The entrance to the reconstructed Fort Caroline.
On the banks of the St. Johns River in Arlington is a unique structure: Fort Caroline. The fort is a replica modeled after the French settlement of the same name that was built in 1564. The fort was later destroyed and no physical evidence has ever been found of its location, but documents at the time indicate it was somewhere on the St. Johns River. The present-day Fort Caroline is a wonderful amenity to visit and gives people an idea of what it was like for those French settlers. This article is intended to be a retelling of the story of Fort Caroline, the French settlers in the area, and the 20th century replica. Sources include Proposed Location of the 1565 French Huguenot Fort Le Caroline by Paul H. Gissendaner, works by Charles E. Bennett, the thesis of Michael P. Fleck’s The Archaeological History of the Sixteenth-Century French Fort Caroline in Northeast Florida and original French and Spanish sources on the subject.
France and Fort Caroline
Engraving depicting Jean Ribault’s first voyage to the May River in 1562. The image is by Theodor de Bry in a series that de Bry claimed was based on lost artworks by Jacques Le Moyne, the official painter and cartographer of Fort Caroline.
Google Maps showing the distance between France, Spain and the United States. In the 16th century it took 2-3 months for the French and Spanish to travel across the Atlantic to reach the New World.
The origins of the French settlement in North America began in 1562 with explorer Jean Ribault. Ribault was sent to the New World by Admiral Gaspard de Coligny with the goal of establishing a colony for French Huguenots, Protestant Christians in conflict with France’s Catholic majority. Ribault traveled across the Atlantic Ocean with three ships and 150 colonists. On May 2, 1562 Ribault reached the mouth of the St. Johns River, which he named the River of May. Ribault placed a monument at the mouth of this river to claim the land for France. The monument has never been found but it apparently had an impact on the local Timucua, who reportedly established a shrine around it. After exploring the River of May, Ribault traveled north and reached the Port Royal Sound in what is now South Carolina. Ribault chose what’s now called Parris Island to establish a French outpost, Charlesfort. Ribault left 27 men to defend Charlesfort while he sailed back to France for supplies.
While Ribault was away in the New World a war erupted in Europe. The French Wars of Religion began in April 1562 between the Catholics and Huguenots. The war and various conflicts delayed a return voyage to the New World for two years. Ribault traveled to England to ask for assistance but Queen Elizabeth had him arrested for establishing a French colony in Spanish territory. Charlesfort succumbed to a fire and a mutiny which led to the Frenchmen building their own boat to sail back to Europe. Only one Frenchmen remained at the fort. Some of the others somehow managed to make it back to Europe.
Athore, son of Timucuan King Saturiwa, showing René Goulaine de Laudonnière the monument that Jean Ribault had placed in 1562 somewhere along the St. Johns River. The engraving was made by Theodor de Bry, who claimed it was based on a painting by Jacques Le Moyne.
Fort Caroline is named after King Charles IX of France. Charles was King of France from 1560 to 1574. Charles was only 10 years old in 1560 leaving his mother Catherine de’ Medici in control of the French crown until he was declared of age in August 1563. The portrait of Charles was done around 1572.
The second voyage to the New World ordered by Gaspard was launched in 1564. Gaspard chose Ribault’s second-in-command René Goulaine de Laudonnière to lead it. News of what happened to Charlesfort had reached France just as the second voyage was about to depart. Since Charlesfort had failed in present-day South Carolina it was decided the second voyage was to go where Ribault first landed in 1562 at the River of May. The second voyage began on April 22, 1564 and reached the River of May on June 22, 1564. Laudonnière sailed up the River of May, reaching the site where the expedition chose to establish the next French colony, named Fort Caroline after King Charles IX. French artist Jacques le Moyne accompanied the second voyage with a mission to document the region.
Laudonnière made contact with the Timucua chiefdom called the Saturiwa. The Saturiwa showed Laudonnière the monument that Ribault had placed in 1562. Meanwhile in Europe, Ribault was released from prison and returned to France. Ribault was ordered to return to the New World in the spring of 1565 with supplies and reinforcements. In May 1565 Englishman John Hawkins visited Fort Caroline to procure water, possibly becoming the first Englishman to come to present-day Jacksonville. Hawkins traded with the French who were in desperate need of supplies. Fort Caroline managed to survive in the New World thanks to Hawkins and perseverance. On August 28, 1565 Ribault reached and assumed command from Laudonnière. Fort Caroline was doing well so far in the New World but there was one major problem: the Spanish.
Joannes de laet’s map of Florida around 1630, showing the May River.
De Bry’s engraving of Fort Caroline.
Destruction of Fort Caroline and French Florida
This drawing of Fort Caroline was done by a French soldier at the fort in 1564. This is the only surviving drawing of Fort Caroline done by a Frenchmen while at the fort. (John Brown Carter Library)
Map of Florida from 1660 from Pierre DuVal’s Le Monde. The map shows French Florida with Charlesfort and La Caroline. French Florida was long gone by 1660 and it is assumed the artist used a reference from the 16th century.
In 1513 Juan Ponce de León claimed Florida for Spain. The Spanish took the claim to mean most of the Atlantic Southeast and launched several expeditions to conqueror and settle the area, none of which succeeded. The French encroachment on Spanish Florida with Charlesfort and Fort Caroline furthered tension between the two nations. Spanish military commander Hernando de Manrique de Rojas decided to lead an expedition in 1562 to destroy Charlesfort in present-day South Carolina. By the time Rojas reached Charlesfort he discovered it was already abandoned. Rojas completely destroyed Charlesfort so that the French would not return.
Unfortunately for the Spanish, the French returned in 1564 further south establishing Fort Caroline. In 1565 King Philip II of Spain appointed Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to command an expedition to Florida. Menéndez was ordered to destroy Fort Caroline and establish fortified settlements along the coast to assist the Spanish treasure fleet.
