The ruins of Fort San Mateo were visited by William Bartram and discussed in his famous journal.
The fake location in Jacksonville, FL is one of the biggest scams ever foisted on the U.S. Congress & National Park Service.
by Richard Thornton, Architect and City Planner
Map Above: While researching the actual routes of Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo, I contacted a former architecture client in Virginia, who was a historian with the Library of Congress prior to retirement. He recommended this 1794 map by Henry Mouzon of the roads and Indian trails of North Carolina, South Carolina and eastern Georgia as the most accurate portrayal of the Indian trails. It solved the De Soto riddle, but also stated that the Altamaha River was formerly named the May River . . . that’s the river, which flowed past the massacred French colony of Fort Caroline. Well, until 1722, all other maps labeled the Altamaha as being the May River and if they mentioned Fort Caroline, they placed it on the south side of the mouth of the that river.
In late August 1971, while an intern for Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, two friends of mine from Georgia Tech and I sailed to uninhabited Cumberland Island, GA to camp there for two weeks and look for evidence of previous human habitation . . . in preparation for the island being donated to the National Park Service by the State of Georgia.
Immediately behind the massive sand dunes of the south beach was an old hand painted, wooden sign, which stated that the skeletons of several 16th century French sailors, shipwrecked on Cumberland Island, had been found here. The Spanish had executed them behind the dunes by order of Governor Pedro Menendez. In the early 1800s, the skeletons had been reinterred with a Protestant funeral to a cemetery on a nearby plantation. The plantation owners obviously assumed that the sailors were French Protestants for some reason.
We didn’t know the connection to Fort Caroline. In fact, I had never heard of Fort Caroline at that point in my life. The sign was still there, but barely legible, in November 1999, when I was camping on the island with a teacher from Rome, GA. The sign was gone in June 2006, when I was visiting Cumberland with a lady friend from Canada. Back in the early 20th century, Georgians knew the real location of Fort Caroline, but by the late 20th century, people assumed that Fort Caroline was in Jacksonville . . . because the professors and National Park Service said so!
Spanish archives that conflicted with “official” history
In 2007, two archaeologists with the National Museum of the American Indian – New York City contacted me to discern my professional experience with Native American and Late Medieval vernacular buildings. I had an extensive background in Native American architecture and I had worked with some 15th and 16th century farm buildings in Sweden, but not worked with historic Spanish architecture. They felt that my experiences in Mexico mitigated the lack of direct experience with Spanish vernacular architecture, so . . .
I was ultimately asked to prepare three dimensional architectural drawings of Mission Santa Catalina de Guale on St. Catherines Island, GA, plus several examples of Native American architecture. Prior to preparing any drawings, though, they wanted me to read (literally) a box full of translated eyewitness accounts of the missions and mission life on the coast of Georgia. Those documents opened up a new world for me that was never discussed, when I was in architecture school.
The first thing that surprised me was that Native Americans constructed buildings in Georgia out of tabby, long before the arrival of Europeans. Almost all architectural and history references state that British planters introduced this style of construction from the Caribbean Basin. Tabby walls are formed by pouring a mixture of sand, lime made from burned seashells and crushed shells into wooden molds.
As I dug deeper into the journals and reports written by the friars on St. Catherines and St. Simeon Island, I was stunned by two descriptions that totally conflicted with what all late 20th century books, written by Floridian academicians stated:
(1) The Indian tribes that these professors said were “Timucuans,” living around Jacksonville, FL actually lived around the mouths of the Altamaha, Satilla and St. Marys Rivers in Georgia.
(2) The friars described the ruins of Fort Caroline and Fort San Mateo, being only a morning’s canoe ride away from the missions on St. Catherines and St. Simeon Islands. How could that be? The mouth of the Altamaha River was at least 75 miles north of Fort Caroline National Monument!
The most astonishing discovery occurred when I read the reports by Spanish governor Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to the King of Spain.* The latitude of Fort Caroline (31.3°) matched the mouth of the Altamaha River in Georgia, not the St. Johns River. The latitude for the first location of St. Augustine (31°) matched a peninsula, jutting out into St. Andrews Sound in Georgia. He also stated that Mission San Pedro (Cumberland Island, GA) was to the south of the entrance to this sound, while Mission San Aseo (Jekyll Island, GA) was to the north of the entrance.
