Exploring Fort Caroline National Memorial

March 11, 2013 16 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Operated by the National Park Service, Fort Caroline National Memorial memorializes the short-lived French presence in sixteenth century Florida. Here you will find stories of exploration, survival, religious disputes, territorial battles, and first contact between American Indians and Europeans. In addition, Fort Caroline National Memorial hosts the Timucuan Preserve Visitor Center.

About Fort Caroline

Fort Caroline was the first French colony in the present-day United States. Established in what is now Jacksonville, Florida, on June 22, 1564, under the leadership of Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere, it was intended as a refuge for the Huguenots. It lasted one year before being obliterated in 1565 by Spanish settlers, who built their own fort at the site, later abandoned in 1569. The site is now operated as Fort Caroline National Memorial, a unit of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.

Timucuan Preserve Visitor Center

Located at Fort Caroline National Memorial, the Timucuan Preserve Visitor Center hosts the exhibit "Where the Waters Meet." This exhibit showcases the richness of the environment in northeast Florida and how humans have interacted with this environment for thousands of years. The Visitor Center hosts a bookstore and information desk, and activities are available to do while exploring the exhibits.

The Timucua

The Timucua were a Native American people who lived in Northeast and North Central Florida and southeast Georgia. They were the largest indigenous group in that area and consisted of about 35 chiefdoms, many leading thousands of people. The various groups of Timucua spoke several dialects of the Timucua language. At the time of European first contact, the territory occupied by speakers of Timucuan dialects occupied about 19,200 square miles, and was home to between 50,000 and 200,000 Timuacans. It stretched from the Altamaha River and Cumberland Island in present-day Georgia as far south as Lake George in central Florida, and from the Atlantic Ocean west to the Aucilla River in the Florida Panhandle, though it reached the Gulf of Mexico at no more than a couple of points.

The name "Timucua" (from Thimogona) came from the exonym used by the Saturiwa (of what is now Jacksonville) to refer to the Utina, another group to the west of the St. Johns River. The Spanish came to use the term more broadly for other peoples in the area. Eventually it became the common term for all peoples who spoke what is known as the Timucuan language.

While alliances and confederacies arose between the chiefdoms from time to time, the Timucua were never organized into a single political unit. The various groups of Timucua speakers practiced several different cultural traditions. The people suffered severely from the introduction of Eurasian infectious diseases, to which they had no immunity. By 1595, their population was estimated to have been reduced from 200,000 to 50,000 and only thirteen chiefdoms remained. By 1700, the population of the tribe had been reduced to 1000. Warfare against them by the English colonists and native allies completed their extinction as a tribe soon after the turn of the 19th century.

Ribault Monument

The Ribault Monument commemorates the 1562 landing of Jean Ribault near the mouth of the St. Johns River. Ribault erected a stone column bearing the coats of arms of his French King Charles IX to claim Florida for France.

During the early 1920s a movement began in the Florida Chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution to mark the location of Ribault’s first arrival in the New World. The goal was to highlight the beginnings of European colonization of Florida by Protestants - for the sake of religious freedom - and to remind Americans that this colony was established half a century prior to the Plymouth Colony. In 1924 a piece of land was donated near present-day Mayport for a new column designed by Florida sculptor Charles Adrian Pillars. The U.S. Post Office also released a commemorative stamp of Ribault’s landing, and the U.S. Mint released a coin.

When U.S. Naval Station Mayport was established in 1941, the monument became inaccessible to the public and was moved. Three moves later, in 1958, the monument found its permanent home on St. Johns Bluff, and became part of the new National Park site, Fort Caroline National Memorial.

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