When we think of the first European explorers who discovered the New World, we often think of Roanoke, Jamestown, and Plymouth Rock. However, we forget that much of the “discovering” originally took place in the Coastal South. Ask any true coastal historian and they will tell you about the elusive Fort Caroline – a European settlement that predates all of these…. If only we could “find” it.
(Please excuse the blurry photos.)
Jacksonville’s Fort Caroline Fraud
Jacksonville, FL has always "claimed" the historical notoriety of being home to the site of Fort Caroline. In Jacksonville, you can even visit the "Fort Caroline National Memorial," which has been “recreated” so that visitors can learn about the first European settlement in the New World. Most history books and online encyclopedia sources have followed suit and stated that Fort Caroline was built on the St. Johns River in present day Jacksonville.
C. 1718. Map via The Fort Caroline Archaeology Project: http://www.tfcap.org
Records indicate that the original Fort Caroline housed ~300 French explorers and colonists. Records also state that the fort predated St. Augustine (the oldest continually inhabited city in the United States). This means that Fort Caroline also predated the Lost Colony of Roanoke by 21 years, the 1607 fort of Jamestown by 45 years, and the landing of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in 1620 by 56 years.
When we think of original colonists, we typically think of these aforementioned Protestant settlements. However, Fort Caroline is known as the first Protestant settlement in the New World.
Led by French naval officer Jean Ribault, the French exploratory group were Protestant Huguenots who came to America for religious freedom. They tried to find refuge from the anti-Protestant rage that swept their homeland.
Several years ago, retired professors Anita Spring and Fletcher Crowe put forth a theory that the true location of Fort Caroline was on the banks of Georgia's Altamaha River. However, since releasing this theory, Spring and Crowe ran into a few issues – primarily that archaeological digs on the Altamaha have been unable to prove the theory true. Also, many historians strongly contradicted the theory with their own research.
However, Spring and Crowe (along with much of the historical community) still knew at least one thing to be true: there is no valid evidence that aligns Fort Caroline with Jacksonville or the St. Johns River. The Jacksonville fort is still a known tourist ploy.
St. Marys River
Rather than insist that the fort was on the Altamaha, Crowe and Spring were open to suggestions and begin to consider alternative areas. That's when they met another archaeologist from Brunswick, Fred Cook. Cook had a compelling argument that Fort Caroline was not on the St. Johns River nor the Altamaha – but actually the St. Marys River.
Now, together, these three historians have “combined forces” and taken a new stance: Fort Caroline may have been on the southern banks/bluffs of the St. Marys River.
I was lucky enough to attend one of their presentations in-person, where I learned of their new development. They explained that many historical maps have mislabeled these rivers -- sometimes even combining them into one large river.
However, the historical/archaeological community was willing to entertain his new theory, due to some of the geographic features of the St. Marys River.
These historical descriptions of Fort Caroline commonly share:
- Fort Caroline was built on an island positioned in the River Mai (French - River May)
- You could access Fort Caroline by sailing into the mouth of River Mai – not too far inland from the Atlantic
- This island had tall bluffs (sometimes called mountains), which gave the fort added security and visibility
- In fact, the height was so high that Fort Caroline had clear visibility of the Atlantic. (Neither the Altamaha nor the St. Johns currently has bluffs that are high enough to see the Atlantic.)
- There was a many-mile-wide body of freshwater further inland, called the “Great Lake"
- The River Mai connected/flowed to this “Great Lake”
- The Okefenokee Swamp is the only many-mile-wide body of freshwater in the area that matches the descriptions, which also connects to the Atlantic Ocean via a river (St. Marys)
- Menendez’s men wrote that it took two days to march from St. Augustine to Fort Caroline when they attacked. It would be impossible to reach the Altamaha River in that time – BUT possible to reach St. Marys.
The Buck Stops Here
The unfortunate problem with the theory that Fort Caroline was on the banks of the St. Marys River is that it cannot be confirmed by archaeologists, as these bluffs/banks belong to a private land owner who will not cooperate to allow archaeological digs.
The reasons for this are obvious – primarily that the discovery of the fort would cause the land to most likely be established as a national historical site and/or have limitations established for its future use.
