In an announcement likely to rewrite the book on early colonization of the New World, two researchers have proposed a location for the oldest fortified settlement ever found in North America. They believe that the legendary Fort Caroline, a long-sought fort built by the French in 1564, is located near the mouth of the Altamaha River in southeast Georgia.
The Fort Caroline site has not yet been excavated by archeologists. Speaking at an international conference on France at Florida State University, the pair announced that they have proposed a new location for Fort Caroline, a long-sought fort built by the French in 1564. "This is the oldest fortified settlement in the present United States," said Florida State University alumnus and historian Fletcher Crowe. "This fort is older than St. Augustine, considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in America. It's older than the Lost Colony of Virginia by 21 years; older than the 1607 fort of Jamestown by 45 years; and predates the landing of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in 1620 by 56 years."
Announcement of the discovery of Fort Caroline was made during "La Floride Française: Florida, France, and the Francophone World," a conference hosted by FSU's Winthrop-King Institute for Contemporary French and Francophone Studies and its Institute on Napoleon and the French Revolution. The conference commemorates the cultural relations between France and Florida since the 16th century. Researchers have been searching for actual remains of Fort Caroline for more than 150 years but had not found the actual site until now, Crowe said. The fort was long thought to be located east of downtown Jacksonville, Fla., on the south bank of the St. Johns River. The Fort Caroline National Memorial is located just east of Jacksonville's Dames Point Bridge, which spans the river.
However, Crowe and his co-author, Anita Spring, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Florida, say that the legendary fort is actually located near the mouth of the Altamaha River in southeast Georgia. "This really is an important work of scholarship, and what a great honor it is for it to be announced at a conference organized by the Winthrop-King Institute," said Martin Munro, a professor in FSU's Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics and director of the Winthrop-King Institute. "It demonstrates the pre-eminence of the institute and recognizes the work we do in promoting French and Francophone culture in Florida, the United States and internationally."
Darrin McMahon, the Ben Weider Professor of History and a faculty member with the Institute on Napoleon and the French Revolution, observed that Crowe and Spring's finding highlights France's longstanding presence in Florida and the Southeast. "From the very beginning, down to the present day, French and Francophone peoples have played an important role in this part of the world," McMahon said. "Our conference aims to draw attention to that fact." Crowe, who received his Ph.D. in history from Florida State in 1973, flew to Paris and conducted research at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the French equivalent of the US Library of Congress. There he found a number of 16th-and 17th-century maps that locate Fort Caroline. Some of the maps were in 16th-century French, some in Latin, some in Spanish and some were even in English.
Crowe was able to match French maps from the 16th to 18th centuries of what is today the southeastern coast of the US with coastal charts of the US as per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and with maps published by the US Geological Survey. One reason scholars claimed that Fort Caroline was located near Jacksonville is because, they believed, the local Indian tribes surrounding the fort spoke the Timucuan language, the Native American language of Northeast Florida. "We proved that the Native Americans living near the fort spoke a language called Guale (pronounced "WAH-lay")," Spring said. "The Guale speakers lived in the Altamaha area. They did not live in Northeast Florida, where Jacksonville is."
"The frustrating and often acrimonious quest to find the fort has become a sort of American quest for the Holy Grail by archaeologists, historians and other scholars," he noted. "The inability to find the fort has made some wonder if it ever existed." In 1565, Spanish soldiers under Pedro Menéndez marched into Fort Caroline and slaughtered some 143 men and women who were living there at the time. "The French reported the location of dozens of Indian villages near the fort in what was termed "French Florida." Crowe and Spring have also delineated the locations of many of these villages. While studying in the Paris archives, Crowe found a 1685 map of "French Florida" that was accurately surveyed.
"This map serves as a 'Rosetta Stone' since it provides a common, known geographical point on all early maps of 'French Florida,'" he said. The Rosetta Stone was an inscribed rock found by the French in Egypt that allowed the translation of ancient hieroglyphics into modern languages. Using the known GPS coordinates derived from the English map, Crowe was able to propose the location of dozens of Indian villages that up until now have eluded scholars and archaeologists. The structure discovered by Crowe and Spring forms an equilateral triangle surrounded by what appear to be moats encompassing walls of about 800 feet in length. The apex of the structure points to the northeast, just as reported for the original Fort Caroline.
"The next step is to do archaeological excavations to confirm this discovery," Crowe said. For 150 years, scholars have thought that "French Florida" meant Northeast Florida, including Jacksonville, Lake City and Gainesville. The Crowe and Spring study is expected to fundamentally redefine the term. Crowe noted that "'French Florida' forms a great oval extending from the Santee River of South Carolina, down to the St. Marys River, which serves today as the border between Georgia and Florida. French Florida extends from Darien on the coast, up to Milledgeville, east of Macon."