Indigenous Digital Humanities and “Firstings”: Situating French Fort Caroline in Mocama History

Denise I. Bossy

In the middle of the unceded homelands of the Timucua-speaking Mocamas sits a replica of la Caroline, a modest wooden French fort originally built in 1564 in present-day Jacksonville, Florida.[1] The replica fort is too small. And it is in the wrong place. The National Park Service built it to one-third scale in 1964. Although they appropriately located it on the south bank of the St. Johns River, the original is probably still hidden away underneath the manicured lawns or homes in one of the surrounding planned communities. Or in the riverbed.

This is largely lost to the regional public who are far more invested in the longstanding memorialization of Fort Caroline as the “first” Protestant “colony” in the present-day United States. For over seventy years, advocates have pushed for la Caroline to replace Jamestown or Plymouth, occasionally Roanoke, as the country’s imagined birthplace.[2] They have done so in direct competition with better known St. Augustine, which the Spanish established forty miles to the south after destroying la Caroline in September 1565. St. Augustine claims to be the country’s “oldest city” and has a very real and impressive Spanish stone fort that eclipses the Fort Caroline replica—the Castillo de San Marcos.[3]

In local museums, state and national parks, documentaries, and most scholarship, the Mocamas are primarily cast as background actors to the sixteenth-century imperial showdown that occurred in and over their territories. Jacksonville is one of many cities and regions where Indigenous actors remain historically removed from local memory and sidelined in public discussions about how to create more accurate and inclusive narratives of the past. Focusing on the recent development of the Omeka-based “Indigenous Fort Caroline: A Digital Walking Tour” https://indigenousflorida.com, this article highlights the efficacy of Indigenous Digital Humanities for decolonizing public memorialization of this and other colonial “firsts.”[4]

A Mocama patrol greet French soldiers
A painting depicting the encounter between Mocama officials and patrol forces with French soldiers along the Ibita in 1564. By Richard Schlecht. Courtesy National Park Service, HFCCAC (Harpers Ferry Center Commissioned Art Collection).

Firsting Fort Caroline

Traditional accounts of the small and ultimately short-lived French settlement focus on the imperial battle sparked by its establishment with the Catholic Spanish in September 1565. The Spanish had long claimed Florida as their own—despite their repeated failures to establish a toehold in the region over the half century following Juan Ponce de León’s so-called discovery of the region in 1513.[5] To oust the French, the Spanish assembled a large armada, disembarked at the future site of St. Augustine, and furiously marched forty miles overland through a hurricane for nearly three days to lead an epic assault on la Caroline. They killed over a hundred French soldiers and colonizers on September 20, 1565 and ferreted out more over the coming weeks. This was the turning point for the Spanish. They finally established forts and a colonial settlement across a large span of coastal La Florida, including St. Augustine—the nation’s so-called “oldest city.”[6]

This story is told over and again across Northeast Florida in churches, fourth grade classrooms, museums, state and national parks, and featured in television productions including a surprisingly catchy History Channel reenactment.[7] More recently in 2019, PBS aired a documentary which features many of the finest archaeologists and historians in the field. Together, they claim that America’s first successful colonial settlement was St. Augustine where our “European forefathers” built a multicultural city with a “melting pot of races.”[8] Essential to this effort to displace Jamestown and Plymouth in public historical memory is the battle between the French and Spanish over Florida.

Missing from the Fort Caroline story are the Mocamas who in the 1560s controlled coastal Atlantic seaboard territories from south of the St. Johns River in modern Jacksonville, Florida, to the Satilla River in present-day southern Georgia. The French and Spanish battle occurred in the middle of Mocama homelands and was about controlling those and other Indigenous territories and resources. Moreover, the Mocamas shaped the course of events in ways that public and academic historians alike rarely account for.[9] It was only because the Mocamas permitted them to do so that the French were able to build a fort in the middle of Mocama homelands in June 1564. When the French repeatedly violated their military alliance with their hosts over the ensuing fourteen months, the Mocamas slowly starved the colonizers out, withdrawing not only food but also access to their expansive communication networks. Aware that there was no hope of salvaging their relationship with the Mocamas, in July 1565 the French began to tear down part of their fort to build boats with the intention of returning home. Well before the Spanish armada arrived three months later, the French had already failed in their colonial aims. They simply had not yet departed.[10]