Menéndez explained his reason for establishing the original St. Augustine at this location. Bahía San Andrés (St. Andrews Sound) was deep enough to anchor a hundred of Spain’s largest warships. Actually, it is the deepest port on the South Atlantic Coast. On the other hand, the entrance to a bay, 40 leagues (104 miles ~ 167 km) to the south, where he initially established a small “coast guard” station was too shallow for his flagship. The Spanish were forced to relocate St. Augustine to its current location in March 1566, because the Indians in Georgia were killing off the colonists. Today’s St. Augustine Bay was thinly populated by a primitive Native American tribe.
*Several years later I would read the original memoir of Captain René de Laundonnière, Commander of Fort Caroline. He stated that Fort Caroline was at a little less than 31.5° latitude and that the Spanish established their base at 31° latitude. Three Voyages by former Jacksonville Congressman, Charles Bennett claims to be an exact translation of this original French text. It absolutely is not. It is a modern English version of the 1578 translation of the memoir by Richard Hakluyt and contains all of Hakluyt’s translation errors . . . plus, Bennett redacted all descriptions of the May River flowing in a general southeasterly direction from the Appalachian foothills and De Laudonière’s statement about Fort Caroline’s latitude.
I raised these issues with my two contacts in New York City. They were rather dismissive of me. They seemed to think that since I was not an archaeologist, I couldn’t read and certainly couldn’t know Spanish. They told me that it didn’t affect the architecture or the site plan of Mission Santa Cataline de Guale, so not worry about these passages in the Spanish Archives.
Then in December 2011, one of the founding members of the People of One Fire gave me a book of Colonial Period maps. On the cover was a late 16th century map, which showed Fort Caroline to be at south side of the mouth of the Altamaha River in Georgia. I went through the book. All of the French, Spanish, English and Dutch maps up to 1721 showed Fort Caroline at that location, not on the St. Johns River in Florida!
I contacted Michael Jacobs, Senior Historic Preservation Planner at the South Georgia Regional Commission. He wrote back that many 16th century French and Spanish artifacts had been found along the lower stretches of the Altamaha and Satilla Rivers, but none in the vicinity of Fort Caroline National Monument in Florida. Michael was aware that all Early Colonial maps showed
A few weeks later, Michael sent me the chapter number of Bartram’s Travels that apparently had been ignored by all National Park Service officials and academicians. While staying at the Broughton Plantation on what is now called Broughton Island, Bartram was told about the ruins of a 16th century French or Spanish fort about one mile (1.6 km) upstream from the plantations dock.
Bartram visited the ruins and wrote about them in his famous book. What he found was trapezoidal earthworks that I realized matched the shape and dimensions of Fort San Mateo, which was built over the ruins of much large Fort Caroline in 1566.
I found the ruins on a ERSI GIS satellite image. The Glynn County Planning Department furnished me LIDAR images of the area in which the ruins of Fort San Mateo were even more clear. I drove down to Glynn County and paddled my canoe to the ruins. They are very visible at ground level.
Santo Domingo State Park
Further research revealed some astonishing facts that contemporary archaeologists and state historic preservation officials have conveniently forgotten. Working in 1935 for the Smithsonian Institute on behalf of the recently formed National Park Service, archaeologist James Ford found numerous 16th century weapons, tools and domestic artifacts such as French china plates and silverware immediately to the south of the trapezoidal earthworks. He misinterpreted the earthworks as being an “Indian mound.” He misinterpreted the 16th artifacts as being all Spanish and merely the detritus of a temporary military campsite, not a fort.
Ford also dug test holes all along the mouth of the Altamaha. He found numerous, ancient bronze and iron weapons & tools in many places. He misinterpreted these artifacts as being 16th and 17th Spanish artifacts. They stopped making bronze weapons in the Iberian Peninsula around 600 BC!
Georgia had created one of the earliest state parks, Santo Domino State Park, at this archaeological zone, because it was assumed that the tabby ruins of 18th century sugar and indigo mills were 17th century Spanish mission buildings. All of Ford’s artifacts were put on display in a new museum at the park.
