THE FRENCH CHALLENGE.TO SPAIN Philip II's proclamation to desert the colonization of Florida had barely left his office when a new power in Europe prepared to challenge Spain's authority in Florida. The challenge came from a group of French Protestants, called Huguenots, who had only recently gained their religious liberty from the French Crown. After years of religious conflict, dividing France into two armed camps, these followers of the teachings of Martin Luther, were prepared to establish France as a mercantile power.

Many of the Huguenots were merchants and sailors. Their leader was Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. Coligny was a clever statesman and a trusted maritime advisor to the Bourbon king, Charles IX. Coligny convinced Charles IX that France's future success as a nation depended upon competing with Spain and Portugal for American colonies. Charles' mother Catherine de Medici, a staunch Catholic who was divided by her desire to expand French colonization and her faith, warned Philip II that Coligny wanted to overthrow Spain in the New World. Her report was an exaggeration, for even Coligny realized France had to avoid Spain's developed colonies. Still Coligny's choice of developing a colony in Florida, so close to the Spanish gold fleets may open the question of whether Coligny wanted to confront Spain.

Five miles east of Jacksonville on the St. Johns River stands a replica of Fort Caroline.



In 1562 Coligny selected France's best seaman, 'JEAN RIBAULT to lead France into North America. Ribault grew up in the seaport of Dieppe and was an experienced sailor. His second-in-command was Rene de Laudonniere, the son of a French explorer and an assistant to Admiral Coligny.

Using sailing instructions from Verrazano's voyage of North America, Ribault reached the Florida coast near Cape Canaveral on April 30, 1562. He sailed northward to the mouth of a wide river the Spanish called "the St. Johns", but which Ribault renamed "the River of May." He landed on a small river island, which he called "Mayport."

Here Ribault constructed a five-sided column featuring a bronze shield bearing the cost-of-arms of Queen Catherine, the very woman who had opposed the mission. Curious Timucuans under Chief Saturiba visited the Huguenot encampment. The French presented the Timucuans with gowns of blue embroidery. In return, Saturiba stocked the French with maize, beans, cucumbers, and fish. Ribault wrote glowingly of the friendliness of the contact.

Returning to Europe, Ribault stopped at the Broad River, near present-day Parris Island, South Carolina. He called the spot "Port Royal" and in complete disobedience with Coligny's orders not to start a settlement, Ribault built a log blockhouse, he named "Charlesfort." Here, fifty-eight years before the Pilgrims, Ribault left thirty soldiers under Albert de la Pierria

When Ribault returned to Dieppe, he was dismayed to discover religious conflict between Huguenots and Catholics had erupted. He went to Queen Elizabeth in England in the hope of obtaining supplies for Charlesfort. Instead, the English monarch arrested him for violating Spanish territory. In reality, Elizabeth wanted England to challenge Spain.

With Ribault in a London prison, it was up to RENE LAUDONNIERE to rescue the Charlesfort colony. Unfortunately, the Spanish minister in London had told Philip II of the French colony in Spanish claimed land and the Spanish sent out ships from Cuba. Unknown to all in Europe, the tiny garrison at Charlesfort had revolted against Captain Pierra and constructed a crude longboat and headed along the coast. An English fishing craft miraculously rescued them. When the Spanish reached Charlesfort, they found the blockhouse deserted.

Rene Laudonniere organized a 300 person expedition, which included three warships, headed by the 300 ton galleon Islbel of Honfleur . His forces included rich noblemen and former criminals; Huguenots and Moors; women and single men. It was a bad blend of people for a aristocrat with limited leadership skills.



Rene Laudonniere arrived at Mayport, but elected to construct a triangular fort on a small bluff on the southern bank of the St. Johns River, a few miles upstream. He named the colony Fort Caroline in honor of Charles IX, who gave the expedition his reluctant blessing.

Fort Caroline was an unusual colony. There was little in buildings besides the fortifications, supply houses, and small cabins built outside the walls. Not all the settlers were Huguenots. There were some Roman Catholics. The colony included soldiers, tailors, brewers, an artist, a physician, and an astronomer. What the colony lacked was a minister and enough experienced soldiers. While the fort was protected by moats on the forest side, an enemy could evaluate the interior defenses by controling the high bluff adjacent to the fort.

