//by Ron Whittington
Weather has been pivotal in many military engagements, from Valley Forge to the endless plains of western Russia.
The same holds true for the early colo- nization of Florida, when four ships flying the French flag under Jean Ribault were scuttled by a bad storm in 1565 and eventually went aground or sank—giving a victory to the Spanish, who were then free to occupy Florida unchallenged.
“Whether it was a hurricane or a bad nor’easter that got them, we don’t know,” says Chuck Meide, director of the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum’s Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP). “But we do know that if these French ships hadn’t been hit by the storm, the entire history of the First Coast, and that of our country, would be dramatically different.”
The loss of Ribault’s French Fleet, and subsequent massacre of surrendering French survivors by Spanish forces, meant the end of the French Colony at Fort Caroline and Spain’s establishment of the first permanent settlement in the New World.
Over the last two months, Meide was among a team of 10 archaeologists on an expedition to find Ribault’s lost fleet.
“It’s appropriate timing, since we just had the 450th anniversary of the French in Jacksonville, followed by the 450th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, so it’s something that’s on people’s minds and I’m glad we were able to make it a reality,” Meide says.
The French had tried and failed to establish a colony in South Carolina in 1562 before turning their eyes south to Florida, where they founded Fort Caroline in 1564. Ribault, who had been recently freed from imprisonment at the Tower of London and returned to France, was put in command of seven-ship fleet by France’s King Charles IX.
“Ribault brought about 1,000 colonists with him to seal the deal, but Spain knew all about the plan,” Meide says. “There were spies in the French Court who leaked out a lot of details—what Ribault looked like (about 40 years old with a red beard), the number of ships leaving and when. It’s information that’s helped us as archeologists in trying to piece together what happened.”
Spain’s King Philip sent his best man, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, to intercept Ribault. Menendez had developed and commanded the treasure fleet, an annual convoy between Spain and its territories in the Caribbean, and was very familiar with the ocean crossing.
“Not many people know that Ribault and Menendez had met in battle before,” Meide notes. “In 1557, Ribault had out-maneuvered the Spanish to keep the French supply lines open just off the French Port City of Calais. But Ribault didn’t fare as well the second time they met.”
The Spanish and French fleets left out of Europe virtually simultaneously in their race to the Florida coast, but Menendez arrived about two days after the French.
“When the Spanish arrived, they began to taunt the French and it went back and forth before the French fired and cut anchor near the St. Johns River,” Meide says. “The Spanish ships had sustained damage to their riggings during the voyage and couldn’t give chase, so Menendez went south to off-load troops and set up a fort.”
That first Spanish settlement, a fortified Indian Council House, was located where the Fountain of Youth attraction is in St. Augustine today—a site confirmed by excava- tions conducted by the University of Florida.
Three days after their first clash, Ribault launched a preemptive strike against the Spanish before they could fully entrench themselves—taking nearly all his men and four of his largest ships to attack St. Augustine.
When the French fleet arrived, Menendez was off-shore shuttling cargo and caught out- side a sand bar. Miraculously, he sailed his ship across the sandbar and into the St. Augustine inlet to escape capture. However, his 900-ton flagship was too heavily laden to make it into the inlet, so Menendez sent the half-unloaded ship back to Haiti. The French fleet, locked out of the inlet by the sand bar, sailed south to attack the Spanish flagship. It was September 12, 1565 when the weather turned against French. The storm made it impossible for the ships to get out into deeper water, driving all four of the French ships into the shore. Three of the ships went down first, and the flagship, the 32-gun Trinité, wrecked further south along the coast.
Most of the survivors, predominantly Protestant Huguenots seen as religious heretics by the Spanish, were put to the sword at Matanzas Inlet, along with Ribault, after they marched north to surrender. But some of the French, fearing sure death from the Spanish, may have remained to the south.
Based on the findings of amateur archeologist Douglas Armstrong in the early 1970s, Meide and his group hope to find the remnants of survivor camps along the Cape Canaveral National Seashore—which will also confirm where the first group of ships went aground. When Armstrong was scouring the seashore before it became a national park, he found metal objects—including French coins dated from the 1550s and, more importantly, metal spikes.
“He did some very good work, despite not ‘officially’ being an archeologist,” says LAMP archaeologist Bredan Burke. “Many times, we stand the shoulders of people like Armstrong in making major discoveries.”
The expedition is funded and supported by partnerships between LAMP, the National Park Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the State of Florida, the Institute of Maritime History, and the Center for Historical Archaeology.
“We have done extensive research and exhibits on a number of area shipwrecks, but this one really tells the origin story of St. Augustine,” says Kathy Fleming, executive director of the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum.
“These are the oldest shipwrecks in North America, so to discover them would be exciting and intensively interesting,” Burke says. “It’s like hunting. We’re sometimes hunting for squirrels, but we’re going after lions right now.”
If discovered, the find would represent one of the most important shipwreck sites ever discovered in U.S. waters—and the oldest French vessels ever discovered anywhere in the New World.
“We’re assuming that the campsites are in the immediate vicinity of the shipwrecks, where the survivors would want to be to get things off the ships to use for tools and trad- ing,” Meide says. “That’s our gamble. And maybe some of the survivors just stayed there.’ Those survivors may be lost to history, but not to archeology.”