Updated 12 months ago
One of the biggest events in Florida history occurred about two miles from where I grew up in Jacksonville. In 1564, a French group, mostly Protestants, sailed into the mouth of the St. Johns River and built a fort there, Fort Caroline. Had things turned out differently, it would have been America's oldest city instead of St. Augustine, and our state's cultural heritage might feature references to la Floride instead of la Florida.
The way the story usually gets told is that the French Protestants — known as Huguenots — were fleeing religious oppression and came to America seeking a better life. This is comfortable because it massages that part of our psyches that wants to see our country, even pre-Revolution, as a noble, tolerant place — a kind of new, improved Europe. That paradigm, of course, originated with the mythology of the Puritans, who came to America much later but ended up with a lot more influence on the cultural prism through which we've come to view the rest of our history.
Fort Caroline's origins did in fact begin with religious conflict. The Catholic majority in France and the Huguenots killed each other on and off for more than half of the 16th century, beginning in earnest about two years before Fort Caroline was settled. And the man who was behind the French effort to settle in Florida was the country's leading Protestant politician — Gaspard de Coligny, an admiral and a nobleman.
But Coligny was likely driven more by domestic political considerations than by some pious yearning for his co-religionists to be able to worship free of persecution in a new land. In a wonderful book published a decade ago, "The French in Early Florida," Boston University historian John McGrath argues that Coligny organized the expeditions to America not so that his fellow Protestants could flee France, but in fact so that they could show how loyal they were to France's Catholic monarchy.
McGrath makes a good case that Coligny, a moderate who struggled to keep his country together, thought there'd be no better way to promote national unity than for French Protestants to serve the crown by establishing a French claim to Florida.
For a host of reasons, Fort Caroline came to naught. The settlement did pretty well for about a year until the settlers' failure to bring along enough seed and tools to grow food began to catch up with them; in addition, their meddling in tribal politics angered nearby natives who had previously been friendly.
The fort, of course, also was a finger in the eye of the Spanish, who hadn't formally settled Florida but were busy mining silver and enslaving natives elsewhere in the hemisphere. And so the Spanish sent a governor for Florida, Pedro Menendez, with a force of soldiers and ships to drive the French out.
Here's where the story gets dramatic. Coligny sent Jean Ribault, a Huguenot naval officer, and more than 500 settlers and soldiers to resupply and reinforce Fort Caroline. Ribault's force got to Florida in late August 1565. Ribault's ships got there just a few days ahead of Menendez's.
After a brief skirmish at sea, Menendez sailed south and built the fortified encampment that became St. Augustine. Ribault pursued him, and things looked bad for Menendez. But for unknown reasons Ribault and his ships lingered off the coast, didn't attack and apparently didn't take notice of a hurricane blowing up from the south until it was too late.
Menendez took an equally bewildering, if bolder, course of action. Figuring that most of the French soldiers were aboard the ships, and figuring the French ships couldn't attack him amid the hurricane, Menendez took 500 of his 600 men and marched north to attack the fort. This, McGrath writes, "took four days, crossing unknown swamps, with almost no food, in the middle of a hurricane."
Though it can be argued that both men were equally foolhardy, fate was as kind to Menendez as it was cruel to Ribault. Menendez, his soldiers on the verge of mutiny, marched into Fort Caroline unopposed and recouped their morale by slaughtering about 130 people, sparing only women and children. A few men, including the fort's commander, slipped away. The storm, meanwhile, had wrecked Ribault's ships on barrier islands south of St. Augustine. Returning to the St. Augustine encampment, Menendez and his troops captured the French survivors in batches and slaughtered all but one group. Ribault was among those put to the knife. The name of Matanzas Inlet — the word means "slaughter" — echoes that long-ago bloodletting.
Another French force later recaptured Fort Caroline and avenged Ribault by massacring the Spanish soldiers there, but the French gave up on colonizing Florida. As for Coligny, it wasn't any easier being a moderate in 16th century France than it is today — in 1572, hardliners convinced the French king to order a mass assassination of Huguenot leaders in Paris. Coligny was stabbed, thrown out a window and then decapitated.
Fort Caroline — there's a re-creation of the fort on a river bluff a few miles from downtown Jacksonville — has become a footnote to the founding of St. Augustine, but I hope it will get at least a little attention in the run-up to St. Augustine's celebration of its 450th anniversary beginning in 2013. Likewise the era after the city's founding, which saw Catholic missions spread across northern Florida and into Georgia and South Carolina between 1565 and about 1700. There's now a first-rate re-creation of one of those missions, Mission St. Luis, in Tallahassee.
St. Augustine's anniversary affords us a good opportunity — in the schools and generally — to take our state's history a little more seriously. As Michael Gannon, the state's pre-eminent historian, has said, by the time the pilgrims were celebrating that "first" Thanksgiving, St. Augustine was already up for urban renewal. Cut through all the schlock and the myths, and the historical figures begin to take on the personalities of the real people they were. Just as quickly, the historical events themselves begin to take fuller shape, reminding us that not all history is inevitable, that how we struggle in our time matters in shaping the future.
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