Colonization, 1562-1753

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Author: Francis Parkman  | Date: 1562

The Huguenots in Florida

IN THE year 1562 a cloud of black and deadly portent was thickening over France. Surely and swiftly she glided towards the abyss of the religious wars. None could pierce the future, perhaps none dared to contemplate it: the wild rage of fanaticism and hate, friend grappling with friend, brother with brother, father with son; altars profaned, hearthstones made desolate, the robes of Justice herself bedrenched with murder. In the gloom without lay Spain, imminent and terrible. As on the hill by the field of Dreux, her veteran bands of pikemen, dark masses of organized ferocity, stood biding their time while the battle surged below, and then swept downward to the slaughter,—so did Spain watch and wait to trample and crush the hope of humanity.

In these days of fear, a second Huguenot colony sailed for the New World. The calm, stern man who represented and led the Protestantism of France felt to his inmost heart the peril of the time. He would fain build up a city of refuge for the persecuted sect. Yet Gaspar de Coligny, too high in power and rank to be openly assailed, was forced to act with caution. He must act, too, in the name of the Crown, and in virtue of his office of Admiral of France. A noble man and a soldier,—for the Admiral of France was no seaman,—he shared the ideas and habits of his class; nor is there reason to believe him to have been in advance of his time in a knowledge of the principles of successful colonization. His scheme promised a military colony, not a free commonwealth. The Huguenot party was already a political as well as a religious party. At its foundation lay the religious element, represented by Geneva, the martyrs, and the devoted fugitives who sang the psalms of Marot among rocks and caverns. Joined to these were numbers on whom the faith sat lightly, whose hope was in commotion and change.

An excellent seaman and stanch Protestant, Jean Ribaut of Dieppe, commanded the expedition. Under him, besides sailors, were a band of veteran soldiers, and a few young nobles. Embarked in two of those antiquated craft whose high poops and tub-like proportions are preserved in the old engravings of De Bry, they sailed from Havre on the eighteenth of February, 1562. They crossed the Atlantic, and on the thirtieth of April, in the latitude of twenty-nine and a half degrees, saw the long, low line where the wilderness of waves met the wilderness of woods. It was the coast of Florida….

On the next morning, the first of May, they found themselves off the mouth of a great river. Riding at anchor on a sunny sea, they lowered their boats, crossed the bar that obstructed the entrance, and floated on a basin of deep and sheltered water, "boiling and roaring," says Ribaut, "through the multitude of all kind of fish." Indians were running along the beach, and out upon the sandbars, beckoning them to land. They pushed their boats ashore and disembarked,—sailors, soldiers, and eager young nobles….

They named the river the River of May. It is now the St. John’s….

Preliminary exploration, not immediate settlement, had been the object of the voyage; but all was still rose-color in the eyes of the voyagers, and many of their number would gladly linger in the New Canaan. Ribaut was more than willing to humor them. He mustered his company on deck, and made them a harangue. He appealed to their courage and their patriotism, told them how, from a mean origin, men rise by enterprise and daring to fame and fortune, and demanded who among them would stay behind and hold Port Royal for the King. The greater part came forward, and "with such a good will and jolly courage," writes the commander, "as we had much to do to stay their importunity." Thirty were chosen, and Albert de Pierria was named to command them.

A fort was begun on a small stream called the Chenonceau, probably Archer’s Creek, about six miles from the site of Beaufort. They named it Charlesfort, in honor of the unhappy son of Catherine de Medicis, Charles the Ninth, the future hero of St. Bartholomew. Ammunition and stores were sent on shore, and on the eleventh of June, with his diminished company, Ribaut again embarked and spread his sails for France….

Albert, a rude soldier, with a thousand leagues of ocean betwixt him and responsibility, grew harsh, domineering, and violent beyond endurance. None could question or oppose him without peril of death. He hanged with his own hands a drummer who had fallen under his displeasure, and banished a soldier, named La Chere, to a solitary island, three leagues from the fort, where he left him to starve. For a time his comrades chafed in smothered fury. The crisis came at length. A few of the fiercer spirits leagued together, assailed their tyrant, murdered him, delivered the famished soldier, and called to the command one Nicolas Barre, a man of merit. Barre took the command, and thenceforth there was peace.

