The Fleur-De-Lis at Port Royal
IN the year 1562 a cloud of black and deadly portent was thickening over France. Surely and swiftly she glided towards the abyss of the religious wars. None could pierce the future ; perhaps none dared to contemplate it: the wild rage of fanaticism and hate, friend grappling with friend, brother with brother, father with son ; altars profaned, hearthstones made desolate; the robes of Justice herself bedrenched with murder. In the gloom without lay Spain, imminent and terrible. As on the hill by the field of Dreux, her veteran bands of pikemen, dark masses of organized ferocity, stood biding their time while the battle surged below, then swept downward to the slaughter, — so did Spain watch and wait to trample and crush the hope of humanity.
In these days of fear, a Huguenot colony sailed for the New World. The Calm, stern man who represented and led the Protestantism of France felt to his inmost heart the peril of the time. He would fain build up a city of refuge for the persecuted sect. Yet Caspar de Coligny, too high in power and rank to be openly assailed, was forced to act with caution. He must act, too, in the name of the Crown, and in virtue of his office of Admiral of France. A nobleman and a soldier, — for the Admiral of France was no seaman, — he shared the ideas and habits of his class; nor is there reason to believe him to have been in advance of others of his time in a knowledge of the principles of successful colonization. His scheme promised a military colony, not a free commonwealth. The Huguenot party was already a political, as well as a religious party. At its foundation lay the religious element, represented by Geneva, the martyrs, and the devoted fugitives who sang the psalms of Marot among rocks and caverns. Joined to these were numbers on whom the faith sat lightly, whose hope was in commotion and change. Of these, in great part, was the Huguenot noblesse, from Conde, who aspired to the crown, —
Qui toujours chante, toujours rit,” —
to the younger son of the impoverished seigneur whose patrimony was his sword. More than this, the restless, the factious, the discontented began to link their fortunes to a party whose triumph would involve confiscation of the bloated wealth of the only rich class in France. An element of the great revolution was already mingling in the strife of religions.
America was still a land of wonder. The ancient spell still hung unbroken over the wild, vast world of mystery beyond the sea. A land of romance, of adventure, of gold.
Fifty-eight years later, the Puritans landed on the sands of Massachusetts Bay. The illusion was gone, — the ignisfatuus of adventure, the dream of wealth. The rugged wilderness offered only a stern and hard-won independence. In their own hearts, not in the promptings of a great leader or the patronage of an equivocal government, their enterprise found its birth and its achievement. They were of the boldest, the most earnest of their sect. There were such among the French disciples of Calvin ; but no Mayflower ever sailed from a port of France. Coligny’s colonists were of a different stamp, and widely different was their fate.
An excellent seaman and stanch Protestant, John Ribaut of Dieppe, commanded the expedition. Under him, besides sailors, were a band of veteran soldiers, and a few young nobles. Embarked in two of those antiquated craft whose high poops and tub-like proportions are preserved in the old engravings of De Bry, they sailed from Havre on the eighteenth of February, 1562. They crossed the Atlantic, and on the thirtieth of April, in the latitude of twenty-nine and a half degrees, saw the long, low line where the wilderness of waves met the wilderness of woods. It was the coast of Florida. Soon they descried a jutting point, which they called French Cape, perhaps one of the headlands of Matauzas Inlet. They turned their prows northward, skirting the fringes of that waste of verdure which rolled in shadowy undulation far to the unknown West.
On the next morning, the first of May, they found themselves off the mouth of a great river. Hiding at anchor on a sunny sea, they lowered their boats, crossed the bar that obstructed the entrance, and floated on a basin of deep and sheltered water, alive with leaping fish. Indians wore running along the beach and out upon the sand-bars, beckoning them to land. They pushed their boats ashore and disembarked, — sailors, soldiers, and eager young nobles. Corslet and morion, arquebus© and halberd flashed in the sun that flickered through innumerable leaves, as, kneeling on the ground, they gave thanks to God who had guided their voyage to an issue full of promise. The Indians, seated gravely under the neighboring trees, looked on in silent respect, thinking that they worshipped the sun. They were in full paint, in honor of the occasion, and in a most friendly mood. With their squaws and children, they presently drew near, and, strewing the earth with laurel - boughs, sat down among the Frenchmen. The latter were much pleased with them, and Ribaut gave the chief, whom he calls the king, a robe of blue cloth, worked in yellow with the regal fleur-de-lis.