Historians hope that one day, they may be given the opportunity to perform some digs in the area, but until then, they continue to survey the Coastal South and consider any other locations that might have archaeological evidence of Fort Caroline.
Personally, I have paddled and boated on the St. Marys River many times. When you pass the steep bluffs on the south/Florida side, you can’t help but imagine the possibility of discovering historical artifacts buried beneath the untouched woods.
Photo via Instagram @raleigh9kitch
When I was little, I was told some Coastal South folkore about the creation of Spanish Moss. The story is set several centuries ago, before the invasive moss covered our coastal trees and the native tribes still reigned throughout the region.
As the European explorers settled the Coastal South, a Spanish man met a young native woman. He liked her, but she refused him. The much older Spaniard did not take the rejection very well, so one day he attempted to corner her alone.
The indian girl ran and ran, and eventually found an oak tree that she could scurry up. The Spaniard followed her up the tree, so she went out on a limb -- as far as she could manage. Just when she thought the Spaniard had trapped her, he lost his balance and slipped out of the tree. However, his long gray beard got caught in the branches and ripped from his skin.
After this nasty fall, the Spaniard died. However, the story claims that his beard continued to grow on the tree, and with it, his spirit continued to search for the girl. Spreading from tree to tree until it covered the entire Coastal South.
St. Marys, GA has changed roles many times over recent centuries – having been described as a bustling colonial seaport, a sleepy city by the sea, an ethically questionable company town, and a strategic military location.
The city sits in the far southeast corner of the state of Georgia. Many Florida-bound vacationers have stumbled upon St. Marys while making a pitstop at Exit 1 on I-95. Here, people can learn about the local attractions, like Cumberland Island (the largest of Georgia’s barrier islands), the nuclear submarine base, and the quaint, historic waterfront.
Drone shot by St. Marys local, Ashley Alexander
Prior to European discovery, the southeastern region of Georgia was home to numerous American Indian tribes – the Guales, Timucuans, Creeks, and Yamacraws. Historians estimate that as early as 200 B.C., the tribes inhabited the vast maritime forests of live oaks and palmettos. They hunted deer, turkey, and wild game, while also catching fish, shrimp, and harvesting shellfish.
These diverse tribes lived independently of each other. They had never “united” under one body or banded together with any formal organization, so when the French and Spanish explorers arrived, the indians were unprepared to take a stand or resist the European conquest.
French River Mai (May). Original drawn by Jacques Le Moyne, c. 1562 (Recreation)
The known history of St. Marys begins in 1562, when French Huguenot Jean Ribault is said to have sailed into the river and landed on the south bank – now known as Amelia Island. Here, Ribault erected a stone monument and claimed the land for France. He also named the river "River May" – after the date of his arrival
Original drawn by Jacques Le Moyne, c. 1562 (Recreation)
Ribault column located on the St. Johns River tourist site. Photo via FloridaHikes.com
For the next 200 years, the land extending from the St. Marys River up to the Charleston Bay would belong to France. This was essentially all of present day Georgia. The French wrote that it was “a countrie full of havens, rivers, and islands of such fruitfulness as cannot with toungue be expressed.”
Shortly after the French expedition landed in the Amelia Island area, the Spanish settlers landed in St. Augustine. Now, both the French and Spanish began to “duke it out” while staking claims throughout “La Florida.”
As the Spaniards trekked through Florida, they headed north – pushing into French territory. When they reached the St. Marys area, they encountered an Indian encampment ruled by Queen Hiacia. Queen Hiacia was described as being the most beautiful of the native women.
The Spaniards settled and worked alongside the Indians peacefully, until an Indian uprising almost 40 years later (~1597). After this uprising, tensions between settlers and Indians continued to wax and wane for almost a century. In 1686, the French and Spanish settlers eventually retreated below the St. Marys River – back into Florida.
Timucuan warriors with weapons and tattoo regalia.
Original drawn by Jacques Le Moyne, c. 1562 (Recreation)
In the 1600s, the indian attacks on the French and Spanish settlers in the Coastal South had increased – and many historians believe that the English settlers encouraged and incentivized the natives to attack the French/Spanish competition. Once the French and Spanish retreated back into Florida, England jumped on the opportunity to stake a claim on the Carolinas. The new "Carolinas" territory would extend from today's Carolinas all the way down into Spanish Florida.
