Southeast Archeological Center a
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    Southeast Archeological Center

    Cultural Resources National Park Service


Natural Setting | Paleoindian | Archaic | Woodland | Mississippian | Caribbean Prehistory
European Exploration | American Independence and Westward Expansion | The U.S. Through the 19th and 20th Centuries

The walls of the Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine, Florida.
The Castillo de San Marcos in Florida (National Park Service).

European Exploration of the Southeast and Caribbean

Spanish | French | English | Danish
Underwater Archeology
Further Reading


Spanish Exploration
and Settlement

Painting of the Nuestra Senora del Rosario.
The "Nuestra Senora del Rosario" (Florida State University Program in Underwater Archaeology).

Excavation unit at the Castillo de San Marcos.
Excavation unit at the Castillo de San Marcos (National Park Service).


Georgia Before Oglethorpe
("A Resource Guide to Georgia's Early Colonial Period 1521-1733" - Available in both English and Spanish)
Mission San Luis
(A Spanish mission site in Tallahassee, Florida)
The Santa Elena Project
(Archeological investigations at one the first Spanish settlement in South Carolina)
The "Mississionized" Indians in California
(Information on Spanish colonization and missionization in the West)

On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on San Salvador Island. After this initial landing and the exploration of several islands, he returned to Spain. On his second voyage, Columbus anchored at St. Croix on November 14, 1493 (Brewer and Hammersten 1988; Brown 1988) and took on water at Salt River Bay. While there, several Carib Indians began firing arrows at the returning boat and several members of each side were wounded and killed. Columbus named the area Cabo de las Flechas, or Cape of the Arrows. This site is now part of the Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve. The park now commemorates Columbus' only attempted landing in what became United States territory.

Spanish settlement in the New World was based on the removal of mineral wealth, and only secondly on the conversion of the native population. This required two things, large fleets and forts to protect important ports. From Spain, the fleets moved throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

The first recorded Spanish explorer to lead an expedition to the Southeast was Ponce de León in A.D. 1513. According to the historical documentation, the site of his second land may have occurred in the vicinity of Canaveral National Seashore (Brewer 1988). Other earlier explored to the Southeast were the Miruelo brothers (who discovered Pensacola Bay at present-day Gulf Islands National Seashore), Panfilo de Narvaez (who most certainly passed through Gulf Islands National Seashore), and Hernando de Soto (whose landing occurred near and is commemorated at DeSoto National Memorial). The goal of these expeditions was to find and acquire wealth comparable to that found in South and Central America.

Subsequently, the Spanish made three unsuccessful attempts to settle North America. They were made by Juan Ponce de Leon (ca. 1521) in southwest Florida, Lucas vasquez de Ayllon (1526) along coastal Georgia or South Carolina, and Tristan de Luna y Arellano (1559) at Pensacola Bay near present-day Gulf Islands National Seashore. Following these unsuccessful expeditions, the French decided to make a foray into North America.

The Spanish settlement at St. Augustine subsequently became the first permanent colony in North America. The Spanish later settled the land using the mission concept, wherein missions were established and used to bring the native population under control. The capital of Spanish Florida (La Florida) was located at Santa Elena in modern South Carolina.

Contact of the native populations with Europeans opened the way for a major exchange of people, resources, and ideas. Unfortunately for the native populations, in addition to economic exploitations, European and African diseases introduced in the 15th and 16th centuries spelled disaster for the people of the New World, resulting in catastrophic population reductions, cultural changes, and genocide. In Spanish Florida, and also in the American Southwest and California, the Christian missions served to shape the relations with native groups of religious zealots, military leaders, and colonists by "taming" and converting the natives. Missionization caused turmoil among native societies whose responses to European religious indoctrination and exploitation varied dramatically (Milanich and Milbrath 1989: 1-3; McEwan 1993: xix-xx).


Evidence of Spanish wrecks and/or forts is presently known to exist in at least six parks in the Southeast and Caribbean:


French Exploration
and Settlement

Drawing of the Matanzas Inlet massacre.
The Matanzas Inlet massacre (Adapted from "Florida of the French" [see below]).


