A Spanish soldier pounded the last nail into the tree where a body hung below on a low branch. The inscription above him read, “I do this not to Frenchmen, but to Lutherans.”
But there was a problem. The many men hanging on the nearby trees were not Lutherans at all. The Spanish, in their intent for a religious massacre, hadn’t even properly identified their victims’ faith.
They were Huguenots. And the massacre was the obliteration of Fort Caroline, the second and last French colony in what would later be the United States.
The first voyage
Two years earlier, some of the same murdered men were about to take their first steps onto new world soil for the first time after a grueling two months of ocean voyage. On a far bank, a local Indian chief watched the small party of colonists arrive on shore on what is today Parris Island, South Carolina.
To the Frenchmen’s relief, the reception was civil, even though no real communication was possible. The chief sat erect with an air of authority on green palmetto and magnolia leaves while he ordered his men to lay out a plume of red egret feathers, a basket made from palm fiber and a great skin with vivid paintings portraying various wild beasts.
In return, the captain Jean Ribault presented silver-plated bracelets, a sickle, a mirror and some knives. The friendly dealings with the local tribes would prove invaluable and one of their only good fortunes.
Following the stiff greeting, Ribault erected a stone pillar at the mouth of the St. John’s River in honor of his French king and made his formal claim for the land for France.
Ribault was a young naval explorer and devout Christian, hand-picked by the financier Gaspard de Coligny, to lead the soldiers in the dangerous endeavor across the Atlantic.
But despite his recent arrival, Ribault was eager to leave immediately to procure reinforcements for the colony and report. He chose 28 men to stay behind and maintain the French claim on the land. The men pleaded that Ribault stay just long enough to assist them build a proper fort. He acquiesced and together they established Charlesfort, named in honor of the young king Charles IX.
Ribault wasted no time in heading back to France, but had no idea his time would have been better spent governing the colony back in America than facing the chaos at home.
The wars of religion were in full swing. Ribault returned to his northern coastal hometown Dieppe and was immediately a perfect target for persecution. He fled over the English Channel where he thought he would gain refuge from a religiously sympathetic Queen Elizabeth.
He had assumed wrong. Suspected of being a traitor, Elizabeth had officials throw him into the Tower of London. And he now had to patiently await his fate.
To make matters worse, his supporter Coligny had his own problems and was preoccupied with the factions and massacres taking place in France.
Meanwhile, back in the Americas, the colony was floundering pitifully.
Ribault had left an Albert de la Pierria in command. And from the surviving accounts, he enjoyed his power trip. But popularity was not his strong suit. The colonists saw him as a ruthless tyrant and waited hopeful for Ribault’s return.
In one instance, Pierria hung a popular drummer for insufficient reasons. He also banished a soldier to the wilderness and failed to keep his promise to send food every eight days. The offense had been minor according to popular consensus. Pierria vowed he would not keep his promise to send food and, on the contrary, would be glad to hear of the soldier’s death.
Afraid of the same fate, the soldiers planned a mutiny and decided to kill Pierria.
French history accounts do not make excuses for the colonists nor give justification for the reasons. Historians have merely mused whether the act was one of self-preservation or a ghastly murder.
But chaos was certainly the prevailing mood.
From every angle the colonists’ future was bleak. They were living in a rudely constructed fort with dwindling supplies, borrowing what they could from neighboring tribes. They had not heard from Ribault for a year.
Even though there was no boat craftsman among them, they decided it would be better to die trying to build a return vessel than continue living in the colony. They received rope from two neighboring Indian chiefs and used moss to caulk the boat and pine bark to cover the frame. The sails were sewn from shirts and bedclothes.
But then the real problem arose. The seas were calm, and after three weeks they had only advanced 25 leagues.
Supplies ran out and the men were starving, eating only 12 grains a day, the equivalent of 12 peas. Next they resorted to eating shoes and leather jackets. For fluids they resorted to drinking sea water and urine.
Next a violent wind destroyed some of the vessel’s siding and the boat began to fill with water. All prepared to perish until one sailor rallied spirits and assured them they had only a short distance to go. With momentary hope they devised a desperate proposition to sustain them until they could reach land.
They decided it would be better for one to die than that all should perish. And so they executed Lachere, the same man who Pierria had banished back at the fort. The French soldier Laudonierre records that: “his [Lachere's] flesh was equally divided among his companions, a thing so pitiful to recite that my pen is loath to write about it.”
Following the execution and cannibalism, the account continues that God sought fit to have Englishmen in a rowboat happen upon the vessel, providing them with sustenance.
Once back in France, several of them were thrown into prison for the mutiny and murder of Pierria. Some considered the prison a better fate than the barbaric new world life.
