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What Fort Caroline actually looked like

The rudimentary wood architecture of Fort Caroline was constructed quickly.
The rudimentary wood architecture of Fort Caroline was constructed quickly.
© 2014 Richard L. Thornton, Registered Architect

Fort Caroline was constructed in 1564 by French Huguenot colonists on the Altamaha River on the Georgia coast. Late 16th century paintings portrayed the large fort as a quaint French village surrounded by fir trees and towering mountains. That it was not!

For 370 years all French, Spanish, Dutch and British maps showed Fort Caroline to be located on the South Channel of the river in Georgia now called the Altamaha. The French always called this river,” rivière de Mai” . . . the May River. French Huguenots traditionally viewed the coast of Georgia and South Carolina as Florida Francoise. Early settlers on the coast of Georgia always labeled earthen ruins immediately west of Six Mile Creek in Glynn County, “the old French or Spanish fort.” Botanist William Bartram visited and described those ruins in 1776 then time marched onward.

Then, in the 1930s, economic leaders in Jacksonville, FL decided that they needed a tourist attraction to draw out-of-state tourists off of Highway One. They decided that the French Huguenots actually try to colonize the Florida Peninsula and that Fort Caroline was really in or near Jacksonville. They just didn’t know where. They purchased land as the site of Fort Caroline and gave it to the federal government in 1951 to create the Fort Caroline National Monument. The site turned out to have no evidence of either a French or Spanish occupation. In fact, in the 70 years since then archaeologists have repeatedly searched the St. Johns River Basin, but not found a shred of evidence that 16th century French colonists lived there. In 1962 a scaled down version of Fort Caroline was built on the vacant tract, so tourists would have something to look at. A slam-dunk was done on American history. For many years, French Huguenots have held ceremonies at the fake Fort Caroline, thinking that it was the real thing.

In December of 2013 the area of the Altamaha River Basin, where all French maps said Fort Caroline was located, was thoroughly studied with satellite maps. The footprints of two forts were found exactly where Bartram said he visited ruins. One was a triangle like Fort Caroline. The other was a tetragon like Spanish Fort San Mateo, built around 1566 or 1567. The location matches in every detail the descriptions of Fort Caroline by its planner and commander, Captain René de Laudonnière. If that is not enough evidence, the triangle is oriented to the cardinal directions exactly as the De Laudonnière stated in his memoir.

The triangular footprint provides the one last piece of information necessary to create a conceptual plan of Fort Caroline. De Laudonnière provided much information about the buildings in the fort, but never told readers its dimensions. What he did say was that he located it near a large fresh water creek because by the autumn of 1565, Fort Caroline would become a town of at least 600 people, most of whom would be French Huguenots.

The triangular footprint of the fort's architecture is an isosceles triangle pointed toward Altamaha Bay. The height of the triangle is a little over 1000 feet. The base of the triangle is about 850 feet. From the perspective of military architecture, the site plan was brilliant. Iron balls fired from long range cannon in the bay would have bounced off the obtuse angles of the fort. That wouldn’t have been a problem on the St. Johns River. It was too shallow for sea-going vessels until the 1850s, when the Corps of Engineers dredged a channel through its incredibly shallow mouth.

The location of the fort was described by De Laudonnière as being about 5-6 French leagues (11 miles) from the ocean, as a crow flies. Tidal elevation changes were less noticeable at the site than closer to the ocean. Also, the water had less brine in it. The fort was near a large freshwater creek, which was of sufficient depth that small boats and barks could be docked there. The triangular footprint is 10.8 miles west of the Altamaha’s juncture with the Atlantic Ocean.

René de Laudonnière never provided specific dimensions of the fortification. He only stated that it was triangular and contained raised earthen bastions on each apex. The three sides of the fort were tilted off a true north-south axis, but approximately were oriented southwest, southeast and north.

Theodor de Bry was a Protestant, but never saw Fort Caroline. The wife of his French Huguenot friend, Jacques Le Moyne, supposedly gave him the sketches of Fort Caroline after her husband's death. Le Moyne did live at Fort Caroline.

On Theodor de Bry’s drawing, the entrance was shown on the southwest face. Its architecture is very elaborate. Drawings by other artists show the gate on the southeast face. De Laudonnière’s text specifically mentions a gate on the west side being constructed. The southeast side was protected by the large freshwater creek. The north side faced the river. A small moat was dug on the southwest side, which was most exposed to land attack. Additional timbers reinforced the wall facing the river.

