Mr. Walker’s letter (1/21/09) asking “Where
is the history of Mayport?” parallels my own journey that began in 2001 when someone from Washington told me the amazing story
of the French Huguenots who landed in what is now Jacksonville.
I set out to find the reason for not knowing the history. Reading T. Fredrick Davis’ history of Jacksonville
began my journey. He felt that the history was significant enough that he wrote
that it “changed the destiny of a continent”. “Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage” put out by the Jacksonville Historic Landmarks
Commission certainly gives a good summary of the history of Mayport. Mr. Walker
only scratched the surface of the resources available on Ft.
Caroline and “Mayport”.
Why they are hidden has its own story.
I don’t know who first used the name “Mayport”
for the land Jean Ribault claimed on May 2, 1562, but we know that he named the river there the Riviere de Mai. We could jump to the conclusion that Mayport Naval Station took its name from being at the port of the
River May. But “Mayport’s” history was certainly not “put
on the map” by the Navy, as Mr. Walker claims.
history of European settlement began on May 1, 1562, when Ribault knelt and prayed the first Protestant prayer of the New
World at what we call Ft. George
Island. (You can read that history on the state marker at Huguenot Park, directly
across from “Mayport”.) The next day Ribault began negotiations for
colonization with Chief Satouriba, owner of the land of “Mayport”. Ribault
set in place one of five columns he had brought from France and claimed
the land, “Mayport”, for France. When he set that column in place there was no other European presence in what is now
Ribault did seek other sites for colonization.
As was evident from his journals, he was seeking deep-water ports to locate colonies in the New World. It is evident from the five columns, he planned to locate the French in more than
one place. The second column was left at what is now Parris Island Marine Base, SC.
This location is near Port Royal and Beaufort but not Charleston,
and it was named Charlesfort (not Charlesport as the reader’s letter indicated).
Ribault left men at possibly both locations as he sailed back to France
for re-enforcements for colonization, but Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere was not one of those men, as the letter indicated. The men left behind were desperate because reinforcement didn’t come, but they
had the ingenuity to build a boat and try to sail back to France. Ironically they were picked up at sea by none other than a man who would derail Ribault’s
efforts in Europe. (Modern-day translations
of Ribault’s journal of these events are available to be read in the Florida Collection of Jacksonville’s Main
Library; Jeanette Thurber Conner donated copies of her translation to every public library in America in 1924.)
Ribault had no idea that civil war had broken
out in France after he had sailed for the New World. When he returned, his home port
of Dieppe was deep into that war for religious freedom. He turned to Queen Elizabeth I and an adventurer named Stuckey for support of his attempts at colonization
in “Mayport” and South Carolina. Ribault’s
journal was probably first printed in London then, in 1563. Stuckey betrayed Ribault’s colonization effort, and Ribault was imprisoned in
the Tower of London.
At the end of the war, Rene de Laudonniere was
commissioned to return to the New World for colonization.
Laudonniere returned to “Mayport” in 1564 and negotiated with Chief Athore, Satouriba’s son. That event is one of the best pictorially documented events in history. Drawings attributed to Jacques le Moyne, first commercial artist of America, and printed in 1591 can be readily seen
online, and also at the fourth-floor gallery of Jacksonville’s Main Library; an original volume is also housed at that
library. History books around the world have used that drawing to depict the
early settlement of America. Our own state textbooks tell the story. The drawing depicts
the events at “Mayport”.
It’d be easy to assume that the French Huguenots
lived in the fort that they and the natives built on a bluff overlooking the river; we call it Ft. Caroline. We have no proof of where it
was. However, the journals of Jacques le Moyne, and even one of those drawings, depict a colonist living among the natives. The colonists did not all live in the fort.
We do not absolutely know whether some lived at “Mayport,” but they certainly could have.
By 1565 Queen Elizabeth had sent a spy to Ft. Caroline to meet
with Laudonniere. The English could only have discovered Laudonniere’s
location by locating “Mayport:” Ribault’s column marked the spot at the entry to the river. There John Hawkins
traded one of his ships for canons from the fort. Thus “Mayport”
became the first port of international trade in America.
After his release from the Tower of London, Ribault returned to “Mayport.” He was sent to reinforce colonization and to replace Laudonniere as governor of La
Caroline. Soon after his return to Mayport, the Spanish, who had been sent to
“annihilate” the “heretics,” spotted the four French ships at anchor.
Your letter-writer refers to that military engagement, but seems not to realize that it happened at “Mayport”. That began the first international war on the soil of America. French soldiers who were
stationed at “Mayport” stood along the banks on both sides of the River May to protect this land from the intruders. The river had of course never been dredged and would not accommodate larger ships,
so “Mayport” served as the deep-water port for their River May.