The ongoing absence of the Mocamas from public memory is by design. Florida congressional representative Charles Bennett secured their erasure through a 1950 federal statute that not only established the Fort Caroline Memorial Park but dictated that the site must venerate the French.[11] Bennett penned the statute, personally funded much of the park’s development, and also engaged in a complementary book publishing campaign.[12] To advertise the forthcoming opening of the park, in 1956 he further published a particularly problematic article where he pronounced Fort Caroline the “cradle” of “American ideals” and “personal freedom.” It was here, Bennett claimed, that the “first prayer” was uttered and the “first recorded birth of a white child” occurred.[13]

Bennett understood the power of historical memory and bent that memory to his agenda of memorializing the French through intellectual colonialism. This is a project that began in France as soon as the colony failed and one that was taken up locally in Florida during the Jim Crow era.[14] From the 1880s to the 1950s, local white elites developed pageants, histories, historical societies, museums, and national parks that focused on French and Spanish colonial origins and white modernity. In 1911, for example, local resident T. Frederick Davis penned The History of Early Jacksonville Florida in which he cast “Indians” as bit players in the larger war between the French and Spanish. The main emphasis of Davis’ work was to highlight the city’s many “firsts”—all of which were white achievements—from the city’s first settlers to the first physician, ferryman, street, and church.[15]

Work by Davis and Bennett typify what historian Jean O’Brien identifies as the process of “firsting,” “replacing,” and “lasting” where local historians and historical societies craft origin stories that marginalized and erased Indigenous people, past and present.[16] O’Brien focuses on late nineteenth-century New England, yet her work also applies to Northeast Florida and to the present-day. From New England to Florida, white colonial settlers claimed Indigenous lands as their own by pigeonholing Indigenous people as merely antecedent to the real history of a particular city or region—a problem that persists in many places.

A map of original Mocama homelands
A map depicting the landscape of the Mocama Homelands from 1562 to 1564, highlighting the regions Saturiwa, Atore, Homaloa, Alimacani, and Sarabay. The modern-day location of the Fort Caroline National Memorial and its replica fort is included here. The real location of the original fort has not been confirmed. By Michael Boyles, 2023. Courtesy Center for Instructional and Research Technology (CIRT) and UNF Archaeology Lab, University of North Florida.

Indigenous Digital Humanities

The shadow of this collective memory is long.[17] The 1950 act still hamstrings NPS’s ability to alter the commemoration of the French as religious martyrs. But even more significant is the lasting importance of French—and Spanish—memorialization to contemporary regional identity and the marketing of that identity and imagined past to tourists. Local belief that la Caroline was the first colony where “freedom” of religion was the impetus for settlement and that St. Augustine is the country’s “oldest city” are so engrained that the area from Jacksonville to St. Augustine is commonly referred to as “The First Coast.”[18]

To begin the process of including the Mocamas in local public history, I partnered with archaeologist Dr. Keith Ashley and Amarilys Sánchez, M.A., to develop a Digital Humanities (DH) project. “Indigenous Fort Caroline: A Digital Walking Tour” follows the physical route of the current NPS pathway at Fort Caroline National Memorial but it supplements the French-focused narrative displayed on the route’s wayfinding signs. Through sixteen stops, the brief French colonial project is situated in the much bigger and older Mocama world—one shaped by Mocama history, politics, and culture. The tour narrative stresses how the Mocamas managed and understood their temporary alliance with the French. It emphasizes Mocama power and their survivance, countering the prevailing terminal narrative of their alleged “extinction.”Our DH site can be used by visitors who travel to the memorial or by virtual visitors from around the globe.

Digital Humanities is the ideal medium for beginning to unpack local colonial commemoration such as Fort Caroline for several reasons. DH sites can reach appreciably larger and more diverse audiences than either physical public history sites or scholarly publications because they are scalable to multiple audiences for simultaneous use and can be viewed by anyone with access to a phone or computer. Resources aimed at specific age groups, teachers, students, public historians, and academics can be hosted on the same site. Our Mocama tour is geared towards a broad local and international audience aged nine and above who are interested in Fort Caroline. We balance accessible writing with original research in Mocama archaeological archives and critical readings of colonial French and Spanish texts through ethnohistorical and Native American and Indigenous Studies methodologies.

