Historic Points at Fort George Island

THE charms of Fort George Island, at the mouth of the St. John’s River, Florida, are widely and justly celebrated. But the enraptured visitor, lingering under its lithe groves of palm, little dreams of the scenes of romance and blood which half a century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth enriched this magical isle with the element of association and legend.

It is with these events that we are now chiefly concerned, with a view to a more exact knowledge of the spot where they occurred than has yet been reached by those who have hitherto written on this subject as historians, giving either dramatic condensations of the facts, like Parkman, or running commentaries on the old records, like Shea.

After the first landing of De Soto in Florida in 1529, no systematic attempt occurred to establish a colony in that peninsula until Jean Ribaut, the Huguenot admiral, anchored off the mouth of the St. John’s River, May 1, 1562, and called it the River of May, owing to the season and the amenity of the prospect. The establishment of a French Protestant colony in Florida resulted in stimulating the hate and jealousy of the Spaniards, for, as Parkman, pithily observes, “ the typical Spaniard of the sixteenth century was not in strictness a fanatic; he was bigotry incarnate.” A powerful expedition, under Pedro Menendez de Aviles, Adelantado of Florida, was launched against the Huguenot colony. Headed off from the River of May by the fleet of Ribaut, Menendez, on the 8th of September, 1565, took possession of a port at the southward, and founded St. Augustine, the oldest town in the United States.

Providence certainly seemed to fight against the Huguenots in Florida, for they never gained a permanent foothold there. The fleet of Ribaut was shattered by a terrible tempest, and driven on the sands near St. Augustine. Taking advantage of their distress, although France and Spain were then at peace, Menendez, by the practice of phenomenal dissimulation and treachery in the name of religion, which has been the cloak for so many foul deeds, succeeded in seizing the French Fort Caroline and every French man and woman in Florida, excepting some fifteen who escaped to the Indians. He butchered nearly all his prisoners, to the number of seven hundred, in cold blood, reserving a few for the galleys. This episode forms one of the bloodiest pages in the gory annals of Spain.

Owing to the bitterness of the religious feuds of the age, the extermination of the French in Florida seems to have aroused but little indignation at the court of France; for in those dark days religious bigotry counted for more than patriotism in the councils of the nations. Notwithstanding this fact, a few were found in France, besides the Huguenots, whose blood boiled when they learned of the massacres of their countrymen in Florida. Among them was Dominique de Gourgues, a seaman and soldier, known for daring and adventure. Amidst a conflict of authorities, I prefer to accept the statement of Charlevoix that he was a Roman Catholic. But he never forgot that he was first of all a Frenchman. When De Gourgues heard of the horrible deeds of Menendez he resolved on vengeance, and to that end obtained a commission from Montluc, lieutenant of the king in Guyenne, ostensibly to procure slaves on the coast of Africa. Mortgaging all his possessions, De Gourgues purchased and fitted out three small vessels. Two were of the style called roberges ; the third was a patache, a vessel whose rig resembled that of a felucca, — that is, with lateen sails and low masts. Very likely she was also broad in the beam and of light draught to meet the special purpose of the expedition. All three vessels were provided with sweeps, which proved very useful, as we shall see, in the case of the patache, in the tortuous channels of the sea islands of Florida. This little squadron was manned by eighty picked mariners and one hundred and fifty troops, of whom one hundred, according to De Gourgues, were heavily armed arquebusiers.

It was not until after he had made several descents on the African coast that De Gourgues announced to his crews what was the real purpose for which he had undertaken this voyage. “ J’ai compté sur vous, je vous ai cru assez jaloux de la gloire de votre Patrie, pour lui sacrifier jusqu’à votre vie en une occasion de cette importance; me suis-je trompe ? ” 1 Such in substance was the ringing address of De Gourgues to his companions. For a moment, grouped around the masts, while naught was heard but the wind in the sails and the foam at the bow, they made no response to these burning words. Then, like an electric spark, the glory of the opportunity, the rage for revenge, the fury of patriotism, kindled their hearts; with a universal shout, they besought the admiral to make a straight wake for the strongholds of the Spanish cut-throats and brigands, who had slaughtered their countrymen and ravished fortresses from France in time of peace.