The English and their Indian allies ravaged today's South Georgia area – utterly destroying the local Timucuan tribe.
This land grab resulted in years and years of fighting between the English, Spanish, and French -- and due to close proximity -- native tribes were also heavily affected by these continuous battles. Though the English had originally used some indian tribes as their allies, many natives unexpectedly caught foreign diseases, which proceeded to weaken their populations.
Local dolphins in the St. Johns River have been spotted with severe cases of skin lesions, indicating their immune systems are compromised. In these photos, a newborn calf is covered in lesions and also appears to have an orange algal-type mat growing on its rostrum (face) and dorsal fin. Unfortunately, this does not bode well for his/her survival. A similar algal-type mat was observed on resident adult dolphins at death.
There have been several recent reports on the east coast (in addition to the Gulf) of people spotting dolphins, manatees, and other marine wildlife with growths and fungi on them. These growths are attributed to red tide, which is an algal bloom that produces toxins that can kill marine organisms, taint shellfish, cause skin irritations, and even foul air. They can also cause respiratory issues in children and elderly.
Algal blooms naturally occur, however, scientists, fishermen, and outdoors-people have noticed that they have been increasing in size, intensity, and persistence in recent decades. This is attributed to the increase of foreign nutrients in coastal waters – which causes the algae to grow at an unnaturally fast rate.
I wanted to share some simple tips on identifying the algae and what you can do to help!
If you spot an algae bloom (like the one pictured), you can quickly report it by dropping a pin on the App “Water Rangers” https://app.waterrangers.ca/
Create a River Friendly Yard.
Whether you are in your car or boat or on foot, pay close attention to what is going on around you. Is dirt running off a construction site into a creek? Did you spot a fish kill or a broken pipe? Is someone illegally-dumping trash or pollution into a storm drain or directly into a river? Report these issues to your city works or state environmental agency (they should have a hotline).
Most importantly, keep children and pets away from blooms. Wash thoroughly if you have come into contact. And do not eat fish caught in bloom areas.
You may have noticed that lately, magnolia trees are blooming everywhere!
The Southern Magnolia has become a symbol for the deep South – even being chosen as the state tree of Mississippi and the state flower of Mississippi and Lousiana. However, these trees can grow in states ranging from southern portion of North Carolina, down to Florida, and all the way over to Texas.
These trees are large in every way. They grow 1-2 feet per year to reach a total height of 60-80 feet, and a width that is about half their height. Their blossoms can reach one foot in diameter when fully opened. Their leaves typically measure at least half a foot long.
When planting a magnolia, their size should be taken into consideration as well as their leaves. Seriously, I can speak from experience – these large leathery leaves are not to be taken lightly! As a kid, my parents sometimes gave me the chore of raking these leaves and collecting their large seed pods – and since these trees typically shed their leaves year-round, this can be never-ending. When this layer of heavy leaves is combined with the dense shade of the tree, you will be fighting a battle to try to retain your lawn underneath the tree. So, don’t plant a magnolia if you want a pristine lawn…. Or, unless you have children for free labor. (Just kidding!)
Magnolia seed pods are also frequently used in art and décor throughout the South. My favorite use of these seed pods is located in the Tattnall Square Park in Macon, GA. The park is currently undergoing a restoration, due to a community effort composed of locals and Mercer University students and staff. The park originally had several brick gateways, but they had since been torn down.
Rather than creating the typical magnolia finial (pictured above) the Friends of Tattnall Square (along with help from the Knight Neighborhood Challenge) got ceramicist Amy McCullough Hellis to create one-of-a-kind finials for the new gateways.