Peace, such as it was, with famine, homesickness, and disgust…. But how to escape? A continent was their solitary prison, and the pitiless Atlantic shut them in. Not one of them knew how to build a ship; but Ribaut had left them a forge, with tools and iron, and strong desire supplied the place of skill. Trees were hewn down and the work begun. Had they put forth to maintain themselves at Port Royal the energy and resource which they exerted to escape from it, they might have laid the corner-stone of a solid colony….

At length a brigantine worthy of Robinson Crusoe floated on the waters of the Chenonceau. They laid in what provision they could, gave all that remained of their goods to the Indians, embarked, descended the river, and put to sea. A fair wind filled their patchwork sails and bore them from the hated coast. Day after day they held their course, till at length the breeze died away and a breathless calm fell on the waters. Florida was far behind; France farther yet before. Floating idly on the glassy waste, the craft lay motionless. Their supplies gave out. Twelve kernels of maize a day were each man’s portion; then the maize failed, and they ate their shoes and leather jerkins. The water-barrels were drained, and they tried to slake their thirst with brine. Several died, and the rest, giddy with exhaustion and crazed with thirst, were forced to ceaseless labor, bailing out the water that gushed through every seam. Head-winds set in, increasing to a gale, and the wretched brigantine, with sails close-reefed, tossed among the savage billows at the mercy of the storm. A heavy sea rolled down upon her, and burst the bulwarks on the windward side. The surges broke over her, and, clinging with desperate gripe to spars and cordage, the drenched voyagers gave up all for lost. At length she righted. The gale subsided, the wind changed, and the crazy, water-logged vessel again bore slowly towards France.

Gnawed with famine, they counted the leagues of barren ocean that still stretched before, and gazed on each other with haggard wolfish eyes, till a whisper passed from man to man that one, by his death, might ransom all the rest. The lot was cast, and it fell on La Chere, the same wretched man whom Albert had doomed to starvation on a lonely island. They killed him, and with ravenous avidity portioned out his flesh. The hideous repast sustained them till the land rose in sight, when, it is said, in a delirium of joy, they could no longer steer their vessel, but let her drift at the will of the tide. A small English bark bore down upon them, took them all on board, and, after landing the feeblest, carried the rest prisoners to Queen Elizabeth.

ON THE twenty-fifth of June, 1564, a French squadron anchored a second time off the mouth of the River of May. There were three vessels, the smallest of sixty tons, the largest of one hundred and twenty, all crowded with men. Rene de Laudonniere held command. He was of a noble race of Poitou, attached to the house of Chatillon, of which Coligny was the head; pious, we are told, and an excellent marine officer….

The intervening year since Ribaut’s voyage had been a dark year for France. From the peaceful solitude of the River of May, that voyager returned to a land reeking with slaughter. But the carnival of bigotry and hate had found a pause…. The king and the queenmother, helpless amid the storm of factions which threatened their destruction, smiled now on Conde, now on Guise,—gave ear to the Cardinal of Lorraine, or listened in secret to the emissaries of Theodore Beza. Coligny was again strong at Court. He used his opportunity, and solicited with success the means of renewing his enterprise of colonization.

Men were mustered for the work. In name, at least, they were all Huguenots; yet now, as before, the staple of the projected colony was unsound, soldiers, paid out of the royal treasury, hired artisans and tradesmen, with a swarm of volunteers from the young Huguenot nobles, whose restless swords had rusted in their scabbards since the peace. The foundation-stone was forgotten. There were no tillers of the soil. Such, indeed, were rare among the Huguenots; for the dull peasants who guided the plow clung with blind tenacity to the ancient faith. Adventurous gentlemen, reckless soldiers, discontented tradesmen, all keen for novelty and heated with dreams of wealth,—these were they who would build for their country and their religion an empire beyond the sea.

