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La Caroline

Project Mission

One of the most iconic features of the modern Jacksonville landscape is Fort Caroline. This National Park Service (NPS) memorial honors the first French settlement (La Caroline) in North America (1564-1565). Following its downfall at the hands of the Spanish, the fort became the scene of a Spanish garrison known as San Mateo (1565-1569). Although today’s replica of Fort Caroline receives thousands of visitors (including out-of-state tourists) a year, currently no material evidence has been found relating to the French colony of La Caroline or the later Spanish fort. Colonial documents concerning the forts, however, do exist and point to its location within the broader Ft. Caroline area of modern Jacksonville. With the 450th anniversary of the La Caroline Colony fast approaching, the Archaeology Lab at the University of North Florida (UNF) received a State of Florida Historical Resources Matching Grant to undertake a systematic archaeological search for evidence of these two historic landmarks. Working primarily along the south bank of the St. Johns River, lab personnel have dug over 600 shovel tests examining a varied of areas for evidence of the French and Spanish occupation. The French and Spanish Forts represent a significant establishment of European contact in the middle of the Mocama, Timcucuan, and the natives who greeted the French.

A primary intent of the present investigation was to intensively survey these several project loci in search of evidence for the La Caroline colony (1564-1565) or the later Spanish Fort of San Mateo (1565-1569), which occupied the same spot of Fort Caroline. The search for La Caroline is part of the University of North Florida’s broader Mocama Archaeological Project (MAP), a collaborative, multidisciplinary research program that combines archaeological survey, excavation, and standardized and specialized analysis; GIS mapping; and documentary and archival research. It is committed to the search for Mocama Indian villages and European colonial communities in order to reconstruct the sixteenth century social landscape of northeastern Florida. Beyond locating these settlements and exploring their physical layouts, this long-term program is designed to research the social history and culture of the region’s sixteenth and seventeenth century Native Americans in the face of European contact, colonization, and missionization. The Lab’s goal is to focus on natives and newcomers as dynamic and interacting communities rather than as static and isolated entities.

Equally as important as locating evidence of the fort and contact-period Mocama Indian communities was documenting and evaluating the significance of all cultural resources within the project areas; this included previously recorded sites. The potential for encountering archaeological sites of all time periods was deemed high, based on the topographic and environmental conditions (i.e., hammock environments adjacent to tidal marshes) of the project loci. To this end, basic information on the horizontal and vertical dimensions of each site was sought, and our study addresses fundamental questions such as who inhabited a site, when was it occupied, what resources were exploited, and what was the nature of past occupations. Our ultimate objective is to generate data that will increase and refine our understanding of northeastern Florida’s rich cultural heritage.

This project has been financed in part with historic preservation grant assistance provided by the Bureau of Historic Preservation, Division of Historical Resources, Florida Department of State, assisted by the Florida Historical Commission. However, the contents and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Florida Department of State, nor does the mention of trade names or commercial products constitute endorsement or recommendation by the Florida Department of State.

Archaeology for the Fort

The search for Fort Caroline has lead scholars to posit many different locations and state of being. Simply put, how do you find a fort that has been "lost" for some 440 years? Recent rediscoveries, such as Jamesfort, Charlesfort, Fort St. Louis, and Fort Moses to mention several of the better known forts that were thought to have been lost or completely eroded away--suggest potential for a new look for Fort Caroline.  In order to understand the archaeological signature for Fort Caroline we need a brief background on the history of the fort and what "happen" to the fort's physical structure.

The archaeology of Fort Caroline, if the fort exists, will present a complex set of features, structures and artifact distributions.  It is obvious that if Fort Caroline is discovered it will not be like Pompeii. The Fort is not frozen in time--a static moment in history.  Rather, the site has been severely modification over the last 440 years both by cultural and natural formation processes. The purpose of this web page is to discuss the historical events we know to have occurred at the fort within the context of the fort "becoming" an archaeological site. It is to deconstruct Fort Caroline from a wooden and earthen series of structures, walls, and activity areas to subsoil subtleties, corroded metal, and bone fragments. Understanding the Fort's deconstruction provides us with a context for evaluating a potential site as the possible location for the fort.

In general, the first part of this section deals with what archaeologists call "cultural formation processes." That is, how cultural behavior affected what survives in the archaeological matrix. Secondly, what survives in the archaeological records often is a matter of natural formation processes, such as erosion, soil deposition, soil acidity, water table, etc. The natural formation process suggests ways to think about how nature may have modified the fort as a set of structures, features, and artifacts.

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.

Kid's Activities

What is a French League -- and why is it important?

Where was the fort located? Fun with maps and history.

