Fort Caroline and the First Thanksgiving

By: Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources

French settlers established a settlement at Fort Caroline in present-day Jacksonville before encountering difficulties with the environment and competing Spanish territories.

The Peace of Amboise, which in March 1563, pacified Catholics and Huguenots, allowed Admiral de Coligny to resume his attention for a new voyage to America. He appointed Capt. René Goulaine de Laudonnière (1529-74), who had been Jean Ribault's second-in-command on the 1562 expedition when he landed at the Dolphin River near St. Augustine. Laudonnière was to lead a contingent of nearly 300 new settlers – including four women – back to Florida. There, on June 29, 1564, the French founded Fort Caroline (la Caroline) atop St. Johns Bluff, near present-day Jacksonville – which was also named for King Charles IX.
At the beginning, the Indians assisted the returning French, who were grateful for the grain and fruit provided by the local Timucuan tribe. With this apparent success, Captain Laudonnière called a feast on June 30, 1564. On this celebration, he wrote: “We sang a psalm of Thanksgiving unto God, beseeching Him that it would please His Grace to continue His accustomed goodness toward us.” 

This was 57 years before the famous and better-known Thanksgiving celebration in Plymouth, Mass.
The situation soon changed, however, and over the next year, Fort Caroline was beset by hunger, Indian attacks and mutiny. The French settlement also attracted the attention of Spanish authorities, who considered it a challenge to their control over the area.

In June 1565, Ribault was released from English custody, and Coligny sent him back to Florida. On Aug. 28, Ribault arrived at Fort Caroline with a large fleet and hundreds of Huguenot soldiers and took command of the settlement. This news was not received well in Catholic Spain, however, which also was trying to establish its position in the region. The recently appointed Spanish Governor of Florida, Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519-74), was given orders from the Crown to remove the French outpost. He arrived within days of Ribault's landing. After a brief skirmish between Ribault and Menendez’ ships, the Spaniards retreated 35 miles south, where they established their settlement at what became St. Augustine. This was the first known naval engagement between European countries in the interior waters of North America.

Ribault pursued the Spanish fleet with several of his ships and most of his troops, but he encountered a violent storm lasting several days. Meanwhile, Menéndez marched his forces overland and launched, on Sept. 29, a surprise dawn attack on the Fort Caroline garrison, which contained no more than 250 people. Only a few defenders, including Laudonnière, managed to escape execution. 
As for Ribault's fleet, all of his ships – including the flagship Trinité – either sank or ran aground south of St. Augustine during the storm. Ribault and his exhausted sailors were eventually located by the natives, who alerted Menéndez and his troops of their presence. Soon, the Spaniards brought an armed boat to meet the stranded French and summoned them to surrender. Apparently believing that his men would be well treated, Ribault capitulated on Oct. 12. Menéndez then executed Ribault and his Huguenots as heretics at what is now known as the Matanzas Inlet, near St. Augustine, from which this inlet derives its name.

Only a few Frenchmen escaped slaughter. One of them was the young artist Jacques LeMoyne (1533-88), who made it back to Europe, where his watercolors of Florida were turned into engraved images by Theodore de Bry. These images composed a book, Brevis narratio eorum quae in Florida Americae Provicia Gallis Acciderunt (“A Brief History of Those Things Which Befell the French in Florida”), first published in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1591.

These events put an end to France's attempts at colonization of the southeastern Atlantic coast of North America. The Spaniards destroyed Fort Caroline, and built their own fort on the same site, renaming it San Mateo. In April 1568, the mercenary and adventurer Dominique de Gourgues, a native of Bordeaux (1530-93) led a French force that attacked, captured and burned the San Mateo fort. He then slaughtered the Spanish prisoners in revenge for the 1565 massacre. The Spanish soldiers and mariners rebuilt the fort, but permanently abandoned it the following year.

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