But Ribaut and his followers, just escaped from the dull prison of their ships, were intent on admiring the wild scenes around them. Never had they known a fairer May-Day. The quaint old narrative is exuberant with delight. The quiet air, the warm sun, woods fresh with young verdure, meadows bright with flowers ; the palm, the cypress, the pine, the magnolia; the grazing deer; herons, curlews, bitterns, woodcock, and unknown water-fowl that waded in the ripple of the beach ; cedars bearded from crown to root with long gray moss ; huge oaks smothering in the serpent folds of enormous grape-vines: such were the objects that greeted them in their roamings, till their new-found land seemed “ the fairest, fruitfullest, and pleasantest of al the world.”
They found a tree covered with caterpillars, and hereupon the ancient blackletter says, — “ Also there be Silke wormes in meruielous number, a great deale fairer and better then be our silk wormes. To bee short, it is a thing vnspeakable to consider the t hinges that bee seene there, and shalbe founde more and more in this incomperable lande.”
Above all, it was plain to their excited fancy that the country was rich in gold and silver, turquoises and pearls. One of the latter, “ as great as an Acorne at ye least,” hung from the neck of an Indian who stood near their boats as they reembarked. They gathered, too, from the signs of their savage visitors, that the wonderful land of Cibola, with its seven cities and its untold riches, was distant but twenty days’ journey by water. In truth, it was on the Gila, two thousand miles off, and its wealth a fable.
They named the river the River of May, — it is now the St. John’s, — and on its southern shore, near its mouth, planted a stone pillar graven with the arms of France. Then, once more embarked, they held their course northward, happy in that benign decree which locks from mortal eyes the secrets of the future.
Next they anchored near Fernandina, and to a neighboring river, probably the St. Mary’s, gave the name of the Seine. Here, as morning broke on the fresh, moist meadows hung with mists, and on broad reaches of inland waters which Seemed like lakes, they were tempted to land again, and soon “ espied an innumerable number of footesteps of great Hartes and Hindes of a wonderfull greatnesse, the steppes being all fresh and new, and it seemeth that the people doe nourish them like tame Cattell.” By two or three weeks of exploration they seem to have gained a clear idea of this rich semi-aquatic region. Ribaut describes it as “a countric full of hauens riuers and Hands of such fruitfulncs, as cannot with tongue be expressed.” Slowly moving northward, they named each river, or inlet supposed to be a river, after the streams of France, — the Loire, the Charente, the Garonne, the Gironde. At length, they reached a scene made glorious in after - years. Opening betwixt flat and sandy shores, they saw a commodious haven, and named it Port Royal.
On the twenty-seventh of May they crossed the bar, where the war-ships of Dupont crossed three hundred years later.1 They passed Hilton Head, where Rebel batteries belched their vain thunder, and, dreaming nothing of what the rolling centuries should bring forth, held their course along the peaceful bosom of Broad River. On the left they saw a Stream which they named Libourne, probably Skull Creek ; on the right, a wide river, probably the Beaufort. When they landed, all was solitude. The frightened Indians had fled, but they lured them back with knives, beads, and looking-glasses, and enticed two of them on board their ships. Here, by feeding, clothing, and caressing them, they tried to wean them from their fears, but the captive warriors moaned and lamented day and night, till Ribaut, with the prudence and humanity which seem always to have characterized him, gave over his purpose of carrying them to France, and set them ashore again.
Ranging the woods, they found them full of game, wild turkeys and partridges, bears and lynxes. Two deer, of unusual size, leaped up from the underbrush. Crossbow and arquebuse were brought to the level; but the Huguenot captain, moved with the singular fairness and bigness of them,” forbade his men to shoot.
Preliminary exploration, not immediate settlement, had been the object of the voyage, but all was still rose-color in the eyes of the voyagers, and many of their number would fain linger in the New Canaan. Ribaut was more than willing to humor them. He mustered his company on deck, and made them a stirring harangue : appealed to their courage and their patriotism, told them how, from a mean origin, men rise by enterprise and daring to fame and fortune, and demanded who among them would stay behind and hold Port Royal for the king. The greater part came forward, and “ with such a good will and joly corage,” writes the commander, “ as we had much to do to stay their importunitie.” Thirty were chosen, and Albert de Pierria was named to command them.