It looked as though the miserable failure of the colony would prove a discouragement to future endeavors, but Coligny was not convinced. There had been no proper spiritual or military guidance. He planned a second venture, but since Ribault was still in chains awaiting a negotiation, he put a young, enthusiast captain Rene Laudonniere in charge.
Laudonniere had accompanied Ribault on the first voyage and the return for reinforcements.
This time Coligny commissioned three ships with about 300 Huguenots. Women, children, artisans and tradesmen were included in the numbers as well as soldiers. Even an artist named Le Moyne accompanied the journey, sketching the area’s flora and fauna and later a coastal map outlining Florida. It was 1564.
A second start required a second location, and instead of setting camp at the previous Charlesfort location, he returned to the original landing place at the mouth of the St. John’s River. Fort Caroline was established.
Laudonniere’s diary became one of the few records of the accounts that followed.
It was clear he wanted to set a good beginning to the start of the second colonization: “The next morning at daybreak I ordered a trumpet to sound so that we could assemble and give thanks to God for our favorable and happy arrival. We sang songs of thanksgiving to God and prayed that it would please Him of His holy grace to continue His accustomed goodness toward us, his poor servants, and to give us aid in all our enterprises so that all might redound to His great glory and to the advancement of our king.”
But the second settlement was hardly the idyllic colony Laudonniere had envisioned. He found himself vowing allegiances to various tribes at war, which resulted in captures and convoluted diplomacy.
While the tribe disagreements began to climax, a man of their company, Roquette, claimed that he was a great magician and had discovered a mine of precious metals farther up the river.
Laudonniere records that after his refusal to search for the gold, the men planned a mutiny against him, first trying to poison him and then placing a keg of gunpowder in his tent in order to kill him.
After tracking down the mutineers, he had four of the leaders hung to show an example to the rest of the colony. The account echoed similarities with the first trip, only this time, Laudonniere’s story survived.
Meanwhile back in France, Ribault, finally released from prison, outfitted several ships with the help of Coligny and set sail with soldiers to give more reinforcements.
His reception with Laudonniere was icy, with Laudonniere concerned that Ribault had come to usurp leadership. Reports had been circling that Laudonniere had played king and abused his authority. But Ribault assured him they could both dwell peacefully together and had no attention of taking over the fort.
At the time the Spanish king, aware of the French presence and Ribault’s recent arrival along the Florida coast, felt the timing was right to remove the Huguenots from the area. He chose Captain Pedro Menendez Marques to do the job.
It was a cloudy night in late September when the Spanish crept up to the temporary camp. One of the Fort Caroline mutineers had led the Spanish to the fort. Laudonniere records that they were taken by surprise and they eventually fled in defense. Only a handful survived the attack, and three or four were seriously wounded.
The men spent the night hiding in rivers and eventually joined Ribault’s company farther north. The second colonization attempt had failed, and they prepared to sail back in two vessels. Laudonniere embarked immediately, while Ribault chose to map the coastal area of Florida before his return.
But his attempt to map the coast turned out to be an unfavorable choice. A bad turn of weather left them shipwrecked near a Spanish settlement where they were soon captured. Ribault, his lieutenant D’Ottigny, and Laudonniere’s lieutenant were tied up and led to the nearby Spanish fort, where they assumed they would die.
Ribault insisted on seeing the Spanish governor, but his request was ignored. The commanding officer asked Ribault if he expected his soldiers to obey Ribault’s commands. The French captain replied, “Yes.”
The Spaniard said, “I propose to obey the orders of my commander also. … I’m ordered to kill you.” And with that he thrust a dagger into Ribault’s breast and then killed D’Ottigny in the same way.
The Spanish soldiers were told to kill the rest of the men with Ribault by knocking them in the head with axes and clubs all the while calling them Lutherans and enemies to God and the Virgin Mary. All were killed except a drummer from Dieppe named Dronet, a fifer and a fiddler named Masselin, who was kept alive to play for dancing. The Protestant account of the attack was relayed by a Dieppe sailor, one of the lone survivors of the incident at the Spanish fort, his account recorded by Le Moyne.
Le Moyne records, “[The soldier] was among those who were pinioned for slaughter, and was knocked in the head with the rest, but, instead of being killed, was only stunned; and the three others with whom he was tied falling above him, he was left for dead along with them. The Spaniards got together a great pile of wood to burn the corpses; but, as it grew late, they put it off until the next day. The sailor, coming to his sense among the dead in the night, bethought himself of a knife which he wore in a wooden sheath, and contrived to work himself about until little by little he cut the ropes which bound him.”
After escaping he became a slave for a year at the Spanish settlement Fort Augustine before escaping and boarding a English vessel and finding his way back to France.