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History of the Fort

Shortly after dawn, on June 29, 1564, Rene Laudonnière arrived at the mouth of the St. Johns River, known to the French as the River of May, with three ships holding more than 300 men—French, German, Dutch, and African—and a handful of women (Bennett 1964:89; Bennett 1975:69). Many were Protestant Huguenots seeking mineral wealth for the crown and themselves and perhaps a way out of Catholic-dominated France. After moving through the mouth and reconnoitering the river’s south bank, Laudonnière settled on a plot of land to erect his colony. French and later Spanish accounts variously describe the French fort as 2, 3, 4, or 4-5 leagues from the sea or river’s entrance, but these documents consistently place it on the south side of the river (Bennett 1964). While Laudonnière describes the topography and environment of the general area, it is hard to tell exactly were the fort was placed. We know it was “next to the mountain” and near a “great green valley” with “open spaces” and good pasture grass, which “was surrounded by little fresh-water streams and by a tall forest” (Bennett 1975:69). The valley was dubbed “vale of Laudonnière” by the French.

As Gissendaner (1996:135) notes this “general” description correlates well with the Fort Caroline area of present-day Jacksonville, with its high relic dune features and undulating topography, bordered in areas by low marsh grasses and tidal creeks. Another French source claims that the fort “was bordered on one side by the river and on the other by woods, less than a quarter of a league away, with fields between the fort and the woods, a pleasant open space covered with various kinds of grasses and plants” (Le Challeux 1566 in Quinn 1979:372). The same chronicler claims that as the fort was being attacked by the Spanish, “I jumped over the ramparts…[and] I rushed towards the woods. When I was close to the edge of the trees, I looked back towards the fort…From where I stood I could see all of the fort, even the furthest courtyard” (Le Challeux 1566 in Quinn 1979:374-375). This statement implies that he had stopped on a higher ridge or hill and was looking down on the battle taking place within the garrison. Thus the fort appears to have been erected on flat land, near the St. Johns River, a green valley, and a high hill (see Gissendaner 1996 for a more detailed discussion on the location of the fort).

As for the construction of Fort Caroline, its construction began on June 30 1564 under the command of Laudonnière. A plot of ground was cleared of trees and a triangular outline was laid out as a guide. The outpost was made of local materials such as earth, wood, and turf; the latter material was used to top the ramparts to curtail erosion (Bennett 1975:72-73). The side to the west or landward side of the fort was bordered by a moat or ditch that ran along the outside of a parapet about 9 feet high. The other (north?) side was toward the river and defended by a palisade of wood timbers. On the south side was a “bastion” built of earth, wood, and turf. The earthen walls, timber stockade, and ditch all would have been subject to rapid modifications and deterioration as a result due to erosion and organic breakdown once the site was abandoned.

The exact size of the fort or length of any wall is not recorded in any of the French documents (cf. Manucy 1962). Laudonnière does mention that within the middle of the fort there was a “large area [plaza] eighteen paces square” (Lawson 1992:60). On the southern edge of the plaza was a storage shed. A guardhouse was built facing the southern wall. A house constructed on the north side was apparently “a bit to high, for not long afterwards the wind blew it down,” leading Laudonnière to comment that “nothing should be built with upper floors in this land because of the high winds” (Lawson 1992:61).

Laudonnière’s house, which included covered galleries or porches, was placed on the riverside part of the fort. Its front entrance faced the plaza, and a second door opened to the riverside. Another important architectural feature was a cooking oven, which was positioned away from the fort for safety reasons. This was partly because structures within the fort had palmetto frond roofs (and possibly walls).

The majority of the colony’s population appears to have resided within the outpost walls, although there are reports of some buildings being located outside the fort. After capturing Fort Caroline, Menendez reportedly quartered French prisoners in groups of 20 “in the many houses there were outside the fort” (Solis de Meras in Quinn 1979:441).

