The French & the Timucua

By: Jodi Mailander Farrell


Long before Juan Ponce de Leon landed near St. Augustine, the Timucua were the largest indigenous group of people in northeast and central Florida.

One archaeological dig has revealed a Timucuan site dating back to 1100, predating the European founding of America's oldest city by more than two centuries.

The Timucua, comprised of about 35 chiefdoms, were probably the first to see Ponce de Leon land, but Europeans didn't get their first glimpse of Florida's Natiive Americans until a French painter named Jacques Le Moyne joined an expedition in 1564 led by French Huguenot René de Laudonnièr. The ill-fated colonization attempt established Fort Caroline in what is now Jacksonville.

Le Moyne’s illustrations were among the earliest and most comprehensive illustrations of Florida’s Native Americans to circulate through Europe at the time, shaping European perception of Florida’s earliest inhabitants, for better and worse.

Now's your chance to see them, too.

Those images – published by engraver Theodore de Bry in 1591 in Grand Voyages – are now on display as part of an exhibit, “French in Florida,” at the Collier County Museum in Naples through Nov. 7. A timeline that accompanies the panels provides historical context.

Part of the Museum of Florida History’s Traveling Exhibit program, the 42 engravings of illustrations and text accounts by Le Moyne portray day-to-day dealings with the Timucua and chiefs Saturioua and Outina (a warring chief from the St. Augustine area). The native Americans are depicted preparing meals, hunting and tilling crops, as well as dealing with Laudonnière, but they are also presented as savages.

De Bry the engraver never actually visited the New World. Instead, he based his engravings on Le Moyne’s paintings, which he acquired after Le Moyne's death in 1588 from the French painter’s widow. De Bry’s work, translated into multiple languages and distributed widely, perpetuated the mystic and mythical misunderstandings about the New World that permeated Europe.

A certain amount of artistic license was employed by de Bry and his sons who worked in his studio, with inaccuracies ranging from the benign (mountains etched into backgrounds) to the controversial (one scene depicts the sacrifice of first-born sons in reverence of the chief).

Regardless the authenticity, these engravings are the earliest known visual representations of Florida and its indigenous people, and provide a unique look at the ambitions the Europeans had in colonizing the territory.

The French Huguenot experiment with Fort Caroline did not last long, falling to Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the Spanish Adelantado who established a small camp just 40 miles south called St. Augustine, eradicating the French from the Florida territory in a bloody ambush in an inlet later named Mantanzas which means “slaughters” in Spanish. 

Info: Coliler County Museum, 3331 Tamiami Trail East, Naples, 239-252-8476.

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