THE FRENCH IN FLORIDA (AND ELSEWHERE ALONG THE GULF COAST)
By Captain Rick Rhodes
the New World, in general, the French were more successful than any other Europeans in making genuine and relatively long-lasting
alliances/friendships among the native American peoples than any other European groups (e.g., versus the arrogant British
or the abusive Spanish). This French trait paid military dividends during the
early stages of the French and Indian War (1754-1763), and when the greatly outnumber French along with their mostly reliable
Indian allies were able to successfully hold-off superior British Forces as long as they did.
But the French Empire never seemed to place as much emphasis, or send enough resources, to the ‘New World’
as their contemporary Spanish or British rivals. The French seem more preoccupied
with matters in Europe. Those hearty Frenchmen in the New World typically had
to fend for themselves more so than the Spaniards or the British Colonist.
1562, French explorer, Jean Rebault, sailed a short ways up the St. Johns River to the present day northeast corner of Florida. In 1564, a French contingent returned to this area and established Fort Caroline near
present-day Jacksonville. In 1565, the Spanish at St. Augustine and the French
at Fort Caroline, and only 35 miles apart, wouldn’t coexist. Enroute to
sack St. Augustine, about 600 French sailors and soldiers encountered a ferocious storm in the Atlantic. Most French warriors were lost. Soon after that French catastrophe
the Spanish at St. Augustine, aware of their good fortune, marched upon Fort Caroline.
The Spaniards wiped out the remaining 200 or so mostly French civilians. The
Spaniards also ‘put to the sword,’ those few remaining sailors and soldiers who survived the storm at sea, thereby
putting an end to French influence in Northeast Florida. So those attributes
we today ascribe to as ‘Old Spanish Florida’ could easily have been ’Old French Florida,’ had it not
been for a timely storm at sea. But the French were not yet quite done with Florida.
a hundred years later, another French thrust started making its way to our present day southeast. Starting in 1672, French missionary Pere Marquette and Louis Joliet, along with five other Frenchmen were
the first white men to explore deep into the interior of North America. This
hearty group, with only two canoes, headed south from the Great Lakes, down the Mississippi River, reaching as far as the
Arkansas River. Joliet was a resourceful explorer, while Marquette did wish to
genuinely save Indians souls. Marquette died, less than three years after his
famed expedition, while serving his beloved Kaskaskia Indians of Illinois.
Less than ten years later, pompous and abrasive, Rene-Robert de La Salle, picked-up the French interior exploration
where the Marquette-Joliet expedition left off. Also exploring south from the
Great Lakes, La Salle reached the Gulf of Mexico on the Mississippi River delta in 1682.
La Salle claimed this Mississippi River Region for French King Louis XIV, and named the region Louisiana. In 1684, and after returning from a trip to France, LaSalle attempted to establish his permanent French
Colony on the Gulf Coast. He had hoped to re-find the mouth of the Mississippi
River, but this time approaching from out in the Gulf of Mexico. Misfortune plagued
La Salle. He missed the Mississippi River and landed on the Gulf Coast somewhere
near Port Lavaca, Texas. In 1685, a contingent from that expedition finally arrived
near the Mississippi Delta near present day Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. In 1687,
La Salle was murdered by his own men.
a dozen years after La Salle, other Frenchmen found ‘a better’ route between the Gulf of Mexico and the Louisiana
territory’s mighty Mississippi River. Frenchmen Iberville and Bienville
found a series of connecting tidal bayous and lakes that stretched southwest of Bay St. Louis.
This new water route, to the northwest of present day New Orleans, connected the vital Mississippi River to the Gulf
1699, the first permanent French settlement was established in present-day Biloxi, Mississippi. In 1702, Mobile was established, and this city soon became the French region’s first capital. In 1720, the Louisiana French Capital moved west –from Mobile west to Biloxi. By 1718, another French trading post, New Orleans, became firmly established. In 1723, New Orleans became the third French capitol.
1559, and six years before their first ‘permanent’ settlement at St. Augustine, the Spanish had arrived, but also
had to abandon Pensacola, Florida. But the Spanish returned to resettle Pensacola
in 1698 (and after St. Augustine was already established). However by 1719 with
a strong presence to the west, this time the French were able to run the Spanish out of western [Pensacola] Florida. Nonetheless, by 1722, the Spanish regained control of Pensacola, and held on to it
until 1763 – when a short-lived British occupation began.
1755, and during the French and Indian War, the British invaded ‘neutral-French’ Acadia (i.e., today primarily
the Canadian Maritime Province of Nova Scotia). When about three-quarters of
the Acadians wouldn’t renounce their Catholic faith, as demanded by the British, the British exiled the Frenchmen who
had been here for a 150 years. A few Acadians fled into the woods and assimilated
with the local Mi'kmaq Indians. But
about three-quarters of these displaced Frenchmen migrated southward, and hopefully beyond the tyranny of British rule,
finding their way into present-day Louisiana. To this day you might have heard
of that Louisiana heritage. The word “Cajun” is a corruption of the