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Jean Ribault

Jean Ribault (sometimes Ribaut) was a French naval officer, navigator and early colonizer in the area that would become the southeastern United States. He was born in the English Channel village of Dieppe, but little else is known about his youth. In 1562, Ribault was chosen to lead an expedition to the New World specifically to establish a haven for French Protestants, the Huguenots. A small fleet with 150 colonists crossed the Atlantic and briefly explored the mouth of the St. Johns River near modern-day Jacksonville, Florida. A stone monument was erected on land as proof of the French claim to the area. Ribault’s party then proceeded north and selected a settlement site on Parris Island, one of the Sea Islands off the coast of present-day South Carolina. The small colony was called Charlesfort in honor of the French king, Charles IX. Ribault oversaw the initial layout of the settlement, then returned to home for additional supplies. French attacking Spanish fort on the St. Johns During Ribault’s absence from France, warfare had broken out between the Roman Catholic majority and the Huguenots. Ribault headed for safety in England; despite an initially cordial welcome, he was arrested and detained in the Tower of London. English authorities feared he was conniving to steal their ships to use in French colonization efforts. While Ribault languished, the colony at Charlesfort fell on hard times. A lack of supplies threatened the settlers' lives, most of whom followed René Laudonnière south to establish Fort Caroline at the mouth of the St. Johns. This venture experienced early success, but the participants had trouble feeding themselves after tensions developed with the local Indian tribes. Some of the colonists set sail for home, while others deserted and became pirates. Following his release from prison, Ribault was dispatched by the French government to attempt to save the struggling settlement. Spanish forces under Pedro Menéndez de Avilés established a fortified position at St. Augustine in 1565, and prepared to attack Ribault’s relief effort. A naval confrontation was averted, but Spanish forces surprised Fort Caroline by land and wiped out all but a handful of the French settlers. The disaster was complete when a tropical storm destroyed Ribault’s fleet. The few survivors able to struggle ashore near St. Augustine, including Ribault, were killed by waiting Spanish soldiers. Laudonnière managed to escape and later recounted his unhappy tale to authorities in France. The Spanish would contend first against the French as rivals for control in Florida, but later England would emerge as the great rival in this region.

See France in the Age of Exploration.