The Formerly Lost Frenchmen

By Shanti Menon|Wednesday, January 01, 1997
Sailing up the coast from Florida in 1562, the French explorer Jean Ribaut landed at Parris Island, South Carolina, pronounced it one of the greatest and fayrest havens in the world, and built a small fort to defend it. Charlesfort, named after the French king Charles IX, was the first European attempt at settlement in what is now the United States, but until this past year no one had found a trace of it.

Ribaut sailed for France after the fort was completed, leaving 27 men behind and promising to return with more supplies and settlers. But France, distracted by religious conflicts (Catholics versus Huguenots), wasn’t interested in another mission, and while pleading his case for a ship in England, Ribaut was imprisoned as a spy. Meanwhile, back at Charlesfort, a fire burned most of the supplies. After the officer in charge hanged one of the men, the crew mutinied, built their own ship, and sailed home, abandoning the fort some 11 months after their arrival. In 1566, the Spanish--having established their own foothold at St. Augustine, Florida--moved into the area and built their own fort, San Felipe, as well as a town called Santa Elena. For a time it served as the capital of Spanish Florida.

Spanish records, though, make no mention of Charlesfort, and before reporting their success in 1996, University of South Carolina archeologists Stanley South and Chester DePratter had spent 17 years searching for evidence of the lost French settlement. All the while, they were excavating San Felipe (the northwest bastion of which is shown above). Not until DePratter realized that some pottery from excavations at San Felipe was actually sixteenth-century French did it hit him--the Spanish had built San Felipe right on top of Charlesfort. Significantly, the French ceramics (like the shards at left) were concentrated in one area, an unlikely distribution if they had been owned by residents of the larger Spanish settlement. That explains why the Spanish never mentioned where Charlesfort was--they didn’t want to acknowledge a French claim to their capital, says DePratter.
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