Historical Background – La Nouvelle France (1562-1565)

 In the mid-16th century France was a vigorous, expansionist nation emerging from feudalism and dreaming of empire. Spain, the world's leading power, already had a foothold in the Americas, and France wanted a share of the riches the Spanish were gaining through trade and plunder. France's first attempt to stake a permanent claim in North America was at La Caroline, a settlement near the mouth of the St. Johns River in Florida.

Initially, the settlement was to be a commercial venture, but religious conflict in France broadened the goals. The growing persecution of French Protestants (Huguenots) led their most powerful member, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, to make a proposal to the crown: The colony could also be a refuge for Huguenots. An exploratory expedition, commanded by Jean Ribault, left France in February 1562. After erecting a monument at the River of May (now St. Johns River), Ribault headed north, left a small garrison at Charlesfort near Port Royal Sound, and sailed home. Within months the situation of his men became desperate and they returned to France.

Coligny urged another attempt in April 1564, planning for a permanent settlement of some 200 soldiers and artisans, as well as a few women. Led by René de Goulaine de Laudonnière, who had accompanied Ribault on his previous expedition, they first touched at the River of May on June 22. With help from Indians, the colonists began building a village and fort on the river's south bank, naming the area La Caroline ("land of Charles") after their king, Charles IX.

Good relations with the Indians eventually soured and by the following spring the colonists were close to starvation. Twice mutinous parties had sailed off to make their own fortune and some were eventually captured by the Spanish, revealing the presence of the French colony. The remaining colonists, having failed to discover silver or gold, were about to leave Florida in August 1565, when they spotted sails on the horizon. Ribault had arrived with a relief expedition of supplies and 600 soldiers and settlers, including more women and some children.

On learning of Ribault's departure for Florida, Philip II of Spain sent Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to dislodge the French. Initially rebuffed off the coast, Menéndez established a base to the south at St. Augustine. Ribault sailed down the coast seeking to attack the Spanish, but his ships were scattered by a hurricane and beached far to the south. Seizing the opportunity, Menéndez marched north with 500 soldiers to attack the weakly guarded colony. Early in the morning of September 20, his troops massacred 140 settlers, sparing only about 60 women and children. Forty to fifty others, including Laudonnière, escaped and sailed for France. Menéndez next marched south and found the shipwrecked Frenchmen, Ribault among them. They threw themselves on his mercy, but to Menéndez they were heretics and enemies of his king. At a place later named Matanzas (Slaughter), he put to the sword about 350 men-all but those professing to be Catholics and a few musicians.

French revenge was enacted in April 1568 by Dominique de Gourgues. He attacked and burned the fort, killing anyone who didn't escape, then sailed home. Spain rebuilt the fort only to abandon it in 1569, but France never again strongly challenged Spanish claims in North America.

In Florida, both France and Spain hoped to claim their piece of the "New World." By the time the French planted their settlement at La Caroline, Spain was entrenched in South and Central America and its sea routes through the Caribbean were well established. Spanish ships bearing gold and silver from the mines of Mexico and Peru stopped at Havana before sailing for Spain. They rode the Gulf Stream through the Bahama Channel (now the Straits of Florida) and up the southeastern coast of North America. The Spanish were uneasy about a French settlement because their treasure ships, while they followed the Florida coast, could be easy prey for suspected French raiders in their nearby haven at La Caroline.

"They be all naked and of goodly stature, mighty, faire and as well shapen. . . as any people in all the worlde, very gentill, curtious and of a good nature. . . the men be of tawny collour, hawke nosed and of a pleasant countenance. . . the women be well favored and modest."

French explorer Jean Ribault was impressed by the first native peoples he encountered in Florida. The Timucuans under Chief Saturiba, who met the French at the mouth of the River of May in 1562. were one of a number of Timucua-speaking tribes who inhabited central and north Florida and southeastern Georgia. They were the final stage of a culture whose way of life had remained essentially unchanged for more than 1000 years.

The Timucuans looked to the water for sustenance, settling along rivers or near the coast. (Their prehistoric ancestors are called "People of the Shell Mounds.") Besides collecting shellfish and fishing, they hunted and gathered in the forests and swamps and planted maize, squash, and beans. In their often-palisaded villages, they lived in circular dwellings with conical palm-thatched roofs and walls of woven vines caulked with clay. Ceremonial squares in the larger villages were the scenes of festivals, dances, and religious ceremonies.

