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Spanish archives put first St. Augustine in Georgia

The South Atlantic Coast is rich with 16th & 17th century history.
The South Atlantic Coast is rich with 16th & 17th century history.
Richard Thornton from ERSI satellite image

The National Trust for Historic Preservation meets in Savannah, GA in November of 2014. The timing could not be better. A Spanish colonial document also places Fort Caroline at the approximate latitude as proposed by a Native American research team in late 2013. The testimony of a French survivor of Fort Caroline stated that Captain Jean Ribault was executed at Fort Caroline in Georgia, not in Florida. America's Early Colonial History is undergoing major changes.

Generations of Florida school children were taught that the first attempt by France to establish a colony in North America was in present day Jacksonville and that for a short time Florida was claimed by France. They knew for a fact that St. Augustine was founded by Spain on September 8, 1565 on the coast of Florida. Twenty days later French Captain Jean Ribault and the survivors of his ship-wrecked fleet were brutally executed on a beach south of St. Augustine. The Native American people of northeastern Florida called themselves the Timucua. It turns out that none of those absolute facts of had any basis in the colonial archives of France and Spain. All four stories were presumptions of early Anglo-American settlers in mid-19th century Florida that became unquestionable facts in by the late 20th century.

The present day State of Florida was never within the boundaries of Florida Française (French Florida.) The southern boundary of France's claim was always the St. Marys River, which today separates Florida from Georgia. This fact was never mentioned at a conference on the French history of the Southeast at Florida State University on the week of February 20, 2014. FSU's Winthrop-King Institute for Contemporary French and Francophone Studies sponsored this conference. Several university professors gave presentations, which expressed pride in Florida's ancient ties to France.

Part of the problem is that some academicians in Florida have altered the wording of the original French and Spanish texts to make Jacksonville the obvious location of Fort Caroline and St. Augustine the original location of the first Spanish colony. However, this is not always the case. The University of Florida Yonge Library web site, “Primary Sources – Spanish Colonial St. Augustine,” correctly translates a September 8, 1564 letter from Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to the King of Spain that states the original location of St. Augustine to be at about 30 ½ degrees latitude, which is the location of the mouth of the Satilla River in Georgia and the northern tip of Cumberland Island, GA. However, many other teaching resources and tourist brochures in Florida have changed that to 29 ½ degrees to match St. Augustine’s latitude. Here is a translation of a portion of the original letter.

"The port where we were able to disembark was eight leagues from its (Fort Caroline’s) sea port, and six leagues by land. I found a port that had been recognized before. “

“This was on the Feast Day of Saint Augustine. We were at thirty and a half degrees (latitude) approximately. At six o’clock we disembarked two hundred soldiers. At seven o’clock, three small ships came with another three hundred (soldiers) who were married with wives and children. We then unloaded more of the artillery and ammunition. "

In 1565, one Spanish nautical league equaled 3.46 miles. Therefore, six nautical leagues would equal 20.76 miles. The actual distance from the original site of San Augustine to the footprints of fortifications on the South Channel of the Altamaha River that was published in the December 23, 2013 edition of the Examiner, is 21.1 miles.

A mutiny by the garrison at San Agostin, Numero Uno, plus repeated attacks by neighboring Native tribes forced the Spanish to relocate San Agostin southward to its present location on May 18, 1566. The men mutinied because they were killed whenever they stepped too far from the safety of the fort. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés had repeatedly sent letters to the King of Spain that bragged about his friendly relations with Georgia's Native Americans. This is why the relocation of St. Augustine was somewhat concealed from future official Spanish documents.

Repeated scorched earth campaigns by the Spanish military on the coast of Georgia would be required for the powerful Native provinces that befriended the French Protestants at Fort Caroline to be beaten down sufficiently to accept the presence of a chain of Franciscan missions in the early 1600s. By 1685, the indigenous people of the Georgia coast had been made virtually extinct by the presence of the Spaniards. There were few eyewitnesses left to tell the truth about Spanish acts of genocide.

The Fort Caroline massacre

A night time surprise attack on Fort Caroline on September 20, 1565, when there were only 10 soldiers, allowed the Spanish to massacre most of its civilian inhabitants. Over half of the 900 French soldiers, who would have probably defeated the Spanish in an open battle, were killed when their ships were wrecked in a hurricane off the coast of Georgia. The survivors came to shore then walked northward back to Fort Caroline and surrendered. They assumed that since they were unarmed, they would treated in accordance with European chivalric traditions. Instead, they were immediately executed.

