Jacksonville – Earlier this week, I visited the Fort Caroline National Memorial in Jacksonville, FL. Part of the National Park Service’s Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, it honors the short-lived 16th Century French Settlement in northeast Florida. The fort that exists today behind the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve Visitors Center is a scale replica of what the original Fort Caroline is believed to have looked like; while not on the exact location of the original, it is believed that the replica is located in the general area of the original fort.
In 1562, French explorer Jean Ribault landed at the mouth of the St. John’s River in northeast Florida and placed a stone marker to claim the area. He was arrested and imprisoned in England when he returned to Europe and settlers under the command of Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere in place of Ribault returned to establish a colony in 1564. It was to be a safe haven for Huguenots, French Protestants who were persecuted at home. Moving farther inland along the St. Johns River, they established a settlement named la Caroline. The Timucua Indians in the area helped the settlers build a triangular fort, the original Fort Caroline on the site. Relations with the Native Americans were mixed and the settlement had problems producing enough food, so after a year, all but one of them sailed back to Europe in 1565. Later in 1565, Ribault returned with a fleet and a larger group of both settlers and soldiers. Spain viewed the French as both a threat to their colonies in the Americas and as heretics (the Spanish were Catholic) and eventually made a successful attack on la Caroline while Ribault was attempting to attack St. Augustine and essentially wiped the French out (in St. Augustine, Ribault and his men were captured and executed). The Spanish built their own fort on the site of Fort Caroline, but the French attacked it in 1568 and destroyed it; although the Spanish would rebuild, they would abandon the site in 1569. The end result is that the French lost their hold in Florida and Spain would control it for 200 years.
In addition to the recreation of Fort Caroline, the Visitors Center and site also present the History of Timucuan Indians. In the visitors center, there are artifacts such as a Timucuan Owl Totem and dugout canoe. Along the trail to the fort, there is a recreation of a Timucuan structure. The museum also presents information about the area’s ecology and environment. If you’re going to visit various parts of the Preserve, it’s the best place to start.
Fort Caroline is a historic site that I recommend visiting. The French colonial presence in Florida is less known than the French Colonial in South Carolina, which isn’t commonly known either. It’s a window into a part of our Colonial History that we’re often not taught about in school.