Fort Caroline: History Buried in Mystery; Will the Exact Location of the Original Settlement Ever Be Unearthed?

Article excerpt

Byline: MATT SOERGEL

It's the ghosts. The aliens. The suffering. The doomed expedition. The rivers of blood. The sheer folly of it all.

It's the mystery.

That's the draw of Fort Caroline, which stubbornly resists giving up its biggest secret: Where is the real fort hiding?

Where is the ground on which the French tried to get a toehold in the New World - before St. Augustine, before Roanoke, before Jamestown, before Plymouth?

Where were they slaughtered, on that miserable rainy morning almost 443 years ago? Do traces exist under the thin North Florida soil, or is it all lost under the waters of the St. Johns River?

The questions pull at those who look for the old French settlement, whose brief life - it was wiped out after less than 15 months by a brutal Spanish invasion from upstart St. Augustine - has been featured in at least three books this summer from best-selling authors: A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz, Painter in a Savage Land by Miles Harvey and America's Hidden History by Kenneth C. Davis, author of Don't Know Much About History.

Craig Morris is a veteran park ranger at Fort Caroline National Memorial, which hugs the south bank of the St. Johns a few miles from where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

Morris is driven. He's worked at the park for 21 years. He bought a house within eyeshot; he likes the idea that the fort could have been on his property. And he will happily show you where he thinks the original spot was, as part of his "where-is-Fort-Caroline?-wild-goose-tour."

It would, he says, be so gratifying to dig up the old fort and allow Jacksonville to upstage haughtily historic St. Augustine - or "St. Tourist Trap," as he likes to call it.

Robert "Buzz" Thunen, an archaeologist at the University of North Florida, is among many who have dug in vain for the ancient settlement. He's hoping to launch another search next summer, using land-penetrating radar that, he thinks, might find the ghostly outline of the fort where a middle-class subdivision now stands.

The French garrison has stayed hidden for hundreds of years, and - despite the efforts of the sleuths on its trail - could quite possibly remain a mystery forever.

"It's a conundrum," says John Whitehurst, an archaeologist at the national park. "But it does have a mystique. It's there someplace." Letters and journals and official reports place it squarely on the St. Johns, but it's as if it just vanished, he says - like some lost expedition out of a storybook.

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The massacre was quick and efficient.

French leader Jean Ribault had left the fort virtually undefended, as he sailed in a growing hurricane to challenge the new Spanish presence in St. Augustine. But the winds drove his ships ashore far to the south - no use to the unwary settlers just waking up on Sept. 20, 1565.

Pedro Menendez de Aviles took the opening given him and drove some 500 weary Spanish men through a day of drenching rain and swamps from St. Augustine to Fort Caroline.

The undermanned outpost was overwhelmed, and within minutes the Spanish ran their swords or pikes through 140 settlers, dumping their corpses on the bank of the river. They spared a few women and children, and about 40 French were able to flee through the swamps to hail a few small ships for a harrowing, starving journey back home. One wrote later, in considerable understatement: "We suffered much."

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Tony Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic, Blue Latitudes) dwells on Fort Caroline for a large chunk of A Voyage Long and Strange (Henry Holt), about the often-overlooked period of U.S. history between Columbus and the Mayflower.

In a phone interview, he said the Fort Caroline story was easily the most obscure chapter of history he uncovered - even a surprise to himself, a self-described "history nerd."

"And there's just the drama of this story, these quite vivid characters," he says. …