By 1565 the French King Charles IX, along with
his mother Catherine de Medici, England’s Queen Elizabeth I, and Spain’s King Philip II, were all eyeing, at the
same time, one little -- but enormously significant -- speck on the globe: “Mayport”. That moment in world history certainly predates any effort by the Navy, as cited by
Mr. Walker, to “put Mayport on the map” in the 1940’s.
After the Spanish massacre at La Caroline, the
fort was renamed San Mateo by the Spanish. After only three days the Spanish accidentally burned their own fort.
When the new fort was built, two other forts were built; one of those was at “Mayport”. Those three forts were destroyed in 1568 by Frenchmen led by Gourgues.
There is recently-found documentation that places the graves of some of those Spanish soldiers in a cemetery that was
unearthed and then covered over in “Mayport”.
In 1924 the United
States and France honored the French Huguenots who
settled what became Jacksonville and NYC with a silver half-dollar
and three stamps. The DAR donated a large column to represent the one Ribault
placed at “Mayport,” and it was dedicated May 1, 1924. There are
many articles documenting the history of this event on the second floor of the Beaches Historical Society and in the archives
of the Jacksonville Historical Society and in the Florida Collection at Jacksonville’s
The error of searching for “Mayport history”
comes in using the word “Mayport”. The area where Ribault probably
placed France’s column and where
the DAR replica was placed became known to us as Wonderwood-by-the-Sea, named by its owner, Mrs. J.P. Starke. Her book, “The Story of Mayport” is available at the Beaches Historical Society, the Jacksonville
Historical Society, and the Jacksonville Public Library. I donated a copy to
Mayor John Peyton’s office. Mrs. Starke drew the design for the 5-cent stamp depicting the column at “Mayport”
issued by the Postal Service in 1924. She also was responsible for the name of Ribault
Bay, the site where the new nuclear carrier will sit.
In 1940 the U.S. government took most of Wonderwood-by-the-Sea, evicting Mrs. Starke from her
home in the middle of the night. The memorial column was moved off the base of
then-new Mayport Naval Station, and as the base expanded, it moved again. You
can see it today at Ft. Caroline National Memorial.
The museum that opened in 1953 at Ft. Caroline
National Memorial was established by Congress, thanks to the efforts of Representative Charles E. Bennett. His passionate goal was to tell the amazing story of the founding of Jacksonville,
the first European settlement founded for religious freedom. The museum exhibit
was dismantled as the Timucuan Preserve moved its Visitors’ Center into that space.
In a private interview in 1998, Mr. Bennett stated about Ft. Caroline National Memorial: “[What] I would like
to see depicted is just the first settlement of Europeans of men and women coming to the United States where religious freedom was the major objective. That’s all I would like to say and that’s not really said at Ft. Caroline.”
Caroline and “Mayport” history are all part of the same story. These brave people left their history and blood on our land. The Timucua, who were
left behind when the Huguenots died, continued to fight Spanish occupation in this area.
We need to celebrate their story. We obviously do not, or people who question
“Mayport’s” history could readily learn it without having to go searching. The
villagers of Mayport have in recent times come to understand this history and want to portray it in their plans for redevelopment.
I believe that we have the most noble and intriguing
history of any city of America. Attempts to erase our story from history were good enough to propel three new books that relate this newly-rediscovered
story to reach the NY Times Bestseller List in 2007-“A Voyage Long and Strange”, “Painter in a Savage Land”,
and “America’s Hidden History”. Mr. Bennett continued Jeanette
Thurber Conner’s historical research and produced four books concerning the French who came to La Caroline and “Mayport”.
If you dig for our history, you’ll find
that you too will want to celebrate our first European settlers who claimed the land here, and those who freely gave them
land for their settlement, the Timucua. Mayport villagers have every right and
responsibility to tell their history and save their village. Who else is telling
the story? JaxPort portrays part of the story when they proclaim that Jacksonville is the “First Port of America”. But they have gone quiet on that history lately since we all know that a cruise ship terminal would end
all hopes of portraying that history, just as the Navy hid the history in 1940.
The terminal does not mean progress for the Mayport
villagers; it means an end to their dreams for re-development and for their livelihood. If you want to see their plans, contact
their Civic Association President, Michelle Baldwin. The stories of “Historic
Mayport”’s inspired steps toward redevelopment, and of those who have undermined those efforts, are worthy of
a novel and movie, maybe even a grand jury investigation.