A private treasure salvage company says it’s found a shipwreck, buried in sand under the ocean off Cape Canaveral, that could be linked to the lost French colony of Fort Caroline.
Global Marine Exploration Inc. has discovered scattered evidence of a historic wreck that includes some tantalizing clues: three French bronze cannons, at least one of which has markings from the time of the colony, and a French granite monument adorned with that country’s coat of arms.
The monument is similar to the one French captain Jean Ribault put near the mouth of the St. Johns River in 1562 as he staked his nation’s claim to Florida. Its whereabouts have been a mystery for centuries.
The artifacts remain under the sand until the proper permits can be obtained, so details are sketchy.
Even so, the find is of huge significance, said University of North Florida archaeologist Robert “Buzz” Thunen, who was not part of the search effort.
“This is Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year all rolled into one. And the 4th of July,” he said. “It’s a big deal for Florida.”
The wreck is tied to a fateful clash of European nations in the New World.
French captain Ribault’s fleet of four ships crossed the Atlantic in 1565 to support the tiny French colony at Fort Caroline, widely believed to be in what is now Jacksonville.
The Spanish arrived about the same time, with orders to wipe out the upstart French outpost and seize possession of the Southeast.
Ribault sailed to attack the new Spanish outpost of St. Augustine, but was driven south in a hurricane, his ships lost. The Spanish marched to Fort Caroline during the storm and wiped it out, seizing firm control of Florida.
So could the wrecking found off Cape Canaveral be from the missing French fleet?
That’s still to be determined.
GME president and CEO Robert H. Pritchett said he first thought his crews had found one or two of Ribault’s four ships. But he now believes they were Spanish or possibly English merchant vessels; the size of anchors found nearby suggest they were from ships far bigger than Ribault’s, he said.
“It couldn’t have been those (French) ships,” he said.
However, he thinks it’s almost certain that those ships were indeed carrying items from the conquered French fort, taking them to the Spanish outpost in Cuba.
Those items include the granite monument and the cannons. Pritchett said one of the weapons has markings from the reign of French King Henry II, which dates it to the 1547 to 1559.
Also found: 12 anchors, a grinding wheel, ballast and ammunition.
Though Pritchett doesn’t believe the artifacts came from Ribault’s fleet, others disagree.
The evidence seems clear that GME has indeed found evidence of the French captain’s missing ships, said Chuck Meide, a marine archaeologist, and John de Bry, director of the Center for Historical Archaeology in Melbourne Beach.
“There’s no doubt in my mind,” said Meide. He’s director of the maritime archaeological program at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum and led a 2014 expedition in search of the fleet. “There’s no record of any other ship being lost off of Cape Canaveral in this period.”
De Bry said he believes the wreck is Ribault’s flagship, La Trinite. Accounts from survivors say it sunk in that area, and one survivor said it carried several stone monuments similar to the one placed near Fort Caroline three years earlier.
“No matter how you look at it, it’s possibly the most significant underwater archaeological discovery in North America,” de Bry said.
If the wrecks are indeed French warships, it would have big implications in what happens to the artifacts.
France could claim ownership of the wreck and its artifacts, even though 451 years have passed,
Meide and de Bry worked on a later French wreck off the coast of Texas; in that case, France took ownership of the wreck but allowed the artifacts to remain in Texas.
Both Meide and de Bry said they’ve spoken with French archaeologists who are excited about the Canaveral find and want in on whatever expedition is mounted next.
GME, a for-profit company from Tampa, has asked the state for a permit to pull up the artifacts, which it left under the sand. Once it has the items recovered, it plans to have them “scientifically conserved” in its lab, according to a company press release.
The state is aware of the reported find and is reviewing the next step, said Meredith M. Beatrice, director of communications with the Florida Department of State.
The state “is also in contact with the French government and other stakeholders to ensure compliance with any applicable laws, such as the federal Sunken Military Craft Act,” she said in a statement.
Prichett said it’s a matter of some urgency, given that looters may now be drawn to the wreck.
“I hope the governor steps up and does the right thing … The state should have this in a museum,” he said. “This changed the history of the state of Florida.”