It’s a point of historic pride among Franco-Americans that the French colonial settlements in North America began in the 16th century before the arrival of British settlers in Jamestown, Va., or Plymouth, Mass.

Two failed French attempts at colonial expansion are located at St. Croix Island in Calais and in Florida’s Fort Caroline, in Jacksonville. Both sites are preserved by the National Park Service.

In 1604, a group of male French Huguenots and Catholics attempted a settlement at St. Croix Island.

They traveled with French cartographer Samuel de Champlain and entrepreneur Sieur De Mons under the patronage of French King Henri IV. This settlement failed after scurvy and the harsh winter of 1604-05 killed half of the men.

Survivors were rescued by the local Passamaquoddy tribe, who helped them to relocate in Acadia, or Nova Scotia. A walking tour overlooking St. Croix Island is off Route 1 in Calais.

An even earlier attempt to establish a French foothold in North America was tried in 1562 by a group of Huguenots seeking religious freedom.

The Huguenots engaged the navigator Jean Ribault (1520-1565) and his assistant Rene Laudonniere (1529-1574). They eventually established a settlement in Fort Caroline, in what today is Jacksonville. This expedition predated the Pilgrims by half a century.

My husband and I enjoy visiting the scenic Fort Caroline National Memorial and the nearby Ribault Monument whenever we’re in Jacksonville. Quiet walking paths lead visitors along the series of historic restoration points throughout the peacefully scenic park.

Though the beauty of the area is serene, the area once witnessed historic mayhem due to the French colonization efforts.

On June 22, 1564, Laudonniere led the Huguenot settlers to the St. John’s River where they built Fort Caroline, but they named the tributary the River of May. They named the colony after French King Charles IX.

Timucuan natives aided the settlers. A detailed series of drawings attributed to French artist Jacques le Moyne (1533-1588) provides a visual account about the relationship between the French settlers and the Timucuans. Le Moyne accompanied the Florida expedition.

It’s worth a stop at Fort Caroline’s visitors center to see the reproductions of the Le Moyne drawings on display. They are a fascinating pictorial history showing how the Timucuans dressed, ate, celebrated and lived their daily lives. Some plates can be seen online at

1565, the Spaniards learned about the French expansion into their claim on Florida and ordered an attack on Fort Caroline.

A description of the attack has all the elements of an epic movie. A valiant sea attack to help defend the fort was attempted by Ribault but was stymied by a violent storm. An attack on Fort Caroline led by Spanish Admiral Pedro Menendez subsequently massacred 143 French colonists, while 60 women and children were spared.

Among those who managed to escape the carnage was Ribault’s assistant navigator, Laudonniere.

Three years later, in 1568, the French military officer Dominique de Gourgues led a retaliatory voyage back to Florida, where he attacked and burned the fort, killing all who did not escape.

Nonetheless, Fort Caroline ended the French interest in colonizing Florida. In her book “West of the Papal Line,” Barbara A. Purdy writes, “The brutal destruction of Fort Caroline and the massacre of the French Huguenots by Menendez in the fall of 1565 terminated France’s colonizing efforts in this part of the New World.”


Juliana L’Heureux can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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