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The French In Florida



By Captain Rick Rhodes


In 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.


In 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.


About 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. 


About 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 of Mexico.


In 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.


In 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.


In 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 word “Acadian.”





The French Louisiana Territory
Captain Rick Rhodes is an author based in St. Petersburg, Florida
He has written six guidebooks of waterways.
* Member, Pegasus Writers Stable