A posthumous sketch of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés from 1791.
Google Map view of Jacksonville and St. Augustine. The Spanish marched over 40 miles from St. Augustine to Fort Caroline to destroy the French presence in Florida. The Spanish sacked the fort and killed most of the French.
Menéndez departed Cadiz with 1,000 Spanish and the flagship San Pelayo on July 28, 1564. He was in a race to reach Florida before Ribault arrived with his reinforcements. On August 28, 1564 the Spanish expedition arrived at the River of Dolphins, now known as Matanzas Inlet. After sighting land at the River of Dolphins the Spanish fleet sailed north to attack the French fleet off the River of May. On September 4 the Spanish fleet encountered the French ships, including Ribault’s flagship La Trinite, anchored at the mouth of the River of May. After a brief skirmish the Spanish fleet sailed back south to the River of Dolphins and established a settlement called St. Augustine on the site of the Timucua village of Seloy. The Spanish chose the name St. Augustine because they had sighted that land on August 28, the feast day of Saint Augustine of Hippo.
The Spanish settlement of St. Augustine was a threat to Fort Caroline and Ribault wanted it eliminated. Menéndez dispatched his flagship San Pelayo to Hispaniola because it was too big to cross the inlet and he had anticipated a French attack was inevitable. Ribault led a sizeable force of ships south to attack the Spanish and almost succeeded in capturing Menéndez until he escaped into the harbor at the River of Dolphins. The French ships were too big to go into the harbor and chose instead to sail after the San Pelayo. The decision to sail south of St. Augustine proved disastrous. On September 11, 1564 a hurricane drove the French fleet to wreck off the shore of present-day Cape Canaveral. Ribault and some of his soldiers survived the storm but they were too far south to hurry back to the vulnerable Fort Caroline.
Menéndez correctly assumed that the majority of the French were aboard the ships and that they had left Fort Caroline virtually defenseless. Menéndez ordered a Spanish force to march north overland to Fort Caroline and destroy it. To make matters worse for the Spanish the hurricane was still raging, making the journey difficult. Despite the hurricane, humid Florida weather and lack of paved roads the Spanish made it to Fort Caroline. The Spanish launched a surprise attack, killing the majority of the French remaining at the fort. Several women and children were spared from the massacres and a few, including Laudonnière and painter Jacques le Moyne, managed to escape.
A cannon from a shipwreck of a 16th-century French ship was found off the coast of St. Augustine in 2016. The shipwreck is thought to be Ribault’s flagship La Trinite. Image courtesy of Global Marine Exploration, Inc.
Ribault and his surviving men marched north hoping to return to Fort Caroline unharmed. Menendez heard from the Native Americans in the area that Ribault and his men were still alive south of St. Augustine. Menendez journeyed south of St. Augustine and found the Frenchmen at the mouth of the Matanzas River. The Spanish slaughtered most of the French, including Ribault. The place this occurred was named Matanzas, the Spanish word for “slaughters,” a name it still bears today.
The Spanish seized Fort Caroline and renamed it San Mateo. It was kept in use for several years until April 1568, when French soldier Dominique de Gourgues arrived in Florida to launch a reprisal attack. He attacked San Mateo and killed everyone in it to exact revenge for the massacres of the French. De Gourgues burned the fort and it was abandoned. Its location was lost and no physical archaeological evidence of it has ever been found.
Fort Caroline reborn
Visitors at the replica of Fort Caroline taken in the 1970s.
The view of Fort Caroline from the St. Johns River.
In 1953, U.S. Representative Charles E. Bennett initiated renewed interest in Fort Caroline when he established the present-day Fort Caroline National Memorial and the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. Bennett was a historian who wrote several books on Fort Caroline. Not knowing the specific location of the fort, the National Park Service chose an undeveloped part of the property along the riverfront for the National Memorial.
The park is 140-acres and is controlled by the National Park Service, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. In 1964, NPS built a replica of Fort Caroline using images and maps of the original Fort Caroline as a reference. Unfortunately, Hurricane Dora came through the area that year and severely damaged this replica. A second replica of Fort Caroline was built in 1974 which is the one that is still standing today. The renewed interest in Fort Caroline by Bennett and the replica of Fort Caroline helped reignite this overlooked piece of history unique to Jacksonville.
The modern Ribault Monument in Mayport in the 1920s, before it was moved to Arlington. The original monument was never found.
Jacksonville as seen from Google Maps, with the locations of the replica Fort Caroline and Ribault Monument.
A series of archaeological expeditions over the years have so far not identified the location of the original fort. One good possibility is the vicinity of what’s now Great Marsh Island and Chicopit Bay. In this case, the original location of Fort Caroline may have been disrupted or washed away by the St. Johns River when it was altered in the 1880s. In 1880 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction on the jetties. The result of the construction was a wider river and the sandbar was removed at the mouth of the river giving large ships access. This theory of the river washing away the site of the original Fort Caroline is, in my opinion, the most probable conclusion of what had happened to it.
Theories still abound as to what happened to the remnants of the fort and where it could be. One theory claims Fort Caroline was actually located on the Altamaha River in present-day Georgia, but in my opinion, the Spanish did not march all the way from St. Augustine to the Altamaha River in just two days. More realistically, it could have been anywhere between the location of the present-day replica and NAS Mayport. It could have been washed away by the St. Johns River, or a house or building could have been built over the site. It is in my opinion that the original Fort Caroline was built on the St. Johns River somewhere along the coast between the Fort Caroline replica and Spanish Point.
A drawing of Fort Caroline from the early 1920s depicting Fort Caroline on St. Johns Bluff.
Article by Andrew R. Nicholas. Follow Andrew on Twitter at a_r_nicholas.