The End of the Colony



From the very start of the building of Fort de la Caroline, exploration of the surrounding area in a search for gold and silver was on the minds of soldiers. These expeditions were disappointing. After hearing that the gold adornments worn by local indigenous people were recovered from Spanish wrecks, rather than mined locally, leaders tried to stop soldiers from these treasure hunts. A breakdown in discipline among the fort inhabitants further dissuaded Laudonnière from other gold seeking explorations inland. Illness, a failed assassination, and poor leadership plagued the forts leader. In mid-December, 66 soldiers mutinied and raided the weapons storehouse. They took two boats and headed out to sea, sailed south and attacked Spanish ships and towns around Cuba. One group eventually fell back into the hands of Laudonnière but the other group would awaken the Spanish to the French threat in Florida.


The settlement barely survived that first year, poor planning, a lack of familiarity with the environment, and broken treaty agreements would result in near disaster. Much of the early efforts by the French were spent on constructing the fort and searching for mineral wealth. While some effort was put into turning the local grapes into wine, little investment was made into learning to fish the area or adapting to local agricultural techniques. Good relations with the local Timucua-speaking Mocama people eventually soured when the French failed to support their war on another tribe. The Mocamas in return stopped providing the settlement with food. Initially, the French tried to buy food from those Mocamas still willing to trade with them. The French grew more desperate, attacking Mocama leaders and stealing. They even kidnapped Utina, hoping to ransom him for food.

Broken Agreements

Timucua-speaking groups and the French leaders formed treaties in the early days of the colony. Good relationships with the Mocama were one of the motivations for placing the colony at the mouth of the St. Johns River. They believed this location would provide "Maize and corn". French ignorance of the political strife within the Timucua-speaking world and a preoccupation with wealth would lead to broken promises, retaliation, and ruin. Rather than support the Mocama in the conflicts with other Timucua-speaking groups, the French followed rumors of gold and silver and formed other alliances betraying the Mocama. The French had refused to join Mocama war parties against Utina, but rather joined him in raids they falsely believed would grant them access to mines.

Betrayal, starvation, war, and disappointment had plagued the colony and plans were being made to abandon Fort de la Caroline and take the risky journey back to France. The remaining colonists were about to leave Florida in August 1565, when they spotted sails on the horizon. Ribault had arrived with a relief expedition of supplies and 600 soldiers and settlers, including more women and some children.

Spanish Arrival

On learning of Ribault’s departure for Florida, Phillip II of Spain sent Admiral Pedro Menendez to remove the French from Florida. Menendez established a base to the south at St. Augustine. Ribault sailed down the coast seeking to attack the Spanish, but his ships were scattered by a hurricane and beached far to the south.

Seizing the opportunity, Menendez marched north with 500 soldiers to attack the weakly guarded colony. It is believed that the Spanish camped overnight nearby, and attacked early. Forty or fifty French people, including Laudonniere, escaped and sailed for France. Out of the remaining 200 people, only about 60 women and children were spared.

Menendez next marched south. He then learned from Timucua-speakers that a group of white men were on the beach a few miles south of St. Augustine. He marched with 70 soldiers to where an inlet had blocked 127 of the shipwrecked Frenchmen trying to get back to Fort Caroline.

With a captured Frenchman as translator, Menéndez described how Fort Caroline had been captured and urged the French to surrender. Having lost most of their food and weapons in the shipwreck, the French surrendered and 111 Frenchmen were killed. Only sixteen were spared - a few who professed being Catholic, some sailors, and four artisans needed at St. Augustine.

Two weeks later the sequence of events was repeated. More French survivors appeared at the inlet, including Jean Ribault. On October 12 Ribault and his men surrendered and met their fate. This time 134 were killed. With no practical way to feed and imprison such a large number of men, Menendez again ordered the French be executed. At a place later named Matanzas (Slaughter), he put to the sword about 350 men. France never again strongly challenged Spanish claims in North America.

French Revenge

When Jacques Ribault returned the French court and was able to give a direct report of the fall of Fort Caroline, the younger Ribault may not have been aware of the fate of his father at Matanzas. The conflict in Florida wasn't done but it was delayed. For various reasons it took the French, specifically Catherine de Medici, a long time to confirm reports of the fate of the French ships and devise a response. In the meantime among coastal communities anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish sentiments were growing and calls for revenge began. In the summer of 1567, Dominique de Gourgues, a Gascon nobleman, with 200 men and his indigenous allies, destroyed three Spanish forts on Florida’s east coast including Fort Caroline renamed by the Spanish as San Mateo. According to his own account de Gourgues left behind this message “I do not this as unto Spaniards nor as unto Mariners but as unto traitors, robbers, and murderers”. He became known as the “avenger of Matanzas”.

Legacy of Fort de la Caroline and St. Augustine

What is the legacy of Fort Caroline? Is it the establishment of St. Augustine, the first permanent Spanish presence in Florida? Is the Fort Caroline legacy felt in the ensuing religious wars that plagued France? Or does this story matter more for what it can teach us about early conflicts between Europeans and indigenous people in the Americas? Fort Caroline can present many “what if” questions, it’s failure was a turning point in history.

A legacy that fascinated early historian and Congressman Charles Bennett in 1950s America, was a story of French Huguenots seeking to freely exercise their religion, over 50 years before the pilgrims of Plymouth Rock. While today we recognize that the colony was established more for economic and political reasons than religious objectives, this greatly influenced the creation of a memorial that would honor the American value of freedom of religion. There were hundreds of individual motivations in the Fort Caroline story, and there are even more reasons to connect with that history today.

Proceed to Fort Caroline Chronology.

Return to History of Fort Caroline.


Last updated: March 14, 2024

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