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.
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!