Come join me and my team as we step back in time to the 1500’s and immerse ourselves in the history of Fort Caroline and the Ribault Stone Column, followed by an invigorating hike
along the trails within the Theodore Roosevelt Area , where pre–Columbian and Timucuan Indians once made their home.
This 46,000-acre Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve has much to offer its visitors. What we didn’t anticipate, was how much we learned about the significant role this area played in shaping the geopolitical environment between the French and Spanish as they vied for power in the Americas, long before Jamestown in 1607. The Preserve is breathtakingly beautiful which swept us up in the wonders of nature and the mystique of the wilderness, located only a short distance from the vast hustle and bustle of Jacksonville. https://www.nps.gov/timu/index.htm
History of Fort Caroline
The Fort Caroline National Memorial is located 13 miles east of Jacksonville and the Visitor Center was the first stop on our adventure. We were quickly greeted by Luke and Herb, the two rangers on duty. As they shared their vast knowledge of the fort and surrounding area we were captivated by their enthusiasm, respect for its history, and the preservation of this National Park.
During the 16th century, Spain held power in the Americas and controlled the trade routes. France was also determined to expand their empire in the new world and share in its riches which led to battles between the two countries.
In 1562, the French explorer, Jean Ribault, led an exploratory expedition to the Americas and landed on the banks of the St Johns River. Two years later a permanent settlement was established under the command of René de Laudonniére.
The settlement was named La Caroline in honor of King Charles, and they immediately began construction of their fort , with help from the Timucuan. The French presence on the banks of the St Johns River was short-lived. There was fierce fighting for power between the French and Spanish and after multiple battles the fort fell to the Spanish, only to be abandoned in 1569. https://earlyfloridalit.net/rene-de-laudonniere-three-voyages/
The Visitor Center, located at Fort Caroline National Memorial is staffed with knowledgeable volunteers and also has a small bookstore. The exhibit “Where the Waters Meet'' showcases the abundance of Northeast Florida and how humans have worked together with this environment for thousands of years. One of the most impressive artifacts on display is a rare wooden owl. The owl totem was found in the St. Johns River and most likely belonged to a specific Timucuan tribe who lived in the area between 700 and 1500 C.E. https://www.nps.gov/timu/
Timucuan and Fort Exhibits
We left the visitors center and continued our journey down a path leading to the Timucuan Exhibit.
The exhibit demonstrates how these indigenous people may have lived. We observed how the small palm and mud huts were constructed, and a burned-out log canoe is on display to showcase their primitive form of transportation. The exhibit provides a setting for rangers to use as an educational site for school groups.
When the Europeans arrived, it is believed that the Timucuan spread over 19,000 square miles with a population of around 200,000. Sadly, by 1698 what was once thought to be tens of thousands was reduced to only 500 recorded due to the lack of immunity to European disease.
There is no record of these indigenous people at this time, but they left clues of their existence through the presence of shell mounds called “midden” which we see first-hand later in the adventure. https://www.floridastateparks.org/learn/shell-middens-fort-george
Fort Caroline and Bake Oven
Next, we caught the well-groomed Huguenot Trail leading to the fort exhibit. The original site is unknown, but it is believed to be somewhere near the southern bank of the St. Johns River.
A near full scale "interpretive model" of Fort Caroline which supported around 200 settlers was built and is maintained by the National Park Service. The design was taken from a historical sketch done by Jacques le Moyne, an artist who was a member of the 1564 expedition. They also used historical descriptions of forts during this period of time for the construction.
Before we reached the impressive gates to the fort, we visited the bake oven which is located just off the left side of the trail. The oven provided bread for the settlers and was placed outside to avoid a fire within the fort walls.
Inside the fort.
There are not many artifacts Inside the fort but there are numerous information plaques that provide important history about the site if you are interested in learning more. This may be a good time to allow your imagination to take over and visualize what the fort may have looked like in 1564 with 200 settlers bustling around trying to build a new home for themselves and their family.
The next historical site we visited was the Ribault Column located just a short drive from the visitor center. The site commemorates the 1562 landing of Jean Ribault who led the first French expedition to the Americas. Ribault staked French claim in the new world by erecting a stone column on the bank of the St Johns River, then sailed to Parris Island in South Carolina and erected a second column claiming French territory in the new world. The three-sided column located on the site is a reproduction based on the drawing of Jacques le Moyne. The original site of the column is unknown.
