Saturday 4 June 2022

Searching for Fort Caroline.

On 22 June 1564 a group of predominantly Hugenot French settlers founded the colony of Fort Caroline on a waterway they identified as the 'River of May' in French Florida, under the leadership of René Goulaine de Laudonnière. The colony is thought to have been the first fortified European settlement in North America, but lasted for 15 months before being attacked and captured by a Spanish force led by Pedro Menendez on 20 September 1565. Following the attack the French survivors were taken to a beach called 'Matanzas' ('slaughter'), where the men were killed one at a time, before the women and children were loaded onto ships and taken to Havana, their subsequent fate being unknown. 

The fort was subsequently renamed Fort San Mateo, and occupied by a Spanish military force. On 25 April 1568 the fort was attacked by a force of French corsairs led by Dominique de Gourgues, who overwhelmed the Spanish force, before hanging all captured Spaniards and dumping the fort's cannons into the river. The site was briefly re-occupied by the Spanish, but abandoned in 1580 amid deteriorating relations with the local Native American population.

The site of Fort Caroline has subsequently been lost, but is considered to be an important location in American history, as its founding predated the foundation of the Lost Colony of Roanoke in modern Virginia by 21 years, the foundation of the Jamestown Fort by 45 years, and the arrival of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts by 56 years. As such the location of Fort Caroline has been the subject of a large amount of speculation over the past century, with several locations proposed, the most popular of which is on the St Johns River, to the north of St Augustine, where the  Fort Caroline National Memorial is located.

In a paper published in the Journal of Historical Archaeology and Anthropological Sciences on 4 March 2022, Anita Spring of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Florida and Fletcher Crowe of Bethune-Cookman University re-examine the evidence for the location of Fort Caroline, and conclude that it should in fact be searched for on the St Mary's River, rather than the St Johns.

Drawing of Fort Caroline Attributed to Jacques Le Moyne and published by Théodor De Bry in 1591. Spring & Crowe (2022).

Spring and Crowe examined a collection of sixteenth century French and Spanish manuscripts relating to the site, including the accounts of René Goulaine de Laudonnière and Dominique de Gourgues, and identified 31 geographical criteria which could be used to identify the site of Fort Caroline in these documents, and used them to create a matrix against which the St Johns River and St Mary's River locations could be compared. 

Most of these criteria could be applied to both the St Mary's River and the lower part of the St Johns River, from its mouth to Blount Island where the river turns sharply to the south, although the St Johns River lacks a number of features described in the historic documents, notably two islands at the mouth of the river and parallel freshwater and saline channels. Furthermore the documents describe the river as deep and fast flowing, which is true of the St Mary's River but not of the St Johns.

As well as the written accounts made by eyewitnesses to the events, Spring and Crowe examined a series of maps of the area, made by French and English cartographers between the sixteenth and early eighteenth centuries.

The first of these maps was made by the French explorer Jean Ribault in 1562, whilst scouting for a site for the future colony at the behest of Nicolas Barré (known as 'Parreus'). This map shows the mouth of a river immediately west of the first island north of the River of May. Based upon Spring and Crowe's calculation that the River of May is the modern St Mary's River, this island would be Cumberland Island.

Parreus Map of French Florida, 1563. Shows a river west of the first island north of the River of May. If the River of May is the St. Marys River, this island is Cumberland Island, and the map is correct. Spring & Crowe (2022).

Modern map of the same area. Google Maps.

The second map examined was made by the English cartographer John White in 1587. White served as the governor of the second (failed) attempt at founding a colony at Roanoke in modern Virginia from 1587, and is known to have consulted with the French artist and cartographer Jacques Le Moyne, who took part in Jean Ribault's expedition to the area. This map shows a River des Daufins to the south of the River of May, which Spring and Crowe identify as the St Johns River.

Detail of Southern Portion of Map of North America by John White, 1587. Note that the 'River des Daufins' with its sharp bend to the south, is clearly the St. Johns River. Spring & Crowe (2022).

Finally Spring and Crowe looked at a map made by French cartographer Jacques Nicolas Bellin in 1744. This map identifies the St Mary's River as the San Mateo, the name used for it by the Spanish when they ruled the area, and shows a point to the west of the mouth of this river labelled 'Ici… la Caroline' ('Here... the Caroline'), which presumably refers to the location of Fort Caroline. This map also identifies the St Johns River as the St Augustine River (again a name known to have been used by the Spanish for this river), with a note next to it indicating that it was formerly known as the formerly known as the River of Dolphins, strongly supporting the idea that the three names refer to the same waterway.

Detail of Southern Portion of Map of French Florida by Jacques Nicolas Bellin (1744. The French knew the River of Dolphins as the Seloy River. The map clearly shows Fort Caroline well north of the St. Johns River. Spring & Crowe (2022).

The Spanish assault of 1565 is known to have involved 500 men marching north from a place called 'Seloy' to attack Fort Caroline. Traditionally, 'Seloy' has been associated with the city of St Augustine, which is thought to be the oldest continuously occupied site in North America, and from which it would be possible to march north to the St Johns River without crossing any other body of water.

This would involve marching a distance of 35 miles, in four days, amid what witnesses described as driving rain, something possible, but highly implausible for a sixteenth century armed force of this size. 

French reports at the time record that the Spanish fleet disembarked the military force 8-10 leagues to the south of Fort Caroline, which, assuming a sixteenth century French league is 2.2-2.3 miles, would imply a distance of about 20 miles, which is a more reasonable achievement. This is also the approximate distance between the St Johns and St Mary's rivers, suggesting that Menendez could have landed his troops on the St Johns River before marching north to fight the French.

In 2014-15 and 2017 the Fort Caroline Archaeology Project carried out a series of excavations at four different locations on the St Mary's River, recovering over 100 artifacts. They also examined collections of objects gathered by local residents, and carried out surveys of the St Mary's River bottom, which revealed a number of items of interest, including stone markers, ballast stones, small clay objects, glass bottles of later periods, and a large stone block with a hole that possibly could be part of a French oven, all of which were deposited with the Florida Museum of Natural History. A fragment of wooden artifact collected close to a spring which might have provided the colony with fresh water yielded a carbon¹⁴ date of 1530-1600 years.

A Native American burial mound close to the St Mary's River, which was excavated by privately contracted archaeologists is known to have yielded a French halberd of a type that Dominique de Gourgues is known to have given to local warriors who took part in his attack on the Spanish-held Fort Caroline, as well as a number of other European artifacts, including an iron knife and several glass beads.

From this evidence Spring and Crowe deduce that the current available evidence strongly supports a position on the St Mary's River for Fort Caroline, and that, as late as the mid-eighteenth century, geographers and historians appear to have taken this location for granted, with the now-popular hypothesis of a location on the St Johns River apparently being a modern fallacy. 

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