For 433 years, the location of that outpost has been lost, but we have recently discovered its location (Figure 1). When Ribault and his men sailed toward the New World, they had several goals. First, they sought to establish a French foothold from which they could prey on the Spanish treasure fleets returning to Spain from Central and South America and the Caribbean. It was also a time of religious wars, and Ribault's mostly Huguenot crew was intent on founding a settlement where French Protestants could escape persecution by Catholics in their homeland. It is also likely that investors in the expedition, including Queen Mother Catherine de Medici, Admiral Coligny, and Monsieur de Vendôme, expected to profit from the endeavor once a permanent settlement was in place.
Ribault and his two vessels departed from Le Harve in mid-February, 1562, and did not sight the coast of Florida until April 30. Sailing north along the coast, the ships entered the River May, today called the St. Johns, on May 1. After spending a few days exploring the river, meeting with local Indians, and erecting a stone monument to establish French claim to the region, Ribault and his men sailed north along the coast.
On May 17, 1562, the two ships entered a large harbor that Ribault named Port Royal; he described Port Royal as "one of the greatest and fayrest havens of the world." After spending several days exploring the two major rivers that combine to form Port Royal, Ribault erected a second stone monument on a small island in Port Royal Sound. At this point, Ribault decided to establish a permanent settlement in this commodious, yet defensible, harbor. Twenty-six men were ultimately chosen to remain behind while Ribault and the ships returned to France. The men chosen to remain at Port Royal included gentlemen, soldiers, and mariners, according to Ribault's own account. Albert de la Pierria, an experienced soldier, was placed in command.
Over the next three weeks, the 150 men on Ribault's ships constructed a fort "in an i[s]land on the north e[a]st side, a place of strong scytuation and commodyous, upon a river which we have called Chenonceau and the inhabytacion and fortresse Charles forte." A strong house constructed of wood and earth with a straw roof was constructed inside the walls of the fort to serve as a storehouse and barracks. A small boat was left for the use of the garrison.
When Ribault departed from Charlesfort on June11, 1562, he expected to make a quick round-trip, returning with supplies and settlers before the end of the year. When he arrived off the French coast, he found his entry into Le Harve blocked by the religious war then raging across France. Ribault assisted the Protestant forces of Dieppe before he gave up on obtaining further assistance for his project in France; he was forced to go to England to seek assistance from Elizabeth I. Once there, he was able to meet with the Queen, and she did promise assistance. Ribault's return to Port Royal was delayed, however, when he was briefly imprisoned as a spy. While in England (and probably while in prison), Ribault wrote a brief memoir of his voyage to Florida; the French original has been lost, but the English translation, published in 1563, survives.
In Ribault's absence, the small group of men left in Charlesfort were struggling to survive. The food left by Ribault was soon depleted, and additional supplies were not available from the local Indians of Orista And Escamacu. Several men sailed south to the present-day Georgia coast to obtain supplies from the Guale Indians. Shortly after their return, however, the strong house burned to the ground, destroying not only the recently obtained food, but also all of the material possessions of the men. With the assistance of local Indians, the strong house was rebuilt in a single day, but by then the patience of some of the men had began to dissipate.
Two men were drowned when their canoe overturned. One member of the garrison, a drummer, was hanged by order of Captain de la Pierria for an unrecorded infraction. Another soldier named La Chere had been banished to a small island as punishment. With limited remaining supplies and little hope that Ribault would ever return, the men of Charles Fort mutinied and killed Captain Albert. Nicolas Barre (or Barré) assumed command.
The mutineers decided to build a ship and abandon their outpost. The ship they built, described as a 20-ton vessel, was constructed with locally available materials. Wood and pitch were obtained from the forest surrounding the fort. Spanish moss was used to caulk the hull. Cordage was provided by the Indians, and sails were made from the remaining shirts and sheets of the Frenchmen. Some of the forts eight cannon and components of a forge may have served as ballast.
Twenty-one men sailed on this small ship when it departed from Port Royal in the spring (probably April) of 1563. One Frenchman, Guillermo Rouffi, a boy who had been a servant to Captain Albert, fled into the woods and ultimately took up residence among the Orista; four men, the two drowning victims, the hanged drummer, and Captain Albert, died during the brief occupation of Charlesfort.
We do not know if the ship was christened and given a name, but we do know that those who sailed in it had a difficult crossing. They were becalmed in the midst of their voyage, and their food supplies soon were exhausted. They resorted to consuming their shoes and other leather gear in an effort to garner any sustenance they might provide. One by one, the men began to die. Finally, in an act of ultimate desperation, the surviving mutineers decided that they must kill one of their number to feed the remainder. Poor La Chere, the man who had been banished by Captain Albert, was selected by unknown means. He was killed and his flesh was consumed by his companions.
This sacrifice was apparently sufficient for Captain Barré and the other survivors to complete their journey. An English ship, some sources say it was a ship provided by Elizabeth, rescued them off the English coast. According to at least one source, only seven men survived the crossing.