by Tim Gilmore, 12/6/2020
1. Where What-Happened Happened
Stories of pagan revelries encircling it date from the 1560s to the 1980s, though for 250 years, no one could find it. A site of rumors of ancient worship, even so, it’s moved three times in the past century. Indeed, though historic, it’s a replica of something that may never have existed. At least, not the way we’ve imagined it.
It stands high on St. Johns Bluff, crooks and flexures of oaks embracing it like lost tribes supposedly once did, and like those 1980s high school kids. As though this were, in fact, the place where French explorer Jean Ribault, landing near the mouth of the St. Johns River, left his column, marked with the coat of arms of his king, Charles IX.
As though the Mocama, the group of Timucuan Indians who lived here, had no sociocultural system of their own. As though those people’s images, as they’ve come down to us, bear the actual people any likeness. As though this place really is that place, where what-really-happened happened.
Still, Ribault’s column, four and a half centuries after his execution, marks a presence. Certainly it haunts this hilltop. More than an empty signifier, the Ribault Monument looks over the marshes as a beacon of the spirit of place, of the unknowable psyches of these summits over saltwater grasses and the lost tribe who inhabited them, of the thoughts lost in kisses and high school fallings-in-love and suicide.
2. “Meet at the Monument”
In the 1970s and ’80s, Sandalwood Junior and Senior High School kids met regularly at the monument. Parents and police never bothered them. It was an open secret. Beneath the oaks and Ribault’s column, teenagers drank their first beers, sometimes their 500th, smoked their first weed. The column became the personal monument to many a first kiss, to losses of virginity.
“Back then,” says the poet Teri Youmans, “you’d go up there and some nights there’d be people hanging out, other nights there wouldn’t be. If there was a party, the news just sort of passed around, you know, ‘Meet at the monument.’”
The first of a few “things that went awry” at the monument concerned a boy who’d been Teri’s competition for seventh grade president. It was a contentious election, a runoff, which Teri ended up winning. A couple years later, after her competitor had left for a private Christian school, Teri’s friend set her up with him so they could double date.
Teri didn’t want to go. Wherever they went first, whether dinner or a movie, she can’t recall, but they ended up at the monument. While Teri’s friend stayed in the car to make out, the former seventh grade presidential contenders walked up the concrete steps to the monument. “We sit on the rail,” Teri says, “and he starts to attack me, pushes me down, starts kissing me.”
She’d been raised to be submissive to male authority, but she asked him politely to stop and he did. The next day, he called her on the phone and asked her if she wanted to go out again. He’d been raised to assume his agency without question. She couldn’t believe he’d called her. He didn’t seem to know he’d done anything wrong.
There was also the boy she’d hung out with at the monument who lied about her at school. After the night they kissed, he told all his friends they’d had sex. When a friend told Teri what he was saying, she confronted him in front of his friends and made him admit the truth.
Ribault’s column made the natural setting for dramatic events in teenagers’ lives. It was a well-known public place that parents and police never monitored and the fragrance of marijuana so commonly infused the salt breeze off the river in the night air. Kids had a different kind of freedom in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Sometimes they used those freedoms, ironically, to take advantage of each other.
When Teri was a little girl, her family visited the monument and the lowlands by the river beneath it often. Her dad went fishing, grilled hot dogs. From the column, the exposed dredge spoil underneath looks like a moonscape. Teri found megalodon teeth dredged up from the deep. She still has them. Some of them are bigger than her hands.
One of her earliest memories is playing in the water when a large tanker passed. She was probably four years old. The danger didn’t occur to her father until the tanker repeatedly sounded its horn. The wake would be taller than she was. Her father grabbed her and her sister, tossed each of them over a shoulder, and walked out and away from the incoming water.
3. “Worshipping the Stone”
When René Goulaine de Laudonnière established Fort Caroline in present-day Jacksonville in 1564, he found the column Ribault had planted in ’62 standing tall and “the Indians worshipping the stone as an idol.” Like everything Europeans of the time reported about the Timucua, however, the facts are largely fiction.