Laudonniere tried to govern the operation, but was not an effective leader. There was neither gold nor silver to entice the adventurous. Farming proved difficult. The restless young men stole the fort's longboat and sailed out the mouth of the St. Johns to plunder Spanish gold ships.

The colony was in poor shape when English sea dog John Hawkins stopped by and supplied the settlers with food. He warned Laudonniere that the Spanish knew of Fort Caroline. When Hawkins returned to Europe, he warned Coligny of the colony's disorder. Coligny sent Jean Ribault, recently released from prison, to replace Laudonniere before the Spanish arrived. Ribault left France in June of 1565 with a rescue mission of six hundred men, women, and children.


Philip II was indeed planning to remove the French Huguenot colony from Florida. Ironically copying the French example, the Spanish King discovered his choice for leader in the prison of the Golden Tower in Seville. Pedro Menendez de Aviles had been jailed by the House of Trade for disobeying orders. Philip II nevertheless knew this former Captain General of the West Indies would be the perfect adelantado for Florida.

Pedro Menendez de Aviles was a skilled sailor, a wealthy supporter of Spain, and a staunch Roman Catholic, all qualities needed to take control of Florida.

In August of 1565, Menendez's attack fleet reached the mouth of the St. Johns, only to discover that Ribault's five ships were blocking the entrance in an advantageous position. Menendez withdrew to a deep and protected harbor he had seen on August 28, 1565, St. Augustine's day. He started a camp in the place he called "St. Augustine", not knowing he would be starting the oldest continuous settlement in the United States.

Jean Ribault realized he had to be daring to confront the Spanish so he set sail to attack the Spanish while they unloaded supplies. Unfortunately for the daring Frenchman, a sudden storm pushed his fleet past St. Augustine's protected harbor. Most of the French ships crashed on the Atlantic shore near present-day Daytona Beach.

Menendez, realizing the French were caught in a storm south of St. Augustine, decided to start his own surprise attack, an overland march to Fort Caroline. He left his fleet guarding the entrance to St. Augustine, while he sent five hundred professional soldiers through the swamplands of Northeast Florida. Despite a driving rain storm and waist deep water, the troops marched north for three days.

The men thought their leader was insane, but Menendez's plan worked perfectly. He had a French traitor as an informant. They reached Fort Caroline in the early morning and discovered the fortress unprepared for any landside attack. Laudonniere's fort was even lower than surrounding bluffs so the Spanish could denote every French defensive position and sentinel..

The Spanish rushed the defenseless garrison on three sides. Most of the French were not trained soldiers and quickly deserted their positions. Laudonniere and artist Jacques Le Moyne, whose paintings of the Indians are important today, fled to the coast with some fifty survivors. The Spanish killed 142 French before the survivors surrendered. The Spanish lost one soldier. Menendez renamed the fort San Mateo. In 1591 Flemish printer and publisher Theodor de Bry engraved the paintings of Jacques Lemoyne, thus preserving a picture of the French in Florida.


Ribault's forces, crushed on the Daytona Beaches, had no other option but to march northward in hopes of attacking St. Augustine. The effort might have succeeded if they were not stopped at Matanzas Inlet, the southern entrance to St. Augustine Harbor. Without tools and sufficient lumber, the French could not cross the waterway.

Menendez found the worn French on the south side of the Inlet. Some rich Frenchmen offered payment for their lives, but Menendez refused. He brought Ribault across the Inlet in a rowboat and accepted formal surrender. Ten Frenchmen at a time were brought across the waterway, and with their hands tied behind them, marched behind sand dunes to be executed.

When it was Ribault's turn to die, he told Menendez he was proud to be a Lutheran. Only ten Catholic French and six cabin boys were spared from the ordeal. The Inlet became known as "Mantanzas" or "massacre" Inlet.

Pedro Menendez de Aviles had placed the Spanish flag at San Mateo and St. Augustine and finally established a Spanish foothold on the Florida peninsula. He had promised Spain he would spend his entire fortune to assure a successful colony. He would soon realize, as Florida's first Spanish colonial Governor, that it would take that money and more to keep Spanish Florida operating.

The French would try some futile comebacks in later years. In 1717 they built Fort Crevecoeur ("Broken Heart") in Gulf County near present-day Beacon Hill but soon deserted the town. In 1719 they seized Pensacola, but returned the town six months later. In 1766 French Huguenots set up a village called Campbell Town in Escambia County, but gave up on the town.