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American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Topic: ContactTopic: ExplorationTopic: SettlementTopic: PermanenceTopic: Power
Topic: Exploration
Toolbox Overview: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Resource Menu: Exploration
Text 1. Into the Interior: The Spanish
Text 2. Into the Interior: The French
Text 3. Northwest Passage: The British
Text 4. Illustrating the New World (Pt. II)
Text 5. Catching Up: The British
Text 6. Failed Colonies
Text 7. The Slave Trade

Reading Guide
Fort Caroline, 1564
Fort Caroline, 1564
Failed Colonies
- French/Spanish: Accounts of the Spanish attack on Fort Caroline, 1565 (PDF)
- Spanish: Letter requesting food for Ajacan, 1570
- English: Account of the rescue attempt at Roanoke, 1590 (PDF)

If you were to recount the earliest European presence in North America as a history of the "proto-United States," you might start with Columbus in 1492, jump to Jamestown in 1607, and treat the intervening 115 years as a few decades. It is true there was little European presence in the midregion in the 1500s, due primarily to the disappointing forays into Parte Incognita that revealed no golden cities or Edenic sanctuaries, not even a water passage through the continent to Asia.

In addition, many of the first attempts at settlement north of the Caribbean failed. Roanoke, Ajacan, Fort Caroline, Sable Island, Charlesfort, Pensacola, San Miguel de Gualdape, Charlesbourg-Royal, France-Roy—all were short-lived settlements in the 1500s. A hurricane destroyed the first Pensacola settlement. Frigid winters and scurvy claimed several settlements; starving settlers abandoned others. Indians laid siege to settlements or attacked them outright. Rebellion by brutalized soldiers or starved African slaves ended two colonies. Settlers were left to their own resources when the founders left for provisions (or for good). In most cases a few surviving settlers made it back to Europe, but in one famous case—the "Lost Colony" of Roanoke in what is now North Carolina—the settlers disappeared with little trace, their fate still undetermined. Most share the dooming factors of poor planning and unrealistic appraisals of the North American environment. Simply put, settling this continent was not going to be easy.

Especially with the added obstacle of rival Europeans. By the late 1580s the Spanish and French found themselves closer to each other's claims on the southeast Atlantic coast, and word had it that the English would soon join the competition. Attack-by-rival became another cause of failed colonies. The Spanish massacred the French Huguenots near Florida in 1565 and sent spies to Jamestown in 1613 to determine if eradicating the fledgling colony was its best move. The English destroyed the French trading post of Port Royal on Nova Scotia in 1612 and defeated the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in 1664. The imperial rivalries that would coalesce in the 1700s were taking shape.

These selections focus on three failed settlements on the southeast Atlantic coast, one Spanish, one French, and one English. The end comes from European attack, Indian attack, and "unknown." Inadequate foresight is a subtext of all three.
  • FORT CAROLINE. French Huguenots (Protestants) established this small settlement in 1564 on the southeast Atlantic coast, just north of the site where the Spanish would build St. Augustine a year later (partly to protect its Atlantic shipping corridor from the French encroachment). Who would attack the other first? They planned attacks simultaneously, but the Spanish succeeded after the French ships en route to St. Augustine were destroyed by a hurricane. We combine excerpts from two accounts of the attack: (1) the French perspective from Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, the colony's official artist (see #4. ILLUSTRATING THE NEW WORLD II), and (2) the Spanish perspective from Francisco Mendoza Grajales, the chaplain of St. Augustine.
    [Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, Brief Narration of Those Things Which Befell the French in the Province of Florida in America, 1591; and Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales, Memoir of the Happy Result and Prosperous Voyage of the Fleet Commanded by the Illustrious Captain-General Pedro Menendez de Aviles, publ. 1875]

  • AJACAN. Nine Jesuit missionaries founded this settlement in 1570 on Chesapeake Bay, near the site where Jamestown was founded thirty-seven years later. They soon faced food shortages and demanded provisions from the Powhatan Indians. In this letter, they plead to the treasurer of Cuba for a shipment of corn to sustain them through the winter. Several months later, the Powhatans destroyed the mission and killed the men.
    [Luis de Quirós & Juan Baptista de Segura, Ajacan, Letter to Juan de Hinistrosa, 12 September 1570]

  • ROANOKE. Although the "Lost Colony" is a staple of historical lore, few have read John White's poignant account of the attempted rescue of the colonists in 1590. Governor of the 1587 settlement on the Outer Banks, White had returned to England for supplies soon after the colonists' arrival. Delayed for three years by war with Spain and pirates from France, White finally returned to the colony in 1590 but found only scattered possessions, the word "Croatoan" and a Maltese cross carved into a tree, and no people. The search itself led to more hardship and death.
    [John White, The Fifth Voyage of M. John White into the West Indies and Parts of America called Virginia, in the year 1590, 1590]
These accounts will flesh out, so to speak, the 115-year span between Columbus and Jamestown. Compelling reading, they also reveal how brave and/or foolhardy individuals respond when the risks they have courted turn real. (13 pages.)

Discussion questions

Fort Caroline
  1. What insights do you gain from comparing the French and Spanish accounts of the 1565 attack?
  2. How do they decide what is ethically and politically acceptable in their actions and in the actions of their enemies?
Fort Caroline and Ajacan
  1. What do the settlers see as the strengths and weaknesses of their colonies?
  2. Which do they ascribe to external factors? to themselves?
  3. Evaluate the colonists' planning for the settlements. How do they adapt to unforeseen problems?
  4. How did colonists' relationships with the Indians affect their fate?
  5. How did their perception of the natural environment affect their fate?
  6. How did the leadership in each colony affect its fate?
  7. What is critical for a successful colony?
Fort Caroline and Roanoke
  1. To what extent did the colonists prepare for failure?
  2. How did the colonies end?
  3. How might these accounts differ from those of successful colonies?
Fort Caroline, Ajacan, and Roanoke
  1. What might have saved these colonies?
  2. What might a prospective settler learn from these documents?
  3. How did European rivalries affect the fate of these colonies?

Topic Framing Questions
  •  What motivated the Europeans' explorations? What were they looking for?
  •  What led them to deem an expedition a failure or success?
  •  How did the Europeans interpret the natural world they encountered?
  •  How did their experience of the New World comport with their expectations?
  •  How did the relationships of Europeans and Native Americans change after their initial encounters?
  •  What did the "New World" signify to Europe in 1550? in 1600?

Fort Caroline:  5
(plus notes and Spanish text)
Roanoke:  5
13 pages
Supplemental Sites
Fort Caroline, from Wikipedia

Fort Caroline National Memorial: History and Culture, from the National Park Service

Narrative of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, full text (digital images) from Florida State University Library

Narrative of Mendoza Grajales, full text, from the Internet Modern History Sourcebook

Ajacan, from The Mariner's Museum, Newport News, Virginia

Roanoke Revisited, from Fort Raleigh National Historic Park

John White's accounts of the Roanoke expeditions, full text from Virtual Jamestown

Port Royal, Nova Scotia, from Wikipedia

Sable Island, from the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History

Charlesbourg-Royal & France-Roy, from Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online

Pensacola, from the University of South Florida

San Miguel de Gualdape, from New Georgia Encyclopedia

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Fort Caroline
  & Roanoke:
National Humanities Center
Ajacan: Virtual Jamestown, from the University of Virginia et al.

Image: The French Choose a Suitable Place for Building a Fort, engraving by Theodore de Bry, in Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, Brief Narration of Those Things Which Befell the French in the Province of Florida in America, published by Theodore de Bry, 1591. Reproduced by permission of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

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