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Charlesfort (1562 AD) - Parris Island, South Carolina

Soldiers at Charlesfort test a cannon on the fort's bastion.
Soldiers at Charlesfort test a cannon on the fort's bastion.
VR image by Richard Thornton

It was the first French settlement in the New World!

The U.S. Marine Base at Parris Island, SC had a well-deserved reputation for turning boys and girls into men and women. What is little known among the general public, however, is that this tradition goes back to 1562. Had not a hurricane struck northern Florida in 1565 (at just the wrong time for the French and the right time for the Spanish) it is quite likely that all of North America would be composed of French-speaking nations this day.

Since the 1980s, archaeologists with the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology have been excavating several important sites on Parris Island, with the full cooperation of the U.S. Marine Corps. The Marine Corp operates the Parris Island Museum, which is open to the general public. The museum contains exhibits that explain the Marines’ activities on the island since 1895, plus others that describe the French, Spanish and English colonists, who settled the island. The sites of the French fort, Spanish forts and Spanish town of Santa Elena together have been designated a National Historic Landmark.

Why Parris Island?

We go back a little earlier in history in Europe. The Guttenberg printing process had spawned an intellectual and religious revolution in Europe. The Protestant Reformation had started in Moravia and Hungary, the spread westward and northward into Germany, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, France, England and Scotland. The religious turmoil was quickly politicized by nobility and leaders of cities. Some saw the new religious ideas as a threat to the status quo. Others saw them as an opportunity to disperse power to the cities and minor nobility. Suppression of the followers of Luther in Germany quickly turned into wars between member states of the Holy Roman Empire.

In France, the Protestant ideas appealed most to the emerging middle class and nobility living in southern and northeastern provinces. Those at the top of hierarchy and in general, people living near Paris, preferred that the church stay the way it was. Until official suppression and wars broke out, the majority of French Protestants merely wanted to reform the church from within, not create a new church.

After being crowned king of France in 1560, Charles IX desperately tried to end the fratricide occurring in his nation between the Catholic and Protestant forces. He was nominally Roman Catholic, but thought that diplomacy and compromise could bring peace to his realm. Some of his most talented generals, admirals and businessmen were Protestant. France needed the skills of its Protestant middle class to compete on the emerging world market of mercantilism. France did NOT need to become another Germany and be torn apart by civil war.

During the reign of his father Henri II, France had seemed at the verge of becoming Protestant. Then the Spanish Empire entered into the fray. Its battle hardened soldiers pushed the Protestants into southern and northeastern France. England and the United Provinces (Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg) entered France on behalf of the Protestants. France devolved into chaos. The primary means of discouraging membership in Protestant congregations used by the Spanish and their French allies, was either killing Huguenots with their swords on the streets or else burning them at the stake in public ceremonies. In the eyes of Roman Catholic Church one of the most serious crimes was the printing and selling of Bibles. Medieval French laws only allowed the clergy and upper nobility to own and read Bibles. Bible publishers were typically burned at the stake in town squares along with their Bibles.

The publicized killing of Huguenots worked. Thousands of French Protestants would return to the Catholic Church after each round of atrocities. Of course, this approach also caused the surviving Huguenots to form armies and to actively seek a separate church for their believers and political reforms in their governments.

After Charles IX successfully negotiated a truce between the factions in 1561, one of his most trusted advisors, Protestant Admiral Gaspard de Coligny directed one his most trusted naval captains, Jean Ribault, to establish colonies in the New World for France, and in particular, for French Huguenots. The plan of the Huguenots was to relocate French citizens to the New World from regions of France that were suffering from Spanish and pro-Catholic attacks. They envisioned France as a confederacy like Switzerland. Some provinces would be Catholic. Some would be Protestant; while others would be tolerant of both.

Ribault’s ship first landed near modern-day Jacksonville, FL in February of 1562. When the weather warmed he sailed north to Port Royal Sound. Ribault viewed Port Royale as the future capital of Florida Francaise or Nouvelle France. It had an outstanding harbor that was immediately west of where the Gulf Stream shifts to flow toward Europe. French seamen and soldiers built a small fort on an island in the harbor, which was name Charlesfort in honor of the king. Ribault left 28 men to garrison the fort, while he returned to France to lead a mass exodus of Huguenots to the New World.

