able to allude capture.) What is often forgotten, though, is that the French tried to get even. Although the French government tolerated the massacre, the Protestants in that country were livid.
A soldier of fortune, Dominic de Gourgues, raised an expedition to go to Northeast Florida. Although a Catholic, he wanted to avenge the Protestant killing in order to repair his nation’s honor. De Gourgues spent his own money and borrowed from friends. After he and his troops finally arrived in 1568, they quickly wiped out a number of Spanish troops. With a Spanish price on his head, de Gourgues escaped and laid low for several years. The French king disowned de Gourgues’s actions, yet many French people idolized the adventurer.
FORT CAROLINE TODAY — Nothing remains of the original Fort de la Caroline. This picture of Fort Caroline, shown below, is about 400 years old. A moat surrounds the stronghold. To the right of the fort sits a small shed that contained an oven used to make cannon balls. The old stronghold was rebuilt in 1964 and is the centerpiece part of the Fort Caroline National Memorial. The original location of the fortification lays near the reconstruction. Over time, the shifting sands and water of the Saint John’s obscured this site.
If the Spanish had not wiped out Fort Caroline, it might be as well known today as Jamestown, Plymouth, or Saint Augustine.
~written by Glenn Emery