On Thursday, the twenty-second of June, Laudonniere saw the low coast-line of Florida, and entered the harbor of St. Augustine, which he named the River of Dolphins, "because that at mine arrival I saw there a great number of Dolphins which were playing in the mouth thereof." Then he bore northward, following the coast till, on the twenty-fifth, he reached the mouth of the St. John’s or River of May. The vessels anchored, the boats were lowered, and he landed with his principal followers on the south shore, near the present village of Mayport….

Man and nature alike seemed to mark the borders of the River of May as the site of the new colony; for here, around the Indian towns, the harvest of maize, beans, and pumpkins promised abundant food, while the river opened a ready way to the mines of gold and silver and the stores of barbaric wealth which glittered before the dreaming vision of the colonists. Yet, the better to satisfy himself and his men, Laudonniere weighed anchor, and sailed for a time along the neighboring coasts. Returning, confirmed in his first impression, he set out with a party of officers and soldiers to explore the borders of the chosen stream. The day was hot. The sun beat fiercely on the woolen caps and heavy doublets of the men, till at length they gained the shade of one of those deep forests of pine where the dead, hot air is thick with resinous odors, and the earth, carpeted with fallen leaves, gives no sound beneath the foot. Yet, in the stillness, deer leaped up on all sides as they moved along. Then they emerged into sunlight. A meadow was before them, a running brook, and a wall of encircling forests. The men called it the Vale of Laudonniere. The afternoon was spent, and the sun was near its setting, when they reached the bank of the river. They strewed the ground with boughs and leaves, and, stretched on that sylvan couch, slept the sleep of travel-worn and weary men.

They were roused at daybreak by sound of trumpet, and after singing a psalm they set themselves to their task. It was the building of a fort, and the spot they chose was a furlong or more above St. John’s Bluff, where close to the water was a wide, flat knoll, raised a few feet above the marsh and the river. Boats came up the stream with laborers, tents, provisions, cannon, and tools. The engineers marked out the work in the form of a triangle; and, from the noble volunteer to the meanest artisan, all lent a hand to complete it. On the river side the defenses were a palisade of timber. On the two other sides were a ditch, and a rampart of fascines, earth, and sods…. In honor of Charles the Ninth the fort was named Fort Caroline….

IN the little world of Fort Caroline, a miniature France, cliques and parties, conspiracy and sedition, were fast stirring into life. Hopes had been dashed, and wild expectations had come to naught. The adventurers had found, not conquest and gold, but a dull exile in a petty fort by a hot and sickly river, with hard labor, bad fare, prospective famine, and nothing to break the weary sameness but some passing canoe or floating alligator. Gathered in knots, they nursed each other’s wrath, and inveighed against the commandant….

The growing discontent was brought to a partial head by one La Roquette, who gave out that, high up the river, he had discovered by magic a mine of gold and silver, which would give each of them a share of ten thousand crowns, besides fifteen hundred thousand for the King. But for Laudonniere, he said, their fortunes would all be made….

Two of the ships meanwhile returned to France,—the third, the "Breton," remaining at anchor opposite the fort. The malcontents took the opportunity to send home charges against Laudonniere of peculation, favoritism, and tyranny.

On the fourth of September, Captain Bourdet, apparently a private adventurer, had arrived from France with a small vessel. When he returned, about the tenth of November, Laudonniere persuaded him to carry home seven or eight of the malcontent soldiers. Bourdet left some of his sailors in their place. The exchange proved most disastrous. These pirates joined with others whom they had won over, stole Laudonniere’s two pinnaces, and set forth on a plundering excursion to the West Indies. They took a small Spanish vessel off the coast of Cuba, but were soon compelled by famine to put into Havana and give themselves up. Here, to make their peace with the authorities, they told all they knew of the position and purposes of their countrymen at Fort Caroline, and thus was forged the thunderbolt soon to be hurled against the wretched little colony….

