Winter 2010 | Volume 59, Issue 4
Spain’s attack on Fort Caroline and brutal slaughter of its inhabitants ended France’s colonial interests on the East Coast
In June 1564, 300 French colonists arrived at the mouth of the St. Johns River near present-day Jacksonville, Florida, after an arduous voyage across the Atlantic. Among these colons were men from some of France’s greatest noble houses, bedecked in bright clothes and suits of gilded armor, accompanied by a train of artisans and laborers. They built a triangular outer wall on the southern bank, dragged several cannon into it, and set about raising a village, which soon contained houses, a mill, and a bakery. At first the local Timucua were friendly, furnishing them with food and giving them advice about survival.
France had so far established only rugged outposts along what would become known as the St. Lawrence, to harvest fish and furs and probe for the Northwest Passage. Yet these lowly stations soon fell short of satisfying France’s grand ambitions for the New World.
This new settlement—Fort Caroline—represented France’s first permanent colony in what would later become the United States, a continental foothold in the strategic Florida peninsula. From here French colonists had access to the sugar plantations and gold fields of the Caribbean and a chance to prey on bullion-bearing Spanish galleons coming from Mexico and Peru. The French crown had big plans for that muddy bank in northeast Florida.
Like the English pilgrims, most of the French settlers were spirited Protestants—Huguenots who saw the New World as a refuge and an opportunity to establish a model community. But unlike their English counterparts, the French pioneers also counted on direct royal patronage. The Huguenots had come to occupy key positions under the monarchy, and the main backer of the venture, Gaspard de Coligny, was a close adviser to the royal family, admiral of the French navy, and the undisputed Huguenot leader. He moved swiftly to resupply Fort Caroline the following year, dispatching seven ships, a thousand men, and provisions. Meanwhile, the situation at Fort Caroline had become dire as relations with the Indians had grown strained and the incipient French settlement had experienced mutinies. Just as the colonists were about to leave, the relief expedition finally arrived in the summer of 1565.
Hearing of this intrusion, Spain had dispatched Pedro Menéndez de Avilés with an armada under sweeping orders to “take the Florida coast.” After the two fleets brushed briefly, Menéndez prudently retreated southward, where he broke ground for a new stronghold, St. Augustine, which has gone on to prosper and is today the oldest European-founded town in the continental United States.
Luck favored the Spanish. The French ships, which were roughly twice as numerous and much better supplied, ran into a hurricane, which blew some out to sea and forced others aground. Meanwhile Menéndez sent his men overland against Fort Caroline. At dawn on September 20, 1565, he and 500 men armed with arquebuses, pikes, and targets surprised the fort and overran it. Such men over 15 not killed at the outset were summarily executed. Only women, girls, and young boys were spared. Over the next few weeks Spanish soldiers mopped up the Florida coast, putting to death any French sailors who had managed to survive the storm and shipwreck.
The French would come back to the Florida coast and exact harsh retribution, slaughtering Spaniards. But the damage to French interests on the East Coast had already been done. The French had been driven into the distant north, leaving a vacuum of settlement on the Atlantic coast for the English, Dutch, and Swedish settlers who arrived half a century later when Spanish power was already passing into decline. Had Fort Caroline prospered, a sizable French-speaking area such as Quebec could well exist in Florida today. But the events of 1565 steered the history of North America in a different direction.