The Women of Fort Caroline
(Originally posted 19 Apr 2012)
September 20, 1565 dawned wet and dismal. Exhausted sentries grabbed whatever sleep they could manage. Families huddled together in simple Floridian dwellings, praying that the storm would soon abate and their enemies would not take advantage of the chaos and lack of defense. But that is exactly what the Spaniard Pedro Menendez's soldiers did. Blustering through the wake of a hurricane, they burst upon Fort Caroline with no warning.
History tells us that most of the men were killed outright. Those who escaped later endured a long and bitter voyage back to France. The able-bodied soldiers who had previously put out to sea from Fort Caroline with Jean Ribault had been shipwrecked by this time and would soon be slaughtered along the beaches of Matanzas. But what became of the wives, the girlfriends, the mothers and daughters?
Physically, they were spared an ignominious death. Emotionally, the burden of seeing their loved ones killed must have been beyond horrendous. To make the loss of their men even worse, the women learned that the departed would be posthumously hanged. "Not as to Frenchmen, but as to Lutherans," a nearby sign read. And through it all, the women of Fort Caroline, hiding their children's eyes, sobbing outright or weeping quietly, wondered what their men had ever done to deserve such cruel treatment. They must have remembered beloved faces. Compelling eyes filled with steadfast faith and quiet courage. Fathers playing with children. Sons assisting mothers. So much had changed in an instant.
Perhaps the Spaniards believed they were being "kind" in sparing this band of about sixty women and children. They gave little if any thought to the heartache these wretched captives endured. It has been said that Pedro Menendez refused to kill women because he did not want the wrath of God upon his head. This illustrates the rhetoric of the sixteenth century . . . how can one rightly see killing innocent women as cruel but have no compunctions whatsoever against killing equally innocent men?
History tells us little of the women's subsequent trials. Some accounts say they were taken to San Juan, Puerto Rico, most likely to be educated in the Catholic faith. I imagine some grew ill and died along the way. Perhaps heartache was a cause of death as well. These women were forced to live among the same type of men who had unjustly silenced their loved ones. Did they remain true to their Protestant convictions? It is probable some did. I also imagine that the strength of their martyr husbands' testimonies might have strengthened quite a few of these beleaguered women. It is a romantic notion to hope that all remained true to their faith. We will never know the number for sure.
Did the women ever hear of Matanzas, the massacre they never witnessed? If they did, those who had been relieved that their husbands were out to sea during the raid at Fort Caroline must have grown numb with despair. History does not record their names, ages, or stories. Many of these women likely found a way to return to France -- one can only hope they did. Though we cannot give them identities, we can gave them a voice. Their dreams of raising families in le Nouveau Monde, in the New World, free of hardship and persecution, were so violently crushed that the extreme pathos and loss of this story still brings tears to one's eyes.
(c) 2013 Joyously Saved