“Macon-based ceramicist Amy McCullough Hellis designed and created the magnolia pod finials special for Tattnall Square Park; Mike Dobson at Westside Stonework did the incredibly complex rubber mold and stone casting for the finials; and Franco DeMichiel oversaw the entire project. Most importantly, we decided not to use a prefab or mail order catalog finial early on in the process. We wanted something more creative and imaginative—something that really reflected Tattnall Square’s own personality as a center of creativity and natural beauty. After bandying ideas back and forth, Tattnall Square art adviser and decorative artist Katy Olmsted suggested that we create original finials to reflect the many seed pods or nuts present inside the park […] Inspired by the scores of old magnolias in the park, Amy chose an autumn magnolia seedpod as her model and worked on the piece for ten months, first finding pods, then sculpting a maquette (a small model), and then another maquette, and finally the larger piece. She wanted to create something that looked hand-crafted, rather than mechanically reproduced, something asymmetrical to reflect the unique and asymmetrical world of nature (and magnolia pods), and something that subtly suggests the historic arches at Tattnall’s gateways.”
– Andrew Silver, pictures and quote posted on Friends of Tattnall Square Park
The baskets pictured above are made of locally-harvested sweetgrass, bulrush marsh grass, and palm. They have been woven by the Gullah-Geechee people for over 300 years. Being made of durable materials, they were originally used to transport rice and other items. Now, they are mostly used for decorative purposes and admired for their distinct coiled patterns and details. Their style derives from African basket-weaving tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. Typically, basket weaving is a skill learned from childhood, requiring a great deal of patience. For these reasons they fetch a pretty penny, but you can be confident in supporting a one-of-a-kind piece of coastal tradition that will outlast your lifetime. It has become custom to pass sweetgrass baskets down through the family (similar to Nantucket baskets).
If you are looking for more variety for your money, there’s a five-mile stretch of Highway 17 in Mount Pleasant called “Sweetgrass Basket Makers Highway.” Here, Gullah-Geechee descendants can set up shop and sell their craft to those coming in and out of Charleston. Notice the word “descendants” – to have a stand on Highway 17, you must inherit it. Rights to stand cannot be sold.
It’s Easter Week! What better time to write about the Gullah Geechee faith?
Gullah religious systems and beliefs are derived from African tradition and the Christianity practiced by their former white plantation owners. While adhering to Christian doctrine, the Gullah practice a faith immersed in communal prayer, song, and dance.
The place –
While traveling throughout the coastal south, you may have come across small, whitewashed shacks in varying degrees of preservation or disrepair. These are known as praise houses. During the antebellum period, slaves were not permitted to worship in white churches, nor were they allowed to congregate in large groups for fear of rebellion. Small praise houses were purposely built to have an unthreatening presence. These whitewashed shacks once provided a place where blacks could worship, celebrate, and hold community meetings.
The sermon –
Many traditional African American churches are known for incorporating singing, dancing, and shouting into their worship services. Gullah Geechee services share this quality, which is derived from slave services where the congregation was unable to read. Most praise houses only had one Bible or hymnal, and being literate was a rarity. To address this, the congregation developed a call-response type of service, where the leader would loudly deliver the sermon, passages, or hymn, and the congregation would learn by verbally repeating it back. Additionally, the groups might clap or stomp to set a beat for the call-response. From this developed the performance of a Gullah Geechee ring shout, which is usually set for special occasions such as holidays or funerals.
A somewhat famous, but lesser understood feature of Gullah-Geechee faith is the blending of traditional African beliefs of hoodoo, wudu, or juju. In contrast to voodoo, this is a “lighter” form of folk magic that relies on an intimate relationship with the earth as an ancestral or parental relationship. Hoodoo heavily involves the use of herbs and roots for medicinal purposes, and from these practices, you may have heard of individuals known as "Root Doctors."
Until the 20th century, many lowcountry communities had their own root doctor. Dr. Buzzard, Dr. Bug, Dr. Snake, Dr. Crow. Just as people now keep lawyers on retainer, locals (both black and white) paid regular visits to their spiritual “doctor.” During the WWII, lines of visitors went down the street to pay a visit to Dr. Bug, who sold charms laced with arsenic causing heart palpitations for men who wanted to avoid the draft.
Naturally, the rapidly decreasing number of Gullah-Geechee homes and communities has resulted in a variety of abandoned homes on barrier islands throughout the Coastal South. While growing up in this area, exploring these homes was a great way to fill a boring day. You just have to be careful not to fall through too many floors.
