Following French Footsteps at Florida's Fort Caroline

— Ariel Martin, Share the Experience

Some of the most fascinating stories in American history are seldom remembered. Just one year before the Spanish established St. Augustine – widely regarded as America's oldest city – the French founded their own colony less than 50 miles further up the Florida coast. It was called Fort Caroline, and its history, albeit brief, is preserved today at Fort Caroline National Memorial

Fort Caroline National Memorial is one of several sites that make up Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve, a rich 46,000-acre area that was home to the Timucua tribe for hundreds of years and includes some of Florida's most well-preserved coastal wilderness.

Fort Caroline History

Living history rangers fire a canon at Fort Caroline National Monument
National Park Service

In the 16th century, several European powers sought to expand their empires into the Americas. The first French expedition, led by Jean Ribault, made landfall on what is known today as the St. Johns River and erected a monument to cement France's claim on the New World. A second expedition followed two years later under the leadership of Rene de Goulaine de Laudonniere, with the goal of establishing a permanent settlement – Fort Caroline.

The settlement initially thrived, thanks largely to good relations with the native Timucua. But within a year, the new colonists' relationship with the natives had soured, and the 200-plus settlers at Fort Caroline were weak and near starvation. 

By 1565, the Spanish had founded their own settlement at St. Augustine, and King Phillip II of Spain sought to remove the French from America. Admiral Pedro Menendez led a group of 500 soldiers north from St. Augustine to attack the weakened colony and easily succeeded, killing many and allowing only a handful of survivors to flee back to France. This would be the last time the French made any substantial claim in North America. 

Visit Fort Caroline

Blue flag with 3 yellow fleur-de-lys symbols waving at a minimalist grass-covered Fort Caroline
Rick Rasmussen/NPS

The Spanish destroyed the original Fort Caroline and built their own fort in its place after seizing the colony. It was later burned by the French, rebuilt again, and permanently abandoned within a year. Today, the precise location of the original fort is unknown.

The reproduction of Fort Caroline that stands today among the hammock forests near the mouth of the St. Johns River is based on period drawings of the original. The fort hosts nature walks, history tours, and living history exhibits. A nearby visitor center offers a chance to learn more about Fort Caroline history. 

Explore the Theodore Roosevelt Area

In addition to Fort Caroline National Monument, Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve includes a 600-acre wilderness known as the Theodore Roosevelt Area. This area of dense woods, open grasslands, and coastal marshes is crisscrossed by hiking trails, while towering hardwoods stand untouched, and piles of ancient oyster shells allude to an early culture now long gone.

The area is connected by a walking trail and boardwalk to the Spanish Pond, the spot where Pedro Menendez and his forces camped out on their way to attack Fort Caroline in 1565. 

See the Ribault Monument

The concrete steps leading up to the Ribault Monument at Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve
National Park Service

Like the original Fort Caroline, the monument erected by Jean Ribault upon his arrival in Florida has been lost to time. In 1924, a new monument was constructed near the present-day community of Mayport, and in 1958, this monument was moved to its current location atop St. Johns Bluff. You can see it today as part of your visit to Fort Caroline National Memorial.

Less than 15 miles north of Jacksonville, Fort Caroline National Memorial offers a window into a little-known era of Florida history. Explore the memorial, then stop by the other sites within the vast area that comprises Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve. History and nature combine to create an incredible trip when you #FindYourPark/#EncuentraTuParque at this Florida park!

Comments

Hi, I am a graduate student at Florida State University studying French History. I am fascinated with Fort Caroline as well as the history of Jean Ribault. I am wondering if there is any room for a historical partnership or any research opportunities available with your team. Even just suggestions on what needs to be researched and written, so that I can direct my archival research. Thank you!
Caroline
Hackett
Just saw your post and maybe this reply is not too late. I recommend you try and contact Lake Ray III in Jacksonville. He is a local historian and has been active with trying to locate the precise location of Fort Caroline. https://www.jaxdailyrecord.com/article/lake-ray-still-waiting-fort-caroline-validation Try Linked-in for his contact.
Mike
Lithman
Have you looked at my articles posted to the internet on Fort Caroline and its possible whereabouts? Just google "Mattfeld, Fort Caroline" which will take you to four articles. I am a retired teacher of History, Geography and Art. Born 1943. Now aged 77 years. My articles explain what is behind the confusion regarding the fort's location. Why some thought it was in Georgia instead of Florida. I note conflicting eyewitness reports, preserved in Spanish records, about the fort's location. The fort's conqueror, Pedro Menendez de Avia, ordered his soldiers to take a degree reading by the su to establish the fort's location, they told him it was 30 and a quarter degrees (North), today that translates as 30 degrees 15 minutes (Today's Ponte Vedra Beach on modern maps). However, Spanish Degree Table Booklets used to establish sitings were off by 09 degrees. When 9 degrees is added to 30 Degrees 15 minutes, we have Fort Caroline at 30 degrees 24 minutes, where today is the modern replica of Fort Caroline by the State Park Service. Some have suggested that Fort Caroline is under the St. Johns River today, the shoreline it was built at, having been eroded away by 400 years of river erosion. Eyewitness reports, French, report that four FRench ships were sunk in the St. Johns River in 1565. One near the fort, by the Spanish who fired a cannon at the ship sinking it. The other three French ships wer scuttled by the French before departing for France in two ships. These ships were sunk near the mouth of the river. AS far as I know, no-one has ever conducted a search for the four French ships lying in the St. Johns River.
Walter
Mattfeld

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