Still, it was the one image that survived, so it’s always been said, that picture of Athore, Timucuan prince, son of the king Saturiwa, one arm around Laudonnière’s shoulders, the other waving toward the column. Jacques le Moyne de Morgues may have lost all his drawings in the massacre, may later have resurrected them from memory, may have reincarnated them through the Belgian engraver Theodore de Bry (or, as we’ll see, may not have), but this one image alone survived the Spanish onslaught. So it’s been always said. But even the story of the one surviving original, upon closer inspection, becomes a forgery with no original. Sometimes hauntings cast backward through time and history, not forward.
Jean Ribault called what’s now the St. Johns River the River of May. Planting his column, he claimed these strange wild lands for France, then left a similar marker on present-day Parris Island in South Carolina. Archaeologists, historians and treasure hunters have spoken of other columns never planted, lost somewhere in the wilderness, or perhaps that French shipwreck that no one could find, lost between a hurricane and two massacres.
Ribault left the Sea Islands, 150 miles north of the St. Johns River, and returned to France for more supplies. Open war between Catholics and Protestants back home, however, soon extended across the Atlantic Ocean to mass murder in Florida. By the time he returned, two years later, Laudonnière, his second-in-command, had established Fort Caroline with 200 French settlers. Ribault brought Laudonnière another 600 settlers and supplies.
He also brought, on his heels, Pedro Menéndez de Aviles, whom King Philip II of Spain had sent to rid Florida of French Protestants. Menéndez sailed the same month as Ribault, bringing 800 men and establishing a harbor base on the sixth of September that he called St. Augustine.
Ribault couldn’t leave the new threat unanswered. So four days later, he sailed from Fort Caroline to eradicate St. Augustine. He and his men headed straight into a hurricane. The storm ensnared his ships and blasted them further south, spinning them about and wrecking them against the shoals and coasts between where Daytona Beach and Cape Canaveral are today. Four centuries before Space Shuttles launched from the cape, Ribault’s ships sank offshore.
4. What Nobody Ever Talked About
The name of Teri Youmans’s short story, published in the 2018 anthology Fifteen Views of Jacksonville, is “Monument.” It’s based on true events, but the climax of the story differs from what violence actually occurred.
“I’d been coming up here to Ribault Monument for as long as I could remember,” the story’s narrator says, “—for family picnics, brownie and girl scout troops, school field trips. I knew the place and its history well.” Four teenagers are hanging out by the column, drinking wine. “Kevin was on the yearbook staff and wore a camera around his neck everywhere he went” and “James was a surfer, but not the stoner kind.” The events on which the story are based occurred in 1981.
“Maybe it was because of the laughing and goofing around that none us heard the men coming up the steps.” They were probably in their 30s, seemed redneck, maybe from the Westside or the Northside. One had a handlebar mustache and long hair. They had a bottle of whiskey. “It looks like we got us a party,” one of them says in the story. “Any y’all got weed?”
The kids said no. The men didn’t believe them. Something had changed in the air. It now carried the palpable charge of a threat. In the story, one of the men has a Lynyrd Skynyrd tattoo, says, “We was friends with Ronnie,” meaning singer Ronnie Van Zant, who died when the band’s plane ran out of fuel and crashed in 1977.
The men blocked the steps, mocked the teenage boys’ hair and surfboards, made “kissy faces” at the girls. In the story, telling the girls to “Let me see those pretty eyes” escalates toward the sexual violence latent in the whole encounter. About that actual night, Teri says, “I don’t know how it happened, but one of the men began punching one of the boys.” They’d been picking a fight the whole time. And then they left. They vanished into the night as quickly as they’d shown up. Teri and her friends never saw them again, never knew who they were. Monday at school, her friend had a black eye. Nobody ever talked about it.
5. Sturm und Drang
While Ribault set sail south for St. Augustine, unknowingly heading into the hurricane, Menéndez sent his men marching overland to Fort Caroline. They found the French fort mostly empty, since its men had set sail to slaughter them. Laudonniére himself and the artist Jacques le Moyne somehow escaped. Menéndez captured French women and children and sent them to Havana, but killed the remaining men. The Spanish destroyed the French marker, Ribault’s column, and le Moyne’s drawings chronicling the French expedition and interactions with the Timucuans. Somehow, le Moyne managed to salvage one drawing, just one, the depiction of Athore pointing Laudonniére to the column about which the Indians bowed and prayed.
