Historical Background: The French Colonization Attempt in Florida, 1562-1565

In early 1562 the Admiral of France, Gaspard de Coligny, convinced France’s Queen Mother Catherine de Medici to finance a colonization expedition to La Floride. Catherine was eager to assert France’s territorial claim to North America, and to seize the opportunity for increased commerce and an influx of valuable resources, including perhaps vast deposits of precious metals. In addition, the planned settlements, which were envisioned as providing a refuge for Protestant Huguenots, were seen as a way to ease religious conflict which had been tearing the country apart (Bennett 2001:13). Coligny, a Huguenot leader, had prompted an earlier, unsuccessful French Protestant settlement attempt on the coast of Brazil in 1555. This time around the endeavor was to be made in Florida, which was perfectly situated for potential strikes along Spain’s treasure flota route or raids in the Spanish Caribbean.

Left: Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of France, nobleman, and leader of the Huguenots. While he fought against the crown during the Wars of Religion, during times of peace he worked closely with the monarchy and was responsible for the organization of the France’s colonization efforts in Florida. Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Right: Catherine de Medici, Queen Mother of France, who ruled as regent during the first colonization attempt in Florida. She continued to wield great influence over state policy after her son Charles IX came of age in 1563. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The well-known sea captain Jean Ribault, of Dieppe, was chosen to lead the expedition, with Captain René de Laudonnière as its second in command. Nicolas Barré, who had navigated Florida waters during the 1555 settlement attempt, would serve as chief pilot. A crew was assembled at Havre-de-Grâce for either two or three ships (Bennett 2001:14; Armstrong 2001:3-4). Armed with as much as 25 bronze cannon, the flotilla with around 150 men departed France on 18 February 1562.

Left: Artist’s depiction of Jean Ribault. Courtesy of Jean Ribault Facts. Right: René de Laudonnière. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

After crossing the Atlantic along a circuitous route to avoid Spanish warships, the coast of Florida was sighted, and on the first of May the flotilla entered a newly discovered river. This was named the River of May, and is known today as the St. Johns River which bisects the city of Jacksonville. The Frenchmen spent several days reconnoitering the countryside, and making relations with the seemingly friendly Timucuan native peoples. After erecting a stone column on the south bank of the river to claim the land for France, the expedition departed and sailed north, exploring the Georgia and Carolina coastline along the way. They decided to build a fort, named Charlesfort, at present-day Parris Island, South Carolina. Thirty men stayed behind to occupy the fort while the main group, which by this time included many reluctant colonists, returned to France.

The Timucuan chief welcomes Laudonnière in 1564, showing how his people revere the stone column erected in 1562 by the French at the River of May. This image is one of the Theodore de Bry engravings, from artwork by Jacques Le Moyne, who was with the 1564 expedition. Courtesy of the Service Historique de la Défense, Vincennes, France.

Ribault’s intention was to gather more colonists and supplies and return to ensure the permanency of the Charlesfort settlement. But France was engulfed in a religious civil war, and as Dieppe fell he fled to England, where he sought aid for the Florida endeavor from Queen Elizabeth. While in London, on 30 May 1563, he published Whole and True Discouerye of Terra Florida, an account of his explorations in Florida (Ribault 1964). At first supportive, Queen Elizabeth changed her mind, perhaps not wishing to antagonize her brother-in-law Philip II of Spain, and ended up imprisoning Ribault. He spent more than a year in the Tower of London, from early June 1563 through fall 1564 or perhaps early 1565 (McGrath 2000:90-92,203). Meanwhile, after a year without renewed supplies and conflict both with the Natives and amongst themselves, the Charlesfort colonists faced disaster. A final desperate attempt to build a ship and sail home resulted in a miserable voyage, complete with cannibalism, before the survivors were rescued off the coast of England, and subsequently imprisoned (McGrath 2000:82-83,91-92; Bennett 2001:15-16,72,81-82,132).

Ribault and Laudonnière returned to France after the first colonization attempt to find the country embroiled in a religious civil war, known as the First War of Religion. Open hostilities between Catholics and Huguenots had broken out in March 1562, just a month after the expedition had left France for Florida, and an uneasy peace would be achieved through the Edict of Amboise in March 1563. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Laudonnière, however, escaped persecution in France and after hostilities between Catholic and Huguenot ceased he was chosen by Admiral Coligny to lead a second expedition to Florida. In March and April 1564 three ships were outfitted with munitions, agricultural equipment, livestock, and supplies. Three hundred colonists, including women and men of all social backgrounds, set sail on 22 April, and sighted the River of May on 24 June. An area on the bluffs fronting the south bank of the river was chosen for the colony, which was named La Caroline to honor King Charles. Construction began immediately on the triangular Fort Caroline, with aid provided by the friendly Indians (Bennett 2001:19-20).

