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World of Fort Caroline continues to be a mystery

Fort Caroline and Fort San Mateo were built near each other in the mid-1560s.
Fort Caroline and Fort San Mateo were built near each other in the mid-1560s.
© VR Images by Richard Thornton, Registered Architect

Sixteenth and seventeenth century maps and archives show knowledge of Georgia’s mountains, while there is no mention of their exploration in American history books. The locations of several large Native towns, on or near the South Atlantic Coast, that were mentioned by the early European explorers, still have not been identified. Eyewitness accounts place Native American tribes about 85 miles farther north on the Atlantic Coast than they are shown in maps produced by 20th century historians.

Fort Caroline was the second attempt by the Kingdom of France to establish a colony in what is now the United States. A first attempt, the fortified village of Charlesbourg, was built on the St. Lawrence River in Canada in 1541. It was short-lived. Most of the men came down with scurvy and all suffered from inadequate nutrition.

A small triangular fort named Charlesfort was constructed on Parris Island, SC in 1562. It was abandoned because religious wars in France prevented supply ships from bringing more provisions. The approximately two dozen men in its garrison almost starved before building a small boat and sailing back to France. At least one of the men on this boat was eaten by the others.

Fort Caroline was constructed on a large river that the French named the May in 1564. It was a massive three sided fortification that initially held about 300 persons, but was planned to soon become a town of almost 1000 colonists when a second French fleet arrived. Jamestown, Virginia initially had 104 colonists, but only 35 survived the winter. The colonists of Fort Caroline also were in a state of near starvation. That didn’t kill them, however. Most died in the third week of September 1565; either from Spanish weapons, from being hung from nearby trees by the Spanish or in shipwrecks caused by a hurricane.

After burning Fort Caroline, the Spanish started construction of Fort San Mateo on the edge of the May River. Fort San Mateo was designed by the same engineer, who built Fort San Filipe on Parris Island, SC. Therefore, is hexagonal shape and dimensions are known. The Spanish also built two smaller forts closer to the Atlantic Ocean. One of these outer fort sites, is now being confused with Fort Caroline by some Florida researchers, and apparently, by an archaeologist employed by the State of Georgia.

Colonial era maps always showed Fort Caroline to be on the south side of the Altamaha River in Georgia, but in the latter half of the 20th century American history books said that Fort Caroline was on the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, FL. That’s another story that is told in the articles linked below.

Nothing makes any sense

In the spring of 2007, the People of One Fire research alliance began a comprehensive study of the indigenous people and early colonists of the South Atlantic coast. The anthropology profession had stopped showing intellectual curiosity toward the region long before developing a complete understanding of its past. Eyewitness accounts by 18th century visitors to the region such as William Bartram described the ruins of several large Native American towns that were missing from contemporary archaeological site files. Local residents repeatedly found indigenous and 16th century European artifacts on the South Carolina and Georgia coasts that suggested much more intensive human occupation than described in contemporary scenarios.

The indigenous languages on the South Atlantic Coast were far more numerous and complex that popular references tell the reader. They seemed to have been varying mixtures of several North American, Mesoamerican, South American and Caribbean languages, plus Medieval Irish Gaelic in one South Carolina province. Another mystery is the presence of Arawak village names in the Tennessee and North Carolina Mountains. Most of these village names can also be found on the Georgia coast, but sometimes with Creek Indian suffixes rather than Arawak.

Particularly disturbing were the eyewitness accounts of European colonists and Spanish friars, who lived on the Georgia coast in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Their statements seemed to put several Native American provinces AND Fort Caroline about 85 miles farther north on the coast than shown in the “official” history books.

During the 1890s, pioneer archaeologist Clarence Bloomfield Moore, dug into several mounds of the region. He returned to his home in Philadelphia with boxes of trophy indigenous art, but with very little additional understanding of the region’s history. Highly competent archaeologists such as Lewis Larsen, Arthur Kelly and Joseph Caldwell explored some sites in the region during the 1950s and early 1960s. However, virtually nothing was done by anthropologists to expand the indigenous cultural history of the region. This is pretty much the case throughout Georgia.

After about 1967, is was presumed that knowing the English names of pottery styles and stone artifacts was equivalent to knowing the history of the people who made them and the architecture that they built. For example, Georgia archaeologists were not even aware that the branch of Creeks living in Georgia had a Maya name and spoke many Maya words. The American Museum of Natural History excavated Mission Santa Catalina de Guale on St. Catherines Island, GA in the 1980s. Since 1990 there has been very little archaeological study of the Georgia coast. Archaeologist Fred Cook in Brunswick, GA tries to fill the gap, but has inadequate funding to carry out studies of large Native American towns.

