Every few weeks, sometimes as often as a couple of times a month, a visitor to Jacksonville's Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve approaches a park employee with this tantalizing promise:
"I know where the fort is."
Park Ranger Craig Morris knows better. The search for the physical remains of Fort Caroline, established by the French in 1564 and taken over by the Spanish just a couple of years later, has confounded researchers for generations. Aerial surveys and archaeological digs have done little to pinpoint its location.
Guidance from helpful park visitors hasn't helped either.
"If we spent all our time chasing down every person's idea of where Fort Caroline is, we'd get nothing done," Morris says. "It's one of Florida's great archaeological mysteries."
Day Trips on the Spanish Heritage Trail:
Today, the preserve is home to a replica of the fort, based on sketches of the 16th century structure and believed to be a one-third scale model of the original. It is surrounded by hiking trails and other noteworthy historical sites on the 46,000-acre preserve (12713 Fort Caroline Rd., Jacksonville, 904-641-7155, nps.gov/timu).
In addition to the fort replica – which features interpretive exhibits that share the history of the explorers and freedom seekers who settled there – the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve includes the Theodore Roosevelt Area, with five different Florida ecosystems visible in one hike; the Fort George Island Visitor Center, which describes the natural and cultural history of the preserve's island home; and Kingsley Plantation, which includes the oldest standing plantation house in Florida as well as several original slave cabins.
Yet the highlight remains the fort commonly thought of as Jacksonville's "Atlantis." The search has been stymied partly because the fort's originators didn't want to be found.
"Back in that time period, the cartographers that were making maps weren't necessarily honest about where they were placing their fort," says John Whitehurst, the staff archaeologist and historian at the Timucuan preserve. "The maps were of a new land mass, and everybody was trying to establish some kind of dominance. You didn't want to give your enemies an exact location for where you were landing."
The French first arrived at the mouth of the St. Johns River in 1562, when Jean Ribault led an exploratory expedition to the region. France was initially interested in the Americas to keep up with Spain, the world superpower of the day. But French colonization efforts became more intense with growing persecution of French Protestants, or Huguenots, and their most powerful member – Admiral Gaspard de Coligny – proposed establishing an American colony as a refuge.
"I'm passionate about the story of these freedom-seeking people who came here to Fort Caroline," Morris says. "They were the first people to cross the ocean to the new world with the goal of seeking something you can't touch: freedom of religion and self-government."
Ribault returned to the region in 1565 with reinforcement supplies for the fort. But when the Spanish learned Ribault was returning to northeast Florida, Philip II of Spain dispatched Admiral Pedro Menendez to set up a post at what the Spanish called San Agustin, or modern-day St. Augustine.
Ribault sailed to attack the Spanish, but a hurricane wreaked havoc on his mission, and Menendez marched to Fort Caroline through the storm to take it over.
"The hurricane changed history, quite literally," Morris says.
To round out a visit to Timucuan preserve, try these stops:
In this state park (13802 Pumpkin Hill Rd., Jacksonville, 904-696-5980, floridastateparks.org/bigtalbotisland), the skeletal remains of live oak and cedar trees rise from the beach, creating a majestic and unusual scene at a spot called Boneyard Beach. The effects of weather and erosion have created this effect, turning trees that once grew near the ocean into curiosities for beachophiles on the lookout for a new view.
Boaters can launch from the island's north side to cruise the salt marsh. Nature lovers can also drop a kayak in the water, available for rent through Kayak Amelia, 888-30-KAYAK (305-2925).
After a day spent exploring natural Florida, head to nearby Fernandina Beach, another northeast Florida locale with a history influenced by the French, British and Spanish colonizers.
The city, named after King Ferdinand VII of Spain, is located on an island the Spanish called Isla de Santa Maria, though the British name is the one that stuck: Amelia Island.
Fernandina Beach, known for its striking late 19th century architecture and bustling historic business district, came into its own during the railroad boom years.
Today, the old waterfront train depot – originally the eastern end of Florida's first cross-state railroad – is home to the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council (102 Centre St., 904-277-0717, ameliaisland.com). A stop at the depot for a walking tour map of Fernandina Beach is a good place to start a downtown visit.
The city's main street, Centre Street, is lined with thriving boutiques, restaurants and bookstores. And don't forget the charming numbered side streets, such as South Third Street, where you'll find eateries such as Kelley's Courtyard Cafe (19 S. Third St., Fernandina Beach, 904-432-8213, kelleyscourtyardcafe.com). Open for lunch and dinner, the cafe offers an inventive menu and expansive outdoor seating area.