The French in the Americas
(This page describes France's arrival to the "New World")
French Colonization
(Good summary of early French interests in North America)
Florida of the French
(Site describing France's occupation and abandonment of the Florida area)
A high price in human lives was paid for French wealth from the Caribbean
(Describes the existence of slavery in the French Caribbean)

The French, under Jean Ribault, landed near the St. Johns River (Florida) on May 1, 1562 (Bennett 1968). He then established a colony, Charlesfort, on present-day Parris Island, South Carolina. When Ribault returned to Europe, the colony at Charlesfort failed and was abandoned.

In 1564, Ribault's lieutenant René De Laudonnière established the fort of La Caroline on a bluff on the south side of the St. Johns River, which is today commemorated by Fort Caroline National Memorial. Upon hearing of the French, King Philip II of Spain sent Pedro Menéndez de Avilès to incursion into Spanish territory to destroy the French fort and establish a Spanish colony in its place. At approximately the same time, Ribault was sent sailing from France to take command of La Caroline (Fort Caroline) and reinforce the fort with a colonial settlement. When Ribault arrived, he found the remaining soldiers prepared to return to France but heartened by the new colonists and supplies. Menéndez's fleet arrived within days of Ribault's and attacked the French fleet, but the latter escaped. The Spanish moved to the south and established a settlement near the present site of Castillo De San Marcos National Monument. This settlement eventually became the city of St. Augustine. Ribault took most of the French vessels, still loaded, to attack the Spanish. However, a hurricane scattered and wrecked Ribault's fleet southward along the Florida coast. Menéndez knew that the winds would be against the French and used the opportunity to attack Fort Caroline. Most of the remaining French soldiers were killed while the women and children were captured. Menéndez later marched south and found a group of shipwreck survivors on the beach at an inlet near present-day Fort Matanzas National Memorial. After being told that their fate would be "in the hands of God," the French surrendered, at which point Menéndez had them put to death as heretics and interlopers.

Several weeks later, Menéndez heard that there was yet another group of French at the inlet to the south. After locating these men, he again made the same offer. The majority of the French again surrendered and were put to death. The remaining French, however, returned to the shipwreck site somewhere in the vicinity of present-day Canaveral National Seashore. Menéndez marched his men from St. Augustine down the beach until he encountered these French who were building a ship and a fort from the shipwreck remains. Again Menéndez persuaded the majority of the French to surrender, this time guaranteeing clemency. Approximately 20 of Ribault's men, however, refused to surrender, saying they would rather take their chances with the Indians. Archeological information has been recently recovered at Canaveral National Seashore that indicates the possible location of the camp of the men that refused to surrender there (Elizabeth Horvath, SEAC, personal communication 1993). Menéndez took some of his remaining captives south towards Cuba, but the bulk of the prisoners were left with an Ais Indian chief as guests.

In 1568, French forces under the command of Dominique de Gourgues returned to the site of Fort Caroline, now renamed Fuerte San Mateo. De Gourgues destroyed the Spanish garrison at San Mateo, avenging the earlier Ribault massacres.

The French also made an attempt to colonize the Caribbean. One of their attempts was in 1650 when they seized the island of St. Croix. They laid out towns, plantations, and forts (including one at Christiansted National Historic Site) only to abandon them several years later.

Gulf Coast
In 1692, LaSalle claimed the Mississippi River drainage for France and established a colony. In 1699, d'Iberville documented landing on Ship Island and establishing an offshore warehouse in what is currently the Mississippi section of present-day Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Mississippi Valley
In the early eighteenth century, the French made a substantial attempt to colonize the lower Mississippi Valley, with French explorers paddling down the Mississippi River to claim the land for France. In 1716, the French constructed Fort Rosalie (near the present Natchez National Historical Park, Mississippi), which served as the nucleus of the growing town. Increasingly agitated by the French, the Natchez Indians destroyed Fort Rosalie and killed most of the male defenders. French retaliation led to the destruction of the Natchez as a tribal entity.

Following the French and Indian War (1763), control of the Natchez area passed to the British.


Evidence of French occupation is presently known to exist in the following parks in the Southeast and Caribbean:


English Exploration
and Settlement

Cutlass parts recovered from the "HMS Fowey".
Cutlass parts recovered from the "HMS Fowey" (Florida State University Program in Underwater Archaeology).

James Edward Oglethorpe.
James Edward Oglethorpe (Adapted from "Beneath These Waters" page 148).


