PARRIS ISLAND, S.C. — The oldest known European settlement in what is now the United States wasn’t in Virginia or Florida – it was on the marshy coast of South Carolina, and it came to a desperate and grisly end.
It was the French who landed on what is now Parris Island, decades before Jamestown and three years before St. Augustine in Florida. There they established a beachhead they called Charlesfort. The place is now home to the famed Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot.
Ceremonies next week with officials from two nations will mark the 450th anniversary of the landing of Jean Ribaut with his party of 159 settlers.
The story of Ribaut and Charlesfort might come out of a Hollywood script featuring geopolitical rivalries between the European superpowers of the day, religious persecution and even cannibalism. And it’s a story little known beyond this region of coastal tides and marsh grass.
“South Carolina is kind of Anglo-centric. All history sort of begins with the English coming here,” said Stephen Wise, the director of the museum at Parris Island.
But Ribaut, a Huguenot, arrived in May 1562 – 108 years before the English landed in what is now Charleston – sailing into the harbor that still bears the name he gave it, Port Royal. Ribaut declared the harbor “one of the greatest and fairest havens of the world,” put up a stone pillar, and claimed the area for France.
Wise said the Port Royal Harbor was well known in Europe. From there, the Spanish treasure fleets could find the trade winds to take them east to Spain.
“It’s a very important coast if for nothing else than to protect the Spanish ships,” he said.
The French settlers built Charlesfort – named for French King Charles IX – but the colony lasted less than two years.
Ribaut returned to France for supplies within a month of arriving, leaving behind 26 men to man Charlesfort. In France, the Catholics and Huguenots were battling again in a religious war and Ribaut was delayed while fighting for the Huguenots.
He then made his way to England where Elizabeth I promised him a rescue fleet but then tossed him in the Tower of London when she changed allegiances in the French conflict.
By the next year, the men of Charlesfort, fearing they had been abandoned, decided to return to France on their own.
The command of Charlesfort had been left to a brutal leader who executed one man for an infraction and exiled another to a nearby island. The men revolted, killed the commander, rescued the exiled settler and built a boat to sail home. Before they left, however, their storehouse of food burned.
“One gentleman was eaten on the way back,” Wise said.
The following year, the French returned to colonize but this time in what is now northern Florida.
The Spanish sent a large military force and most of the Huguenots were killed or captured.
That ended French attempts to colonize along the Southeast coast. They later turned their attention to what is now Canada.
The Spanish then built a village and two forts on the Charlesfort site, but abandoned them and pulled back to Florida about two decades later.
“We were the first French settlement and the first protestant settlement in the United States,” said Mary Lou Brewton, a local tour guide who is on the organizing committee for the 450th anniversary events. “It’s a point of pride with Beaufort and the community of Port Royal.”
Wise said that while Charlesfort is the oldest known location for a European settlement in what is now the United States, there was an earlier one, according to historical records. However, no one has been able to find the site.
The Spanish attempted to set up a colony in 1526, but it lasted only two months. It could be anywhere from the Cape Fear area of North Carolina to the Georgia sea islands, Wise said.
In 1926, the federal government erected a 15-foot tall monument on the site of what was thought to be Charlesfort, but later research showed that to be the location of a subsequent Spanish fort.
Not until 1996, through the work of University of South Carolina archaeologists Chester DePratter and Stanley South, was the location of Charlesfort finally determined about 270 yards away.
Besides a berm and trail markers, little other evidence remains at the settlement site between Port Royal Sound, a black cemetery and the base golf course.
Next week’s observances will feature a series of talks and events organized by local and state groups to mark the little-known chapter in American history.