A visit to Fort Caroline near Jacksonville, Florida, is full of many pro’s and con’s for me. I’ll just get the con’s out of the way first.This isn’t the original site of Fort Caroline; the original site has (supposedly) been discovered in Georgia. Second, the original fort was *much* larger, with walls about 1,000 feet long, homes, storage buildings, artillery, etc. That being said, Fort Caroline is still a great place to learn about Florida history and enjoy nature. For the basic facts: Fort Caroline / Timucuan Preserve is free to visit, and there are other historic sites such as Kingsley Plantation nearby. Even if Florida history isn’t your thing, the views, the atmosphere, and the water are always there, beckoning.
You could never tell this place is near Jacksonville, as it seems that when you enter the grounds,you’ve pretty much stepped back in time. How often does a person get to enjoy the “real” Florida, with Spanish-moss-laden palms, warm sunshine, and natural scenery? No mouse ears in sight . . . The first stop is the “Ribault Column.” This reconstructed column replaces the original, which was put up in 1562 by explorer Jean Ribault. It’s a nice walk to the observation area and gives you a better understanding of the Fort Caroline area. And the trees dripping in Spanish moss in parking lot are incredible! Florida at her finest.
The fort itself, part of the Timucuan Preserve which is owned by the Florida branch of the National Park Service, is small but educational, with plaques, a 16th century cannon, reconstructed walls, and some nice views. Around the fort you’ll find a new interesting things, particularly a miniature Timucua Indian village (The Timucua inhabited Florida for thousands of years before Fort Caroline came along) with a hut, benches, and more, and a dolphin watch observation deck. You might also see other Florida wildlife such as manatees. Also at the Timucuan Preserve you can find beautiful walking trails, a dock which affords a great view of Fort Caroline, and views of the St. John’s River. Large barges and shipping containers often pass by the fort occasionally. Also notice the new French oven that shows how the French Huguenot inhabitants of Fort Caroline baked their bread many centuries ago.
Feeling hungry? There’s a picnic area just before you reach the visitor center, and though I haven’t yet tried it, I can imagine eating lunch and being surrounded by Florida sunshine and Spanish moss beauty would be quite an experience. Now for the nitty-gritty, Fort Caroline is free to enjoy. There’s a small bookshop / visitor center that explains the history of Fort Caroline and the Florida Indians; make sure to see the ancient owl totem. The canoe is interesting also, and I’m partial to the 1594 Spanish cannon. After a brief sojourn through the museum you’ll find a few nice books and videos. So, to recap, Fort Caroline isn’t “original” and it’s not particularly accurate as to appearance, but the park is lovely and teaches visitors about the French in early America, a subject that is sorely lacking in today’s curriculum.
As for the French, here’s the skinny: they came, they colonized, they were massacred. Yes, massacred by the Spanish, who weren’t too pleased that Florida had been “invaded” by Frenchmen (and Protestants! Perish the thought). Men were killed, women and children were shipped off to various locales, and the surviving soldiers who hadn’t been at the fort during the raid were later killed at a place called Matanzas – “slaughters.” So the New World was a colossal disappointment for the French . . . and Florida/Georgia (no boundaries in the 16th century) was forever known to French settlers as the land of broken dreams.