Fort Caroline is located on the southern shore of the St Johns River in Jacksonville, Florida. Located just 40 miles north of St. Augustine, Floridians come to experience a little known chapter of their state's history during the Age of Exploration. Ironically, although Florida was originally a Spanish colony, the fort itself was founded by the French in the late 16th century, as to set up a foothold in the New World.
Backstory and Context
In 1561, Huguenot
leader and the Admiral of France, Gaspar de Coligny was given consent by
Queen Catherine d'Medici of France to establish a colony in what is now
Florida, both to put an end to tensions between Catholics and Protestants, as
well as to ambush and intercept Spanish treasure ships that were filled with
riches from Central and South America. Once given the mission, Coligny
selected his captains to lead the expedition, Jean Ribault and René
Goulaine de Laudonnière, both of whom served France against the Spanish, Ribault
as a corsair, or government sanctioned pirate and Laudonnière as an
officer in the French army. The first attempts in South Carolina were a
failure. With Ribault imprisoned in the
Tower of London on accusations of being a spy, Laudonnière decided to
found a new colony in Florida.
after setting sail with some 300 men and supplies from France, Laudonnière
landed some 100 miles south of the original colony and set up a wooden fort to
protect the colony from the Spanish and was named Fort Caroline.
Construction of the fort, however, aroused the suspicion of the Native Americans
who lived along the St. Johns River. Laudonnière met with Chief Saturiwa
of the Timucua tribe in the hopes of establishing a partnership against
Saturiwa's enemies. Though neither side understood each other fully, an
alliance was made.
Yet it gradually
became clear that there was no natural wealth in Florida, only pickings from
the wrecks of Spanish ships. Noblemen in the colony led a mutiny against Laudonnière and started
raiding Spanish settlements in the West Indies for gold, but they were captured
and interrogated by the Spanish authorities. Enraged by the discovery of
this, King Phillip II summoned the captain of the Spanish treasure fleet,
Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, to crush the French and establish a Spanish fort
in the place of Fort Caroline.
Now as Governor
of Florida, Menendez set about to destroy the French garrison within the fort.
He arrived a week after Ribault returned to Fort Caroline, forcing Menendez
to sail 40 miles south where he founded St. Augustine. From there he and
a force of 400 conquistadors marched through swamps and rivers in the midst of
a hurricane to Fort Caroline, killing the entire French garrison
inside and thus capturing the fort for King Phillip.
Today, Fort Caroline is a historical park just within Jacksonville and has been restored to its original state, complete with a traditional Timucuan village nearby. Here people are given a hands-on look at what life was like as a French protestant trying to eke out a living in Spanish controlled Florida.