Athore stands taller than Laudonniére, robust. Where Laudonniére looks plump, Athore seems sculpted of iron and muscle. He wears earrings, beads, shells and a loincloth. His hair pulls back and upward and crests in a pair of ringed tails. Ribault’s column occupies the center of the action. On its other side, 11 Timucuan worshippers bow toward it, on their knees, men in loincloths and women in grass skirts, hands in the air, palms facing the column and the sky. The Timucua have wrapped the column in leafy wreaths and placed before it baskets of grains and fruit, bowls, even a quiver full of arrows.
Meanwhile, as French ships sank into the weight of the ocean, Ribault and hundreds of survivors swam through the storm-wrought waves, climbed up from the shallows, and began to walk north, ragged and battered on the brutal beaches. They marched and they marched.
Closer to St. Augustine, Menéndez and the Spanish met 127 Frenchmen shipwrecked at an inlet, blocked from returning to the French fort. Here, the Spanish surrounded them and told them Fort Caroline was vanquished. If the French fighters would convert to Catholicism, the Spanish chaplain Francisco Mendoza requested and Menéndez allowed, they could be allowed to live. A few converted. Most refused. The Spanish murdered 111 of them.
More Frenchmen arrived, Jean Ribault among them. They’d been marching, weakened and hungry, savaged by the storm, for two weeks. There, at that same inlet, Menéndez’s men killed another 134 French settlers by sword and executed Jean Ribault. Amalgamating the sand and saltwater with blood, they named the inlet for what they’d done: “Massacre.” We still call it Matanzas Bay.
7. The Closing of the Portal to the Past
The appropriate question might not be what happened to the drawings of Jacques le Moyne, but whence the illustrations of Theodore de Bry. The problem depicted by the visual representations of the Timucua and the French expeditions to Florida was never hidden.
But if only one of le Moyne’s drawings survived, where did his 41 other illustrations of the French expedition come from? And if there’s suspicion that the other le Moynes are not authentic, how do the Timucuan figures depicted in them so closely resemble those of the one surviving drawing from Fort Caroline?
Websites, TV shows and museums frequently treat Flemish engraver Theodore de Bry’s depictions of early European exploits in America as authentic, usually without explanation of their origins. de Bry appropriated words and images from the work of European explorers without ever venturing to America himself. He published his first book, A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, in 1590, engraving Englishman John White’s watercolors of Algonquin Indians to illustrate the writings of explorer John Harriot.
Jacque le Moyne’s drawings are actually de Bry’s engravings. They are copies without originals. de Bry based the engravings on non-extant recreations LeMoyne supposedly reproduced, years after escaping the Spanish destruction of Fort Caroline, entirely from memory. de Bry published le Moyne’s Brevis Narratio Eorum Quœ in Florida Americœ Rrovincia Gallis Acciderunt, or A Brief Narration of Those Things Which Befell the French in the Province of Florida in America, in 1591, three years after le Moyne’s death in London.
“What,” asks anthropologist and archaeologist Jerald Milanich, “are Brazilian war clubs and Pacific seashells doing in 400 year old engravings of Florida Indians?” Milanich’s May/June 2005 article in Archaeology Magazine is called “The Devil in the Details.” When Milanich first encountered le Moyne’s drawings in Stefan Lorant’s 1946 book The New World, he says, he willingly overlooked minor errors. “One engraving,” for example, “shows Indians participating in a Black Drink ceremony using a nautilus shell cup—an obvious error since it is native to the Pacific.” At the time, Milanich felt, “When you are holding a Rosetta Stone, you don’t quibble about details.”
When Milanich was working on a postdoc fellowship at the Smithsonian in the early 1970s, North American Indian specialist William Sturtevant noted how “feather headdresses worn by the Timucua Indians looked like those worn by the Tupinambá from Brazil. The wooden clubs in the engravings were also straight out of the Amazon.”
Theodore de Bry claimed le Moyne’s widow sold him the French artist’s narrative and his recreated watercolors. Here’s the blatant conundrum, as Milanich describes it: “[I]t is puzzling why none of le Moyne’s paintings of Florida exist, especially since today there are perhaps 200 paintings and drawings by him in museums and private collections, including works done before he went to Fort Caroline and others done after he returned. All of these illustrations depict plants and insects and other animals. None are of Florida scenes, nor, as far as I can tell, of any plants or animals native to the Southeast.”