A severe illness again seized Laudonniere, and confined him to his bed. Improving their advantage, the malcontents gained over nearly all the best soldiers in the fort. The ringleader was one Fourneaux, a man of good birth, but whom Le Moyne calls an avaricious hypocrite. He drew up a paper, to which sixty-six names were signed…. It was late in the night. Fourneaux, with twenty men armed to the teeth, knocked fiercely at the commandant’s door. Forcing an entrance, they wounded a gentleman who opposed them, and crowded around the sick man’s bed. Fourneaux, armed with steel cap and cuirass, held his arquebuse to Laudonniere’s throat, and demanded leave to go on a cruise among the Spanish islands. The latter kept his presence of mind, and remonstrated with some firmness; on which, with oaths and menaces, they dragged him from his bed, put him in fetters, carried him out to the gate of the fort, placed him in a boat, and rowed him to the ship anchored in the river….

Fourneaux drew up a commission for his meditated West India cruise, which he required Laudonniere to sign. The sick commandant, imprisoned in the ship with one attendant, at first refused; but receiving a message from the mutineers, that, if he did not comply, they would come on board and cut his throat, he at length yielded.

The buccaneers now bestirred themselves to finish the two small vessels on which the carpenters had been for some time at work. In a fortnight they were ready for sea, armed and provided with the King’s cannon, munitions, and stores. Trenchant, an excellent pilot, was forced to join the party….

The colony was wofully depleted; but the bad blood had been drawn off, and thenceforth all internal danger was at an end. In finishing the fort, in building two new vessels to replace those of which they had been robbed, and in various intercourse with the tribes far and near, the weeks passed until the twenty-fifth of March, when an Indian came in with the tidings that a vessel was hovering off the coast. Laudonniere sent to reconnoiter. The stranger lay anchored at the mouth of the river. She was a Spanish brigantine, manned by the returning mutineers, starving, downcast, and anxious to make terms. Yet, as their posture seemed not wholly pacific, Laudonniere sent down La Caille, with thirty soldiers concealed at the bottom of his little vessel. Seeing only two or three on deck, the pirates allowed her to come alongside; when, to their amazement, they were boarded and taken before they could snatch their arms. Discomfited, woebegone, and drunk, they were landed under a guard….

A court-martial was called near Fort Caroline, and all were found guilty. Fourneaux and three others were sentenced to be hanged.

"Comrades," said one of the condemned, appealing to the soldiers, "will you stand by and see us butchered?"

"These," retorted Laudonniere, "are no comrades of mutineers and rebels."

At the request of his followers, however, he commuted the sentence to shooting….

AND now, in ample measure, the French began to reap the harvest of their folly. Conquest, gold, and military occupation had alone been their aims. Not a rood of ground had been stirred with the spade. Their stores were consumed, and the expected supplies had not come. The Indians, too, were hostile. Satouriona hated them as allies of his enemies; and his tribesmen, robbed and maltreated by the lawless soldiers, exulted in their miseries. Yet in these, their dark and subtle neighbors, was their only hope.

May-day came, the third anniversary of the day when Ribaut and his companions, full of delighted anticipation, had first explored the flowery borders of the St. John’s. The contrast was deplorable; for within the precinct of Fort Caroline a homesick, squalid band, dejected and worn, dragged their shrunken limbs about the sun-scorched area, or lay stretched in listless wretchedness under the shade of the barracks. Some were digging roots in the forest, or gathering a kind of sorrel upon the meadows. If they had had any skill in hunting and fishing, the river and the woods would have supplied their needs; but in this point, as in others, they were lamentably unfit for the work they had taken in hand. "Our misery," says Laudonniere, was so great that one was found that gathered up all the fish-bones that he could find, which he dried and beat into powder to make bread thereof. The effects of this hideous famine appeared incontinently among us, for our bones eftsoones began to cleave so near unto the skin, that the most part of the soldiers had their skins pierced through with them in many parts of their bodies." Yet, giddy with weakness, they dragged themselves in turn to the top of St. John’s Bluff, straining their eyes across the sea to descry the anxiously expected sail.

