Ribault established the short-lived colonial outpost of Charlesfort, the earliest French settlement in the present-day United States, in Port Royal Sound.
Explorer, mariner. Ribault established the short-lived colonial outpost of Charlesfort, the earliest French settlement in the present-day United States, in Port Royal Sound. A native of the port city of Dieppe, in upper Normandy, France, Ribault sailed with Norman merchant fleets in European waters from his teenage years, establishing a reputation as one of France’s most accomplished mariners. For much of the 1540s and 1550s, Ribault resided in England, working with Sebastian Cabot for the English Admiralty in planning voyages of discovery. During these years he also gathered military intelligence for both France and England. In the late 1550s Ribault, by then a Protestant, returnedto Dieppe and resumed his maritime career in both military and commercial roles.
On the eve of the outbreak of the French Wars of Religion in early 1562, Admiral of France Gaspard Coligny de Châtillon, a leader of the early French Protestant (Huguenot) movement, commissioned Ribault to lead an expedition to North America. Commanding a small force of two ships and about 150 men, Ribault departed from Dieppe in February and landed six weeks later near modern Jack- sonville, Florida. He then explored north along the coast, claiming a section of it for France. Before returning across the Atlantic in June he left about two dozen men in a small garrison, Charlesfort, named for King Charles IX, in Port Royal Sound.
However, due to the outbreak of civil war in France, Ribault was unable to resupply Charlesfort as intended, and eventually the men who had been left there abandoned the settlement and sailed back to Europe. In the meantime, Ribault, having fled to England during the siege of Dieppe in late 1562, had solicited English support for his fledgling colony and in the process unintentionally alerted Spanish officials to the French presence in America. As diplomatic relations between France and England deteriorated over other matters in 1563, English authorities imprisoned Ribault in the Tower of London on charges of espionage, making him unavailable to lead the French expedition that established Fort Caroline on the St. John’s River in Florida in 1564.
When Ribault was released from English custody in late 1564, Coligny assigned him to lead a large relief fleet to Fort Caroline to defend it from an impending Spanish attack. Shortly after Ribault’s arrival in Florida in the late summer of 1565, Spanish forces led by Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilès inflicted a crushing defeat on the French, killing Ribault along with hundreds of soldiers and civilians. As a result of this catastrophe, and also due to continuing domestic turmoil, French authorities abandoned their colonial designs in North America for several decades. French Protestant writers and publishers soon memorialized Ribault as a Huguenot martyr, and in later years his name became attached to several places in the Port Royal Sound area.
Laudonnière, René Goulaine de. Three Voyages. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1975.
Lyon, Eugene. The Enterprise of Florida: Pedro Menéndez de Avilès and the Spanish Conquest of 1565–1568. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1976.
McGrath, John T. The French in Early Florida: In the Eye of the Hurricane. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.