- Historic Sites
The Tragic Dream Of Jean Ribaut
Half a century before Jamestown, a Huguenot sea captain planted the flag of France on America’s South Atlantic coast. His hopes were as high as the odds against him
October 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 6
Lured on by vague Spanish reporis of a mighty “River Jordan” farther north, Ribaut left the May and pushed on up the coast past the sounds and rivers of Georgia. These he extravagantly named after the great waterways of France: the Seine, the Somme, the Loire, and so on.
As the expedition passed the present Georgia-South Carolina border around the middle of May, “great fogges and tempests” overtook them. The two ships were forced to head for the safety of deep water. The pinnaces, working in closer to shore, lost contact with their mother ships, but when the storm cleared a day later, they raced out to join forces again, excitedly reporting that they had ridden out the gale in a harbor bigger and more beautiful than any encountered so far.
Ribaut crossed the bar of this new discovery on May 17, 1562. Describing it as “one of the fayrest and greatest Havens of the worlde,” Ribaut named the harbor Port Royal. One of his lieutenants, a young nobleman named René de Laudonniére, echoed the awe of the French seamen as they sailed into the magnificent bay: “the depth is such … that the greatest shippes of France, yea, the Arguzes of Venice may enter in there.”
Ribaut’s soldiers and sailors were not the first white men to visit Port Royal. As near as we can tell from conflicting accounts of his voyage, Lucas Vâsquez de Ayllón of Santo Domingo had come this way with a Spanish expedition in the 1520’s. In honor of the saint’s day on which the harbor was discovered, he had christened it St. Helena, a name that still survives among the Sea Islands of the South Carolina coast. And a year before Ribaut’s arrival, a Spanish expedition under Angel de Villafañe had explored the area under orders from King Philip II to find a suitable place for a permanent colony. But Villafañe turned in such a negative report that his voyage served only to hasten Philip’s decision to forget about the mainland.
After exploring the broad reaches of the Port Royal harbor and its tributaries, Ribaut concluded that the country was even fairer than that surrounding the River of May. “Wee founds the Indians there more doubtfull and fearefull then the others before,” he wrote. “Yet after we had been in their houses and congregated with them, and shewed curtesie … they were somewhat emboldened.” Ribaut planted his second stone column and summoned his men to his flagship to discuss their next move.
“I thinke there is none of you that is ignorant of how great consequence this our enterprize is, and also how acceptable it is unto our yong King,” he began. Reiterating the point that all who heeded him would be highly commended to the French court, Ribaut then asked for volunteers to stay in Port Royal while he returned to France for reinforcements. “You shall be registred for ever as the first that inhabited this strang[e] countrey,” he concluded.
Ribaut was apparently overwhelmed with volunteers. He picked roughly two dozen soldiers to remain behind and retained all his sailors for the return voyage to France. At the request of the men who were to stay on, Ribaut built a fort which he named Charlesfort in honor of his sovereign, Charles IX. Ribaut stocked it with food and left cannon, harquebuses, and ammunition with the soldiers. On June 11 the two ships departed, Ribaut indulging a bit in his favorite sport of river exploring before heading east for France. He promised to return in six months with more colonists and supplies.
At this point Ribaut concludes his account of the first French settlement in America. He was fated never to see his tiny colony again. For when he reached France the political tides had turned against the Huguenots. Civil war had broken out, embroiling the Protestant citizens of Ribaut’s native Dieppe in a series of battles with the Catholic forces of the government. Ribaut fought alongside his townsmen, and when the city capitulated in October of 1562 he fled to England.
There he tried to interest Queen Elizabeth in supporting his colony. An expedition was arranged under the notorious entrepreneur Thomas Stukely, but Ribaut became suspicious of his motives. Fearing that Stukely might force the colony to swear allegiance to England, Ribaut secretly decided to back out of the deal and make off to France with some of the ships that had been readied for the voyage. The plot was discovered. Seized before he could make good his escape, Ribaut was thrown into prison for two years.
The colony at Port Royal prospered at first. The site Ribaut had chosen could hardly have been better. Temperate in climate and healthy, the country surrounding Port Royal abounded in wildlife of staggering variety. Even today a few minutes’ walk across the tidal flats at any time of the year will produce a meal of oysters and clams; the woods are full of deer, wild turkeys, and other game. As Ribaut noted in his report, “there is so many small byrdes, that it is a strange thing to bee scene.” Port Royal, in short, was “one of the goodliest, best, and fruitfullest countreys that ever was scene.”
Having no knowledge of the events that were to prevent their commander from returning on schedule, however, the men at Charlesfort made no provision to live off the land. Fortunately, they were on good terms with the local Indians. Continuing with the story of the Port Royal settlement from the point where Ribaut leaves off, René de Laudonnière writes: “their victualles beganne to waxe short, which forced them to have recourse unto their neighbors … which gave them part of all victualles which they had, and kept no more unto themselves [than] would serve to sow their fieldes.”