Had Coligny left them to perish? or had some new tempest of calamity, let loose upon France, drowned the memory of their exile? In vain the watchman on the hill surveyed the solitude of waters. A deep dejection fell upon them.

The Indians had left the neighborhood, but from time to time brought in meager supplies of fish, which they sold to the famished soldiers at exorbitant prices. Lest they should pay the penalty of their extortion, they would not enter the fort, but lay in their canoes in the river, beyond gunshot, waiting for their customers to come out to them. "Oftentimes," says Laudonniere, ’our poor soldiers were constrained to give away the very shirts from their backs to get one fish….

Famine and desperation now reigned at Fort Caroline. The Indians had killed two of the carpenters; hence long delay in the finishing of the new ship. They would not wait, but resolved to put to sea in the Breton and the brigantine. The problem was to find food for the voyage; for now, in their extremity, they roasted and ate snakes, a delicacy in which the neighborhood abounded.

On the third of August, Laudonniere, perturbed and oppressed, was walking on the hill, when, looking seaward, he saw a sight that sent a thrill through his exhausted frame. A great ship was standing towards the river’s mouth. Then another came in sight, and another, and another. He despatched a messenger with the tidings to the fort below. The languid forms of his sick and despairing men rose and danced for joy, and voices shrill with weakness joined in wild laughter and acclamation, in so much, he says, "that one would have thought them to be out of their wits."

A doubt soon mingled with their joy. Who were the strangers? Were they the friends so long hoped for in vain? or were they Spaniards, their dreaded enemies? They were neither. The foremost ship was a stately one, of seven hundred tons, a great burden at that day. She was named the Jesus; and with her were three smaller vessels, the Solomon, the Tiger, and the Swallow. Their commander was "a right worshipful and valiant knight,"—for so the record styles him,—a pious man and a prudent, to judge him by the orders he gave his crew when, ten months before, he sailed out of Plymouth: "Serve God daily, love one another, preserve your victuals, beware of fire, and keep good company." Nor were the crew unworthy the graces of their chief; for the devout chronicler of the voyage ascribes their deliverance from the perils of the sea to "the Almighty God, who never suffereth his Elect to perish."

Who then were they, this chosen band, serenely conscious of a special Providential care? They were the pioneers of that detested traffic destined to inoculate with its infection nations yet unborn, the parent of discord and death, filling half a continent with the tramp of armies and the clash of fratricidal swords. Their chief was Sir John Hawkins, father of the English slave-trade.

He had been to the coast of Guinea, where he bought and kidnaped a cargo of slaves. These he had sold to the jealous Spaniards of Hispaniola, forcing them, with sword, matchlock, and culverin, to grant him free trade, and then to sign testimonials that he had borne himself as become a peaceful merchant. Prospering greatly by this summary commerce, but distressed by the want of water, he had put into the River of May to obtain a supply….

Hawkins came up the river in a pinnace, and landed at Fort Caroline, accompanied, says Laudonniere, "with gentlemen honorably appareled, yet unarmed." Between the Huguenots and the English Puritans there was a double tie of sympathy. Both hated priests, and both hated Spaniards. Wakening from their apathetic misery, the starveling garrison hailed him as a deliverer. Yet Hawkins secretly rejoiced when he learned their purpose to abandon Florida; for although, not to tempt his cupidity, they hid from him the secret of their Appalachian gold mine, he coveted for his royal mistress the possession of this rich domain. He shook his head, however, when he saw the vessels in which they proposed to embark, and offered them all a free passage to France in his own ships. This, from obvious motives of honor and prudence, Laudonniere declined, upon which Hawkins offered to lend or sell to him one of his smaller vessels.

