When Jean Ribault arrived at the mouth of the St. Johns River in 1562, he and his men hoped to profit from some of the riches that Spain had obtained in the New World. The French were interested in finding gold and silver, though this expedition didn't seem to match the brutality of de Soto.
He must have liked what he found because he erected a monument about 10 miles east of present-day Jacksonville. Like many present-day adventurers, Ribault published a book on his trip. Two years later, Rene de Laudonniere established the first French colony in the new world, attracting Huguenots, French Protestants, looking to get away from religious persecution.
But the colony was not successful. The Timucuan Indians were first friendly and helpful but got tired of propping up and feeding the Europeans. Just as the French were to give up and go back to France, Ribault came back to the struggling French colony with supplies.
In the meantime, the Spanish felt they owned Florida. In 1565, they came up the St. John River and massacred the French. This was the first battle between Europeans nations for control of North America. The slaughter was the end of the French in Florida and Spain would control the area for the next two hundred years.
Because of this victory, the Spanish named one of their forts, Matanzas, which means "slaughter" in Spanish for this victory. As the displays at the Visitor Center explain, the French had little impact on the environment in Florida. The Timucuan Indian culture also fell apart and disappeared. Today there are no known Native Americans who call themselves Timucuans.
Nothing original survives on the ground from the French expedition and colony. Fort Caroline National Monument was created in 1950, at the urging of Representative Charles Edward Bennett from Jacksonville, Florida. Over the years, the site has expanded to become the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. The Visitor Center displays artifacts from the Timucuan Indians such as nets, baskets, and adze.
It also features other famous men who had an impact on this part of Florida. In particular, William Bartram, a naturalist from Philadelphia, traveled through the South and popularized the image of Florida as paradise.
A mile-long loop took us first to a Timucuan hut and then to a reconstructed fort. As the interpretive signs states, the size and location of the colony and fort are still a mystery to historians. But the National Park Service built a fort based on an educated guess of what the French fort would be.
It's a child's dream fort with a moat, ramparts, cannons, and high walls. The rest of the loop explains the salt marsh habitat that the French would have found at the time. Live oak trees drip with Spanish moss which is neither Spanish nor moss- it's an air plant.
One sign talks about the importance of muscadine grape for the Timucuan Indians - and the French colony. The French managed to make over 1,000 gallons of wine while they were here. "Of course," remarked a fellow walker, "they were French."
We drove to the Ribault monument, close to where Ribault might have landed on his first visit. An elaborate entrance and set of steps lead to a view of the St. Johns River.
In 1924, the Florida Daughter of the American Revolution erected a stone column, similar to the marker placed near this spot by Ribault in 1562. The group wanted to commemorate the first landing of Protestants on American soil.
Across the street from the entrance to Fort Caroline is a 600-acre gem that shows off the natural environment of Old Florida. Willie Browne grew up in a house overlooking the salt marsh where he fished and explored shell mounds. His parents moved away but he and his brother stayed and made a living off farming, fishing and running a sawmill.
After his brother died, Willie lived in a cabin by himself and encouraged people to visit his land as a refuge. Willie could see development coming. He was offered millions by developers but he turned them down. Instead he donated his property to the Nature Conservancy with the stipulation that they keep it wild.
Because Browne was a great admirer of Theodore Roosevelt's conservation effort, the land was named after the first Conservation president. The park acquired it in 1990.
We parked at Spanish Pond to walk the well-marked nature trails. Unfortunately Spanish Pond has become a field filled with vegetation when neighbors of Fort Carolina drained the pond. It's called Spanish Pond because this is where Menendez and his men camped before attacking the French.
From Spanish Pond, we started on a boardwalk leading to the red trail. We passed the remains of the Willie Browne cabin and a fresh gravestone for John Nathan Spearing (1812-1879), a soldier who fought in the Confederate Army.
Our destination was the birding viewing platform overlooking the marsh. We saw white egrets, bald eagles, and great blue herons. But the view also included a smokestack, beach, homes, and ships, reminding us that we were close to working Jacksonville.
Two things intrigued me about this walk. We met two young rangers who had gone out to retrieve a sweater that was left by a visitor. I thought that they really went beyond the call of duty. I asked if I could take a picture of them.
"Hey, where's your flat hat?" I asked.
Instead they each pulled out green knit hats from their pockets and put them, so as to be in uniform. "It's winter," one said, "and this is part of our winter uniform." Winter? It was about 70 degrees. But it's Florida.
Under the birding platform there was a sign that explained that the platform was a recipient of the "federal recreation fee demonstration program." When Congress allowed the National Park Service to charge entrance fees to certain parks, they decided that the individual parks could keep 80 percent of the collected funds. The other 20 percent is distributed to parks that do not collect fees. In this park, that money went to build the platform. But why place this explanation in such an obscure spot?
You can tour two more sites associated with the Timucua Preserve across the St. Johns River on Fort George Island. The Ribault Club is a golf club dating from the 1920s. The Kingsley Plantation shows a historic cotton plantation - the main house is currently closed for renovations. The island can be explored from a Segway.
We stayed in Jacksonville that evening. For a reality check, I told several people - a waitress in a chain restaurant, the hotel clerk, and the guy who made our Subway sandwiches - that we had stopped in Jacksonville because we visited Fort Caroline. I got a blank look from each one.
Fort Caroline is a fun place for the family and it should really be better known, especially by those who work in the Jacksonville tourist area. I couldn't find a Friends of Timucuan Preserve or Fort Caroline group on the National Park Service website. Could that be the reason that the site is not well-known by locals?