With a suite of different communication and engagement tools, DH is adaptable, flexible, and changeable.[19] Sites can be updated and changed in an instant to reflect new scholarly findings and new interpretations and, especially important, to respond to changes in public memory. We frequently revise our work as we continue to refine our tour and are currently planning another major project that will significantly expand the site. In contrast, the modest museum at Fort Caroline is static and captures predominantly the audience who physically visits the site. Its printed boards were created in the 1980s using scholarship that is older still. The museum can only be changed through an overhaul that requires significant federal funding and time.[20]

Perhaps the biggest advantage of digital humanities is that the process of developing the site can be intentionally designed to promote community buy-in from the project’s inception through collaborative community stewardship. In this way imagining, planning, and creating the project can function as an exercise in decolonization through partnerships with diverse publics. We identified three different publics for the initial development of our project: historically connected Indigenous nations, our own students, and public history practitioners including NPS, local museum staff, and public history teachers.

Collaboration with Indigenous nations in projects such as ours is instrumental to the Indigenous exercise of “sovereignty over their community’s history, representation, and documentation.”[21] Before beginning our project, we met with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and more recently with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma. Both identify the Mocamas among their ancestors and are the primary stakeholders in our project. We subsequently developed a cross-disciplinary DH seminar to begin the research process and to develop site construction plans in collaboration with students from the history and anthropology departments at the University of North Florida and our Center for Instructional and Research Technology. Throughout the course and over the year-long process of revising the site for publication, we worked closely with NPS rangers from Fort Caroline, solicited input from public history educators, scholars, and the THPOs (Tribal Historic Preservation Office) of the Seminoles and Muscogees.

Conclusion

When developed through community partnerships rather than imposed from the outside, digital technologies and approaches can play a critical role in bridging the significant gaps between local memory and academic scholarship and between different public communities with differing priorities. We train our students in decolonization scholarship; however, non-Indigenous local community members who still memorialize the French do not have that training.[22] What they do have is interest in learning about the Mocamas. However, when our work overtly undermines narratives they have long heard from family, pastors, teachers, or other public history authorities, they often experience this as a challenge to their identities.

The recent 2020 effort initiated by the Duval County school board to rename eight high schools and one middle school in Jacksonville illustrates this point. After a series of public talks, the school board voted to rename all six of those schools that venerated Confederate military leaders. They did not elect to rename the three schools “with connections to the marginalization of Indigenous people”: the local middle and high schools named after Jean Ribault—the leader of la Caroline—and the high school named after Andrew Jackson.[23] Parents and alumni of the Ribault schools defended their namesake as a respectable colonizer. They were joined by Ribault descendants who sought to distance their ancestor from “slavery proponents,” and reiterated two longstanding claims: that Fort Caroline was the first religious refuge in the U.S. and that the French and “Indians” were on excellent terms. The problem is that Ribault was a proponent of slavery—a fact made plain by his enslavement of Cusabo-speakers in present-day South Carolina and his assessment of Mocamas as ideal “to serve” the French.[24]

In our site we intentionally do not confront the current prevailing French memorialization in a head on battle of narratives. This would simply alienate much of our intended audience. Instead, we promote our work as adding an otherwise forgotten dimension of the story that not only tells us more about the Mocamas but also about their encounters with the French and Spanish. At the same time, we are acutely aware that we cannot simply ‘add and stir’ Indigenous history to an imagined colonial past.[25]

Ultimately, our work does upend the core elements of French veneration. Focusing on the Mocamas’ management of the French visitors underscores that la Caroline was a French military outpost not a religious colony, that the French depended on the Mocamas and were bound to them through a military treaty not “friendship,” and that la Caroline failed because the French knowingly destroyed their alliance with the Mocamas before the Spanish assaulted the fort—driving the nail into the coffin. Our primary intention is to stop the ongoing colonization of Mocama history. Yet we seek to do so in the most effective way possible, by first and foremost collaborating with Indigenous nations while also creating a DH site that draws, engages, and hopefully transforms diverse publics.