Laudonniere hesitated, and hereupon arose a great clamor. A mob of soldiers and artisans beset his chamber, threatening loudly to desert him, and take passage with Hawkins, unless the offer were accepted. The commandant accordingly resolved to buy the vessel. The generous slaver, whose reputed avarice nowhere appears in the transaction, desired him to set his own price; and, in place of money, took the cannon of the fort, with other articles now useless to their late owners. He sent them, too, a gift of wine and biscuit, and supplied them with provisions for the voyage, receiving in payment Laudonniere’s note, "for which," adds the later, "until this present I am indebted to him." With a friendly leave-taking, he returned to his ships and stood out to sea, leaving golden opinions among the inmates of Fort Caroline.

Before the English top-sails had sunk beneath the horizon, the colonists bestirred themselves to depart. In a few days their preparations were made. They waited only for a fair wind. It was long in coming, and meanwhile their troubled fortunes assumed a new phase.

On the twenty-eighth of August, the two captains Vasseur and Verdier came in with tidings of an approaching squadron. Again the fort was wild with excitement. Friends or foes, French or Spaniards, succor or death,—betwixt these were their hopes and fears divided. On the following morning, they saw seven barges rowing up the river, bristling with weapons, and crowded with men in armor…. Sentries on the bluff challenged, and received no answer. One of them fired at the advancing boats, and still there was no response. Laudonniere was almost defenseless. He had given his heavier cannon to Hawkins, and only two field-pieces were left. They were leveled at the foremost boats, and the word to fire was about to be given, when a voice from among the strangers called out that they were French, commanded by Jean Ribaut.

At the eleventh hour, the long looked for succors were come. Ribaut had been commissioned to sail with seven ships for Florida. A disorderly concourse of disbanded soldiers, mixed with artisans and their families, and young nobles weary of a two years peace, were mustered at the port of Dieppe, and embarked, to the number of three hundred men, bearing with them all things thought necessary to a prosperous colony….

Ribaut was present, conspicuous by his long beard, an astonishment to the Indians; and here, too, were officers, old friends of Laudonniere. Why, then, had they approached in the attitude of enemies? The mystery was soon explained; for they expressed to the commandant their pleasure at finding that the charges made against him had proved false. He begged to know more; on which Ribaut, taking him aside, told him that the returning ships had brought home letters filled with accusations of arrogance, tyranny, cruelty, and a purpose of establishing an independent command,—accusations which he now saw to be unfounded, but which had been the occasion of his unusual and startling precaution. He gave him, too, a letter from Admiral Coligny. In brief but courteous terms, it required him to resign his command, and requested his return to France to clear his name from the imputations cast upon it. Ribaut warmly urged him to remain; but Laudonniere declined his friendly proposals.

Worn in body and mind, mortified and wounded, he soon fell ill again….

Stores were landed, tents were pitched, women and children were sent on shore, feathered Indians mingled in the throng, and the borders of the River of May swarmed with busy life. "But, lo, how oftentimes misfortune doth search and pursue us, even then when we think to be at rest!" exclaims the unhappy Laudonniere. Amidst the light and cheer of renovated hope, a cloud of blackest omen was gathering in the east.

At half-past eleven on the night of Tuesday, September fourth, the crew of Ribaut’s flag-ship anchored on the still sea outside the bar, saw a huge hulk, grim with the throats of cannon, drifting towards them through the gloom; and from its stern rolled on the sluggish air the portentous banner of Spain.

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Chicago: Francis Parkman, "The Huguenots in Florida," Colonization, 1562-1753 in America, Vol.2, Pp.11-29 Original Sources, accessed September 24, 2021, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BN8XM64SNMWNQJ2.

MLA: Parkman, Francis. "The Huguenots in Florida." Colonization, 1562-1753, in America, Vol.2, Pp.11-29, Original Sources. 24 Sep. 2021. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BN8XM64SNMWNQJ2.

Harvard: Parkman, F, 'The Huguenots in Florida' in Colonization, 1562-1753. cited in , America, Vol.2, Pp.11-29. Original Sources, retrieved 24 September 2021, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=BN8XM64SNMWNQJ2.