Following French Footsteps at Florida's Fort Caroline

November 2, 2017Travel Ideas
— 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!


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