The cores of the walls were constructed with gabions. These were cylindrical baskets woven from saplings and filled with earth. The earth came from moats that were excavated around the periphery. The gibbons were coated with packed earth and squares of turf. The veneers of the walls were sheaved with heavy sawn timbers. The timber walls extended about 4 1/2 feet above the earthen ramparts. The wall on the exposed river frontage was reinforced by heavy timber springs, which would absorb the shock of musket balls and small caliber cannon balls.

Notice the earthen parapet that rings the entire fort. It was about four feet above the grade of the fort’s interior. This was known to 16th century English soldiers as a “step down.” Matchlock arquebuses were difficult to load and extremely dangerous when loaded. The gun powder was ignited by a lit fuse attached to the arquebus’s wood stock. If the soldier was not careful, or if the wind was blowing, sparks from the burning fuse could ignite the powder in the pan before the weapon was aimed. This happened often in the chaos of battle. The purpose of the step-down was to remove the soldier from the exposure to enemy fire while he loaded, and also separate him from other soldiers firing from on top of the parapet.

The buildings constructed by the Fort Caroline colonists were not the quaint “French village” structures with wood shingles and chimneys, portrayed in paintings. The architecture was much more rudimentary. Their construction was more akin to a barn. Green timbers were quickly shaped into posts, beams and rafters. The walls were sheaved with split boards. The roofing was actually applied by nearby, friendly Native Americans. The thatching was composed of palmetto fronds, not shingles. There were no chimneys. De Laudonnière forbade cooking fires within the fort. All cooking was done in an outdoor kitchen outside the walls, so that sparks would not ignite the thatched roofs. That would have been a problem during a long siege.

A barn for storing munitions was built on the south bastion after the initial construction of earthen walls was completed. A central plaza about 60 feet square was laid out in the center. De Laudonnière ordered a storehouse built on the east side of the plaza. On the west side a house and office for the Captain of the Guard was constructed.

On the south side of the plaza a large, two story block house was constructed. The first one was too tall. It blew over in a storm. A shorter guardhouse was then constructed.

De Laudonnière’s house was built on the north side of the plaza nearest the river. His house had a continuous veranda on all sides. European paintings portray his house as a quaint, two story Gascony villa. It was essentially a bungalow with a loft space under the gable. For unknown reasons, a lieutenant at Fort Caroline elected to build his house some distance away from the fort. Unfortunately, that house was in the meadow from which the Spanish attacked Fort Caroline on the evening of September 20, 1565. The lieutenant was undoubtedly the first member of the garrison to die that night.

De Laudonnière said nothing about the houses of the regular colonists. They houses or huts are portrayed on all the European paintings as tiny one-room structures. Their architecture may have resembled Native American houses.

The irony of it all

Georgia state officials saw the folks in Jacksonville developing a heritage tourist attraction in the 1940s and so decided to jump into the bandwagon. It is still not understood why no history professor at the University of Georgia or architecture professor at Georgia Tech didn’t cry “foul ball” when Jacksonville absconded with Fort Caroline. Instead Georgia historians decided that the legend of a French or Spanish fort at that location really applied to some tabby ruins about 1.25 miles to south. The state government purchased a broad swath of land that was formerly occupied by the architecture of a Colonial Era plantation. The tract ran all the way north to the South Channel of the Altamaha River.

The new facility was named Santo Domingo State Park after the Santo Domingo de Talaxe Mission of the 1600s. The plan was to build a replica of the 17th century mission in order to lure out-of-state tourists from Highway One, who were on their way to visit the site of Fort Caroline in Jacksonville, and the authentic Spanish Colonial structures in St. Augustine.

Then archaeologists took a look at the tabby ruins and determined that the tabby architecture belonged to the middle or late 1700s, not the early 1600s. The archaeologists advised the governor that there was little of historical significance on the tract. The archaeologists apparently never investigated the earthen structure adjacent to the river, or assumed that that they were somehow connected with sugar cane or rice cultivation. A state-owned orphanage was constructed on the portion of the massive plantation near the tabby ruins.

Then the State of Georgia decided that it wanted to get out of the orphanage business. The massive tract was deeded over to the Georgia Southern Baptist Convention to be continued as an orphanage. Nowadays, there is little demand for orphanages. They have been replaced by foster homes.

For unknown reasons, no 20th century historian or archaeologist in either Georgia or Florida ever bothered to read “The Travels of William Bartram.” If they had, they would have known that there was something very special biding away the centuries on the waterfront of that colonial plantation.

The images above are from the book © Earthfast, the Dawn of a New World (Third Edition) and are copyrighted by Richard L. Thornton, Registered Architect.

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