In February of 1562, three small ships set out from Dieppe, France bound for southern coast of the new land of America. Two months later they sailed into what is now Port Royal Sound the site of Beaufort, South Carolina. The captain of this expedition, Jean Ribaut, had arrived on the southeastern coast of America, and proceeded to fulfill his mission to found the first French colony on the American territory.
Who was this intrepid sea captain who led this expedition ? Little is known about his younger years. He was born in Dieppe, the busy maritime center in northern France, and was known as a skilled mariner. He was apparently a tall man, with an impressive beard, and a born leader. The writer P. Gaffarel describes him as a man known for his bravery, his audacity, and his achievements. He was also a devout Huguenot , who saw himself as something of a missionary to the natives in foreign countries. Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of the French Navy, selected him to be in charge of the expedition to the coast of Carolina and La Florida.
When the small squadron arrived off the coast of Florida they explored the mouth of the May River ( now the St. Johnís River) and planted a stone column on a bluff declaring this land was claimed by France. They then sailed north and explored Port Royal Sound, eventually landing at Parris Island where they planted a second stone pillar and claimed the island as a refuge for Huguenots and for the kingdom of France. Ribaut had the men build a small triangular fort at Parris Island, which they named Charlesfort , and then he assigned twenty seven of his men to occupy the fort and establish a base for a new colony.
This new colony established in May 1562 was twenty-five years before the founding of Roanoke in Virginia by Sir Walter Raleigh, and forty-five years before the arrival of John Smith in Jamestown, and fifty-eight years before landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth in Massachusetts.
Ribaut designated Capt. Albert Pierria as commander of the garrison, and instructed him to cultivate good relations with the natives, plant foods for their use, and hold the fort until he returned with more men and supplies. However, as the months went by, discipline among the garrison broke down, the men mutinied against their commander, and they contrived a plan to build a small boat and sail back to France.
After establishing Charlesfort Ribaut took his three ships back to France in about November of 1562 to seek provisions and additional colonists. However, The Catholic armies under the Duke de Guise were laying siege to Le Harve, so Ribaut sailed up to Dieppe where he found his native city was also under attack. He joined the battle , but was forced to withdraw, and sailed to England to seek help from the Queen. After several weeks the English became suspicious of his real purpose, and threw Ribaut into jail for three years. While there he wrote a journal of his voyage to Charlesfort, and reported to Admiral Coligny that the garrison at Charlesfort needed reinforcement.
In the interim the desperate men from Charlesfort abandoned the fort, and attempted to sail their small boat back to France. Food ran out before they made land, and they only survived by sacrificing and eating one of their crew. They were finally picked up at sea by an English ship, taken to a harbor in England, where word spread about the horrible events they brought on themselves.
During this time Admiral Coligny had made plans to send a relief force to Charlesfort. Since Ribaut was imprisoned, he commissioned Ribautís lieutenant, Renee Laudonniere, to take a squadron of ships with supplies to sustain the French outpost. However, having learned that Charlesfort had been abandoned, Laudonniere took his fleet to the mouth of the May River, and established a new French fort on a bluff there, calling it La Caroline.
However, this new detachment had its share of adventurers and greedy settlers who became rebellious. By 1564 food was scarce, famine and disease was taking its toll, and the settlers were planning to abandon their fort.
Finally Ribaut was released from prison, and was once again appointed by Admiral Coligny to take seven ships and two hundred settlers to secure the French interests in Florida. However, about the same time a Spanish fleet and detachment under Pedro Menendez de Aviles had been commissioned by Philip II to eliminate the French presence in La Florida. After much delay on both sides, the two squadrons met in the entrance to the St. Johnís River on Sept. 5, 1567.
The Spanish forces challenged the French fleet, and the French unprepared for battle slipped away from Ft. Caroline to move south toward the Spanish bastion at San Augustine. The Spanish ships followed in a day or so, and the battle appeared to be inevitable at St. Augustine the next day.
However, fate intervened. A hurricane came up abruptly which destroyed many of the French ships, and scattered the French sailors. Menendez, thinking he had been saved by a miracle, seized the opportunity and marched his men north through the dense forests to attack the Few French remaining at Ft. Caroline. The French defenders were caught by surprise, and were decimated. Then returning to St. Augustine, Menendez set out to find the missing French sailors who had been scattered by the hurricane.
After days of searching, he learned from Indians that there were groups of men spotted on the beaches south of San Augustine, scattered between Matanzas and Cape Canaveral. The Spanish accepted the surrender of the marooned French sailors, and took them into custody. Menendez then had each man bound, and questioned separately to determine which were Huguenots. Those who declared they were Huguenots were killed on the spot. Among these victims was Jean Ribaut.
Although the French later sent a force to take revenge on the Spanish for this murderous act, the French settlements in Florida and South Carolina were finished. The first two European settlements in the American territory were established by French Huguenots, but they were eradicated within five years. The Spanish did their best to obscure all traces of the French claims and structures in the following years.
The Story of Jean Ribaut's Landing