It was a rosy afternoon in the early spring-time when the three French ships made the land at the mouth of the River of May. The Spaniards, far from suspecting them to be French, fired a salute as the little fleet sheered off and stood northward, to find a congenial haven in the St. Mary’s River. I use the word “ congenial ” advisedly. The Indians had, as usual, been treated with the treachery and brutality which everywhere characterized the Spanish conquest in America. The French and the Indians, on the other hand, had associated as harmoniously in Florida as in Canada. The head chief, Satouriona, and his dusky subjects were overjoyed to see the banners of France again, and entered into the plans of De Gourgues with the utmost heartiness. Spies, sent to examine the number and works of the Spaniards on the River of May, reported that they numbered upwards of four hundred men and had two new forts besides Fort Caroline, which the Spaniards had renamed Fort San Mateo. The new forts were situated on either side of the mouth of the river, evidently to command the passage.

In three days Satouriona and his warriors completed their preparations to accompany De Gourgues against the Spaniards. Francois Bordelais was left with twenty men to guard the two largest of the ships. The third, which was doubtless the patache, we must conclude from the tenor of the narrative, accompanied the expedition ; for a craft capable of transporting eighty men is mentioned in connection with the capture of the second fort. Where did the French find such a vessel, unless it was the patache ? — while the boats of the squadron could not have been large enough or sufficiently numerous to transport the two hundred and ten Frenchmen who went to Fort George Island with De Gourgues. Part went in boats, and part in the patache, expressly provided with sweeps, — a vessel having low masts, visible only at a short distance, and spars lowering to the deck. Evidently De Gourgues selected a patach, for exactly this sort of service in Floridian waters.

The Indians proceeding by land or in canoes, the French by boats and in the patache, De Gourgues finally succeeded, after much buffeting with angry waves and winds, in assembling his motley forces on what is now called Fort George Island. Still densely wooded in most parts with gigantic oaks and stately palms, at that time it presented a tangled jungle, excessively difficult to penetrate. All the afternoon they toiled with the closely matted underwood and swollen streams and pools. Had they been discovered by the enemy, their destruction would have been certain. Towards nightfall De Gourgues arrived on the banks of an arm of the sea, — undoubtedly what was once called Fort George Inlet, but now known as Talbot Inlet, — and continued the march along the sands, which are smooth and hard as a floor.

The following day, having been detained on the bank of another stream or inlet by the tide, the impatient French and Indians, burning with a thirst for revenge, and urgent to terminate the perilous suspense, took the Spaniards unawares after their noon meal, swept over the fort like a hurricane, and massacred the garrison of sixty to a man, those who escaped from the fort falling into an ambuscade of Indians.

The Spaniards at the fort on the opposite bank of the River of May, seeing and hearing the commotion, opened fire on the victors. De Gourgues caused four culverins, just captured, to be wheeled down to the shore, and under cover of this return fire embarked eighty of his soldiers in the large craft we judge to have been the patache, and pushed across to the opposite fort; the Indians, holding their bows and arrows in one hand over their heads, and swimming with the other, accompanied the patache. Smitten with terror, and well aware they had nothing to hope from the furious multitude swarming across the river, the Spaniards flew pell-mell towards the forests, but were too late ; for De Gourgues was already landing. A cloud of French and Indians, fierce as bloodhounds after fugitive slaves, threw themselves in the path of the flying wretches, and all but fifteen fell under the arquebuse and the tomahawk.

Fort San Mateo remained. Being but two miles and a half from the scene of these events, the garrison had the whole of Quasimodo Sunday to reflect on the fate that awaited them in turn, while French and Indians were engaged making ladders to storm the stronghold on the bluff. By the aid of boldness and strategy, Fort San Mateo was also captured, and the entire garrison was butchered, save the governor, Gonzalo de Villaroel, and two or three companions, who escaped, and a handful of prisoners, reserved for more deliberate vengeance.

The three conflicts being victoriously concluded, and the three forts captured, De Gourgues ordered the captives to be dragged into his presence. His judgment hall was under the spreading oaks, pointed out to him as those on which Menendez had hanged the Frenchmen, with the inscription over them, “ Not as to Frenchmen, but as to Lutherans.” As he surveyed the trembling wretches before him, we can imagine that if ever there is a rapture and a luxury in dealing out revenge, De Gourgues reveled in it then, as he looked down on them with terrible gaze. “ Think you,” he cried, “ that a treachery so vile, a cruelty so abominable, could escape retribution! I, one of the humblest squires of my sovereign, have taken on myself to avenge this crime against a king so puissant and a nation so chivalrous. . . . Although it is not possible to deal to you the full measure of suffering you have so richly earned, it is needful you undergo what a foe may inflict with honor, to the end that by your example others may learn to respect the peace and amity which you have so wickedly and unhappily violated! ” Then, with a wave of his hand, the avenger of France bade the executioners do their work. On the branches where the Spaniards were hanged De Gourgues caused the inscription to be fixed, “ Not as to Spaniards or Moorish whelps, but as to traitors, thieves, and assassins.” Thus did the heroic Dominique de Gourgues literally exterminate the Spaniards from the River of May, and replace their banner of blood and gold with the lilies of France.