The History of Jamestown
(The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities web site on this English colony in North America)

In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh secured a charter from the Queen of England to settle lands in North America. His first colony, near present-day Manteo, North Carolina, consisted of 108 colonists under the leadership of Governor Ralph Lane. The site of the fort now exists within the boundary of Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. Indian trouble caused the colonists to abandon the colony.

Raleigh returned to North Carolina in 1587 with 110 men, women, and children. The new colony was placed under the leadership of John White, whose daughter gave birth to Virginia Dare, the first European born in North America. White soon returned to England to acquire supplies for the colony. However, upon arrival, his ships were pressed into service against the Spanish Armada. He was unable to return until 1590, at which time he found the colony abandoned and the word "CROATOAN" carved on a post. The captain of the ship refused to spend time searching for the colony. No evidence of the fate of the "lost" colony has been recovered to date.

Settlement of Georgia
The British established their hold on the eastern coast of North America during the seventeenth century, and by 1700 there were twelve British colonies. However, fears ran high over the Spanish presence in Florida, and it was decided that a southern colony should be established to ward off Spanish attacks.

In 1732, James Oglethorpe left England with 114 settlers. In January 1733, they arrived at the Savannah River, where they established the town of Savannah and the colony of Georgia. In an effort to defend against the Spanish, Oglethorpe established defenses at strategic positions. One of these positions was Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island (Fort Frederica National Monument). Others were Fort Saint Andrew at the north end and Fort Prince William at the south end of Cumberland Island (Cumberland Island National Seashore).

As a result of the new colony, tensions between Spain and England increased. Oglethorpe went to England in 1737 and returned with nine companies of soldiers. In 1739, the long awaited war began. Oglethorpe took his soldiers and his Indian allies and laid siege to the Spanish town of St. Augustine. He was unable to breach the walls and returned to the Georgia colony. The Spanish then moved on Fort Frederica. They advanced to within sight of the fort but were beaten back by the British. That same large Spanish force was later ambushed and beaten by Oglethorpe's forces on St. Simons Island at the Battle of Bloody Marsh. This effectively ended Spain's northern expansion.


Evidence of English occupation is presently known to exist in the following parks in the Southeast:


Danish Exploration
and Settlement


A Documentary History of the Cinnamon Bay Plantation 1718 - 1917
(History of Cinnamon Bay area including information on Danish exploration and settlement)

The only other significant European exploration and settlement in the Southeast was that of the Danish West Indies Company colonization in the Virgin Islands, the remains of which can be seen at Christiansted National Historic Site on St. Croix, and at Virgin Islands National Park, St. John and St. Thomas.


Evidence of Danish occupation is presently known to exist in the following parks in the Southeast:


Underwater Archeology Related to Colonial Exploration and Settlement

Mapping the remains of the 'HMS Fowey'.
Mapping the remains of the "HMS Fowey" (Florida State University Program in Underwater Archaeology).


Relationship of Dry Tortugas Natural Resources to Submerged Archeological Sites
(Discussion of the reef formations in this area to shipwreck sites)
The 1622 Spanish Treasure Fleet Disaster in the Dry Tortugas
(Investigations of the possible Nuestra Senora del Rosario and the Swivel Gun Nest Site)
The Excavation of the HMS Fowey
(Site describing the history and remains of this English vessel)
Underwater Archeology
(The Southeast Archeological Center's page on this subject)

European maritime colonial exploration and settlement is thematically represented throughout the Southeast, especially at most coastal parks. In Northeast Florida, the research needs for examining Spanish and French exploration and contact of the sixteenth century have been addressed in "A Design for Historic and Archeological Research of the 16th Century European Encounter in the National Parks of Northeast Florida" (Keel and Brewer 1991). Spanish and French maritime exploration and settlement is represented at the following Southeast parks for the stated reasons: San Juan National Historic Site, where the oldest masonry fortifications in the territorial limits of the United States were begun by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century to protect a strategic harbor guarding the sea lanes to the New World; Biscayne National Park, which contains one of the best preserved shipwrecks of the 1733 flota disaster; Canaveral National Seashore, where, considering the presence of the survivors' camp site mentioned earlier one or more of the known Ribault fleet wrecksites may yet exist within the boundaries of the park; Gulf Islands National Seashore, where some remains of the DeLuna fleet of 1559 may yet exist within the park boundary at Pensacola Bay. Maritime archeological remains may also exist in the inland waters off Cumberland Island National Seashore, reflecting the establishment of early Spanish mission settlements there, and Virgin Islands National Park, where Danish sugar plantations were supplied and cargoes carried off by mercantile shipping.

