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Floridians Don't Speak French Because of a Hurricane

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Below: You would think that for the French who eat snails and frogs, they would be cool about regurgitation. But illustrator Jacques Le Moye recorded what the French considered strange and unusual habits practiced by the Timuquan Indians.

In 1561, the French empire was expanding, but was also going through a time of religious tension between the Protestants and Catholics, with both in the government. To demonstrate much needed religious tolerance, Protestant Admiral Gaspard de Coligny convinced the Catholic regent Catherine de Medici that they could have a colony in the new world that was not loyal to a religion, but loyal to the crown. Everyone thought that was a swell idea, so the best navigator and ship captain of the time was chosen, Jean Ribault, who was also Huguenot. So off he went, making record time and sailing a new route further north to totally avoid the Spanish in the Caribbean. In February 1562, he stopped off at the St. Johns River, and then proceeded north and established Charlesfort in present day South Carolina. (Named after Catherine's teenage son who was due to become French monarch.) A colony was left behind at Charlesfort, and Ribault sailed back to France for supplies.

The French colonists left behind at Charlesfort wore out their welcome with the natives after demanding food and gold, instead of working to get their own food. After a year, the colony failed, and they sailed back to Europe, eating each other along the way since they didn't have any more native neighbors to supply the food.

Unfortunately for Jean Ribault, as soon as he arrived back in France, a religious war was already underway. So he had to flee to England and try to get British support for the Protestant colony. The English decided he was a spy instead, and threw him in London Tower.

Admiral Coligny was still trying to get that colony thing working again, so when things settled down, a second expedition was organized, led by Ribault's second in command, Rene Laudonniere, who we will call Laudy for the rest of the story. Laudy was a French nobleman, and had support from the crown. Since the colony was abandoned from the previous attempt, they landed on the St. Johns River instead of South Carolina, and established Fort Caroline in 1564. The biggest mystery still to this day, is why they just didn't call this one Charlesfort like the previous settlement, using the girly sounding name of Caroline instead.

Charles was now King Charles IX of France, who liked most teen monarchs of that time, enjoyed hunting, producing illegitimate children, and persecuting Protestants. Curious though, Charles IX liked Admiral Coligny, but Catherine held the opposite opinion. Coligny was later assassinated in 1572 by the Duke of Guise (Catholic), which touched off the Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day where tens of thousands of people died. Confused with French intrigue yet? Okay, then let's get back to Ft. Caroline.

Below: Le Moye's image from de Bry's engraving of Fort Caroline.

Well, Laudy was not as strong a leader as Ribault would have been, and the men at Fort Caroline rebelled against him, where most of them decided they wanted to be Buccaneers instead of colonists. Apparently pirates raiding Spanish treasure ships seemed more fun.

The Spanish in the Caribbean were surprised to be raided by French pirates. They captured one and asked him where he came from? (No doubt, through a little good old fashioned Jesuit torture.) And discovered the raiders came from a French colony on the coast of Spanish Florida. The King of Spain became enraged when he heard the news, and appointed Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles to be the new badass governor of Florida to solve the problem.

Meanwhile, Ribault had gotten out of prison in London, and Admiral Coligny was finally able to send him on a resupply mission to help out Laudy and the floundering colony. This time, with seven of the most advance sailing ships of the time, hundreds of soldiers, and a famous illustrator Jacques Le Moye who liked to make drawings of hermaphrodites and Timuquan Indians doing strange rituals. Actually, Le Moye's illustrations of plants and trees in Florida are extremely accurate, even if his depiction of the Timuquans may be questionable.

Both Ribault and Menendez left Europe on the same day in the summer of 1565, which incidentally was also hurricane season in the north Atlantic. Ribault sailed his previously chartered northern route, and once again arrived at Florida in almost record time. Menendez sailed further south and was beat up by a hurricane, where he lost a number of ships. But his dislike of the French made Menendez continue on. When the Spanish arrived in Florida, Menendez attempted to attack Fort Caroline by ship, and found the French settlements and ships too strongly fortified. So he went south and established St. Augustine.

Now here is how the hurricane changed history. The French were a much stronger and larger force than the Spanish, with the most advanced ships of the time. Captain Ribault was considered among the best navigator and sailor that anyone could find. So if they had stayed around Fort Caroline, they probably could have turned it into the largest French colony in the western hemisphere, which may have continued as a city. Imagine Jacksonville as a city like New Orleans; instead of, well, Jacksonville. Ribault decided to strike against the weaker Spanish at St. Augustine, and took most of his ships on a reciprocal attack. Laudy said it wasn't a good idea; and he was right, but was overruled by Ribault who was given overall command.

Ribault gets down to the entrance of the bay at St. Augustine, but the tide is too low for his impressive ships to get over the sandbar into the bay. So as he is waiting there, a hurricane arrives and knocks the French fleet out of the way, where they wreck around what is now Canaveral National Seashore. So this one hurricane totally destroyed the French military in North America, who could have established a major colony in Florida.

Menendez, not wanting to miss an opportunity, decides that the French fleet will be busy for a few days, and takes his soldiers on a forced march while it is still raining to attack the French fort. It took five days for the Spanish soldiers to march 60 miles, and they lose a fifth of their force along the way, but are mad enough at the French to continue on. The French who remained at the fort thought that they were safe from attack because of the storm, and let their guard down and are taken totally by surprise. Most of the 200 remaining Frenchmen at Fort Caroline were killed by the Spanish, except a few with Laudy and Le Moye who escape along with some women and children to a remaining French ship, and sail back to France.

Below: The entrance gate to reconstructed Fort Caroline National Monument.

Menendez does not take time to celebrate and figures that he will have to face Ribault again. So as the Spanish are fortifying St. Augustine against attack, Timuquan Indians alert them to surviving and destitute Frenchmen on the other side of the bay. The Spanish would later treat the Timuquans worse than the French did, but that would be later on.

Ribault and his surviving men are found at Matanzas Inlet. Matanzas stands for massacre, if you had not heard. Menendez did not have enough supplies to keep a large number of French prisoner, so he decided that if they won't become Catholic, then he might as well just kill them. The Pope won't complain, and neither do any of the Catholic monarchs in Europe.

Three years later the French return and have vengeance on the Spanish at the former Fort Caroline, but nobody ever tries to challenge Spanish authority in Florida for the next 137 years.
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