With his subsequent career we are not here concerned. My purpose in giving this rapid sketch of these thrilling events has been in order to enable the reader to follow me more readily in the consideration of certain points to which my interest in the subject has led me to give critical attention.

It is not difficult to trace the position of Fort San Mateo, for relics of that fortification, mounds and the like, yet remain there, although Parkman, on the authority of De Gourgues, states that by the command of De Gourgues “ not one stone was left on another.” Of the two other forts, unfortunately, no traces are now to be seen; but the one on the southern bank in all likelihood stood on the dunes near the building until recently occupied in summer as a nunnery.

The position of the first fort attacked, the one on the northern side of the river, is not so easy to ascertain, having, indeed, been long a matter of curious speculation. This may be in part because those who have written upon this subject have not visited the scene of these events, while those who have been there, and are familiar with the region, have failed to study the records with sufficient care. By some it has been assumed that this fort stood a few rods northeast of the hotel, on a bank overgrower with palmettos that overhangs the beach skirting Talbot Inlet, at the entrance to what is called Lover’s Lane. It has been claimed that here would have been the most eligible spot to command the passage through the inlet. But to accept this solution of the question would be to ignore not only the direct statements of De Gourgues, an eye-witness, of Charlevoix, and other chroniclers, but also the physical aspects of the situation.

A small fort, garrisoned by only sixty men, would have been in a most exposed position, if isolated from and unsupported by the other two forts; whereas by being further south and west it could at once command the inlet, and with the aid of the Mayport battery control the main ship-channel into the River of May. The narrative states that the French, after landing on the island, pushed through the forest until, at five in the afternoon, they came to a wide inlet, presumably Talbot Inlet. The account of De Gourgues leaves one to understand that they were then still considerably north of the Spanish fort, for they marched along the sands, which run as nearly as possible north and south on the east side of the island as far as the southern entrance of Talbot Inlet. As the French are stated to have marched down the beach, and as there is no beach on the other side of the island, clearly the road followed was along Talbot Inlet. This route was suggested by one of the Indian chiefs, who perceived the great difficulty the French found in traversing the dense undergrowth of the primeval forests.

We are now brought face to face with the chief point of interest in this investigation : where stood the Spanish fort on Fort George Island ? In considering the unvarnished statements of eyewitnesses or credible historians on this subject, we may justly conclude that the spot which enables us most clearly to harmonize the facts as recorded must evidently be, in all likelihood, the position where the fort stood, without regard to any supposed expediency in favor of some other site : first, the attacking party marched, as we have seen, along the beach until in sight of the fort, and was then arrested in its progress by a stream or inlet until, the tide falling, the depth was reduced to a degree that allowed them to ford it; second, the fort was partially concealed by trees in the rear, which enabled the Indians, approaching from the interior of the island, to form an ambush; third, it faced the beach, to the edge of which the victors wheeled the captured cannon, and were thence able to annoy the enemy on the opposite side of the river, at short range, suited to the small guns of the period ; fourth, we are distinctly told that the enemy were able to see the commotion from the opposite fort; and fifth, from this point, or not far from it, the Indians swam across to Mayport, which many of them could not have done except at a narrow part of the river.

Such are the points to harmonize in searching for the site of the Spanish fort on Fort George Island. That it was on that island is indicated, in addition to the above points to be hereinafter considered, by the fact that the French followed the channels from the north, and proceeded by water until they were stopped by an island on which stood the fort. Naturally, therefore, they landed at the northern extremity of Fort George Island, about where the present “ Homestead ” mansion stands, amid its stately groves of oak festooned with Spanish moss. The fine roads, unsurpassed for attractiveness, which now make it so easy and agreeable to ramble or ride over the island, did not then exist; it was a dense, stubborn wilderness, excessively difficult for heavily armed troops to penetrate, impeded as they were with baggage and weighty arquebuses, breastplates and helmets, while the circumstances rendered rapidity of the last importance. Therefore, after toiling awhile in the forest, the French turned to the left and took to the beach, which is hard and for the most part was scarcely discernible from Mayport, in days before the spyglass had been invented. Still, in the last portion of the march, the movement of dark masses might have been perceived from the high dunes of Mayport, and therefore De Gourgues very likely marched his men single file, crouching close under the bank, tufted with palmetto. This necessitated more deliberate movement, and partly accounts for the length of time occupied in arriving within sight of the fort.