What appears to be the case is that there were many more European expeditions into the interior of the Southeast during the 1500s and 1600s than are mentioned in contemporary history books. They began on the coast or in Virginia. A considerable number of the eyewitness accounts of these “forgotten” expeditions can be found in the books of 16th century English scholar, Richard Hakluyt, or the colonial era archives of Virginia, France and Spain. At some point after the American Revolution, academicians in the United States decided not to include discussions of these other expeditions in American history books.

Subsequent generations of academicians referenced their professors rather than going back to primary sources. The real history of North American was soon forgotten. Richard Hakluyt described Spanish traders traveling to a great town called Copal that was built of stone on the side of a Georgia Mountain. By 2012, Georgia archaeologists didn’t even know that Copal or the Kingdom of Apalache existed. Several insisted that the agricultural terraces at Track Rock Gap were locations, built by the Cherokees from North Carolina to perform ceremonial dances . . . apparently to attract tourists in the Georgia Mountains to their casino.

A typical example of this selective approach to historical research is the 1562 map of the Americas drawn by the cartographer for the King of Spain, Diego Gutiérrez. The only river in North America that is accurately described all the way to its source, and named, is the Chattahoochee River in Georgia. It is named the Rio de Juan Ponee. Juan Ponee was a real person and a Spanish explorer. Apparently, he explored the entire 500 mile long length of the Chattahoochee into the Kingdom of Apalachee long before the true shape of the Florida Peninsula was even known. You won’t find Ponee’s name in any American history book. You will have to know Spanish to learn about him.

Personal computer and internet has changed all the rules

People of One Fire researchers rely heavily on high powered computers and the internet. In all fairness to earlier researchers such as early 20th century ethnologist, John Swanton, this gives them an enormous advantage in obtaining the truths from history. Native American words can be translated online. Typing a key word into Google will provide vastly more information than several months spent at the Library of Congress during John Swanton’s era. Dozens of long forgotten eyewitness accounts and archaeological reports can be acquired and read in a day. Precise satellite images can be accessed and analyzed on the internet whereas mid-20th century archaeologists were overjoyed to get a grainy, distorted black and white photograph taken from an airplane.

The South Atlantic Native Americans Project was conceived as a comprehensive and systematic study of the region’s Native American and Early Colonial history. It will provide a “big picture” of the past in contrast to the scattered archaeological reports and obsolescent university publications now available. The research process is very much akin to the work done by planning agencies when creating a regional plan for their jurisdiction. The computer driven product will enable readers to quickly access information that has been collaborated on a regional scale.

Discovery that the ruins of Fort Caroline would be found along the Altamaha River on the Georgia coast was a spin off from the South Atlantic research. It was announced to the public in July of 2012. From then on, a group of academicians in Florida sent periodic emails that they had found the true location of Fort Caroline on the St. Johns River in Jacksonville. Those emails stopped after a November article in the Examiner, which described William Bartram’s 1773 visit to a French or Spanish fort on the Altamaha.

Earthworks that were the same shape and size of Fort Caroline and Fort San Mateo (1566) were identified with infrared and LIDAR the week after Thanksgiving, 2013. Fort Caroline is just one piece of the South Atlantic Coast puzzle. It had originally been the plan by the People of One Fire researchers to hold off announcing the discovery until the sites could be examined by archaeologists and the comprehensive report on the region, published. However, a group of Florida archaeologists were seen in a boat near the probable 16th century earthworks in December, so it was decided that an announcement should be made on the beginning of the Maya New Year, followed in two weeks by publication of the initial research report on Fort Caroline and Fort San Mateo.

Florida State University issued a press release on February 21, 2012 that two Florida professors, a historian and archaeologist, had discovered Fort Caroline on the Georgia coast. Actually, one is a computer systems manager in Atlanta and the other is a retired ethnologist, who specialized in African cultures, but a newspaper blitz followed. The computer programmer also inserted paragraphs in several Wikipedia articles, which gave him credit for the Fort Caroline discovery. The most recent newspaper article announcing their discovery was in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on April 7, 2014. Like earlier newspaper articles the reporters didn’t do their homework and realize that the two “discoverers” had been promoting a Jacksonville site for Fort Caroline until late 2013.

The distribution of knowledge has changed because of the internet. It is possible for an individual to insert biased or inaccurate information into Wikipedia. In fact, this is a common ploy among some anthropologists. However, the internet is the great leveler of playing fields, and is increasingly the primary source of news for Americans, no matter what a newspaper says. Readers are able to compare the information from a series of internet articles in order to make an intelligent appraisal of reality.

The pieces of a lost world that colonists at Fort Caroline and Fort San Mateo observed are gradually coming together, but there are still mysteries that must be solved. While the French Huguenots viewed the indigenous peoples as humans, who could benefit equally from trading partnerships, the Spanish Conquistadors considered Native Americans to be future slaves or even commodities. The impact of the Spanish imperialism almost immediately had a catastrophic effect on these peoples. It can only be described as a Holocaust. Intensive research is still required before the jigsaw puzzle is completed.

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