Milanich argues that de Bry had no watercolors from le Moyne, that for his depictions of the Timucua, de Bry “borrowed” images from various sources, including those of the Tupinambá Indians from German soldier Hans Staden’s 1557 True History: An Account of Cannibal Captivity in Brazil and Englishman John White’s 1585 watercolors of Algonquin Indians.
That single remaining le Moyne drawing was de Bry’s creation as well. If it wasn’t le Moyne’s original, you couldn’t say it was de Bry’s either. de Bry’s forgery of le Moyne’s single surviving original becomes a postmodern pastiche 400 years before Jean-François Lyotard coined the phrase “postmodernism” to describe our current historic condition. Put simply, “We have been duped.” Milanich writes, “There is no Rosetta Stone, no miraculous portal to the past for Southeastern archaeologists.”
8. A Tragic Magnetism
At nine a.m. one Wednesday morning, the last day of February 2007, a car salesman left home on his stepdaughter’s bicycle, peddling through the streets of The Woods, a gated subdivision off Atlantic Boulevard. His wife later found his wallet, watch and paperwork related to his used car lot, Buddy Motors, at home.
The following weekend, police searched the neighborhood with a helicopter and dogs. For weeks, neighbors combed nearby neighborhoods and posted fliers. Police suspected foul play.
Leaving his car at home, the car dealer had peddled nine miles to the Ribault Monument and slipped down the embankment underneath the trees with the bike. It was there, a month later, the 27th of March, someone found what The Florida Times-Union called “a badly decomposed body.” Dental records helped identify the remains. There beneath the monument, the car dealer had shot himself in the head.
What tragic magnetism pulled him to this particular place? What did Ribault’s column mean to him? What personal polarity decided for him that this place must be the setting in which he took his life, where he breathed his last breath, perceived his last sight?
9. The Shipwreck; Also, the Making of Meaning
No one has ever found the stone column Ribault supposedly planted at the mouth of the river. Whatever the Spanish did with it, however the Timucua regarded it, for four and a half centuries the column has remained as lost as the images of Timucuan Indians Jacques le Moyne never made.
But in May 2016, divers found a column, described in different places as marble and granite, three bronze cannons, 19 iron cannons and 12 anchors in a shipwreck off Cape Canaveral. Two years later, U.S. Magistrate Judge Karla Spaulding ruled the wreck and its artifacts belonged to France. The wreck’s discoverers, arguing against French ownership, said the ship was Spanish, that Spanish soldiers had looted the French artifacts from Fort Caroline and were taking them to Cuba. Spaulding, however, ruled the ship was Ribault’s La Trinité, which sank during the 1565 hurricane that knocked the French off course from destroying St. Augustine.
Craig Morris never got to see the monument reclaimed from Ribault’s shipwreck. Craig grew up in the new subdivisions called Fort Caroline in the 1970s. When first wandering along the bluff as a child, he found hundreds of human bones protruding from Timucuan burials bulldozed to build his neighborhood. Those bones set his direction. His career as a park ranger at Fort Caroline National Memorial spanned 30 years.
“The first time I see it?” Craig said to The Florida Times-Union’s Matt Soergel on July 6, 2018, “It will be a career moment.” He hoped one or more of the artifacts, a cannon or maybe the only column of Ribault’s in existence, might be loaned to the national park. Craig Morris retired on June 26, 2020 and died of cancer on September 22nd. France owns Ribault’s shipwreck, but there’s no rush to excavate it. It’s still down there. It’s already waited 455 years.
In 1924, the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a replica of Ribault’s column at Mayport, where the St. Johns, which Ribault called the River May, flows into the Atlantic. In 1925, the United States government erected another at Parris Island, South Carolina. In the 1940s and ’50s, after construction of Naval Station Mayport, Florida’s Ribault Monument moved to the intersection of Mayport and East Mayport Roads, waiting for a car to smash into it. It moved in 1958 to its current location near the replica of Fort Caroline in the National Park System’s present-day Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.
High atop St. Johns Bluff, Ribault’s column guards memories and myth, the remains of Mocama and representations of Timucuans that never were, endless evolutions and reiterations of stories with no originals. A place has its own magnetism. It reacts differently with each person’s circuitry. In the imagined religious rites of lost tribes and in the rites of passage of high school students, the column becomes a maypole, an axis of revelry. Its radius becomes the site of lost innocence, lost life, and indeed if suicide, perhaps also conception, certainly always the making of meaning.