A fort was forthwith begun, on a small stream called the Chenoneeau, probably Archer’s Creek, about six miles from the site of Beaufort. They named it Charlesfort, in honor of the unhappy son of Catherine de Médicis, Charles IX., the future hero of St. Bartholomew. Ammunition and stores were sent on shore, and, on the eleventh of June, with his diminished company, Ribaut, again embarking, spread his sails for France.
From the beach at Hilton Head Albert and his companions miglit watch the receding ships, growing less and less on the vast expanse of blue, dwindling to flint specks, then vanishing on the pale verge of the waters. They were alone in those fearful solitudes. From the North Pole to Mexico no Christian denizen but they.
But how were they to subsist ? Their thought was not of subsistence, but of gold. Of the thirty, the greater number were soldiers and sailors, with a few gentlemen, that is to say, men of the sword, born within the pale of nobility, who at home could neither labor nor trade without derogation from their rank. For a time they busied themselves with finishing their fort, and, this done, set forth in quest of adventures.
The Indians had lost all fear of them. Ribaut had enjoined upon them to use all kindness and gentleness in their dealing with the men of the woods; and they more than obeyed him. They were soon hand and glove with chiefs, warriors, and squaws ; and as with Indians the adage that familiarity breeds contempt holds with peculiar force, they quickly divested themselves of the prestige which had attached at the outset to their supposed character of children of the sun. Goodwill, however, remained, and this the colonists abused to the utmost.
Roaming by river, swamp, and forest, they visited in turn the villages of five petty chiefs, whom they called kings, feasted everywhere on hominy, beans, and game, and loaded with gifts. One of these chiefs, named Audusta, invited them to the grand religious festival of his tribe. Thither, accordingly, they went. The village was alive with preparation, and troops of women were busied in sweeping the great circular area, surrounded by the lodges, where the ceremonies were to take place. But as the noisy and impertinent guests showed disposition to undue merriment, the chief shut them all in his wigwam, lest their gentile eyes should profane the mysteries. Here, immured in darkness, they listened to the howls, yelpings, and lugubrious songs that resounded from without. One of them, however, by some artifice, contrived to escape, hid behind a bush, and saw the whole solemnity: the procession of the medicine-men and the bedaubed and befeatliered warriors; the drumming, the dancing, the stamping; the wild lamentation of the women, as they gashed the arms of the young girls with sharp mussel-shells and flung the blood into the air with dismal outcries. A scene of ravenous feasting followed, in which the French, released from durance, were summoned to share.
Their carousal over, they returned to Charlesfort, where they were soon pinched with hunger. The Indians, never niggardly of food, brought them supplies as long as their own lasted; but the harvest was not yet ripe, and their means did not match their good-will. They told the French of two other kings, Ouade and Coucxis, who dwelt towards the South, and were rich beyond belief in maize, beans, and squashes. Embarking without delay, the mendicant colonists steered for the wigwams of these potentates, not by the open sea, but by a perplexing inland navigation, including, as it seems, Calibogue Sound and neighboring waters. Arrived at the friendly villages, on or near the Savannah, they were feasted to repletion, and their boat laden with vegetables and corn. They returned rejoicing; but their joy was short. Their storehouse at Charlesfort, taking fire in the. night, burned to the ground, and with it their newly acquired stock. Once more they set forth for the realms of King Ouade, and once more returned laden with supplies. Nay, more, the generous savage assured them, that, so long as his cornfields yielded their harvests, his friends should not want.
How long this friendship would have lasted may well be matter of doubt. With the perception that the dependants on their bounty were no demigods, but a crew of idle and helpless beggars, respect would soon have changed to contempt and contempt to ill-will. But it was not to Indian war-clubs that the embryo colony was to owe its ruin. Within itself it earned its own destruction. The illassorted band of landsmen and sailors, surrounded by that influence of the wilderness which wakens the dormant savage in the breasts of men, soon fell into quarrels. Albert, a rude soldier, with a thousand leagues of ocean betwixt him and responsibility, grew harsh, domineering, and violent beyond endurance. None could question or oppose him without peril of death. He hanged a drummer who had fallen under his displeasure, and banished La Chère, a soldier, to a solitary island, three leagues from the fort, where he left him to starve. For a time his comrades chafed in smothered fury. The crisis came at length. A few of the fiercer spirits leagued together, assailed their tyrant, and murdered him. The deed done, and the famished soldier delivered, they called to the command one Nicholas Barre, a man of merit. Barre took the command, and thenceforth there was peace.