Along the southeastern extremity of Fort George Island there stretches a long, wide sand-spit, flanked upon the land side by knolls, rising both above the beach and the salt meadows, which are covered with long grasses and clumps of verdure. On one of these knolls was, in my opinion, the spot where the fort stood. A broad, winding creek separates the beach from these wooded hillocks. This is in all probability the water which delayed the attack of the French. The tide rises there from four to six feet, and to swim the creek would have been highly inexpedient, under the circumstances. But at low tide the creek is barely fordable, and it was then crossed by the daring adventurers’ wading up to their necks, holding their pikes and arquebuses over their heads, and the powder-flasks bound to their helmets.

From the beach, at the point where we consider the fort to have been, the distance to the opposite shore is precisely five eighths of a mile. This distance is quite within range of the culverins, which at any rate would have been able to prevent any reinforcements coming to the aid of the Spaniards or to attack the patache, which, following the channel along Talbot Inlet, evidently arrived at the scene of action about this time. Again, by running a few rods southwest of that point, the Indians would have had actually less than half a mile to swim from bank to bank, — a distance easy of accomplishment for athletes like those naked, copper-colored savages, especially if the tide was coming in, which we are led to infer was the case, as the creek was crossed at extreme low tide, when it was on the turn.

The facts that the short-range guns of the time were available from Mayport to annoy the French across the river, and that the Indians swam to the southern bank, are to me conclusive that the fort stood either on one of the hummocks already mentioned, west of the beach and the creek, or at the spot where Pilot Town now stands, as indicated on the charts. But that it was not at the latter place seems, on the other hand, to be proved by the proximity of the fort to the creek. All the essentials to connect the site of the fort with the narrative are, in my opinion, found combined at the place I have indicated above. Shea somewhat skeptically says, “ Is it creditable that De Gourgues’ cannon and the artillery of the second Spanish fort kept up a duel across the mouth of the St. John’s, and the Indians swam it? ” To this I respectfully reply that if we locate the site of the first fort in accordance with the foregoing observations and conclusions, these statements are not only credible, but certain. Indeed, I cannot see for a moment how a careful examination of the scene of these events could result otherwise than in confirming the narrative of the old chroniclers.

Another argument, more hypothetical than those already adduced, but still worthy of attention as adding cumulative force to our objections to the location of the fort at Pilot Town, is found in the name of Fort George Island. Pilot Town is just beyond it; not on the island at all, but separated from it by a narrow creek, — so narrow, in fact, that it could not have been the creek mentioned by the historians. Now, what is the source from which Fort George Island derived its name ? The descendants of Mr. Mackintosh, who came to the island from Scotland about a century ago, claim that he gave it the name as a reminder of his home in the mother country. But in an old map illustrating General Oglethorpe’s expedition against St. Augustine, we find the island already called Fort George many years earlier. This seems to indicate either that the Spaniards gave that name to their fort, whence it was applied to the island, or that the present name is a corruption of the word Gourgues. Such changes in the pronunciation of proper names we all know to be excessively common. The inference is obvious as to the position of the fort.

The daring and romantic exploit of Dominique de Gourgues is of such heroic character, and so imperishable in the annals of our colonial period, that we offer no apology for attempting to add fresh clues towards the settlement of vexed points in the narrative of the vengeance he wreaked on the Spaniards in Florida.

Before closing, however, it may be worth while to call attention in this connection to another point relating to Fort George Island. The Indians, according to Charlevoix, asserted that silver abounded in the mountains along the St. John’s River. Shea, who apparently had never been to the St. John’s River when he prepared his notes on this subject, states in a footnote that these mountains were what is now known as St. John s Bluff, which is forty feet high, and the site of Fort San Mateo. Is it not far more likely that these mountains are represented by Mount Cornelia, on Fort George Island, the highest land between the Navesink Highlands and Key West, and more than twice the altitude of St. John’s Bluff? What if silver should indeed be discovered in Fort George Island ?

S. G. W. Benjamin.

  1. Charlevoix.