Copyright ©1996 Originally published in Florida Living Magazine, Volume 16, Number 11, November 1996 for First Rights Only
The Winds of Time
That Shaped the State
By Theresa Ann White
The lesser-known Ft. Caroline might have been the St. Augustine of today were it not for an unnamed hurricane and the strange synchronicity of events.
A hurricane in steamy August combined with the arrivals and departures of separate sets of travellers four hundred years ago worked in an eerie way to make St. Augustine the Nation's Oldest Permanently Settled City. This synchronicity of events was the undoing of an older French colony on the banks of the St. Johns River. The fall of Ft. Caroline allowed for St. Augustine's fame.
This story starts with the Easter-time anchorage of Ponce de Leon in 1513. He and his Spanish crew hit the beach about 25 miles from today's Jacksonville, surveyed the sandy beach and sea oats and named it Pascua Florida not in recognition of the flora but as a reminder that his landing occurred during the Feast of Flowers. His occupation lasted one day shy of two weeks - long enough for his Spanish crown to claim the territory. He sailed away in search of a magic potion rumored to be a hidden treasure of this new land.
The French arrived on Florida's east coast in 1562. Jean Ribaut* anchored his vessels off the churning bar and rowed up the mouth of the wide brown river. He explored both banks of the river, met the native Timuqua, exchanged gifts, noted their well-proportioned physiques, their courtesy and gentleness, and approved of their artistic body tatoos. The Frenchman was one of the state's original tourist's. In letters home, he called it "the fairest, frutefullest and pleasantest of all the worlds. The sight of the faire-meadows is a pleasure not able to be expressed with tongue." He gave the river a name: Riviere de Mai or River of May, forever distinguishing the month of his arrival, and claimed possession in the name of the king of France by implanting a stone monument visible to subsequent ships.
René Goulaine de Laudonniere, Ribaut's lieutenant on that adventure, returned two years later and found the stone monument standing among the sand dunes. With the help of the native chief Athore and his Timuqua band, the French colonists built a triangular-shaped stronghold on the north bank of the River of May. The log fort was protected by the river on one side and on the other two sides by a moat and wall of sod. Jacques le Moyne, an artist who accompanied this expedition, wrote of a "mountain" near the base of the fort. This was in fact a bluff about ninety feet high. When the fort was complete and colonists settled under their palmetto-roofed huts, Laudonniere named the community la Caroline, in honor of the French king Charles IX.
At first, all was well. But in less than a year, restlessness set in. There were mutinies. A vessel was seized and a raid mounted against Spanish ships harvesting in the West Indies. The colonists fared despicably in their adaptation to the new land. Their leader, Laudonniere, decided to abandon the encampment and return to France.
While the French were hewing a ship from the timbers of their fort, a British slave trader named John Hawkins stopped by. This was 4 August, 1565. Hawkins offered to take the colonists to France. Laudonniere, suspicious, refused the gracious offer. Instead he bartered for one of the English ships. With this refusal, the fate of the colonists was almost but not entirely one of doom.
By the 15th of August, the French were ready to sail. But the weather stalled and sputtered, forcing a wait. At last, the wind picked up. Just as the eye of fate so habitually winks at the oddest moments, Jean Ribaut on that very day crossed the bar and sailed down the River of May, interrupting Laudonniere's outward bound ship. It was August 28.
By yet another singular catch of time and movement, as Ribaut was anchoring at the mouth of the river, the Spanish Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles was sighting the shore of his king's fair country. He would have arrived earlier than Ribaut's fleet but a storm forced his navy off course. The admiral dropped anchor, celebrated the feast of St. Augustine with a High Mass, and named the area San Agustin. It was August 28.
Did the fates conspire to join these parties at nearly the same location within eyesight of one another? Was the fabled King Neptune an accomplice in these interchanging bouts of storm-fraught ocean and glassy lulls? Or was all of this just a coincidence? No matter now. The winds of time were set in motion. In thirty days, history would be changed.
Menendez had a mission. A royal decree to drive out the French intruders was burning in his pantaloons. By virtue of the earlier discovery of Florida by Ponce de Leon, Spain held that it possessed this continent. The captain was single-minded and relentless in fulfilling his duty. Almost immediately, he sailed up the coast and confronted Ribaut's ships. He asked the sailor's their heritage and religion and then announced his plan to exterminate the French settlers. With this, the French raced out to sea. Menendez gave chase but could not catch the swift boats. The admiral called it a day and sailed back to San Agustin. He established possession and over the next several days, while the Spanish unloaded cargo and colonists, the French watched from their posts to the north.
