WHAT IS IT? Reconstructed 16th-century fort that marks the brief Protestant French (Huguenot) presence along the southern Atlantic coast.
BEAUTY (2/10) We asked the Ranger at Castillo de San Marcos NM why did the French sail to St. Augustine instead of waiting for the Spanish from their reinforced fortress. His response, “Have you been to Fort Caroline yet? Then you’ll know” And we did. Even though Fort Caroline N MEM is a 1/3-sized reconstruction, its historical smallness and flimsy walls were apparent. It is not much of a fort, more like a triangular shaped enclosure with thin walls overlooking the wide, deep St. Johns River.
We arrived in Jacksonville on a dreary, cold, rainy day. Massive barges floated down the river while steam and smoke bellowed from the many factories. Had it not been for the million dollar houses on the River’s far side, the vista might have been mistaken for Industrial Revolution-era London. Who would build a house overlooking this disgusting river span? Maybe Charles Dickens.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10) In 1562, French explorer Jean Ribault sailed to the mouth of the St. Johns River hoping to find a suitable area to be a refuge for the persecuted Protestant French. Two years later the fort was built and a 200-person colony was established. The colony would double its size in under a year but saw its end by 1565 at the hands of the Spanish. See our Fort Matanzas review for more background.
In September of 1565 after receiving military reinforcements, the Huguenots launched a preemptive attack on the new Spanish colony of St. Augustine located 20 miles to the south. They picked the wrong month. Once out on the water, the weather changed rapidly and the French found themselves sailing into a hurricane. The violent winds tossed and wrecked their ships far to the south of St. Augustine.
The Spanish learned of the Huguenots terrible luck and sent soldiers to take the sparsely protected Fort Caroline. After swiftly reappropriating the fort and massacring some 250 settlers, the Spanish went looking for the accursed French. They found the exhausted Huguenots south of St. Augustine and slaughtered all but 16 of the 350. The French presence in the region was officially over.
CROWDS (4/10) This Site cannot handle crowds well. Not really a problem in our case because there was only one other couple there. Unbelievable since it was Super Bowl week, the biggest thing that has happened to Jacksonville since the Huguenots. Still, the museums ceilings are low and loudly echoed the couple’s conversation with the only person on duty, a talkative and opinionated volunteer. We could not concentrate enough to read the exhibits’ small print text.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5) Fort Caroline is 13 miles east of downtown Jacksonville. The road that hugs the St. Johns River from Florida 9A (Jacksonville’s beltway) to the Site is fittingly named Fort Caroline Road.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5) At least it’s unique. We haven’t seen a pine needle basket craft kit or a fluffy hand puppet in the shape of a clam at other Sites. If only you didn’t have to face the very chatty volunteer to get to the books, several of which are specific to Fort Caroline. Did we mention the clam puppet makes noises?
COSTS (4/5) The Site is free.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (1/5) No Rangers, just one volunteer. She shocked us when she explained that the Park’s Ranger generally does not do a good job.
TOURS/CLASSES (4/10) There are no Ranger programs. We heard rumors that there are monthly living history reenactments. Hopefully they are not battle reenactments because they would not take long to finish. The newly refurbished Visitor Center museum is nice and provides a good introduction to the Timucuan Indians who inhabited the area for thousands of years before the Frenchmen’s fleeting inhabitation.
FUN (3/10) The most fun the Site offered was a close-up view of a Carnival Cruise Line ship making its way into Jacksonville to provide much needed Super Bowl hotel rooms.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (2/10) We cannot see much reason to travel to Fort Caroline N MEM. The fort’s story is told in depth elsewhere - by Rangers at Fort Matanzas NM - and the industrial scenery is dismal at best. The reconstructed fort offers no exploration possibilities. It is just an enclosed yard.
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