St. Helena Island, SC
Favorite picture of an abandoned home that illustrates the vernacular architecture of Gullah-Geechee, which has survived since the antebellum era.
Sapelo Island, GA
Belle Marsh. Lumber Landing. Shell Hammock. Raccoon Bluff. Hog Hammock. These were the picturesque names of the slave and freedmen communities on Sapelo Island. In the 1950s, these communities were home to an estimated 500 Geechee people. Today only Hog Hammock remains, with just 70 residents who represent Georgia’s last remaining community of coastal West African slave descendants.
Saint Simons Island, GA
Abandoned interior on Saint Simons Island, which was originally home to three Gullah-Geechee communities: Southend, Jewtown, and Harrington.
Daufuskie Island, SC
Daufuskie’s population peaked during the 1950s, when it was home to approximately 1000 people (primarily Gullah) and a booming local oyster industry. However, due to pollution from the Savannah River the oyster industry rapidly declined, as did Daufuskie’s population. Now, there are only 12 remaining Gullah on the island.
While Gullah community on Daufuskie is nearly extinct, the island is still being looked to as a (possible) beacon for preservation. The Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation is a non-profit that received a 150 thousand dollar grant to begin the Daufuskie Endangered Places Program. The program invests money into the homes to rehabilitate them in exchange for a lease. That lease allows them to earn the money back through tourism and donations. After the homes earns back the original 150 thousand-dollar investment it is returned to the owner. The lease will not exceed 30 years.
Understandably, after facing so many developer schemes over recent decades, many surviving Gullah owners are hesitant to enter into any agreement that results in handing over their property ownership.
An example of what could be:
Moses Ficklin’s cottage is an example of one of the restored historic Gullah homes on Daufuskie Island.
The enormous live oak pictured is believed to predate Spanish explorers when they first came to Daufuskie Island. The classic Gullah house was purposely constructed under its shady, cool branches circa 1925. Moses Ficklin was a deacon of the First Union African Baptist Church and the Gullah undertaker, assisted by his wife Grace. He always kept a supply of $100 caskets on hand. The old carriage that was used as a hearse can be viewed outside the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church No. 2 at the Billie Burn Museum.
Chocolate Plantation Ruins
Sapelo Island was home to two plantations, High Point and Chocolate. All that is now left of Chocolate Plantation on Sapelo Island is a collection of tabby slave ruins.
According to the marker at the site, the original owners of the land were French Royalists (1789-1795) who named it “Chocolate” after the Guale Native American village on Sapelo called “Chucalate.”
The French sold it to Edward Swarbreck, who constructed the tabby slave cabins and the tabby main house in 1819. Charles Rogers, owner of the plantation in the 1830s, built the tabby barn, which was restored by Howard Coffin in the 1920s. The main house burned in 1853 during the residency of Randolph Spalding. R. J. Reynolds purchased the island in 1934, and his widow sold it to the State of Georgia, which now manages it.
Archaeologist Ray Crook offers a more complete explanation in his essay, “The Living Space of Enslaved Geechee on Sapelo Island,” which was published in the March 2008 newsletter of the African Diaspora Archaeology Network:
“During the late 1790s, the Chocolate tract was farmed by Lewis Harrington with the labor of 68 slaves. In 1802 that property became jointly owned by Edward Swarbreck and Thomas Spalding, who leased out at least a portion of the tract until 1808. Swarbreck, a Danish sea merchant with Caribbean connections who traded in cotton and other commodities, including slaves, then directed his attention to Chocolate. His plantation layout followed a familiar and very formal design…. The Big House, built of tabby, overlooked the Mud River and expansive salt marshes. His residence was flanked by outbuildings and other support structures. Two parallel rows of slave quarters, spaced some 10m apart and separated by a broad open area 50m across, were constructed behind the Big House. Vast agricultural fields extended to the north and south. Evidence of at least nine slave quarters, typically tabby duplexes with central chimneys and finished tabby floors, each side measuring about 4.3m by 6.1m, survives today as ruins and archaeological features at Chocolate. These represent an enslaved population of some 70 to 100 people distributed among at least 18 households…”
Posts are a combination of my own research, visits, and conversations, plus various information found around the web. I try to provide sources, but if you have specific questions, feel free to ask!