At Canaveral National Seashore, an archeological site, which appears to be a survivors' camp of the ill-fated Ribault fleet of 1565, was recently (Elizabeth Horvath, SEAC, personal communication, 1993) the subject of investigations by SEAC. Metal-working remains appear to indicate an extended occupation by a small European group living among the native population, which reflects the establishment of intercultural relations. A beach-face survey at the park is scheduled and will hopefully locate associated Ribault fleet material.

The maritime aspects of the development of the English colonies are evident throughout the Southeast. Incorporating the golden age of piracy, this period saw the English settlement of both Cape Hatteras And Cape Lookout National Seashores, as well as the founding of English fortified coastal towns in Georgia, such as Fort Frederica National Monument and the as-yet undiscovered Forts St. Andrew and Prince William at Cumberland Island National Seashore.

At Biscayne National Park, there exist the remains of an English warship of the Caribbean Squadron, the HMS Fowey, sunk in 1748. This site has received considerable study over the past decade, and indications are that at least one other British vessel of the same general period, as yet only identified but unstudied, exists in the northern section of the park. Economic and social ways of life are also exemplified in the park at the site of the merchant vessel Hubbard (or Ledbury), a ship laden with a cargo of ceramic tablewares, the wrecking of which occurred in either 1769 or 1772, depending on the correct identification of the vessel.

At Gulf Islands National Seashore, the French establishment of a Gulf coast military and territorial presence at the beginning of the eighteenth century is exemplified by the archeological evidence of the French warehouse site at Ship Island. The significant anchorage off the northeast end of the island served the French for over a decade and may contain remnants of that early incursion.

Further Reading

Cover of "The Forgotten Centuries" edited by Charles Hudson and Carmen Chaves Tesser.
"The Forgotten Centuries: Indians and Europeans in the American South, 1521-1704" edited by Charles Hudson and Carmen Chaves Tesser.

On Spanish Exploration and Settlement:

Boyd, Mark F., Hale G. Smith, and John W. Griffin
•1999 [1951] Here They Once Stood: The Tragic End of the Apalachee Missions. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Ewen, Charles R., and John H. Hann
•1998 Hernando de Soto among the Apalachee: The Archaeology of the First Winter Encampment. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Galloway, Patricia, ed.
•1997 The Hernando de Soto Expedition: History, Historiography, and "Discovery" in the Southeast. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Hudson, Charles, and Carmen Chaves Tesser, eds.
•1994 The Forgotten Centuries: Indians and Europeans in the American South, 1521-1704. University of Georgia Press, Athens.

Larsen, Clark Spencer, ed.
•2001 Bioarchaeology of Spanish Florida: The Impact of Colonialism. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Summerhill, Stephen J., and John Alexander Williams
•2000 Sinking Columbus: Contested History, Cultural Politics, and Mythmaking during the Quincentenary. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

On French Exploration and Settlement:

Eccles, William John
•1998 The French in North America: 1500-1783. Michigan State University Press, East Lansing.

Hart, Jonathan
•2001 Representing the New World : The English and French Uses of the Example of Spain. St. Martin's Press, New York.

On English Exploration and Settlement:

Fabel, Robin F. A.
•2000 Colonial Challenges: Britons, Native Americans, and Caribs, 1759-1775. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Houston, Lebame, and Barbara Hird, eds.
•1997 Roanoke Revisited: The Story of the First English Settlements in the New World and the Fabled Lost Colony of Roanoke Island. Penny Books, Manteo.

Noël Hume, Ivor
•1994 The Virginia Adventure, Roanoke to James Towne: An Archaeological and Historical Odyssey. Knopf, New York.

On Danish Exploration and Settlement:

Hall, Neville A.T., and B.W. Higman, ed.
•1992 Slave Society in the Danish West Indies: St. Thomas, St. John & St. Croix. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Return to Caribbean Prehistory
Move on to American Independence and Westward Expansion