In both France and Spain, the one hundred years from 1500 and 1600 were incredibly turbulent, to say the least. During this period, the French Wars of Religion, involving conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, spilled over to America, leading to a change in the landscape of the United States which can still be felt to this day.
Early in the 16th century, uncertain times in Europe brought several explorers to the shores of the New World in search of new wealth and new homes for their people. The first of these was the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon who landed in Florida in 1513 and in September 1565, the Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded the Spanish colony of St. Augustine in North Florida.
Huguenots Enter The History Of Florida
Captain Jean Ribault was a French Protestant who set out to find colony locations for some one hundred and fifty French Huguenot Christians fleeing persecution. These Huguenots, sometimes called “Lutherans” by the Spanish, were being brutally murdered by the Catholic Church in France.
In 1562, Ribault arrived off the coast of Florida, venturing into the mouth of the St. Johns River before moving north. Two years later, another French explorer, René Goulaine de Laudonnière, launched a new expedition to found a colony on the south bank of the St. Johns River. Flowing from this, the Huguenot settlers established Fort Caroline on top of St. Johns Bluff in 1564.
As a result of Jean Ribault's coastal explorations, these Huguenots from Normandy had established an outpost at Fort Caroline at the mouth of the St. Johns River in present-day Jacksonville. However, Menéndez did not like this and vowed to destroy the fledgling French colony.
The Spanish Take On The French Settlers
A French base in Florida posed a potential threat to Spanish territorial claims and the Spanish treasure fleet that sailed from South America and Mexico along the Florida coast before heading for Spain. King Philip II wanted to eliminate the French threat and especially because the settlers were Protestants. As a Catholic, this was not a tolerable situation.
A few days after the founding of St. Augustine, a French fleet under the command of Captain Jean Ribault lurked off the coast and demanded that Menéndez surrender. However, before receiving a reply, a hurricane blew Ribault's ships south, and they were wrecked at Cape Canaveral.
Knowing that Fort Caroline was now unprotected, Menéndez attacked the French outpost and slaughtered more than one hundred and thirty settlers. Weeks later, the Spanish executed Ribault and hundreds of French shipwreck survivors at an inlet south of St. Augustine. This dramatic event effectively ended France's attempts to colonize the area and play a further part in the history of Florida.
The First European Colony In Florida Is Established
As they landed at St. Johns Bluff on May 1, 1562, the French Huguenots claimed Florida for France, naming the river “The River of May”. They created a settlement near the bluff and built Fort Caroline for their protection, creating the first European colony in Florida.
What rare glimpses into Florida’s early colonial history we have come from Jacques Le Moyne, an artist who joined the colony two years after its founding. His depictions of Florida’s natural wonders and the Timucuan culture are a remarkable record of these early days.
Le Moyne was one of the fortunate colonists who survived the slaughter of the colony by troops led by the founder of St. Augustine, Don Pedro Menendez against Captain Jean Ribault, the founder of the French colony. Le Moyne and fifty others, mostly women and children, sailed home to France, leaving the New World behind and the wilds of Florida a memory.
Today, the Ribault Monument at St. Johns Bluff is worth a visit, both for the view and its historical significance. It is a replica of the monument that the French colonists left behind after sailing back to France. You can also see the replica of Fort Caroline; its original location was lost to the shifting river sands over the centuries. This replica is based on the paintings of Jacques Le Moyne and displays a small earthen fort, edged on its sides by wooden walls.
A Stunning Discovery Off Cape Canaveral
A location off the northeast coast of Florida has fast become synonymous with the reemergence of ships that are believed to be more than five hundred years old. One of the most remarkable discoveries in recent times was La Trinite, the flagship of Captain Jean Ribault’s fleet which operated under the order of King Charles IX of France and had been central to the battles between France and Spain.
In 2013, Global Marine Exploration obtained fourteen state permits to survey and dive a nearly 260-square-kilometer area off Cape Canaveral. This they did for 250 days each year. At last, in 2016 their metal detectors made a worthwhile discovery. An iron cannon was found lying alongside a bronze cannon with markings indicating French royalty. They also found a marble column carved with the coat of arms of France, known from historical engravings and watercolors.
Maritime archaeologist James Delgado pointed out that La Trinite is a ship tied to the history of three nations; France, Spain, and the United States. It tells a story of fortunes, empires, and colonial ambition that carries an international, shared cultural heritage.”
Another archaeologist, Chuck Meide, noted the ship's key role in the origin story of Florida, as it carried gold silver, and other goods to the region during France's period of colonial ambition: “In the world of ships and treasures, there’s really no better story than La Trinite."
The Consequences Of Early French And Spanish Colonization In Florida
The back and forth between France and Spain from 1500 to 1600 to gain control over what is modern-day Flordia had a huge impact on the southeast of the United States. Because the Spanish were victorious over the French, they prevented France from upsetting the dominance they had already established in the Spanish Caribbean territories. However, perhaps most importantly, the struggle between the French and the Spanish led the Spanish to establish a permanent base on the peninsula at St. Augustine from where they could protect their territories against any other European powers that might want to challenge the authority of the Spanish in the region. Originally, established by Menendez for his overland assault on Fort Caroline, St. Augustine, went on to serve this very purpose, becoming the very first permanent European settlement in all of North America.