Related villages formed a loose political confederation under a head chief. In this caste society commoners paid deference to a hereditary elite, at the pinnacle of which sat the chief. Wealth and title were inherited within clans through the mother's brother.

The Timucuans helped their new neighbors adapt to conditions in the "new world"— sharing food and even helping them build a village and fort. The French, well aware of their minority status, initially made every effort to avoid alienating local tribes. Only when starvation threatened did this policy unravel. Mistrust turned to armed conflict, and the brief period of harmony between French and Indian came to an end. Yet the Timucuans apparently remained neutral during the attack by the Spanish against the French fort in 1565 and actively assisted De Gourgues's forces in the successful French recapture of the fort in 1568.

The Florida tribes could not long survive contact with Europeans. After driving out the French, the Spanish imposed tribute on the Timucuans and forced them into missions. Devastated by European disease and attacks by other Indians, the Timucuan culture rapidly disintegrated. From a population possibly numbering tens of thousands at the time of contact, only an estimated 550 Timucuans were still alive in 1698. Today there are no known Native Americans who call themselves Timucuan.

Timucuans hold an early place in the European consciousness of Native Americans. French colonist Jacques le Moyne's sketches of Timucuan ceremonies and customs provided Europeans with some of their first views of Native Americans. Franciscan priest Francisco Pareja's translation of a set of catechisms and confessionals from Spanish into Timucuan in 1612 was the first translation involving a Native American language.

The original site of La Caroline no longer exists. It was most likely washed away after the river channel was deepened and widened in the 1880's.

The Loss of the Ribault Fleet (1565): Historical Context

In the mid-16th century France was a vigorous, expansionist nation emerging from feudalism and dreaming of empire. Spain, the world's leading power, already had a foothold in the Americas, and France wanted a share of the riches the Spanish were gaining through trade and plunder. France's first attempt to stake a permanent claim in North America was at La Caroline, a settlement near the mouth of the St. Johns River in Florida, founded in 1564 by René Goulaine de Laudonnière. This early colonizing attempt quickly fell apart. Desirous to establish a firm foothold in Florida, France assembled a more powerful and better equipped flotilla that sailed for Florida under the command of Jean Ribault on 22 May 1565; the flotilla arrived in Florida in late August. But the Spanish had a spy operating in the port of Dieppe, Normandy, who kept the Spanish ambassador informed of all the activities surrounding the outfitting of Ribault’s fleet. Shortly after they arrived in Florida, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés’ fleet appeared and challenged the French. What followed led to the loss of the French fleet and the founding of St. Augustine, the oldest permanent settlement in North America. Recently discovered manuscript documents in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) in Paris reveal some interesting facts about the French ships and the possible locations of the wrecks.

In 1562 Jean Ribault, seconded by René de Laudonnière, first made landfall in Florida, sailing north along the coast and meeting aboriginal people. They eventually arrived at the mouth of a large river they called la Rivière Mai because it was the first of May. Scouting the area they erected a stone column bearing the coat-of-arms of their king and claiming the land for France. They sailed further to the north, exploring and naming rivers after French rivers, such as the River Seine, the Somme, the Charente, Garonne, Loire, etc., eventually reaching what is known today as Parris Island, ultimately building a small fort, Charlesfort, and erecting a second stone column. They returned to Florida in 1654 and erected a wooden fort at the mouth of the Rivière Mai, naming it Ft. Caroline. This second expedition was led by René de Laudonnière. Things did not go well and the colonists endured hardship, but reinforcement arrived aboard a fleet in September 1565, under the command of Jean Ribault. The Spaniards, alerted by a Spanish spy operating in Dieppe, Normandy, sent a fleet after Ribault. The Spanish ships challenged the French who were at anchor in front of the River May (St. John’s), the French cut their anchor cables and sailed away. After a brief and unsuccessful pursuit the Spaniard, looking for a place to take shelter, found a natural inlet, which led to the founding of St. Augustine, the oldest European permanent settlement in North America. Meanwhile, the French after having loaded additional soldiers, including most of the garrison of Ft. Caroline, followed south to where the Spanish fleet had sailed and laid at the mouth of the inlet, waiting for a high tide to cross the sandbar and attack the Spanish, but a hurricane came through, drove the French ships to the south, and all sank or grounded just to the north of Cape Canaveral, including the admiral ship la Trinité. The vast majority of the wrecked ship survivors were eventually put to the sword because they were Protestants and had brought several ministers to “teach their evil sect among the Indians.”