Here is what tells Florida students: “On September 28, word reached Menéndez that Timucua natives had sighted a large body of French soldiers and sailors stranded at an inlet to the south. With fifty of his own men, Menéndez confronted the 215 castaways the next day, informing them that he had captured their home base, and demanding their surrender. On October 12, at the same spot, he accepted the surrender of 150 more stranded combatants. To both groups he made no promises as to how exactly they would be treated. In each case the men were brought across the inlet in groups of ten by a Spanish longboat and, after their hands were bound, they were marched behind the sand dunes and summarily executed by sword and dagger. “

The actual story is quite different and was translated into English in 1874 by a Boston publisher. It was told by one of the few shipwrecked Frenchmen who survived the massacre. The sailor from Dieppe, France stated:

Prayers having then been offered, it was decided to set out for the fort, from which they were about fifty miles away. In this march they must unquestionably have undergone great hardships, and made great exertions; for the region through which they had to travel was much intersected by rivers, and was neither inhabited by the Indians, nor cultivated at all; so that they had to live on roots and herbs, and were sufficiently anxious in their minds. Having, however, courageously made their way through all obstacles, they finally reached a point some four or five miles, as well as the soldiers from Laudonnière's force could judge, from the fort. Ribault now determined not to advance any nearer, but called a council to deliberate on what should be done. The conclusion was, to send Vasseur, a skilful seaman, and who knew all the branches of the River of May, with five or six men, in an Indian canoe, to reconnoiter, and ascertain something about the Frenchmen who had been left in the fort. Upon going down the river to the neighborhood of the fort,' he saw the Spanish flag flying over it; and, returning without being observed by the garrison, he made report to Ribault.”

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés made an oath over a cross and sacred Catholic relics in front of the French surrender delegation. He then signed a formal surrender document, which stated that Captain Jean Ribault and his party would not be harmed, if they surrendered peacefully. It was carried back to Jean Ribault, who signed it. Immediately after the Frenchmen walked up to Fort Caroline and surrendered, groups of four were pinioned together, not ten as is the Florida version. Ribault and his lieutenant were immediately killed by daggers thrusts in their chests. The other castaways, with the exception of some teenage musicians, were clubbed to death. The lone survivor feigned death until night then crept away. All the dead Frenchmen were cremated on stacks of timber as was Spanish tradition for pirates. The same disposal method was used by Generalissimo Santa Anna at the Alamo.

On October 14, 150 more French Protestant castaways surrendered to the Spanish and were likewise, put to the sword, unless they converted to Catholicism. Florida histories say that Ribault was killed in this batch. Given the time span, their deaths may have occurred in the vicinity of present day St. Augustine, Florida. This might explain the confusion toward the town's original location and stories of a massacre at Matazas Inlet, south of St. Augustine.

Will the real Timucua Indians please stand up?

A legion of books about the “Timucua Indians” of Florida have been published in recent decades. No Indian tribe ever called itself the Timucua. That is a word that the Spanish contrived from the word “Tamakoa” to label an administrative district in northeastern Florida. Tamakoa was an Arawak word for the Tama-tli, a hybrid Muskogean-Mesoamerican people, who occupied the interior of southeastern Georgia. Spanish Conquistador, Hernando de Soto, passed through their capital of Tama in the spring of 1540. Tama means “trade” in Itsate Creek, Itza Maya and Totonac. Both Tama-tli and Tamakoa mean “Tama People.” These ancestors of the Creek Indians apparently were chronic enemies of the Native people on the coast, who spoke dialects of the Tupi and Arawak languages.

There was a tribe living about 21 miles upstream on the Altamaha River from Fort Caroline that its commander, René de Laudonniére, called the Thamacoggin. Apparently, these people were hybrids of both the coastal peoples and the Tama-tli. By the mid-1700s the Thamacoggin Indians were living along the headwaters of the Altamaha-Oconee River system near the mountains of Northeast Georgia. Their principal village became the county seat of Jackson County, GA. Its original name was Thomacoggin, but was eventually changed to Jefferson.

There is great irony in the radical changes now being revealed in the United States’ Colonial Era history. For over 500 years, the Southeast’s indigenous peoples have endured conquistadors, Catholic priests, politicians, historians, Protestant missionaries, anthropologists, archaeologists and New Agers telling them what their history was. Now Native American scholars are turning the newcomer’s history, quite upside down . . . well, actually moving the history 68 miles farther north.

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