What should we look for? Archeological data and preservation.


Books and Reports

Bennett, Charles (edited)

2001. Laudonniere & Fort Caroline: History and Documents, The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

Bennett, Charles,

2001. Three Voyages, by Rene Laudonniere, The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

Brewer, David M.

2000    Fort Caroline National Memorial: Archeological Survey and Testing, 1996 and 1997  Field Seasons. Southeast Archeological Center, National Park Service. Tallahassee, Florida.

Brewer, David, and Elizabeth A. Horvath

2004    In Search of Lost Frenchmen. Report on the 1990 and 1995 Archeological Investigations at the Oyster Bay Site (CANA-73, 8VO3128). Canaveral National Seashore, Volusia County, Florida.

Davis, T. Frederick

1925    History of Jacksonville, Florida and Vicinity 1513 to 1924. H. & W.B. Drew Co.,   Jacksonville, Florida.

DePratter, Chester B., and Stanley South

1990. Charlesfort: The 1989 Search Project. South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, Research Manuscript Series 210.

DePratter, Chester B., Stanley South, and James Legg

1996 The Discovery of Charlesforte (1562-1563). The Tansactions of the Hugnenot Society of South Carolina 101:39-48.

 Fairbanks, Charles H.

1952    Archeological Explorations at Fort Caroline National Historical Park Project, Florida. Ms. on file, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville.

 Fairbanks, George R.

1858    Founding of St. Augustine; Massacre of the Huguenots in America. A.D. 1565. Ms. on file, Special Collections Florida History, University of Florida, Gainesville.

Gissendaner, Paul H.

1996    Proposed Location of the 1565 French Huguenot Fort le Caroline. The Florida Anthropologist 49 (3):131-148.

Gold, Pleasant Daniel

1928    History of Duval County, Florida. The Record Company, St. Augustine, Florida.    

Hann , John H..

1996. History of the Timucua Indians and Missions. University Press of Florida.

Johnson, Richard E., Travis P. Gray, and Gregory M. Falstrom

1984    Archeological Testing of the Ribault Monument Area on St. Johns Bluff, Fort Caroline National Memorial, Florida. Southeastern Archaeological Center, Tallahassee, Florida: National Park Service.

Johnson, Robert E.

1988    An Archeological Reconnaissance Survey of the St. Johns Bluff Area of Duval County, Florida. Florida Community College at Jacksonville: Jacksonville,  Florida.

Jones, William M.

1993    A Report on St. Johns Bluff, Duval County Florida. Ms. on file, Special Collections, University of North Florida, Jacksonville.

Lawson, Sarah and John W. Faupel, eds.

1992. A Foothold in Florida: The Eye-Witness Account of Four Voyages made by the French to that Region. East Grinstead, Antique Atlas Publications.

Lowery, Woodbury

1905    The Spanish Settlements within the Present Line of the United States: Florida, 1562-1574, Vol. II. Putnam’s, New York.

Lyon, Eugene

1976    The Enterprise of Florida: Pedro Menendez de Aviles and Spanish Conquest of 1565-1568. University Presses of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.

1982    Forts Caroline and San Mateo, Vulnerable Outposts. Report Submitted to Fort Caroline National Memorial (PX532090219), Jacksonville, Florida.

Manucy, Albert

1960    How did Fort Caroline Look? Typescript, National Park service. On file, Fort Caroline National Memorial Library, Jacksonville, Florida.

 McGrath, John T.

2000    The French in Early Florida: In the Eye of the Hurricane. University Press of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.

 Parkman, Francis

1865    Pioneers of France in the New World, Vol. I. Little, Brown and Co., Boston.

Ruple, Steven D.

1973    Archeology at Shipyard Island, Fort Caroline National Memorial. Contract  #CX500031725.  Department of Anthropology, University of Florida, Gainesville. Ms. on file, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville.

Russo, Michael

1992    The Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve Phase III Report. Southeast  Archeological Center, National Park Service, Tallahassee, Florida. 

Sears, William H. 

1957    Excavations on Lower St. Johns River, Florida. Gainesville, Florida: University of  Florida.

Smith, Buckingham

1859    Coleccion de vaarios documentos para la historia de la Florida y tierras adyacentes. Trubner and Co, London.


About Fort Caroline

A Brief History of Florida

Florida Times Union Article About the Search for Fort Caroline from 2008

Jacksonville Historical Society (French Resources)

City of Jacksonville: Commemorating 450 Years of French History in Florida

About Charlesfort - the first French Fort in the United States  (Located on Paris, South Carolina)

Charlesfort Research Summaries (1996)

Short Story About Charlesfort - the first French Fort in the United States