French colonies in North America

Dissension, the child of idleness, appeared among the early French colonists. Governor Pierria applied the rules of discipline so harshly, that the people were exasperated, rose in mutiny and put him to death. They chose Nicolas Barre to be their leader, but their forlorn condition produced intense discontent. Gaunt famine was before them, and a growing distrust of the Frenchmen which appeared among the Indians menaced them with starvation. They determined to desert Port Royal and return to France. With the assistance of their neighbors they constructed a frail brigantine and sailed for home. She was scantily provisioned; and calms and headwinds kept them so long upon the ocean, that their food was almost exhausted. Then a furious tempest beat upon their frail barque and nearly engulfed her. A tremendous wave turned her upon her side, and so she floated. Starvation came. The sufferers tried to subsist upon their shoes and leather doublets, but one after another died and fell into the sea. The living had concluded to make the next victim their food, when another wave righted the crazy vessel, with some of the provisions uninjured. Half filled with water, she nevertheless floated. Again starvation came, and lots were about to be cast to determine who should be made food for the rest, when there was a feeble cry of "Land!" from one of them. They were, indeed, in sight of a green shore. Very soon a small English vessel came to their relief. One of her seamen was a Frenchman who had sailed with Ribault, and recognized the famished men. He gave them food and drink, and told them of home and friends. Upon what shore they were landed, it is not known, but it is certain that a part of these French adventurers were taken into the presence of Queen Elizabeth of England, and that their account of the beauties of Florida created an intense desire on the part of the English to colonize that region.

Laudonniere and his companions resolved to make the banks of the St. John's River, in Florida, their abiding place. At a council, he said: "If we should pass further north to go in search of Port Royal, this step would be neither very advantageous nor convenient, at least if we may rely on the report of those who have dwelt there a long time." He evidently had heard the report of those who had abandoned Fort Charles, before he left France. This answers the questions, Why did he not go to Port Royal?

Laudonniere anchored his ships in the St. John's where Ribault had rested his, and he was received with marked kindness by the chief who dwelt near. He came to the captain with several of his noblemen gayly plumed and wearing short cloaks of marten skins or feathers, and besought him to go with them to the column which Ribault had set up. When they came to the grassy knoll they found the pillar surrounded with palm leaf baskets of corn and garlanded with fresh sweet flowers. Indians then kissed the stone with much reverence, extending their arms toward the skies as they assumed their erect position. They requested the Frenchmen also to kiss the stone, which they did. The attendants of the chief then brought spring-water to their guests in ornamented earthen jars, and presented to Laudonniere two live eagles. It was a ceremonial token of friendship, which pleased the captain, and with the permission of the cacique he proceeded to erect a fort on the south bank of the river. In this work the Indians gave him great assistance, for they were very expert palmetto-leaf thatches, and covered the barracks with excellent roofs. When the work was finished, it was called Fort Carolina, in honor of King Charles.

Very soon rumors came to the willing ears of the Frenchmen of mines of gold and silver in the interior, and such a thirst for the precious metals was created, that an expedition went far up the river, in small boats, in search of them. Everywhere they had heard of gold and precious stones "further on," and they returned with such extravagant stories of their abundance somewhere far inland in the hands of dusky kings, that the colonists were made half crazy. The fever was at its height when, in July, the ships were sent back to France for supplies. Every man seemed anxious to seek treasure on his own account, and Laudonniere was compelled to threaten severe penalties against any person who should traffic for gold or precious stones, excepting for the benefit of the whole company. The delusion soon vanished. When it was known that the stories of the Indians about the abundance of precious metals and stones in the interior were sheer fictions, the gold fever instantly subsided, and was followed by indolence and disappointment, with their attendant evils. The bane of the Port Royal colony was seen in this. There were too many idle and improvident persons among them -- too many "gentlemen" who would not soil their hands with labor. Discontent soon created a mutinous spirit, and plots against the life of Laudonniere were planned and discovered. At length, some of the soldiers and seamen seized two small vessels, and sailing toward Cuba, engaged in piracy in the West Indian Seas. On their return, three months afterward, the ringleaders were shot. Great excitement ensued, and the colonists were kept from open mutiny only by being engaged in explorations of the country, or in wars with the enemies of friendly chiefs around them. They neglected the rich soil, and famine threatened them. Discontent became more rampant, and the captain determined to return to France with the whole company. They were delayed for want of sufficient vessels. Meanwhile, Sir John Hawkins, of England, sailed into the St. John's with several ships. Laudonniere bought one of them, and was about to embark for Europe in her, with his whole company, when Ribault appeared with a squadron of seven ships from France, bringing a fresh company of colonists. Amongst them were several women and children. He had sailed from Dieppe late in May, with a commission as governor of all the French on that coast, and arrived at the St. John's at near the close of August, 1565.