Ribault was arrested and imprisoned in England. while buying supplies for the new French colony. England, itself, was in turmoil because Protestant Queen Elizabeth had just replaced, Catholic Queen Mary. There were numerous plots to assassinate Elizabeth or make loyal Protestants appear to be against the Queen. This is probably what happened to Ribault.

Meanwhile the 28 men of Charlesfort were starving. Like every other colonization effort of the era, Ribault had failed to include professional fishermen and farmers to supply food for the garrison. Port Royal Sound abounded in aquatic wildlife, but the men did not know how to obtain sufficient quantities of seafood. Their first structure, shown in the attached computer images, burned. When the hungry Frenchmen tried to trade or steal food from nearby Native American tribes, their neighbors became hostile. They also mutinied and killed the fort’s commander, Captain Albert, because of his harsh discipline.

The main building of the fort was eventually reconstructed, but lacking supplies or hope of reinforcement from Ribault the garrison built an open boat. They had been on the island and the only Europeans living in North America for one year. The garrison did include skilled carpenters, fortunately. Without a compass, all but one member of the garrison sailed across the Atlantic until being rescued by an English vessel near Ireland. Prior to being rescued, they had resorted to cannibalism in order to survive.

Later in 1563, a Spanish fleet discovered the fort and the one remaining member of the garrison. The fort was burned. Ribault was finally freed from an English prison in 1564, then immediately returned with fleet carrying supplies and many new colonists. After finding Charelsfort destroyed, he decided to establish a new colony on the May (St. Johns) River in what is now the State of Florida. The Spanish established the Colony of Santa Elena on Parris Island in 1565. That colony will be discussed in a future article.

The Fort

The computer-generated virtual reality images of Charlesfort accompany this article are the first ever drawings of the structure. They were created by the author from a painting made by Jacques Le Moyne, an artist who accompanied Jean Rebault on his second expedition; information in the nomination of the site as a National Historic Landmark; and from reports published by the SC Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology. The images will be included in a book the author is writing on the architecture of the early French, Spanish and English colonies in Canada and the United States. Numerous books and web sites label Le Moyne’s sketch of the construction of Fort Carolina as being that of Charlesfort. However, the physical environments of the two forts were quite different.

France did not have a national flag until the French Revolution. Beginning in 1562, the Huguenots started using their own flag in battles. French colonies during the 1600s and 1700s typically flew a white banner with three fleur-de-lis. Jacques Le Moyne's painting of Fort Caroline shows a royal blue banner with gold fleur-de-lis. Even though it is known that Jean Ribault flew both the king's royal standard and the Huguenot flag from his ships, the author elected to show only the royal standard flying over Charlesfort. However, a illustration of the Huguenot flag is presented in the slide show.

Charlesfort was a triangular infantry fort that was quite similar to what was being erected as temporary fortifications in the religious wars of Germany and France. Its walls were composed of heavy wood planks that were reinforced by “wishbone-shaped” wooden braces that allowed the walls to bend when struck by cannon balls, but not fall over. On each corner of the fort were diamond-shaped bastions, which were raised earthen platforms for the mounting of light artillery. Measuring from the center points of the bastions, the sides of fort were roughly 200 feet long. Archaeologists have found a shallow 2.5 feet deep by 7.5 feet wide trench in front of the walls of the fort.

The fortification is currently believed to have contained only one significant structure; a wood-framed 14 feet by 40 feet garrison house, constructed out of waddle & daub. A similar structure was built at Ribault’s Fort Carolina on the St. John’s River. It was portrayed in de Bry’s painting had a thatched roof and small windows.

SCAIA archaeologists found two pits on the east side of the garrison house, which they labeled wells. It is more likely that one pit was a well, while the other was an outhouse. The French were renowned for their architecture and engineering. They certainly would not have overlooked the sanitary needs of the garrison. The painting by Le Moyne shows the triangular Fort Caroline having a bee-hive shaped cooking oven or pottery kiln just outside the gate. Although archaeologists have not identified such a structure yet for Charlesfort, it probably did exist and was in a similar location to the one at Fort Caroline.

The Spanish built a fortification on top of Charlesfort later in that decade. It was named Fuerza San Filipe. The author has obtained a Spanish officer’s plans for the fort. They will be converted into a virtual reality model and presented to the Examiner readership when ready.


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