Author

Denise I. Bossy is associate professor of history at the University of North Florida and North American editor-in-chief of Ethnohistory. Her research and publications focus on the early Native South and local, public, and digital Indigenous studies. Her new book project on the Mocamas with Dr. Keith Ashley is being supported by a three-year collaborative NEH grant. is associate professor of history at the University of North Florida and North American editor-in-chief of Ethnohistory. Her research and publications focus on the early Native South and local, public, and digital Indigenous studies. Her new book project on the Mocamas with Dr. Keith Ashley is being supported by a three-year collaborative NEH grant.

Notes

The author especially thanks Jennifer Guiliano and the Digital Ethnic Futures Consortium for mentorship in Indigenous Digital Humanities, Amarilys Sánchez for her instrumental and ongoing collaboration on the project, and Tanner Anderson, Emily Cottrell, and Laura McNeil for their remarkable seminar work during the fall of 2021. Adam King, Keith Ashley, and Jennifer Guiliano provided invaluable feedback on this essay.

[1] Mocama, or “the sea,” was used by Timucua speakers to delineate the dialect spoken in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Indigenous peoples of present-day Northeast Florida. I apply this term to refer to the confederacy developed by the Mocama speakers during this period because we do not know what they called their polity, although we do know many of their town and clan names.

[2] Charles E. Bennett, “Fort Caroline, Cradle of American Freedom,” The Florida Historical Quarterly, 35 (July 1956), 3-16.

[3] Thereby erasing the much older history of Indigenous communities, including Orayvi and Acoma which have been continuously occupied since at least 1100 C.E.

[4] For a superb example of a DH project that uses public-facing digital tours to showcase historical and contemporary sites of significance to Indigenous people in Washington D.C., Baltimore, and Maryland see the Indigenous Lands Digital Mapping Project by Dr. Elizabeth Rule, https://www.guidetoindigenouslands.com/. Also see Amy Lonetree, “Decolonizing Museums, Memorials, and Monuments,” The Public Historian,43 (Nov. 2021), 21-27; Philip J. Deloria, “The New World of the Indigenous Museum,” The American Academy of Arts & Sciences,147 (Spring 2018), 106-15.

[5] This older interpretation especially rests on John T. McGrath, The French in Early Florida: In the Eye of the Hurricane (2000); Eugene Lyon, The Enterprise of Florida: Pedro Menèndez de Avilés and the Spanish Conquest of 1565-1568 (1976); Paul E. Hoffman, A New Andalucia and a way to the Orient: The American Southeast during the Sixteenth Century (2004).

[6] The city markets itself as the “oldest” and some scholars continue to use this idiom, despite recognizing how misleading it is. For example, Susan Richbourg Parker, ed., Oldest City: The History of Saint Augustine (2019).

[7] The Conquest of America, The History Channel (2005). For ongoing use of this legend see Tony Horowitz, A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World (2008), 265-92; also https://godsleader.com/spiritual-mapping-of-jacksonville-florida/, accessed Sept. 1, 2023.

[8] Secrets of the Dead, PBS, Broadcast 2019, (2021); https://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/secrets-spanish-florida-synopsis/3626/, accessed September 1, 2023.

[9] Denise I. Bossy and Andrew K. Frank, “Charting a Path toward an Indigenous History of Florida,” Florida Historical Quarterly, 100 (Summer 2021): 1-22. Jonathan DeCoster’s work is an exception to this, “Entangled Borderlands: Europeans and Timucuans in Sixteenth-Century Florida” Florida Historical Quarterly, 91 (Winter 2013); Jonathan DeCoster, “‘Aid from the Indians Themselves’: Native Rivalries, Spanish Precedent, and French and English Colonialism,” Terra Oncognitae, 51 (no. 2, 2019), 111-130. Christophe Boucher attempts to follow suit, yet often reverts to French and Spanish interpretations of events. Christophe Boucher, “‘The Greatest Dissemblers in the World’: Timucuas, Spaniards, and the Fall of Fort Caroline,” The Florida Historical Quarterly, 97 (Fall 2018), 143-166, 147. Kevin Kokomoor erases Mocamas from the Fort Caroline narrative in his recent effort to spotlight Spanish origins while also recounting the impact of colonialism on Indigenous Floridians. Kevin Kokomoor, La Florida: Catholics: Conquistadores, and Other American Origin Stories (2023), 54-55, 95-100.