Construction begins on Fort Caroline, as depicted by Theodore de Bry after Jacques Le Moyne’s original drawing. Courtesy of the Service Historique de la Défense, Vincennes, France.

On 28 July Laudonnière soon sent his ships back to France for more supplies and 500 additional colonists. At Fort Caroline the settlers began to establish their new home: a flour mill, blacksmithy, and bakery were built, and regular religious services were established. Exploration parties combed the countryside searching for gold and other riches, to no avail. What was not prioritized was the clearing of land for planting crops. The dependence of the colony on resupply by ships from France was its fatal flaw.

Fort Caroline after completion, as drawn by Jacques Le Moyne and reproduced by Theodore de Bry. Courtesy of the Service Historique de la Défense, Vincennes, France.

The increasing scarcity of food and subsequent strained relations with the Indians, the unmaterialized mineral wealth, and the general hardships of the nascent colony lead to discontent among the men, resulting in open rebellions and even assassination plots against Laudonnière. In November 1564 thirteen men stole a sailing barque from the colony to try their hand at piracy in the Spanish Caribbean. No sooner had two new barques been completed then another mutiny took place, this time with 66 men hijacking the vessels for piratical intents (Armstrong 2001:13-14; Bennett 2001:30). This would have dire consequences for the colony, as it would alert Spanish authorities, who interrogated some of these captured corsairs, to the presence of Fort Caroline (McGrath 2000:106-107,205). By the following June, virtually all of the food supplies were exhausted, no resupply ships had arrived, and the decision was made to evacuate the colonists to France. On 3 August 1565, however, as modifications were made to make a leaky brigantine seaworthy, four sails were sighted on the horizon. These were not French supply ships but an English fleet lead by Sir John Hawkins. The English brokered a trade with the beleaguered French: food and a sturdy vessel in return for cannon and powder from Fort Caroline (Armstrong 2001:19-20; Bennett 2001:31-32). Just as the settlers were poised to abandon the colony and depart, on 28 August, a new set of sails appeared. The resupply fleet had finally arrived, and Jean Ribault had returned to Florida.

Ribault’s Landing, a 31 by 8 foot mural by Jacksonville artist Lee Adams, on display at Jacksonville’s Main Library. Courtesy of Jacksonville Public Library.

Ribault had only recently been released from prison, and he had immediately been commissioned to lead the relief mission to Florida. Ribault’s fleet consisted of seven ships loaded with armament and munitions, supplies, livestock, 500 soldiers, and as many as 500 more seamen and colonists (Lyon 1976:68; Armstrong 2001:156). But the nemesis of the French colony, the Spaniard Pedro Menéndez, would arrive with his own fleet off the coast of Florida by the time Ribault anchored off the River of May. Menéndez was charged not only with establishing a Spanish presence in Florida, but driving out the French heretics once and for all. Under his command were five ships and 500 soldiers, 200 sailors, and 100 others (Lyon 1976:114).

The stage was set for a fast-moving endgame on 4 September, when Menéndez’ fleet arrived off the River of May. Ribault’s three smaller ships had been discharging their troops and cargos and were light enough to have already crossed the bar at the river’s mouth, but his four larger ships were anchored offshore. The two fleets identified themselves verbally, and when the great Spanish galleass San Pelayo attempted to board the French flagship La Trinité the French vessels cut their anchor lines and made a fast escape, amid Spanish cannon fire. The Spaniards could not effectively pursue, as their ships’ rigging had been damaged by storm action, and Menéndez retreated southward to the next inlet to establish a base of operations at what would become St. Augustine (Lyon 1976:111-114).

The Spanish and French fleets encountered each other off the River of May, and exchanged words, threats, and cannon fire. The French fleet cut their anchor lines to make their escape. When Menéndez saw that Ribault’s troops were already disembarked, he retreated to the next inlet to the south to fortify a defensive position. Painting by Henry Garrett Smith, from National Geographic, February 1966, Vol. 129, No. 2, pp. 206-7.

On 7 September 1565 a Spanish force had disembarked and began digging a temporary defensive entrenchment, and the following day with great ceremony Menéndez landed and formally took possession of the land for Spain. He also made the decision to partially unload his damaged flagship San Pelayo, which at 906 tons was too massive to enter the St. Augustine Inlet under any circumstances, and quickly send it to Hispaniola rather than keep it exposed in a position of danger. Ribault, meanwhile, saw a chance to demolish the Spanish forces before they could fortify themselves and after a hastily assembled council, and against Laudonnière’s objections, decided to make a preemptive strike. Taking two days to assemble his forces, and conscripting a portion of Laudonnière’s able-bodied men, he set sail in his four largest ships with a force of 400 soldiers and 200 sailors (Lyon 1976:120; Bennett 2001:35-36).

