St. John’s River – Historic Landmarks

THE account given by Laudonniere, himself, the leader of the Huguenots, by whom Fort Caroline was constructed, is as follows: After speaking of his arrival at the mouth of the river, which had been named the River May by Ribault, who had entered it on the first day of May, 1562, and had therefore given it that name, he says, ” Departing from thence, I had not sailed three leagues up the river, still being followed by the Indians, crying still, amy, amy,’ that is to say, friend, but I discovered an hill of meane height, neare which I went on land, harde by the fieldes that were sowed with mil, at one corner whereof there was an house, built for their lodgings which keep and garde the mil. . . .

“…Now was I determined to search out the qualities of the hill. Therefore I went right to the toppe there of; where we found nothing else but cedars, palms, and bay trees of so sovereign odor that Balme smelleth not more sweetly. The trees were environed around about with vines bearing grapes, in such quantities that the number would suffice to make the place habitable. Besides the fertilitie of the soyle for vines, one may see mesquine wreathed about the trees in great quantities. Touching the pleasure of the place, the sea may be seen plain enough from it; and more than six great leagues off, towards the River Belle, a man may behold the meadows, divided asunder into isles and islets, enterlacing one another. Briefly, the place is so pleasant, that those which are melancholicke, would be in-forced to change their humour. . .

“Our fort was built in form of a triangle; the side towards the west, which was toward the land, was inclosed with a little trench and raised with turf made in the form of a battlement, nine feet high ; the other side, which was towards the river, was inclosed with a palisade of planks of timber, after the manner that Gabions are made; on the south line, there was a kind of bastion, within which I caused an house for the munition to be made. It was all builded with fagots and sand, saving about two or three foote high, with turfes whereof the battlements were made.

” In the middest, I caused a great court to be made of eighteen paces long, and the same in breadth. In the middest whereof, on the one side, drawing towards the south, I builded a corps de garde and an house on the other side towards the north. . . . One of the sides that inclosed my court, which I made very faire and large, reached into the grange of my munitions; and on the other sidle, towards the river, was mine own lodgings, round which were galleries all covered. The principal doore of my lodging was in the middest of the great place, and the other was towards the river. A good distance from the fort I built an oven.”

Jacob Le Moyne, or Jacques Morgues, as he is some-times called, accompanied the expedition, and his Brevis Narratio contains two plates, representing the commencement of the construction of Fort Caroline, and its appearance when completed. The latter represents a much more finished fortification than could possibly have been constructed, but may be taken as a correct outline, I presume, of its general appearance.

Barcia, in his account of its capture, describes neither its shape nor appearance, but mentions the parapet nine feet high, and the munition-house and store-house.

From the account of Laudonnière and Le Moyne, it was situated near the river, on the slope or nearly at the foot of a hill. Barcia speaks of its being behind a hill, and of descending towards it. The clerical-carpenter, Challeux, speaks of being able, after his escape, to look down from the bill he was on, into the court of the fort itself, and seeing the massacre of the French. As he was flying from the port towards the sea, and along the river, and as the Spaniards came from a southeast direction, the fort must have been on the westerly side of a hill, near the river.

The distance is spoken of as less than three leagues by Laudonnière. Hawkins and Ribault say the fort was not visible from the mouth of the river. It is also incidentally spoken of in Barcia as being two leagues from the bar. Le Challeux, in the narrative of his escape, speaks of the distance as being about two leagues. In the account given of the expedition of De Gourgues, it is said to be, in general terms, about one or two leagues above the forts afterwards constructed on each side of the mouth of the river; and it is also mentioned in De Gourgues, that the fort was at the foot of a hill, near the water, and could be over-looked from the hill. The distance from the mouth of the river, and the nature of the ground where the fort was built, are thus made sufficiently definite to enable us to seek a location which shall fulfil both these conditions. It is hardly necessary to remark, that there can be no question but that the fort was located on the south or easterly side of the river, as the Spaniards marched by land from St. Augustine, in a northwesterly direction to Fort Caroline.

The River St. John’s is one of the largest rivers, in point of width, to be found in America, and is more like an arm of the sea than a river; from its mouth for a distance of fifteen miles, it is spread over extensive marshes, and there are few points where the channel touches the banks of the river. At its mouth it is comparatively narrow, but immediately extends itself over widespread marshes; and the first headland or shore which is washed by the channel is a place known as St. John’s Bluff. Here the river runs closely along the shore, making a bold, deep channel close to the bank. The land rises abruptly on one side, into a hill of moderate height, covered with a dense growth of pine, cedar, etc. This hill gently slopes to the banks of the river, and runs off to the southwest, where, at the distance of a quarter of a mile, a creek discharges itself into the river, at a place called the Shipyard from time immemorial.

I am not aware that any remains of Fort Caroline, or any old remains of a fortress, have ever been discovered here; but it must be recollected that this fort was constructed of sand and pine trees, and that three hundred years have passed away, with their storms and tempests, their rains and destructive influences—a period sufficient to have destroyed a work of much more durable character than sandy entrenchments and green pine stakes and timbers. Moreover, it is highly probable, judging from present appearances, that the constant abrasion of the banks still going on has long since worn away the narrow spot where stood Fort Caroline. It is also to be remarked, that as there is no other hill, or highland, or place where a fort could have been built between St. John’s Bluff and the mouth of the river, so it is also the fact, that there is no point on the south side of the river where the channel touches high land, for a distance by water of eight or ten miles above St. John’s Bluff.

The evidence in favour of the location of Fort Caro-line at St. John’s Bluff is, I think, conclusive and irresistible, and accords in all points with the descriptions given as to distance, topography, and points of view.

It is within the memory of persons now living, that a considerable orange grove and somewhat extensive buildings, which existed at this place, then called St. Vicente, have been washed into the river, leaving at this day no vestiges of their existence. It has been occupied as a Spanish fort within fifty years; yet so rapid has been the work of time and the elements, that no remains of such occupation are now to be seen.

The narratives all speak of the distance from the mouth of the river as about two leagues; and in speaking of so short a distance the probability of exactness is much greater than when dealing with longer distances.

As to the spot itself, it presents all the natural features mentioned by Laudonnière; and it requires but a small spice of enthusiasm and romance that it be recognized as a ” goodlie and pleasante spotte,” by those who might like the abundance of the wild grapes and the view of the distant salt meadows, with their ” isles and islets, so pleas, ante that those which are melancholic would be in forced to change their humour.”

It is but proper, however, to say, that at a plantation known as Newcastle there is a high range of ground, and upon this high ground the appearance of an old earthwork of quadrangular form; but this point is distant some six leagues from the mouth of the river, is flanked by a deep bay or marsh to the southeast, and the work is on the top of the hill and not at its foot, is quarangular, and is a considerable distance from the water. These earthworks, I am satisfied, are Spanish or English remains of a much later period.