The Story of Jean Ribault and Fort Caroline

The Explorers and the Settlers: Ribault, Huguenots, and the French in Florida

Jean Ribault, a French naval officer, colonist and explorer, was born in the city of Dieppe circa 1520. In 1562, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny received a commission from Charles IX, King of France, to establish a colony in the New World for French Protestants, the Huguenots, who were being persecuted in France by the Catholic majority. Coligny ordered Ribault to command an expedition to North America. He reached the coast of Florida near the current location of St. Augustine, sailed northward and landed at the mouth of the St. Johns River, which he called the Riviere de Mai (River of May) because he discovered it on May 1. After making contact with the Native Americans of this area, the Timucua, Ribault erected a stone column and claimed the land for France.

He attempted to return to France for supplies, but instead had to flee to England to seek refuge because the French Wars of Religion had broken out again. In England, he entered into an agreement with Queen Elizabeth I to outfit an expedition to Florida. However, as relations with England and France became strained, Elizabeth had Ribault arrested and imprisoned. While in England, he published an account of his expedition to Florida, The Whole and True Discovery of Terra Florida. After he was released from prison and returned to France, Ribault was ordered by Admiral Coligny to embark for Florida to bring reinforcements and supplies to Fort Caroline.

The Settlement: Fort Caroline
Two years after Jean Ribault’ s initial voyage, Rene de Laudonniere set sail from Le Havre, France and returned to the River of May accompanied by nearly 300 people—among them sailors, soldiers, artisans, servants and four women. A settlement was established in June of 1564 and was named La Caroline in honor of the French King Charles IX. The colony was built with help from local Native Americans in the area that is now known as St. Johns Bluff. The description given by Jacque Le Moyne as published by Theodore de Bry states:

“Thus was erected a triangular work, afterwards named Carolina. The base of the triangle, looking westward, was defended only by a small ditch and a wall of sods nine feet high. The side next to the river was built up with planks and fascines. On the southern side was a building after the fashion of a citadel, which was for a granary to hold their provisions. The whole was of fascines and earth, except the upper part of the wall for two or three feet, which was of sods. In the middle of the fort was a roomy open space eighteen yards long, and as many wide. Midway on the southern side of this space were the soldiers’ quarters, and on the north side was a building…”

The settlement failed to prosper for a number of reasons, and within days of Admiral Jean Ribault’s return in August 1565, most of the original inhabitants, Ribault, and those who accompanied him on the second voyage would be dead. Upon arriving at the fort, Ribault discovered the colony had suffered food shortages, mutiny, and clashes with the Timucuan. He assumed command of the fort and colony but was out maneuvered by the Spanish soldiers under the command of Pedro Menendez de Aviles.

The Battle: France and Spain fight for the First Coast
King Philip II of Spain ordered Pedro Menendez de Aviles to attack Fort Caroline to protect Spain’s interests in the New World. Menendez appeared at the St. Johns River soon after Ribault’s arrival at the fort. The Spanish established an outpost further down the Florida coast, a settlement which would eventually become St. Augustine. Ribault set sail to attack the Spanish before they could strengthen their fortification. But Ribault’s naval force was hit by a hurricane on the way. While the French were moving to attack the Spanish, Menendez organized an assault on Fort Caroline, marching his force over land through the hurricane. The Spanish attacked Fort Caroline, overwhelmed the garrison, and massacred the French at the fort. Only a few of the French colonists escaped.

Ribault and his men were shipwrecked on the coast after the hurricane and Menendez marched his men south to attack. The French surrendered, but on Menendez’s orders Ribault and his men were executed as Protestant heretics at an inlet that is now called Matanzas, which is Spanish for “slaughters.”

The French presence in Florida died with the blood of the Huguenots on the sands of terra Florida.

The Indigenous People of Northeast Florida: The Timucua
The indigenous people of this area were known by Europeans as the Timucua. This group was comprised of several different tribes who spoke a similar dialect, but had their own individual chiefs. They were skilled farmers growing maize, beans, squash, grains, harvesting local berries and fruits, as well as gathering fish, game and shell fish. Their diet also included alligator and manatee.

The French encountered Chief Saturiwa’s group, whose main village was located on the south bank of the St. Johns River, as well as Chief Utina’s people, Saturiwa’s rival to the north of the river. Both groups had encountered Europeans previously and had friendly relations initially.

Europeans reported that the Timucua people were sturdy, muscular, athletic and about four inches taller than the explorers. The chief and members of his family were tattooed and wore body paint. The chiefs dressed in deerskin cloaks and painted bird plumes. Men wore very little, typically, deerskin breechcloths, while the women dressed in moss skirts or aprons. Both men and women had pierced ears which held inflated fish bladders. Their hair was long, and the men knotted it at the top of their heads.

The various groups of the Timucua were decimated by invasion and epidemics in the 1600s and 1700s. The last of the Timucua left Florida with the Spanish in 1763, after the British took control of the Spanish colony.

Fort Caroline Today
Today the National Park Service administers the Fort Caroline National Memorial as part of the Timucuan Ecological & Historical Preserve. The Preserve contains Fort Caroline, the Kingsley Plantation, and the Theodore Roosevelt trail. Today’s Fort Caroline is a re-creation of the original site. In 1924, the Daughters of the American Revolution donated a replica of the stone column erected by Jean Ribault in 1562. The replicas and other historical exhibits including information about how the indigenous people lived are available at the Fort Caroline National Memorial. The Preserve is located approximately 13 miles east of downtown Jacksonville.