- 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
Though Ribaut was on shore, the men aboard his ships cut their anchor chains and put to sea. The Spaniards gave chase, but were rapidly outdistanced by the smaller, faster French vessels. As the Spanish ships headed back toward the coast, the French fleet shadowed them, found they had put into St. Augustine’s harbor, some thirty-five miles to the south, and then reported back to Ribaut.
Always the man of action, Ribaut ordered all able-bodied men at Fort Caroline aboard his ships to pursue the enemy. Laudonnière protested that this would leave him defenseless against an overland attack, but Ribaut was now in command. On September 10, leaving two ships behind, he set sail to attack Menéndez, who meanwhile had disembarked his forces at St. Augustine and begun to fortify his position.
Among the many things discovered in the New World—tobacco, corn, pumpkins, turkeys—most history books fail to make note of the hurricane. Peculiar to the east coast of North America (and to the east coast of Asia, most of which was terra incognita in 1565), the hurricane posed problems that the European seaman was totally unable to cope with. Its portentshigh cirrus “mare’s-tails” in the sky, the ominous calm, the first fitful, nervous gusts—had not as yet been related to the ferocity that was likely to follow. Once caught in a hurricane with its contradictory winds and mountainous waves, the most experienced and able European sailors were in a realm that had existed heretofore only in the imaginations of madmen. Shortly after Ribaut made his first contact with the Spanish at St. Augustine, a hurricane struck.
The great tempest wrecked three of his ships. With great difficulty, he and 600 of his men made it to shore near the harbor, where the Spanish fleet had safely ridden out the storm. Though Menéndez did not yet know of the extent of the catastrophe that had befallen Ribaut, he surmised that the French fleet had been badly scattered.
After a swift overland march, Menéndez attacked Fort Caroline early on the morning of September 20. Routed out in their nightshirts, Laudonnière’s small garrison were unable to put up any effective resistance and fled through the marshes in an attempt to reach the two ships that, anchored in the river, had survived the hurricane. By nightfall the Spanish had killed 132 Frenchmen without suffering a single casualty. The survivors were few: Laudonnière, the artist Le Moyne, the woman who had caused Laudonnière so much grief, and eighteen or twenty others. They were taken aboard the two ships, one of which was commanded by Ribaut’s son, and hastily set sail for France.
Meanwhile Jean Ribaut and his men, stranded on the hot Florida beaches without food, water, or arms, began to surrender a few at a time. They were asked, “Are you Catholics or Lutherans, and are there any who wish to confess?” All but a few remained stout Huguenots to the bitter end and they were led out behind the dunes and summarily executed. On October 10 Ribaut himself and the last remnants of his force capitulated. They too were put to death. For an epitaph on his unknown grave, the remarkable Ribaut might have had the words of his executioner, Pedro Menéndez: “The King of France could do more with him with fifty thousand ducats, than with others with five hundred thousand; and he could do more in one year than another in ten, for he was the most experienced seaman and corsair known.”
And so ended France’s ill-starred attempts to colonize the east coast of what would become the United States. Now the die was cast: the departure of the French from Fort Caroline marked the beginning of the pattern that was to shape North America for all time.
Under Pedro Menéndez, the Spanish settlement at St. Augustine took hold; Spain was to dominate Florida until she ceded it to the United States in 1821. As a precaution, the Spanish twice attempted to establish outposts at the site of Ribaut’s first settlement at Port Royal, but as their influence began to wane and the English began to push farther south from Virginia, these forts were abandoned, leaving as their only legacy “tabby,” a kind of concrete the Spaniards had learned to make from oyster shells; copied by the English, it may still be seen in the foundations of the older homes of the lower South Carolina coast.
The French, following the lead of Jacques Cartier, now shifted their attention to Canada and began pushing down the Mississippi Valley and up from New Orleans. Today the only testaments to their dramatic moves to colonize South Carolina and Florida are two monuments, one at the site of Fort Caroline on the St. Johns River near present-day Jacksonville, the other on the seaward tip of Parris Island, South Carolina, home of the famous U.S. Marine Corps “boot camp,” where Charlesfort is believed to have stood. (The exact location of Charlesfort is still much disputed. Evidence recently unearthed suggests that it may have been on nearby Port Royal Island— Ed. )
A few place names—monuments of a less formal nature—tell a different story. Ribaut’s “fayrest and greatest haven” in South Carolina is still known as Port Royal. And down on the east coast of Florida, an inlet near St. Augustine is still called Matanzas. In Spanish the word means slaughter, and near here lie the bones of Jean Ribaut, a man who might have altered the course of American history were it not for a hurricane.