[10] I cite translated, published French documents to underscore that sources to reinterpret events from Mocama points-of view are readily available. René Goulaine de Laudonnière, A Foothold in Florida: The Eye-Witness Account of Four Voyages Made by the French to that Region and their Attempt at Colonisation, 1562-1568, trans. Sarah Lawson and W. John Faupel (1992), 62-65, 68-79, 87, 92-93, 94, 103, 105-18, 123. Nicolas Challeux, A True and Perfect Description, of the last voyage or Navigation, attempted by Captinaine John Rybault, deputie and generall for the French men, into Terra Florida, this year past 1565 (1566), 19.

[11] “An Act to Provide for the Acquisition, Investigation, and Preservation of Lands to Commemorate the Historic Fort Caroline Settlement, Public Law 973, U.S. Statutes at Large, 64 (1950-51), 897-98. Director William J. Whalen, U.S. Department of the Interior, to Congressman Charles Bennett, Oct. 5, 1977, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve Museum Archives. Thank you to Tanner Anderson for locating this source.

[12] These are primarily compilations of translated documents, Laudonnière & Fort Caroline (1964); Settlement of Florida (1968); Three Voyages: René Laudonnière (1975).

[13] Bennett, “Fort Caroline,” 15-16. The latter claim especially underscores Bennett’s ambition for Fort Caroline to displace other “first” colonial places, in this case Ronoake where the legend of Virginia Dare as the “first” white child born in the U.S. lives on.

[14] John Pollack, “Rereading the ‘Écriteau’: Protestant Myths, Native Alliances, and the Histories of French Florida;” Frank Lestrigant, “A Staged Encounter: French Meeting Timucua in Jacques le Moyne de Morgues,” both in Journal of Transnational American Studies, 8 (no. 1, 2017); https://escholarship.org/uc/acgcc_jtas/8/1.

[15] T. Frederick Davis, History of Early Jacksonville Florida (1911).

[16] Jean O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England (2010). Also Lauren Beck, ed., Firsting in the Early-Modern Atlantic World (2020).

[17] Bill Delaney, “Jaxlore: The Lost City of Ossachite,” May 22, 2023, https://www.thejaxsonmag.com/article/jaxlore-the-lost-city-of-ossachite/, accessed September 1, 2023.

[18] This moniker was developed by the William Cook Advertising Agency for the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce in 1983. Christopher Calnan, “Trio Put their Heads Together to Knock out a Name that Stands Today,”The Florida Times Union, Nov. 6, 2002.

[19] Jennifer Guiliano, A Primer for Teaching Digital History: Ten Design Principles (2022).

[20] NPS is increasingly collaborating with the Muscogees, Seminoles, and other Indigenous nations to better depict the Mocamas at the Fort Caroline Memorial and has a website with more content on the Timucuas, but the spotlight remains on the French and Spanish. https://home.nps.gov/timu/learn/index.htm; https://www.nps.gov/articles/timucuan.htm, accessed September 1, 2023.

[21] Kimberly Christen, “Relationships, Not Records: Digital Heritage and the Ethics of Sharing Indigenous Knowledge Online,” in The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities (2018), 403-12; Diane E. Marsh, “Digital Knowledge Sharing: Perspectives on Use, Impacts, Risks, and Best Practices according to Native American and Indigenous Community-based Researchers,” Archival Science, 23 (no.1, 2023), 81-115, “sovereignty over…” 101.

[22] Roopika Risam, “Decolonizing the Digital Humanities in Theory and Practice,” The Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities (2018), 79.

[23] Emily Bloch, “Duval School Board votes to rename 6 Confederate-tied schools, include Lee,” June 1, 2021, The Florida Times Union.

[24] Jean Ribault, “Jean Ribault’s Disoverye of Terra Florida,” trans. H.P. Biggar, The English Historical Review, 32 (April 1917), 268, 265.

[25] Risam, “Decolonizing the Digital Humanities,” 79.