France’s Lost Colony: One of ‘Em, Anyway

Today marks the 450th anniversary of the day that Captain Jean Ribault sailed into the body of water that would later be known as Port Royal Sound in what is now South Carolina. The colony that he founded there became the first French settlement and—with the exception of a very short-lived Spanish outpost possibly near present-day Georgetown, South Carolina—the first European settlement in what is now the United States.

The middle of the 1500s was marked by competition among the Spanish, the Portuguese, and the French to colonize the Americas. The English, the Dutch, and even the Swedish eventually arrived on the scene, but their efforts came at least a generation later. The Spanish dominated the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and western South America. The Portuguese dominated eastern South America—that’s to say, Brazil. That left northern North America for the French. In the early to mid-1500s, though, a lot of it was still very much up for grabs. In fact, the French were showing up all over the place, building forts and giving places French names. For instance, there was:

  • Cap Rouge, on the St. Lawrence River. Cap Rouge was founded by explorer Jacques Cartier in 1541, but the outpost was abandoned after only one year. (The maple syrup was good, but that winter wasn’t anything to write home about, I guess.) Nevertheless, Cap Rouge went down in history as the first French settlement in the Americas. Incidentally, the city of Québec, capital of the province of Québec, was founded in 1608 on the site of the old settlement.
  • France Antarctique, near present-day Rio de Janeiro. This interestingly named colony was France’s first South American one. “Brazil?” you might ask. Yes, the French even colonized Brazil. But, really, who could blame them after having endured that chilly Canadian episode? France Antarctique was founded in 1555 as a refuge for French Protestants fleeing from the wars of religion back in France. Fort Coligny, named for the French admiral who supported the expedition (and was, himself, a Huguenot), was built on the island of Serigipe in Guanabara Bay. The village of Henriville, named for King Henri II of France, was located just onshore. Of course, the settlement was in violation of the Papal Bull of 1493, which had given the area to the Portuguese, and they eventually succeeded in destroying the French settlement in 1567.

Given that history, it should come as no surprise that the French also tried to colonize Spanish Florida, which at that time comprised all of present-day Florida and the coastal regions of present-day Georgia and the Carolinas. While the Spanish had claimed Florida as their own in 1513, they didn’t succeed in building a permanent settlement there until 1565, when they founded Saint Augustine. The French looked at that track record, of course, and thought, “Well, why not? Spanish Florida is big, and the Spanish aren’t doing anything with it!”

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French Carolina

Carolina was an English colony, of course, but did you know that the French actually beat the English in the race to get there? Of course, the Spanish beat them all in 1526. Quelle surprise. Their settlement, San Miguel de Gualdape, was actually the first European settlement in what is now the United States, possibly located near the site of present-day Georgetown, South Carolina. Unfortunately for the Spanish, though, San Miguel was abandoned after only 3 months when famine, disease, and unrest among their Native American neighbors forced the settlers to return to Santo Domingo. The French arrived in 1562, after Admiral Gaspard de Coligny organized an expedition to settle the region. The expedition, led by Norman navigator Jean Ribault, built Charlesfort on present-day Parris Island but, like the Spanish before them, they didn’t stick it out for very long. Ribault, having returned to Europe for supplies, was detained because of the French wars of religion, leaving his fledgling settlement to founder. After only one year, all but one of the 28 remaining settlers set off across the Atlantic in a makeshift vessel. You may have read about their fate: by the time they were rescued by a passing English ship, the unfortunate crew had already resorted to cannibalism to stay alive as they drifted aimlessly on the ocean. Meanwhile, the Spanish sent an expedition from Cuba to destroy Charlesfort, and the French experiment in colonizing the area came to an end. It wasn’t the end of French settlement though …

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