Laudonnière mentions trying to put the “finishing touches to the fort” around September 20, 1564 when he falls ill of an apparent heat stroke (Lawson 1992:78). We cannot be certain as to the exact number of structures associated with the fort at this time, but it is safe to say that in addition to the four larger structures mentioned above, numerous temporary buildings existed both inside and outside the walled compound. These structures likely would have included houses, storage facilities, and workshops. Later identified as part of the fort are a blacksmith shop and a woodworking/boat building area. A mutiny in November (1564) led Laudonnière to rally the remaining men to finish the defensive wall (Lawson 1992:87). Clearly, the fort was undergoing accreational development, although work was constrained by limited labor and resources.

By early Spring of 1565, Laudonnière had little food left at the fort and attempts to borrow, steal, or capture provisions from the natives was not an easy undertaking (Lawson 1992:104-105).

The decision was made to abandon the colony and sail back to France. Preparations were made at this time to modifying their vessels to make them seaworthy (Lawson 1992: 104). During the refitting process men cut and shaped planks and created the pitch to seal the planks. Finally, having acquired food from native villagers downriver and to the north, Laudonnière ordered the outpost to be demolished so they could sail home. All the houses outside the fort were torn down and the men “made wood charcoal out of them” (Lawson 1992:118). The riverside palisade was also taken down by soldiers. Then Laudonnière writes “I decided to destroy the fort before leaving by setting fire to it, out of fear that some newcomer might make use of it” (Lawson 1992:118). But French plans to leave La Florida were delayed.

On August 3,1565, while preparing to leave, four sails were spotted at the entrance to the River May. The sails belonged to the ships of Captain John Hawkins, who was investigating the area for England. Laudonnière traded artillery, shot, and powder to Hawkins for a small boat and needed supplies (Lawson 1992:121). By August 15, two French vessels were loaded with food and water, waiting only for a favorable wind. Plans were made to set sail on August 28.

On the day the French were scheduled to depart another set of sails were identified beyond he mouth of the River May. These ships belong to a French relief fleet captained by Jean Ribault. After greeting Captain Ribault, Laudonnière leds him back to his “house,” suggesting that not all the buildings had been destroyed by fire (Lawson 1992:124). Perhaps, Laudonnière had planned on burning down the fort and its building at their final departure on August 28. Laudonnière’s account offers an interesting contradiction between what was said to have been destroyed and what was in use at the time of Ribualt’s arrival. Clearly, however, the fort had gone through a cycle of creation and destruction prior to Ribault’s return.

As Ribault and his men settled in, Laudonnière mentions the storing of Ribualt’s food supplies in a lieutenant’s house that had been built some “two hundred paces outside the fort” (Lawson 1992:127). The flour was stored in the “bakery,” which suggests the existence of some sort of facility and not just an oven. It seems likely that with the arrival of additional labor and supplies the fort would have undergone repairs and some general upgrades in conveniences.

The French would not have long to rebuild or upgrade, because on September 4, six Spanish ships appeared at the entrance to the River May. After some harassment by the French, the Spanish ships headed south and made landfall in the Bay of Dolphins, where they established a moated camp (Fort San Agustin). On September 10, Captain Ribault, who had assumed command of the La Caroline colony upon his arrival, decided to force the issue of control over La Florida. He set sail with the bulk of the colony’s military to attack the Spanish. Laudonnière, who was ill, stayed behind to defend the fort with a small force of men, many sick and wounded, together with women and children.

Laudonnière and those remaining at the fort started to repair the garrison. It is unclear how much modification had been done prior to the arrival of French reinforcements on August 28th (1565), but Laudonnière states that “we began to repair and refortify what had been demolished, principally on the river banks…in order to re-establish the palisades” (Bennett 1975:162). Sixty logs were replaced along the riverside wall. They also used planks from a ship Laudonnière had ordered to be constructed as part of that wall, suggesting an expedient philosophy to the rebuilding. The rebuilding was apparently hampered by bad weather (Lawson 1992:131). Eugene Lyon (n.d.:119-120) estimated that between 40 and 150 people were still at the fort at this time.