A few days after Ribault's arrival, five ships were seen coming in from the sea. They anchored within speaking distance of the French ships at the bar, and after a long silence the commander of the intruding squadron hailed the nearest vessel. He was answered, "France." "And what are you doing in the territories of King Philip?" he asked. "Begone!" The questioner was a Spaniard, and the Spanish monarch claimed all Florida by right of pre-discovery. The Spanish officer then asked: "Are you Catholics or Lutherans?" and was answered, "Lutherans of the new religion." The French officer then inquired who the Spaniard was and what was his errand, when (according to Barcia, the Spanish historian) he replied: "I am Pedro Menendez, commander of this armament, which belongs to the king of Spain, Don Philip the Second. I have come hither to hang and destroy all the Lutherans whom I shall find either on land or sea, according to my orders received from the king, which are so precise as to deprive me of the power of saving any one whatsoever; and these orders I shall execute to the letter; but if I should meet with any Catholic on board your vessels, he shall receive good treatment. As for the heretics, they shall die."

Ribault was not taken altogether by surprise, for just as he was about to sail from Dieppe, he was handed a letter from Coligni, in which the admiral wrote in postscript: "While closing this letter, I have received certain advice that C is about to depart from Spain to the coast of Florida. You will take care not to suffer him to encroach upon us, any more than he would that we should encroach upon him."

The threat of Menendez and the hostile attitude of his ships caused the captains of the French vessels to cut their cables and put to sea. The Spanish vessels followed, firing the contents of heavy bow-guns after the fugitives. They chased them far, but in vain. "These enraged devils," wrote Mendoza, the chaplain of Menendez' squadron, "are such adroit seamen, and manoeuvred so well, that we could not take one of them." The Spaniards finally turned back toward the coast, followed by the Frenchmen, who saw the smaller Spanish vessels enter a river several leagues south of the St. John's, and the larger ones, with the galleon of Menendez, anchor at its mouth. They also saw Spanish soldiers and provisions landed not far above that anchorage. With this important news the Frenchmen hastened back to the St. John's and reported to Ribault all they had seen. He immediately prepared to go in search of his enemies and attack them with his ships and his whole land force.

Whilst Ribault was holding a council in which Laudonniere opposed the measure suggested by the governor, an Indian came with tidings that the Spaniards were fortifying themselves on the bank of the river where they had landed. Ribault believed that they were preparing to march overland and attack Fort Carolina, and he hastened his preparations for seizing their ships, attacking them in their quarters, and so spoiling their scheme and possibly destroying them totally or driving them from the coast. Was he sure that he could seize their ships? The more cautious Laudonniere thought not, and still opposed the perilous expedition. The more fiery Ribault persisted in his resolution, and gathering as many soldiers on three ships (his larger one, the Trinity, being yet at sea) as they could conveniently carry, he sailed out of the river and down the straight coast, in full expectation of gaining a complete victory. He was sorely disappointed. A dead calm and a very low tide, when he first approached the enemy, prevented his attacking the Spanish ships, and whilst he was waiting for a favoring breeze and a flood tide, there arose a very sudden and violent storm which drove the French vessels far out to sea, and exposed both ships and men to a sad fate, as we shall observe hereafter.

Meanwhile, Menendez dispatched one of his small vessels to Spain, and the galleon to Cuba, the latter for the purpose of bringing to Florida a reinforcement of Spanish troops known to be at Havana. But the galleon St. Pelayo -- a large three-deck ship -- did not reach its destination. There were several French prisoners on board of her whom Menendez had ordered to be sent to the Inquisition in Spain by way of St. Domingo. Soon after the great ship put to sea, these prisoners joined the sailors in a mutiny, and taking the command from the officers, they sailed for Europe and entered a port in Denmark.

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