Menéndez landed at St. Augustine on 8 September 1565 to take formal possession of the land for Spain, and to found what would become the oldest permanently occupied settlement in North America. Painting by Stanley Meltzoff, from National Geographic, February 1966, Vol. 129, No. 2, pp. 198-9.

Ribault’s plan almost worked. His fleet surprised the Spanish who were unloading supplies near the St. Augustine bar at daybreak on 10 September. Menéndez barely managed to make it across the bar. Ribault’s ships were too large to follow at low tide, but instead sailed south to search for San Pelayo, which had departed only hours before (Lyon 1976:120). It was the following day that the fateful storm struck. Either a nor’easter or a true hurricane, the powerful winds drove Ribault’s fleet further south, and despite frantic attempts to claw their way to deeper waters, all were run aground and shipwrecked. Three of the ships were lost in the vicinity of Ponce Inlet, broken to pieces in the surf, while the flagship La Trinité was stranded intact on a sandbar 5 to 10 leagues further south, towards Cape Canaveral (Lyon 1976:124).

Ribault’s fleet was driven south by the relentless winds of the storm. Despite desperate attempts to claw their way into deeper waters, all were shipwrecked. Painting of La Trinité by and courtesy of William Trotter.

Now it was Menéndez’ turn for a bold attack. He knew the French ships would not be able to make their way back north, even if they had survived the storm, which was still raging. Leaving a small force to guard St. Augustine, Menéndez and the bulk of his men set out on 18 September on an overland march. At dawn on 20 September, the Spanish launched a surprise assault, breached the walls, and took Fort Caroline. Around 130 were killed outright, 45 to 60 more (including Laudonnière) escaped, and 50 women, children, and a few men were spared (Lyon 1976:121-122; Bennett 2001:37-41).

Menéndez men braved the storm, marching “more than 15 leagues, more or less, all of it through marshes and desolate places,” sacking Fort Caroline in a surprise attack at down on 20 September 1565. Painting by Birney Lettick, from National Geographic, February 1966, Vol. 129, No. 2, pp. 212-3.

After an abortive parley attempt from on board one of Ribault’s smaller vessels (Perle) anchored off the fort, the French sailed in their five remaining vessels downriver to the comparative safety of the river mouth. After consolidating as many of their scattered survivors as possible, a decision was made between Laudonnière and Ribault’s son Jacques. On 25 September the three smaller vessels were scuttled, and the two remaining ships of Ribault’s fleet, Perle and Levrière, sailed for France (Lyon 1976:123-124).

Menéndez left a garrison at the fort, renamed Fort San Mateo, and returned triumphantly to the nascent settlement in St. Augustine on 27 September. The shipwrecked men from Ribault’s four larger vessels, in contrast, were cast upon a hostile shore in a state of misery and had begun the long march northward back to their fort, which could of course no longer provide them refuge. They had gathered into two separate groups, the southern one consisting of survivors from La Trinité and the northern group from the other ships (Lyon 1976:124). Menéndez met the first group on 29 September, having been notified by local Indians of Frenchmen assembled at an inlet south of St. Augustine (traditionally believed to be Matanzas Inlet, which was named after the massacre, though see Griffin 2001). After learning of the fate of Fort Caroline, the survivors decided to surrender and put themselves at the mercy of Menéndez. He showed little, however, sparing around a dozen or so and putting as many as 111 to 200 to the sword (Lyon 1976:126).

Most of the beleaguered French shipwreck survivors surrendered unconditionally, hoping for mercy from Menéndez. He showed none, writing the King: “And I had their hands tied behind them and put them to the knife.” As many as 350 men were executed. Painting by Stanley Meltzoff, from National Geographic, February 1966, Vol. 129, No. 2, pp. 216-7.

The second group of survivors, along with Ribault, arrived at the same inlet and a similar drama played out on 11 October. Negotiation between the two leaders resulted in the same unconditional surrender, though this time around half of the total of perhaps 300 decided to take their chances in the wilderness and left Ribault to make their way back south. Those who surrendered faced a similar fate as the first group. Between 5 and 16 were spared, while between 70 and 150 were put to death (Lyon 1976:127-128). The final act came on 1 November, when Menéndez lead an expedition south to locate the final French survivors who had built a fortification on the beach with six cannon salvaged from the wrecked La Trinité. They fled upon the Spaniards’ arrival, though afterwards Menéndez offered safety in return for surrender. He kept his pledge and around 75 were taken prisoner, though around 20 or so refused and took their chances with the Surruque Indians rather than risk Spanish justice (Lyon 1976:128-129). 

The French threat completely eliminated, Menéndez focused on fortifying St. Augustine and other locations along the coast to consolidate Spain’s claim to Florida. The last of the French survivors who refused surrender disappeared into the wilderness and into history, though traces of their activities have persisted in the archaeological record.

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