Ribaut held a war council and made the decision to attack the Spanish. He set sail with four hundred men, leaving at the fort 240 soldiers; most of whom were ill. Laudonniere opposed his commander's decision to attack. Leaving the colony unprotected, he argued, would be the kiss of death.
At sea, the temperamental winds swelled into hurricane force, battering Ribaut's vessels and pushing them halfway down the coast near today's Cape Canaveral. The crews reunited on the beaches, washed up with the rubble of the tempest. Aware that Ft. Caroline was vulnerable in their absence, a party dispersed overland, rushing to its defense. Outside San Agustin, they met up with a detachment from Menendez' force. The Spanish reports claimed that the French offered money for their lives. The French said that Menendez vowed to spare their lives and upon that guarantee, they surrendered. Their trust was twice misplaced. For while the shipwrecked French were en route to their fort, Menendez had already moved overland.
The strong rains of the unnamed hurricane made the trek miserable. Menendez prodded his soldiers forward while they cursed him outright. According to their historian, the Spaniards stood ankle deep in water throughout one night, unable to find dry resting ground. On September 20, before dawn broke through to enlighten the sleeping settlers, a contingent of Spaniards dropped from the bluff and slaughtered men, women and children in their beds. Reportedly, Menendez stopped a total holocaust but over 200 were killed in that bloodbath at the bank of the River of May. Only a few escaped to France, among them Laudonniere and the artist Le Moyne.
Ribaut's crew were not aware of the massacre of their compatriots. The sea-worn Frenchmen agreed to hand over their swords to the Spanish, certain that a respite was near. The following passage gives a succinct account to what occurred. T. Frederick Davis records this in his book, History of Jacksonville, Florida and Vicinity, 1513 to 1924:
On the pretext that he had but few soldiers with him and these might easily be overpowered, Menendez required the French to cross the shallow body of water in a small boat in parties of ten. As each came over it was marched back into the palmetto scrub out of sight. There, September 29, 1565, the shipwrecked and defenseless Frenchmen were tied together in pairs with their hands behind their backs and fiendishly put to death with axe, halberd or sword.
Another 200 were massacred, bestowing upon the bloodstained sands below St. Augustine the name Las Matanzas which is the Spanish for massacre. Jean Ribaut, the voyager who gave the St. Johns River its first European name, and who indulged his senses in the splendor of its surroundings, was among the last slain. His return to his fair and fruitful land ended in tragedy. The quick result of Menendez' brutality was the renaming of the French fort and Ribaut's river to San Mateo for St. Matthew. With over 400 French colonists, soldiers and sailors killed, the northeast coast of Florida was in Spanish control. The French did not attempt another colonization. San Agustin started its reputation as the nation's oldest city.
The winds of time changed the pattern of the Old and the New World. Today, St. Augustine holds the reputation as the oldest permanently settled city in this union of states. But for a hurricane and the synchronicity of events four centuries ago, that appellation might well have applied to the French settlement at Ft. Caroline.
* Ribaut was the original French spelling of the name, which I have retained. TAW
Florida: Its Scenery, Climate, and History by Sidney Lanier, A Facsimile Reproduction of the 1875 Edition by Jerrell H. Shofner, Bicentennial Floridiana Facsimile Series, University of Florida Press, Gainesville, 1973.
Fort Caroline, Cradle of American Freedom by Charles E. Bennett, M.C., Florida Historical Quarterly, p. 3
History of Jacksonville, Florida and Vicinity, 1513 to 1924, T. Frederick Davis, reprinted 1990 San Marco Bookstore, Jacksonville, FL.
Papers, V, Dena Snodgrass, author, The Jacksonville Historical Society, James C. Craig, ed., 1969.
The Florida Handbook, 1995-1996 25th Biennial Edition, compiled by Allen Morris and Joan Perry Morris, "Through Some Eventful Years," pages 369-373, The Peninsular Publishing Co., Tallahassee, Florida, 1995.
The St. Johns, A Parade of Diversities by Branch Cabell and A.J. Hanna, Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., New York-Toronto, 1943.
The Spanish Borderlands: A Chronicle of Old Florida and the Southwest, Herbert E. Bolton, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1921.
If you enjoyed this, here's more Florida history by the same author.
The story of a failed colony during the British period in Florida. CHARLOTTA: The Failed Utopia Excerpts from a historical fiction detailing the life and times of a pioneer woman in East Florida.
REBECKAH: A 19th Century Florida Woman
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