Jean Ribault Explores the St. Johns River (April 30, 1562)

On April 30, 1562, French explorer Jean Ribault led an expedition ashore near the mouth of the St. Johns River. They continued north to what is now South Carolina before returning to Europe. Ribault returned to the Americas in 1564 and was among those killed during the Spanish – French struggle for control over La Florida.

"The French Sail to the River of May," from an engraving by Theodor de Bry

“The French Sail to the River of May,” from an engraving by Theodor de Bry

Between the time he returned to Europe and before the second French expedition sailed in 1564, Ribault published an account of his journey titled The Whole & True Discouerye of Terra Florida. His brief account provides insight into his perception of the land and people he encountered. The below spellings retain those that appear in an early English-language printing of Ribault’s account.
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Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues and Theodor de Bry’s Images of Florida Indians

Artist and cartographer Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues (1533-1588) accompanied René de Laudonnière (ca. 1529-1574) to Florida in 1564. Laudonnière hoped to established a French settlement in the vicinity of the River May (St. Johns River), first explored by Jean Ribault (1520-1565) in April 1562. By June of 1564, the French had constructed Fort Caroline near the mouth of the St. Johns River.

Lithograph of the Timucua greeting the French, from Theodor de Bry, Grand Voyages (1591)

Lithograph of the Timucua greeting the French, from Theodor de Bry, Grand Voyages (1591)

In September 1565, Spanish soldiers led by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519-1574) attacked the French. Le Moyne, charged with illustrating French progress, lost most of his work during the siege.

Engraving of the massacre at Fort Caroline, from Theodor de Bry, Grand Voyages (1591)

Engraving of the massacre at Fort Caroline, from Theodor de Bry, Grand Voyages (1591)

Following the rout of the French by the Spaniards, Le Moyne returned to Europe where he reproduced sketches of Florida from memory. In 1591, the Flemish engraver Theodor de Bry (1528-1598) published 42 engravings based on Le Moyne’s work.

Grieving widows approach the Chief, from Theodor de Bry, Grand Voyages (1591)

Grieving widows approach the Chief, from Theodor de Bry, Grand Voyages (1591)

De Bry’s renditions of Le Moyne’s sketches are both historically significant and highly controversial. Scholars contend that Le Moyne included features that do not match later depictions of the local Timucua Indians, and also that de Bry may have altered many of the images prior to publication. Artistic license is evident in several of the images included here. For example, in the above scene depicting the Timucua greeting the French, mountains are visible in what is supposed to be northeastern Florida.

Other elements provide clues into Timucuan culture. The Chief in the image above (“Grieving widows approach the Chief” ) is adorned with numerous tattoos. Because Europeans were largely unfamiliar with tattooing for decorative purposes, it appears unlikely that either Le Moyne or de Bry fabricated Timucuan body art. Later ethnographic information gathered by Europeans supports the notion that tattooing was quite common among the southeastern Indians.

Detail of the Chief, from Theodor de Bry, Grand Voyages (1591)

Detail of the Chief, from Theodor de Bry, Grand Voyages (1591)

Regardless of their authenticity, the images created by Le Moyne and published by de Bry constitute the earliest known visual representations of Florida and its indigenous people. Although the illustrations provide only a small window into the lives of the Timucua, they reveal a wealth of information about the goals and aspirations of the French and their efforts to promote the colonization of Florida.

Chief Saturiba goes to war, from Theodor de Bry, Grand Voyages (1591)

Chief Saturiba goes to war, from Theodor de Bry, Grand Voyages (1591)

Images such as “Chief Saturiba goes to war,” above, were meant to promote French colonization. This particular image conveyed the notion that the Timucua obeyed authority, were organized and fit for war, and could perhaps aid the French against their Spanish foes. The images depicted the Timucua as less sophisticated than Europeans, both in terms of dress and weaponry, and therefore they were potential candidates for accepting French religion and civilization.

Jean Ribault Explores the St. Johns River

The French arrive in Florida, from Theodor de Bry, Grand Voyages (1591)

The French arrive in Florida, from Theodor de Bry, Grand Voyages (1591)

On April 30, 1562, an expedition under the command of French explorer Jean Ribault (1520-1565) arrived at the mouth of the St. Johns River north of present-day Jacksonville. Ribault and his Huguenot (Protestant Calvinists) companions hoped to find religious freedom and to start a prosperous colony in the Americas.

Timucua Indians worshipping at the stone pillar erected by Jean Ribault, from Theodor de Bry, Grand Voyages (1591)

Timucua Indians worshipping at the stone pillar erected by Jean Ribault, from Theodor de Bry, Grand Voyages (1591)

After briefly exploring the St. Johns, which Ribault dubbed the River May, and erecting a stone pillar to mark their arrival, the French contingent continued northward along the Atlantic coast. They eventually landed near Royal Sound in what is now South Carolina and constructed a fortification named Charlesfort, in honor of the French monarch King Charles IX.

Drawing of Jean Ribault and his troops

Drawing of Jean Ribault and his troops

Ribault returned to Europe from Charlesfort, trying to garner support for further Protestant colonization in La Florida. He hoped to gain the patronage of Queen Elizabeth I of England, but was confined to the Tower of London under suspicion of espionage instead.

The French abandoned Charlesfort about one year after its founding, but returned to La Florida two years later in 1564 and established the short-lived settlement of Fort Caroline. An attack on Fort Caroline by the Spanish in September 1565 ended France’s efforts to colonize Florida.