The History of Jacksonville dates way back to Jun 22nd, 1564, when the French Colony of Fort Caroline was first established on the site of what we now know as the city of Jacksonville. Built under the guidance of French Huguenot explorer, René Goulaine de Laudonnière, Fort Caroline served as a New World refuge for French Protestants.
In the mid-16th century, France was making moves to expand its empire and gain a better foothold in the world. During this time, Spain was undoubtedly the most powerful country in the world, having already established colonies in the Americas and gaining a multitude of riches through their exploits. French explorers set about searching for a site in the New World that they could use as a base to further explore the area and capitalize, as the Spanish had done so successfully. The location they set sail for was La Caroline, near the mouth of the St. John’s River in Florida.
Reaching The New World
French Protestant leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny organized the French Expedition, appointing Jean Ribault to lead the way. On February 26th, 1562, they reached the coast at the May River, known nowadays as the St. John’s River. Ribault ventured farther north up the coast with twenty-eight of his men until they reached modern-day Parris Island in South Carolina. It was here that he founded Charelsfort, leaving his men to establish a settlement before Ribault made his return to France for supplies for the new colony.
While Jean Ribault and his men were exploring the New World, Europe was in a state of unrest as the French Wars of Religion began taking hold of the region. Ribault was arrested by the English on his return under suspicion of being a spy, preventing his return to Florida. Without supplies or effective leadership, chaos ensued in Charlesfort. Captain Albert de la Pierria was killed in a mutiny, almost all of the settler’s stores and homes were torched and all except one of the French colonists decided to sail back to Europe. Building their own boat, they set sail across the Atlantic without a compass, in an open boat, eventually resorting to cannibalism to survive. Some survivors were rescued in English waters by an English vessel and a few even made it back to France.
Returning To Florida
Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere, Jean Ribault’s right-hand man on the expedition in 1562, led the return to Florida, arriving at Fort Caroline on June 22nd, 1564. Among those traveling were three hundred settlers, including leading French families, artisans, various representatives of French societies, and laborers to construct a fort. Women were also brought, four of whom had husbands, signifying the French commitment to establishing a permanent settlement in the area. The majority of colonists were French Huguenots, however, there were also some agnostics and Catholics included.
While the French were busy establishing their settlement at Fort Caroline, the Spanish had already explored vast areas of Central and South America, establishing shipping routes throughout the Caribbean. Carrying expensive goods from mines in Peru and Mexico, Spanish ships stopped in Havana before traveling on the Gulf Stream, through the present-day Straits of Florida, along the southeastern corner of North America, and back to Spain. Naturally, the Spanish were apprehensive about the French settlement, as they lay vulnerable to French attack passing the Florida coastline.
Jean Ribault’s Return
Fort Caroline had a difficult first year, with very little food available and settlers nearing starvation. Mutiny occurred twice, with two different groups setting sail from the colony in search of their own riches. However, these were caught by the Spanish, revealing the exact location of the French settlement. In August 1565, just as the colonizers were losing hope and getting ready to abandon for Caroline, Jean Ribault’s sails appeared on the horizon, carrying 600 settlers and soldiers, including women and children.
The Spanish Intervene
When the Spanish monarch, King Philip II, got wind that Ribault was destined for Florida, he immediately gathered his troops, ordering a contingent to be led by Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles. Their mission was to eradicate the French Huguenots from Fort Caroline, establish control of the colony and build further fortified settlements along the coastline to protect the Spanish fleets carrying precious cargo that were en route from Central and South America to Spain.
On arriving in Florida, Menendez and his men established a base at St. Augustine, from which to attack the French. Ribault sailed his fleet south to attack Menendez and his crew but got hit by a hurricane, moving them further south, shipwrecking most of the fleet, and killing many of those on board.
Pedro Menendez de Aviles marched his men north to capture the weakened For Caroline, succeeding with ease and killing all of the two hundred inhabitants, sparing just sixty women and children. The Spanish conquistador, marched his men south, where he located the shipwrecked French soldiers, including Jean Ribault. Despite pleas of mercy from the French, Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his men brutally killed three hundred and fifty men, saving just a handful of those who chose to convert to Catholicism and some artisans.
Revenge Despite The Loss Of The French Colony Of Fort Caroline
If that hurricane had never caught Jean Ribault and his fleet off-guard, the history of modern-day Jacksonville, and indeed the history of Florida overall, could have unfolded very differently. The short-lived colony of Fort Caroline played a somewhat brief role in the history of Florida, eventually destroyed by the Spanish, where they built their own fort in its place.
However, a year later, in April 1568, Dominique de Gourgeues, a captain in the army of King Charles IX of France, sold everything he owned and borrowed money to charter three ships and recruit a crew. He sailed to Cuba without telling anyone of his plans to attack the Spanish colony and burn the fort. On reaching Cuba he unveiled his plan to seek revenge for the massacre of the French at the Mantanzas Inlet in 1565, and his crew agreed. With the help of their old native Timucua Indian allies, the Saturiwa and Tacatacuru clans, they successfully attacked and captured the fort. In an act of revenge for the brutal killings of his French Protestant compatriots, though he himself was Catholic, Dominique, his men, and the native Indians, together hanged the prisoners, accompanying the bodies with an inscription that read “Not as Spaniards, but as murderers.”