There is some controversy as to the actual location of where Fort Caroline stood, and there are descrepiancies in the firsthand accounts of the events surrounding the struggle for French Florida. If you are unfamiliar with the basic history, here is an outline of what is known to have happened. This much is confirmed by a number of eyewitness documents:
In 1562, The French crossed the Atlantic, explored the coast and eventually built a fort on or near what is now Paris Island in South Carolina. They named it Charlesfort. The leader of the expedition, Jean Ribault, left a handful of settlers there and returned to France for reinforcements. They traded and sometimes fought with the natives. Ribault did not bring back supplies as he promised. Because of a complicated political and religious situation in Europe, he was imprisoned by the British. Meanwhile, the new French colony fell apart due to dissension and hardships. The colonists built a crude boat, deserted the fort and returned to France. The next year more Frenchmen returned and built a second fort somewhere to the south of the first, on the bank of a large river that they had discovered with Ribault on the first voyage. They named the river “May” and called the new fort “Caroline”. Again, they traded and sometimes fought with the natives, further exploring the region. Like the first attempt, these new colonists also experienced hardships, and were about to give up a second time and return to France, when Jean Ribault, finally released by the English, returned with supplies and reinforcements. At the same time though,(summer 1565) the Spaniards showed up, with orders from their king to remove all the Frenchmen. There was a naval battle, a huge storm, shipwrecks, and a land assault on the fort, in which it was taken by the Spanish and re-named Ft San Mateo. French Hugenot shipwreck survivors were rounded up and murdered by the Spanish Catholics. St Augustine was founded nearby. The fort, now controlled by the Spanish, was counter-attacked again a couple of years later by a Frenchman, Dominique du Gourges, and the occupants were put to the sword in the same manner as the French had been before. The French avengers did not stay around, so the Spanish returned to the fort, but later abandoned it for good. No hard archaeological evidence of the fort’s location has ever been formally recorded.
This is the basic thread of the incredible Fort Caroline story, but there are many interesting side trips woven in – mutinies, cannibalism, piracy, executions, religious fanaticism, explorations, indian alliances and battles, murders, captures and releases, slavery, Indian adoptions of shipwreck survivors, just for a start!
In April, 2014, on St Simons, the local historical society hosted a lecture and Q and A featuring . Fletcher Crowe and Anita Spring , two researchers, who outlined their findings on the fort’s location. Citing map and linguistic evidence, they contended that the original site was very likely on the Altamaha River, instead of on the St John’s River in Jacksonville, Florida, as has been generally accepted. Their report and its associated publicity has spawned a new generation of interest on the subject in the area, especially for local residents. After all, there is a certain intrigue in the possibility that there may have once been a group of French mutineer/ pirates hung from a gibbet in your backyard, or that those sand dunes you always sat in to gaze at the surf could have been witness to a bloody mass execution of “heretics”.
Other researchers also have been quietly moving independently in parallel. A Native American researcher and otherwise interesting fellow, Richard Thornton, claims that Crowe and Spring hijacked the whole Altamaha River location idea from him. He has written a book about fort Caroline. He cites, among other things, a convincing passage written by William Bartram in his journal, written in 1774, describing ancient ruins (they would already have been about two hundred years old by then ) of a fort on the south fork of the Altamaha, just across the river from Darien, somewhere around what is now the youth estate on the bluff where I 95 crosses the river delta. Using google Earth you can see some promising high ground spots along the south channnel of the river. It is easy to imagine this place as the forts location when you read some of the the original accounts, but the trouble is, it is easy to imagine other places as well.
Brunswick resident and archaeologist Fred Cook has done that, and he has also published a Fort Caroline study. Relying on map interpretations and primary sources, he believes that Fort Caroline had to have been inland a few miles on the south side of the St Mary’s river, adjacent to a sandy bluff. You can also see it from I-95. All the primary accounts allude to a bluff or a “mountain” overlooking the fort. [note: Fred Cook passed away in July 2016.]
Another former local resident,Gary Daniels, has published an intrigueing website, with a collection of first hand accounts and other interesting stuff detailing his own investigations. He explores the possibility that the fort was on the Satilla River. His website posts reprints of several of the firsthand accounts.
Also, there is another excellent webpage, with many useful, interesting links that was and still is being constructed by retired history and geography teacher Walter Mattfield, making the case for St Johns Bluff.
The purpose of this post is to provide a list of primary source reading material-the gospels, so to speak, so that those who are new to the subject may read up and draw their own conclusions. Contributions and corrections to the list are welcome and will be posted as updates. If anyone knows of anything else not listed please e-mail me and I’ll include it here. For now, I will list only primary accounts. Most of these accounts can be found verbatim on the internet, but if you prefer hard copy, many of these titles can be bought cheaply if you look around. The Solis De Meris Account is an exception, but I was able to borrow a copy through an inter library loan. There are many excellent history books on the subject as well as maps, so maybe I’ll post more lists, later on.
Three Voyages- by Renee LaudonnierRenee Laudonnier was Ribault’s second in command on the first expedition, in 1562, to Charlesfort and the leader of the second expedition founding fort Caroline in 1564. He survived the Spanish assault at Caroline and escaped back to Europe along with only a handful of the remaining soldiers and settlers. He wrote his account from memory after returning to Europe.
This volume, with Laudonniers relation, was published in 1975 by Charles Bennet, an amateur scholar and former congressman from the third district of Florida.
Laudonniere and Fort Caroline History and Documents- Charles Bennet Another publication by Charles Bennet, with several first-hand accounts in the second part of the book.
Narrative of Le Moyne, by Jacques Le Moyne de Morges
Le Moyne accompanied Laudonnier on his Fort Caroline expedition as the expeditions official artist, cartographer and special assistant. He was present at the Fort Caroline massacre by the Spanish, but also escaped and returned to Europe with Laudonnier and a handful of others. His account survives, along with a few paintings, some sketches and a map. His report details life at the fort, some travels up river and dealings with the indians, and the Spanish assault.
The Whole and True Discovery of Terra Florida, by Jean Ribault
This account was probably written from memory during Ribaults incarceration in the Tower of London in 1562 or 63. He describes the southeast coast and his first voyage, encounters with the indians, the discovery of the river of May,(which later became the site of Fort Caroline) and the building of Charlesfort at Port Royal Sound. It was written before his second voyage, when he met his death at the hands of the Spaniards.
Letters of Pedro Menendez de Aviles The leader of the Spanish expedition, Menedez gives his account of the events to King Phillip of Spain.
The accountof the chaplain of the Spanish expedition Father Francisco lopez de Mendoza Grajales, chaplain to the Menendez fleet and settlement.
An account of Dominic De Gourges revenge assault on San Mateo (formerly fort Caroline).
The Relation of Nicholas Burgoginon
Menendez de Aviles and La Florida: Chronicles of His Expeditions, by Gonzalo Solis de Meras. Solis de Meras was Menendez’ brother in law and accomplice.
The English trader and explorer John Hawkins, first cousin of Sir Francis Drake, visited Ft Caroline just before Ribaults return and the fall of the fort to the Spanish. An account by John Sparke, a sailor board one of his ships was later recorded by Richard Hakluyt.