The National Park Service recently acquired a new site within the park which we had the privilege to tour. The site is currently released for public review and Environmental Assessment of this Spanish–American War Battery. The site has not been excavated but we could identify where the Spanish cannon was positioned. This location overlooking the St. Johns River was optimal to watch for the enemy. The underground multiroom concrete bunker sparked our imagination as we speculated on the purpose of each room. This is an amazing site and we look forward to coming back when open to the public.
Hike the Theodore Roosevelt
We finished our day with a 3 ½ mile hike in the Theodore Roosevelt Area which is across the road from the Visitor Center. The trails are nicely marked with colored flame trail markers, but I would recommend you print a trail map to help you stay on your selected path as you move deeper into the forest. Our goal was to hike the Timucuan Trail so we parked in the Spanish Pond parking lot and accessed the trailhead at Spanish Pond, then took a brief trek on Willie Brown where the trail intersects the Timucuan.
The hike begins with an easy boardwalk trail which quickly arrives at the Spanish Pond. Depending on the time of year you visit, the pond may be dry or full of water. As we continued south toward Willie Brown and the Timucuan Trail we found ourselves moving deeper into the Preserve. The natural forest magically creates a wonderland of palmetto bushes as the live oak and pine trees form a canopy for shade. It is easy to get caught up in the beauty but make sure you watch for the exposed tree roots on the trail (no tripping). During the first half of the hike, there are benches where you can rest if needed.
At the end of the Spanish Pond Trail, we take a left onto Willie Brown trail.
Willie lived on this land his entire life and worried it would be developed after he was gone, so he donated his 600 acres to the National Park Service so that future generations could explore and immerse themselves in the woods as he had done. The foundation of the Brown’s cabin is still visible alongside the trail and the family cemetery is on the trail loop. Willie's donation is a good reminder that one person can make a positive difference in our future.
From Willie Brown we caught the Timucuan Trail, located in the middle of the Preserve. I would consider the trail moderately difficult because of the uneven terrain and hilly areas but if possible, I would recommend following this wilderness trail and experiencing the surprises that unfold around each turn.
Colorinda Creek Salt Marsh. Shell Middens Timucuan Trail
Photo Credit Bruce Underwood
The trail is blanketed with sea shells and follows the Colorinda Creek Salt Marsh. The odd shaped mounds called “shell middens “are visible along the trail. Shell middens are scattered throughout Florida and important historical sites in history and are protected by law. (https://www.floridastateparks.org/learn/shell-middens-fort-george)
We decided to take the Black Trailhead off of Timucuan to be adventurous and we were met with a site that stopped us in our tracks - a grave which was dated 1879 situated alongside the trail. Sgt. John Nathan Spearing must have lived here prior to the Browns purchase of the land in 1889. Before we left, we paid our respects as others had done before us. This sacred site is not on the map or brochure so it would be easy to miss.
We jumped back on the seashell covered Timucuan Trail where (if you allow your imagination to ignite) you just might catch a glimpse of a Timucuan Indian peering at you though the heavily wooded forest.
We caught the Spanish Pond Trail which took us back to the parking lot. This adventure was an invigorating experience and we all enjoyed a spirited conversation on the way home as we each described our favorite part of our day.
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I will see you on the trail.
Plan your trip:
Address : Fort Caroline National Memorial located within the Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve
12713 Fort Caroline Rd.
Jacksonville, Fl. 32225
Hours of operation: Check the website or call as hours may vary.
What to bring: Trail map, Bug spray, camera, water.
When to hike: Best to hike the trails during the winter months to avoid bugs and storms.
Bennerr,Charles E. (2006). Laudonnière & Fort Caroline: History and Documents. Gainesville: University of Florida Press: reprint, Tuscaloosa:University of Alabama Press, 2001.
Time estimate at each site:
Visitor Center 1 hour
Fort Caroline Exhibit 45 minutes
Ribault Monument 15 minutes
Hiking trails 2 hours plus
Lindsey Underwood - Editor
Bruce Underwood - Photographer
Jeff Malone - Contributor
Susie Malone - Contributor
James Shobe - Contributor