Where were Cape François and the May River?

1590 DeBry Map of Florida
1590 DeBry Map of Florida

Scholars have long assumed that Cape François was either present day Cape Canaveral They have also assumed that the May River was the St. Johns River.  However, the distances between these points and Beaufort, SC (Port Royal Sound) don’t seem to correlate with the time that French fleet spent to travel.

De Laudonniére’s memoirs state that the fleet sailed directly from Cape François to the outlet of the May River in two weeks.  They spent two weeks more exploring a series of islands and rivers between the May River and Port Royal. They stopped to explore inlets and rivers. Late 16th century and 17th century French maps generally show Cape François to be north of the mouth of the St. Johns River.

The numbers just don’t add up.  Jacksonville is 138 miles from Cape Canaveral (9.8 miles per day) and 27 miles from St. Augustine (1.9 miles per day.)  Jacksonville is 163 miles from Beaufort, SC (11.6 miles per day.)  If the May River was the St. Johns River at Jacksonville,  the time required to reach Port Royal Sound (Beaufort) should have been more like three weeks.  Furthermore, de Laudonniére’s memoirs state that the ships became lost in a fog as they approached Port Royal, losing much time.

The question is significant because for well over a century, archaeologists and artifact collectors have searched along the mouth of the St. John’s River for the location of the second French colony, Fort Caroline and Fort St. Mateo, the Spanish fortress that was built on its ruins. This is because everyone has assumed that the May River and the St. Johns River were one and the same.

No evidence of Fort Caroline or Fort San Mateo have ever been found. Metropolitan Jacksonville has spread to the Atlantic Ocean.  Considering the scale of land development that has occurred in that region, the probability of the fort’s artifacts being should have been very high.  In frustration, civic leaders eventually built a reproduction of Fort Caroline.  The reproduction is now a National Monument, part of the National Park System.  Most visitors to Fort Caroline National Memorial assume that they are visiting the original fort.  The question of Fort Caroline’s location will be discussed in more detail in Part Two.

Thornton, Richard. Sixteenth Century French Exploration of the Southeast. Web. See Further: People of One Fire. Georgia, © 2012.

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