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1524-1778: France in the New World
By David at 05/11/2009 - 05:37

1524-1778: France in the New World

The love story between France and America began well before the colonists called their country the United States. As early as the XVIth century, French explorers returned to the coasts of the New World which they had hoped to make New France."Though the natives are extremely odd and covered with variously colored feathers, the physical attributes of the countryside are most pleasant. Situated in the middle of precipitous hills is a wide and deep bay. It is easily large enough to accommodate a good sized sailing vessel…" This entry, dated April 1524, describes the one day port of New York City. The steep hills will be called Brooklyn and Staten Island, and a bridge, named after the narrator will connect the two: Giovanni da Verrazanoi. Born into a rich Italian family of Lyons, France, Verrazano was a Frenchman at heart. Jean de Verrazane, as he was called in his adopted country, had sailed from Brittany three months earlier in search of the mythical "North-West passage" to India. After a stopover in Madeira, he and the crew of the Dauphine saw the New World on March 7,1524. They were off the coast of present-day North Carolina. Fearful of the Spanish in Florida, he looped back to explore the North. Crossing the immense bay between Cape Hatteras and the coast of Virginia, Verrazano thought he had seen the Eastern Sea, leading to the Pacific, and called it the Isthmus of Verrazano. This name, which later appeared on maps of the New World, was to encourage many false hopes. The Indians were very friendly to the travellers, and the French affectionately called present day Maryland "Acadia" (the Indians’ kindness did not stop the French sailors from taking a native boy back to Europe as a souvenir). Sailing by day, and mooring at night, the Dauphine continued north off the coast of Delaware and New Jersey. On April 17, Verrazano lay claim to Manhattan in the name of Francis I. He wrote the French King, ’Sire, we called this land Angoulesme, the name you once had when lesser in fortune… As for the beautiful bay that is formed in this land, we gave it the name of Sainte-Marguerite, in honor of the princess, your sister, who is above all women in virtue and in spirit."

The French in Florida

Sixty Years before the Mayflower pilgrims landed at Plymouth rock, French Hugenots, also fleeing religious intolerance in Europe, set up a colony in Florid These brave colonists might have played an important role in the foundation of the French Etats-Unis, but history decided otherwise. When Admiral de Coligny suggested sending Protestants to live in Florida to practice their religion in peace, the French king, Charles IX jumped at the idea. He saw an opportunity to counter the ambitions of Catholic Spain in the country described by Franciscan Marcos de Niza as a "new Eldorado." Jean Ribault, a Huguenot from the coastal town Dieppe, was chosen to lead the expedition. The ship weighed anchor in February 1562, and by April 30, she reached what they called Cap des Français, in present day South Carolina. On May lst, they had their first contact with the apparently peaceful natives. A French column, emblazoned with the royal fleur-de-lys soon stood next to the small colony on the bank of the May River (now called St. john’s River). It marked the French claim to the land they considered ’the most beautiful, rich and pleasant in the world." Having established a colony at the mouth of the Port Royal river, (on what is now Parris Island, South Carolina) Ribault left thirty soldiers to build a camp called "Charles-fort," in honor of the king, while he returned to France for reinforcements and supplies.The religious wars prevented his immediate return. When a second expedition, led by René de Laudonnière, finally arrived in Florida in June 1564, famine and mutiny had overcome Charlesfort. A second colony, Fort Caroline, was established on the May River. Its fate was even worse. Men deserted to take up piracy, relations with the Indians degraded, and famine threatened. The survivors were relieved to see seven masts on the horizon. Jean Ribault had finally kept his promise. He landed on August 28, 1565 with 600 colonists. The joy was short lived. A storm sank the boats. Those who escaped death at sea were killed by the Spanish, who were only too happy to finish off the "Lutheran Filibusters." On September 20, the troops of Pedro Menédez de Avilés massacred the garrison in a surprise attack. This bloody encounter put an end to French colonial ambition in Florida.

Louis XIV, King of Louisiana

April 9, 1682 on the banks of the Mississippi River. Robert Cavelier de La Salle, outfitted in full dress uniform, sword in hand, read a proclamation that gave bis king "the country Louisiana". One bundred and fifty years after Jacques Cartier, Cavelier de La Salle offered France another chance to carve out an empire in the New World.

Born in Rouen, Normandy, in 1643, Robert Cavelier de La Salle was one of the greatest explorers of the North American continent. The son of wealthy parents who settled in Montreal in 1666, he could easily have led the life of a rich colonist. Gripped by the stories told him by the Indians, he swore to be the first to open the passage to the Great Western Ocean towards China. Pushed by the Governor General and supported by Jean-Baptiste Colbert, advisor to the King, and by King Louis XIV himself, Cavelier de La Salle made numerous expeditions to the Great Lakes and into present-day Illinois and Ohio. He left behind him a magnificent network of forts. After several fruitless attempts, the indefatigable traveller left Saint Louis (south of Lake Erie, in the territory of the Miami Indians) with twenty Frenchmen and thirty scouts from the Mohican and Abénaquis tribes to find the Mississippi River. When they reached the river on February 6, 1682, the ice was too thick to break. After a week, the ice began to break up, allowing the expedition to descend the river by canoe. Leaving behind places visited years before by Joliet and Marquette, they entered the territory of the Arkansas Indians, then went on to the Natchez, who gave them a very warm welcome. The two tribes were at war with one another, so the expedition didn’t pause for too long. The river became wider. Soon the vegetation grew more exotic, and they sighted alligators. On the fifth of April they noticed that the water was briny. The following day, they reached the fork of the Mississippi Delta, and soon the area where the river swept into the sea. Several days later they erected a cross below which was placed a plaque that read: "In the name of Louis XIV, King of France and of Navarre, April 9, 1682." After they had chanted Vexilla Regis for the king, and a triumphal Te Deum, several shots were fired in salute. Cavelier de La Salle then read, in the presence of a public notary brought on the trip for this purpose, the proclamation giving Louis XIV "the country of Louisiana and all the seas, ports, provinces, all the peoples, nations, cities, villages, and mines of this country, as well as the length of the river Colbert or Mississippi, and all rivers that empty into it from their springs to the Gulf of Mexico." The proclamations were received several months later by Louis XIV. The "Sun King" was so pleased to gain such a vast territory that he named Cavelier de La Salle Governor and gave him gave him four ships and 200 men to begin colonization. The flotilla left in July 1684. While the voyage to the Gulf of Mexico was without incident, the expedition by-passed the Mississippi Delta, and ended up farther West, in Galveston Bay. The region was inhospitable, and the conditions in which the foundation of the future Saint Louis of Texas took place were very bad. Famine and mutiny soon threatened. On March 19, 1687, Cavelier de La Salle was killed by his own troops. Not long afterwards the settlement was overrun by Indians. The dreams of the explorer from Normandy ended in tragedy.


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