Peace, such as it was, with famine, homesickness, disgust. The rough ramparts and rude buildings of Cbarlesfort, hatefully familiar to their weary eyes, the sweltering forest, the glassy river, the eternal silence of the wild monotony around them, oppressed the senses and the spirits. Did they feel themselves the pioneers of religious freedom, the advance-guard of civilization ? Not at all. They dreamed of case, of home, of pleasures across the sea, — of the evening cup on the bench before the cabaret, of dances with kind damsels of Dieppe. But how to escape ? A continent was then’ solitary prison, and the pitiless Atlantic closed the egress. Not one of them knew how to build a ship ; but Ribaut had left them a forge, with tools and iron, and strong desire supplied the place of skill. Trees were hewn down and the work begun. Had they put forth, to maintain themselves at Port Royal, the energy and resource which they exerted to escape from it, they might have laid the cornerstone of a solid colony.
All, gentle and simple, labored with equal zeal. They calked the seams with the long moss which hung in profusion from the neighboring trees; the pines supplied them with pitch ; the Indians made for them a kind of cordage; and for sails they sewed together their shirts and bedding. At length a brigantine worthy of Robinson Crusoe floated on the waters of the Chenoneeau. They laid in what provision they might, gave all that remained of their goods to the delighted Indians, embarked, descended the river, and put to sea. A fair wind filled their patchwork sails and bore them from the hated coast. Day after day they held their course, till at length the favoring breeze died away and a breathless calm fell on the face of the waters. Florida was far behind ; France farther yet before. Floating idly on the glassy waste, the craft lay motionless. Their supplies gave out. Twelve kernels of maize a day were each man’s portion ; then the maize failed, and they ate their shoes and leather jerkins. The water-barrels were drained, and they tried to slake their thirst with brine. Several died, and the rest, giddy with exhaustion and crazed with thirst, were forced to ceaseless labor, baling out the water that gushed through every seam. Head-winds set in, increasing to a gale, and the wretched brigantine, her sails close-reefed, tossed among the savage billows at the mercy of the storm. A heavy sea rolled down upon her, and threw her on her side. The surges broke over her, and, clinging with desperate gripe to spars and cordage, the drenched voyagers gave up all for lost. At length she righted. The gale subsided, the wind changed, and the crazy, water-logged vessel again bore slowly towards France.
Gnawed with deadly famine, they count ed the leagues of barren ocean that still stretched before. With haggard, wolfish eyes they gazed on each other, till a whisper passed from man to man, that one, by his death, might ransom all the rest. The choice was made. It fell on La Chere, the same wretched man whom Albert had doomed to starvation on a lonely island, and whose mind was burdened with the fresh memories of his anguish and despair. They killed him, and with ravenous avidity portioned out his flesh. The hideous repast sustained them till the French coast rose in sight, when, it is said, in a delirium of insane joy, they could no longer steer their vessel, but let her drift at the will of the tide. A small English bark bore down upon them, took them all on board, and, after landing the feeblest, carried the rest prisoners to Queen Elizabeth.
Thus closed another of those scenes of woe whose lurid clouds were thickly piled around the stormy dawn of American history.
It was but the opening act of a wild and tragic drama. A tempest of miseries awaited those who essayed to plant the banners of France and of Calvin in the Southern forests ; and the bloody scenes of the religious war were acted in epitome on the shores of Florida.
- The following is the record of this early visit to Port Royal, taken from Ribaut’s report to Coligny, translated and printed in London in 1563:—↩
- “ And when wee had sounded the entrie of the Chancll (thanked be God), wee entered safely therein with our shippes, against the opinion of many, finding the same one of the fayrest and greatest Hauens of the worlde. Howe be it, it must be remembrcd, least men approaching neare it within seven leagues of the lande, bee abashed and afraide on the East side, drawing towarde the Southeast, the grounde to be flatte, for neuerthelesse at a full sea. there is euery where foure fadorne water keeping the right Chanel.”↩
- Ribaut thinks that the Broad River of Port Royal is the Jordan of the Spanish navigator Vasquez de Ayllon, who was here in 1520, and gave the name of St. Helena to a neighboring cape (La Vega, Florida del Inca). The adjacent district, now called St. Helena, is the Chicora of the old Spanish maps.↩