Sixty-six years before the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts seeking religious freedom, another group of settlers, known as the Huguenots, departed from France and arrived in what is modern-day Jacksonville, Florida. And while the Pilgrims have become an important part of American culture, the Huguenot journey to Florida has become a forgotten part of American history.
As with the Pilgrims, the Huguenots looked to establish a colony in the New World to get away from the religious persecution in their native home of France. The religious tensions in France led to many civil wars between the French Crown, loyal to the Catholic Church, and the new Lutheran sect the Huguenots. But after years of fighting, a peace deal was struck between the two warring parties, in which French King Charles IX would agree to fund a Huguenot expedition to the New World, where they would set up a colony geared toward their own religious beliefs.
During this time, the idea of settling in the New World solely on religious ideals was a new idea. The order of the day for many countries and their explorers was to find riches, like gold, in the New World. Instead, the Huguenots were taking a different approach to the New World than had been previously taken.
Therefore, in June of 1564, Huguenot Viceroy Jacques Ribault set sail for the New World with four ships and 200 settlers. Within the same month, Ribault’s ships would spot land. The first location they spotted was modern-day St. Augustine (though not yet settled by the Spaniards). Instead of settling in St. Augustine, Ribault continued north until he reached modern-day Jacksonville. There, he and his settlers set up Ft. Caroline, the first French settlement south of New France.
When the French first arrived they were able to strike up a good relationship with the local natives, known as the Timucua. But as time passed, the relationship between the two parties became strained. While the French first came to Florida for religious reasons, the talk of gold and riches started to take over their small community. Seeking these riches and using the Timucua to try to seek their goals eventually turn off the native, who became their enemy shortly after the arrival of the French settlers.
Even though the French did have some financial support from the French government, most of the funding for their colony came from the Huguenots in France. Because of this relationship, and the strained relations with the natives (which they had previously relied on for food and other supplies), the French solely relied on their Huguenot allies for fresh supplies. Just one year into their stay, the settlers ran out of horses, food and other vital essentials. Instead of facing starvation, the settlers made preparations to return to France. Luckily for the settlers, new supplies, along with new settlers and military reinforcements arrived at Ft. Caroline, and thus the French continued their settlement.
The new French settlement in Florida did not sit well with King Phillip II of Spain. In 1513, Ponce de Leon claimed Florida as a Spanish territory. In 1528, Panfilo de Narvaez did the same, as well as Hernando De Soto in 1539. Therefore, King Phillip II saw the French as invaders in the Spanish territory. In addition, King Phillip II was a staunch Catholic, and the idea of Lutherans settling in the Spanish territory enraged him.
Because of this new French Lutheran threat to his territory, Phillip II sent Pedro Menendez de Aviles to Florida to eliminate the new colony. Phillip II ordered Menendez to “go hand and behead all the Lutherans you may find on the sea and in the land.” Menendez set sail for Florida in August of 1565 and arrived in Florida on the 28th of that month. Upon his arrival, Menendez called the place of their new home St. Augustine, as they had arrived in Florida on the Spanish day dedicated to St. Augustine. The is where the Spaniards would set up their base in their fight against the French.
When Menendez arrived, he was not aware of the location of Ft. Caroline. Some reports he was given said that the settlement could be up to 100 miles north or south of their current location. But Menendez was able to befriend the Timucua, who informed them of the location of the French settlement.
A few days later, Menendez embarked for Ft. Caroline. When they had arrived, they couldn’t find the
fort immediately, as it laid further inland and thus was harder to see. But as they moved further up the coast, the spotted four French galleons. After discussion amongst his men, Menendez decided to attack Ft. Caroline. The French were totally taken by surprise, not expecting any Spanish invasion whatsoever. Many of the French settlers escaped to the boats that were anchored near the fort. Others were able to jump off of the ramparts and flee into the woods. But most of the people that were inside the fort were killed. Even when Menendez ordered his men not to kill women and young men under the age of fifteen, many of them had already been killed by the invading forces.
On September 8th, Menendez and his men returned to St. Augustine and celebrated their victory over the French. In addition, Menendez held a formal ceremony reclaiming Florida as a Spanish territory. Also, on this day, the City of St. Augustine was officially established. Because the Spanish were planning on making this a permanent military settlement, they hastily constructed a fort made of mud, logs and eighty cannons.
On September 9th, Menendez was notified by the Timucua that there were “very many Christians” to the south of St. Augustine. The natives gave Menendez their precise location. And with a small party, Menedez went to seek out the Christians. When he found them, just a few miles south of the new Spanish settlement, eh asked them of their business. The Christians said that they were French Huguenots that had escaped the attack on Ft. Caroline and were seeking to return home to France. they said that their boats were caught up in a heavy storm and that they had shipwrecked in this location. After speaking with the French, Menendez promised to secure transport for them back to France.
But instead of giving the French a chance to return to their homeland, Menendez rounded up most of the French Huguenots, which totaled around 300 men, women and children, and killed all of them. Only eight in the party, those who identified themselves as Catholics, were spared. The location of the massacre is today called Matanzas, which means ‘slaughter’ in Spanish.
A few days later, another group of French settlers were found. They were also a group of Huguenots who were shipwrecked by the same storm that sealed the fate of the other settlers on Matanzas Inlet. this group, though, was located even further south from St. Augustine, in what is modern-day Daytona Beach. Amongst the group were a number of high level Huguenot officers and their leader, Jean Ribault. Like the settlers who were shipwrecked at the Mantanzas Inlet, the fate of all that were found in this group was death as well.
After the takeover of Ft. Caroline and the slaughter of the Huguenot settlers, there were mixed reactions in France. King Charles IX wasn’t particularly concerned about the incident. While he did try to help the widows of those killed, Charles IX did not do anything against Spain. Charles saw the Huguenots as a thorn in his side, and thus did nothing upon the news of their massacres.
On the other hand, Dominique de Gourges, a French nobleman, was outraged by the incident. Is isn’t known if de Gourges was a Catholic or a Huguenot. But his outrage stemmed from the fact that the Spaniards killed Frenchmen, as he was a loyal subject to his country. In addition, he also had a deep hatred for the Spanish. In reaction to the slaughter, de Gourges set up an army of 200 men and sailed to Florida, where he sought to take on the Spaniards. Once he arrived, he befriended the Timucua (who had now become the Spaniards’ enemies because they refused to turn over a 16-year old French bot who took shelter with the Timucua after the Ft. Caroline Massacre), who led him to Ft. Caroline in much the same way they led the Spanish a few years earlier. Once he arrived, he attacked the fort and killed as many Spaniards as possible. After de Gourges’ victory, a sign was put up in the fort saying “this is done, not as unto the Spaniards, but as unto liars, thieves, and murderers.” After the victory at Ft. Carolnie (renamed San Mateo by the Spanish), de Gourges returned to France, and the French government no longer had any interest in settling Florida.
The history of the Huguenots settlement in Florida, while unnoticed in the history teachings nowadays, was an important part of the early history of Florida. Ft. Caroline was on e of the first settlements in the New World. St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States, was a result of the Spanish reaction to the Huguenot settlement in Florida. And the massacre at Ft. Caronline and Matanzas Inlet was the first case of genocide against Christians in the New World.
And yet, with all of these important historical events, the French Huguenots are one of America’s most forgotten groups of settlers.