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The Huguenot Massacre in Florida

History isn't about dates and places and wars. It's about the people who fill the spaces between them. Jodi Picoult

One of the most fascinating stories of American history, set in Florida, is not well known.

During the16th century several European powers sought to expand their empires into the Americas. In 1513 during his expedition to North America, Ponce de Leon claimed peninsular Florida for Spain.

In 1564, a group of about 300 French Protestants, known as Huguenots, arrived in America and settled in Spanish territory near the present-day Jacksonville, Florida. On June 30, 1564, with the help of a local tribe of Timucuan Indians, the French began the construction of a triangular-shaped fort on the St. John's River they called Ft. Caroline.

Spain resented what they felt was French intrusion and objected to the presence of Protestants on land the Catholic Spanish claimed. The fort quickly became a source of conflict. The French colony initially thrived thanks largely to good relations with the native Timucua.

But, within a year the settlers at Ft. Caroline were weak, near starvation, and the relationship with the natives had deteriorated. In May, 1565, Jean Ribault sailed from France with more than 600 soldiers and settlers to resupply Ft. Caroline arriving in August 1565.

When King Philip II of Spain, a devout Catholic, heard of the encroachment of what he considered his property he dispatched an army under Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles with orders to remove the French and establish a Spanish colony in Florida. Menendez also set sail in May 1565, arriving in August about the same time as Ribault. Menendez and his group came ashore on September 8th, established and named their new colony St. Augustine.

Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles
Jean Ribault

On September 10th, Ribault set out to attack and wipe out the Spanish at St Augustine. A hurricane along the Florida coast carried his ships far to the south and were shipwrecked. At the same time, Menendez led a force to attack Ft. Caroline. Most of the soldiers from Ft. Caroline were with Ribault so it was very easy for Menendez to capture the French settlement, killing most of the men in the battle. When he heard from some Timucuan Indians that a group of white men were on a beach a few miles from St. Augustine, he marched 70 soldiers to an inlet and blocked 127 French men from returning to Ft. Caroline. With a captured French man who acted as a translator, Menendez told how Ft. Caroline had been captured and urged them to surrender. With their weapons lost in the storm and having no food, they surrendered. Menendez then demanded they give up their Protestant faith and accept Catholicism. They refused and 111 French men were killed. Only 16 who professed to be Catholic were spared. Today that location is known as Matanzas Inlet.

Two weeks later more French survivors, including Ribault, appeared and the sequence of events was repeated. On October 12th, Ribault and his men surrendered and met their fate after refusing to give up their faith. This time 134 were killed. These Huguenots were not killed because they were Huguenots or Protestants but simply because they were French encroached upon Spanish territory.

In April 1568, a Frenchman named Dominique de Gourgues, a Huguenot, led a force that went to Florida and took revenge on the Spaniards killing all of them at Ft. Caroline.

There is a mural in the U.S, Capitol depicting this part of Florida history.