After World War II, the state park was converted into a boys orphanage. At this point in time, no one seems to know what happened to the artifacts on display. In the 1960s, the State of Georgia traded the large tract of land, formerly occupied by Santo Domingo State Park to the Georgia Southern Baptist Convention for the smaller tract of the Hapeville Baptist Children’s Home . . . in order to expand the Atlanta Airport. The tract ultimately became owned by a Southern Baptist Church in Brunswick and the former museum is leased to a family counseling center.
Jacksonville creates a tourist attraction from nothing
Eventually, I figured out that a man, named George R. Fairbanks, had moved to Florida from Watertown, New York in 1842. He bought large tracts of land for resale near St. Augustine and Jacksonville. Fairbanks wrote Florida’s first history book to promote his real estate sales. The “borrowed” the legend of the Fountain of Youth from the Bahama Islands to promote St. Augustine properties. He “dreamed up” the location for a Fort Caroline near Jacksonville to promote his land sales there. His history book became Florida’s standard school history text for the remainder of the century into the 1920s. Generations of Floridians grew up thinking that these two myths were factual history.
- The St. Johns River was not accessible by ocean-going vessels until 1860, after being dredged by the US Corps of Engineers. In 1564, it would have been impossible for French ships to reach the fake site of Fort Caroline.
- In the 1920s, the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce arbitrarily picked a site for Fort Caroline, because it had a nice view of the St. Johns River. They wanted something to lure tourists off of Highway 1A. The Daughters of the American Revolution paid for an inaccurate museum model to be built.
- In 1940, the City of Jacksonville gave a tract of land at the mouth of the St. Johns River for a base. The US Navy was told to name it “Mayport” after the May River.
- In 1950, Jacksonville offered to give their empty 25 acre tract of land to the US Government for a National Historical Site. Congress was shown a photo of a small Civil War artillery emplacement and told it was the ruins of Fort Caroline. Congressional staffers got wise to the ploy, so Congress only approved designation of a Fort Caroline National Monument.
- By 1961, there was still nothing at the site. Congressman Charles C. Bennett agreed to support the National Civil Rights Act in return for President Lindon Johnson allocating discretionary funds to build a 1/12th model of the fort on that site. They placed the fort too close to the river and so far more money has been spent since then to keep it from being washed away.
- In 1988, the original national monument was expanded into a 46,000 acre National Park Service “ecological and historical preserve.”
My book receives fascinating responses from France
At this point, I had gone as far as I could go with archival research and remote sensing techniques. Major funding would be needed to bring in a professional archaeological excavation. I wrote a beautifully illustrated book, Fort Caroline . . . the Search for America’s Lost Heritage. As befitting a professional city planner like myself, the book is a comprehensive analysis of all possible sites for Fort Caroline and the original site of St. Augustine – not just a study of William Bartram’s location.
*Fort Caroline . . . The Search for America’s Lost Heritage
As far as can determine, no Georgia academician or state bureaucrat ever read the book. One University of Georgia history professor, without reading the book or looking at its 16th, 17th and 18th century maps, commented caustically “This book should be ignored just like Thornton’s Maya thing. Everyone knows that 16th century maps are notoriously inaccurate.” My publisher deleted the comment, because he had not purchased the book.
In contrast, the book’s largest sales have been in France and Canada, even though it was only published in English. Several French historians contacted me to tell me that they have always known that Fort Caroline was in present-day Georgia. They never understood why the US Government built an inaccurate 1/12th model of Fort Caroline in Jacksonville, FL. The real Fort Caroline was built to hold at least 1000 colonists! One reminded me that the southern boundary of the State of Georgia exactly matches the southern boundary of Floride Française . . . the land claimed by France until 1763.
The most fascinating information came from a French professor, who is a specialist on Napoleon. After being defeated at Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte planned to immigrate to the State of Georgia and develop a plantation without slaves on the St. Marys River. He was on his way to Georgia, when captured by a British frigate.
Napoleon dreamed of a resurrection of Floride Française via a large colony of industrious French Huguenots, loyal to the new United States. Once in Georgia, Napoleon planned to establish a world class university somewhere near the location of Fort Caroline and Brunswick, GA, where he would teach mathematics and engineering. The university would apply technology to agriculture in order to create machines that would negate the need for human slaves on southern plantations.
Now you know!