French Huguenot Myth Busted. Who Really Founded Fort Caroline in Florida?

French Huguenot Myth Busted. Who Really Founded Fort Caroline in Florida?

Contrary to popular belief, French Huguenot, Jean Ribault, was not the founder of Fort Caroline near present-day Jacksonville, Florida. It was, in fact, Ribault’s second in command, the courageous René Goulaine de Laudonnière. In 1564, our man Jean Ribault was locked away in the Tower of London and couldn’t make the return journey to re-supply the little colony in Parris Island founded during his 1562 journey. Back in France, Admiral Coligny was determined to get the French Huguenots back to the shores of the new world and tapped Laudonnière to make the voyage. Let’s explore this fact in more detail.

French Huguenot explorer René Goulaine de Laudonnière was born in 1529. Although he is best known for his missions to the New World and for establishing the French colony of Fort Caroline, where modern-day Jacksonville currently stands, not much is known about his early life. Despite the mystery surrounding his early life, Laudonnière was a prolific figure on the first voyages to the New World by the French Huguenots in the middle of the fifteenth century and played an important role in Florida’s history.

Having led two earlier voyages of discovery under the orders of King Charles IX of France, René Goulaine de Laudonnière was appointed as Jean Ribault’s lieutenant for the first voyage to the New World. As religious strife began in Europe between Catholics and Protestants, the French Huguenot leaders were adamant that the New World would not be allowed to become predominantly Catholic. Second in command, to Jean Ribault, Laudonnière set sail from France across the Atlantic to set up colonies of their own and to challenge the ever-growing presence of the Spanish Catholics in the region.

Laudonnière’s Early Life: Two Theories

René Goulaine de Laudonnière was a merchant mariner and Huguenot nobleman from Pitou, a province in west-central France. This region was a major hub of French Huguenot activity among the nobles of the area in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. However, the origins of his family and his precise birthdate are still unknown.

While there are no official records that decisively prove when Laudonnière was born or what his family origins are, there are two main theories surrounding his early life. Many historians believe that he came from Nantes, a city on the Loire River in the Upper Brittany area of western France. This train of thought attaches Laudonnière to the Goulane family, who was seated at Laudonniére, not far from Nantes.

On the other hand, other historians believe that René Goulaine de Laudonnière actually hailed from Les Sables-d’Olonne in the Pays de la Loire region of western France between Saint-Nazaire and La Rochelle. These historians believe Laudonnière was connected with the Burdigale name. However, neither theory can truly be substantiated.

Establishing Charlesfort In South Carolina

Laudonnière joined Jean Ribault’s expedition to the New World in 1562 and was appointed as Ribault’s lieutenant. Organized by French Huguenot leader Admiral Gaspard II de Coligny, the voyage was to begin in February 1562. Under the command of Jean Ribault and his newly appointed lieutenant, Laudonnière, they set sail for the New World. Landing at the River May, they established a small colony known as Charlesfort, on present-day Parris Island in South Carolina.

After establishing the colony, Ribault and his crew returned to France, leaving twenty-eight men behind to construct the new French settlement. He intended to return to France to gather supplies for the newly established colony. However, on his return to Europe, he was arrested in England on suspicion of espionage and never returned to Charlesfort with the supplies the French settlers needed. With no supplies or assistance from the French crown, Charlesfort descended into chaos. A mutiny against Captain Albert de la Pierria resulted in his death, and growing hostility from the natives caused the remaining French settlers to build their own boat and set sail back to France, crossing the Atlantic without a compass and very few supplies. The incredibly difficult crossing in an open boat reduced the crew to cannibalism, with crew member La Chére, killed and eaten by the other crew on board. Those that survived were eventually rescued in British waters and some made it back to their motherland.

Laudonnière Returns To Establish Fort Caroline

With Jean Ribault still imprisoned in England, Laudonnière was placed in command of the return expedition to the New World. Receiving a purse of 50,000 crowns from King Charles IX, he led a fleet of three ships, occupied by more than three hundred Huguenot colonists, back to the New World to find a new home for the French Huguenots, as the French Wars Of Religion took a tighter hold in Europe.

On June 22nd, 1564, he and his crew sailed to the mouth of the River May, known nowadays as the St. Johns River. Traveling up the river, he eventually reached the site of modern-day Jacksonville, where he established the settlement of Fort Caroline. Laudonnière connected with a Timucua chiefdom known as the Saturiwa, the largest and most established chiefdom of the Timucua people, who were centered around the mouth of the St. Johns River. Relationships with the natives began well. However, the colony never truly flourished and their reliance on the locals for food angered the locals, which ultimately ended in rebellion and some of the colonizers deserting Fort Caroline.

The End Of Laudonnière’s Command In Florida

As the colony of Fort Caroline was spiraling out of control, Laudonnière purchased a ship and food from John Hawkins, an English privateer who was passing by. He had decided to ship the remaining colonists back to France and abandon Fort Caroline. However, while he was waiting for the right conditions to set sail on the return journey to France, Jean Ribault arrived on September 10th with six hundred French soldiers and settlers.

Jean Ribault advised Laudonnière that he had been relieved of his role in Fort Caroline. Despite Laudonnière officially being relieved of his authority, Ribault offered an informal agreement where together they could co-rule the colony. Unfortunately, Laudonnière didn’t agree and decided to return to France.

Just as Laudonnière was preparing to set sail, his plans were interrupted by the arrival of Spanish conquistador Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who was ordered by King Philip Of Spain to remove the French Huguenots from Florida. Ribault and his fleet sailed south with Menendez in pursuit, leaving Laudonnière with twenty soldiers and one hundred men at Fort Caroline.

René Goulaine de Laudonnière Escapes And Returns To France

Ribault and his crew were caught in a storm running them aground further down the coast, and after learning about the shipwrecked Huguenots, Menendez, and his men took this opportunity to launch a surprise attack on Fort Caroline, destroying the settlement and killing more than one hundred and forty men and sparing only sixty women and children. Laudonnière, along with about fifty men, escaped and fled to the coast where Ribault’s son was waiting with three ships on which they set sail for France, eventually arriving in Wales.

It is believed that René Goulaine de Laudonnière traveled overland through London to Paris, arriving in the French capital in December 1565. His presence in the history books faded before eventually resurfacing as a merchant mariner in La Rochelle in 1572. He managed to avoid the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Huguenots in August 1572 and died two years later in the Saint-Germain-en-Laye region of north-central France in 1574.