On September 20, in a driving rainstorm during the middle of the night, a Spanish expedition, which had marched overland from Fort San Agustin, attacked Fort Caroline. The Spanish entered through a “breach” in the south wall (Faupel 1992:132). Laudonnière escaped by going through a breach on the “west side” by his lieutenant’s house and “escaped into the woods” (Lawson 1992:133). The chaos that followed produced an easy Spanish victory. A number of French were captured, some were killed defending the fort, and others such as Laudonnière and the artist Jacque Le Moyne escaped into the surrounding countryside and eventually made it to French vessels moored near the river’s mouth.

After securing the fort, the Spanish executed an unknown number of individuals; those together with the French who had died during the battle were likely disposed of either in burial pits or dumped into the river. If they were buried, archaeologists should expect to find hastily made graves likely to contain multiple individuals. French and Spanish accounts are unclear as to how many French were killed and/or executed and how the bodies were disposed.

With the fall of Fort Caroline, French occupation of La Florida ends. Several general conclusions about the fort can be suggested. First, the fort and its associated structures underwent a cycle of creation, partial destruction, and rebuilding. It is unclear the degree to which Laudonnière destroyed the fort prior to the arrival of the Ribault’s fleet. It is equally unclear how much substantial rebuilding of the fort occurred between the arrival of the relief fleet and the Spanish attack. Clearly, the Spanish had an easy time breaching the walls as did Laudonnière in escaping the Spanish attackers. Portions of the fort were also destroyed and burned by the Spanish during their attack.

After commandeering the fort and renaming it Fort San Mateo, the Spanish fort caught fire and burned on October 1, 1565 (Lyon 1982:19). It was soon rebuilt and garrisoned. It was occupied until the simmer of 1569 when it was abandoned in favor of Fort San Pedro on Cumberland Island. Over its four year tenure, Fort San Mateo underwent tremendous structural changes.

Early on, the Spanish likely occupied any French housing that had survived the assault and subsequent conflagration. Lyons has suggested the construction of a church and other associated buildings and a larger blacksmith shop. Currently, the number of farmers who lived and worked at Fort San Mateo is unknown. The relationship between the Spanish stationed at the garrison and the local Mocama population was tense and hostile. For example, two of Menéndez's men from San Mateo were caught outside the fort by local Mocama, who purportedly killed the soldiers by splitting open their chests and ripping their hearts out in full view of the fort (Hann 1996:55). Thus, it seems unlikely that many farmsteads or houses were situated away from the fort.

In 1566, the fort’s population ranged from a high of 153 men, women, and children prior to a March mutiny to a low of 25 after the incident (Lyon 1982:48-51). Later that same year, unspecified upgrades were made, and in October “Menéndez left some 250 soldiers at Fort San Mateo” (Lyon 1982:52).

On March 30, 1568 the Spanish fort was assaulted by “several hundred Indians” who entered on the river side where the “fortification was somewhat open” due to “water damage” (Lyon 1982:54). While the natives made it into the fort, they were quickly forced back out. The fort was repaired and reinforced with the addition of 50 soldiers.

Less than three weeks later, on April 18th, the Mocama returned to the fort, this time they were accompanied by the Frenchman Dominique DeGourges and his troops, who were seeking retribution for the earlier Spanish attack on the La Caroline Colony. The Spanish, however, had abandoned the outpost prior to DeGourges’ arrival, so another bloody battle was averted. The French proceeded to raze the Spanish outpost and all its buildings, and according to Spanish accounts, “Indians had taken over the fort – [and from a distance] the Spaniards could see flames as it burned” (Lyon 1982:55). A half-hearted attempt was made by the Spanish to re-outfit Fort San Mateo, but it was soon abandoned in favor of Fort San Pedro on Cumberland Island (Barrientos 1965; Hann 1996:66‑67; Lyon 1982:57; Solís de Merás 1964). Lyons’ research leaves little doubt the two forts were located in the same place.