Historical data, dates can often conflict between sources

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What do we believe in the news we read or hear? If you follow more than one news source, the information is often contradictory. What is true?

It may or may not be comforting to know that this is a very old problem. I have read reports and other writings composed over a period of five centuries. Contradictory claims are also found among the old documents.

Numbers are probably most notorious for disagreements. Many times I have read reports from rivals of raids or battles in which both sides were outnumbered. How is it possible ?

By Susan Parker

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Yes, it was probably difficult to get a good count on the other side during fights. Signaling that you were outnumbered offers a good explanation for losing. On the other hand, reporting that you were outnumbered, but still won, speaks in favor of bravery or brilliance on the field.

An episode in the history of our region illustrates conflicts in documents. Most of us are familiar with the story of the attack and capture by Spanish soldiers of the French Fort Caroline near the mouth of the Saint John River in September 1565.

The Spanish then occupied the fort and renamed it Fort San Mateo. The vengeful attack by the French in 1568 has received less attention.

A satellite image shows a boat crossing St. Augustine Inlet to the Atlantic Ocean.

At the end of March 1568, the ships of Frenchman Dominique de Gourges appeared off St. Augustine Inlet. The Spaniards here fired two cannon shots to mark the port of friendly ships or to warn enemy ships. The Spaniards of St. Augustine were already nervous because of the conflicts with the local Indians whose friendship had become strained.

Spaniards in northeast Florida, attempting to make allies of Native Americans, injected themselves into old rivalries between Indian groups that predated the arrival of Europeans. French and English settlers did the same. The French had left Florida in 1565 and had not stayed here to waste their welcome.

The Indians greet de Gourges and his men when they arrive at the mouth of the Saint John River. Perhaps the French would rid them of these Spanish intruders. De Gourges’ gifts to the Indians sealed a short-term alliance.

Initially, the Franco-Indian group attacked the Spanish blockhouses built on either side of the mouth of the Saint-Jean. Historian Eugène Lyon wrote that “there is a substantial discrepancy between the opposing accounts (the French and Spanish reports) as to the strength of the Spanish garrisons in the small palisades”.

Then the French easily overwhelmed Fort San Mateo. Unwilling to attribute any glory to the French, Spanish reports blamed the loss of the fort on the cowardice of the Spanish soldiers. An expedition sent from St. Augustine after de Gourges had left Florida found eight Spanish soldiers hanging from trees near the destroyed blockhouses and two hanging near the now-ruined Fort San Mateo.

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The French account noted that de Gourges’ group hanged 200 Spanish prisoners. It has also been reported that de Gourges was inspired by Pedro Menendez’s murder of French settlers at Fort Caroline three years earlier. The French reported that Menendez left a writing in 1565 which read “I do not do his as to French men but as to Lutherans (the Spanish term for Protestants). De Gourges’ message accompanies the hanged Spaniards: “I do not do this as to Spaniards, but as to traitors, thieves and murderers.”

Menendez’s reports of his encounters with the French in Florida in 1565 mention no hangings or messages. And I wonder about the number of “200” hanged. Spanish reports said they had a force of 120 men at Fort San Mateo, much less than 200. Besides, how long would it take to hang 200 people?

Susan Parker

A French account was published in Paris in May 1568, incredibly soon after the late April attack at the Saint John River. The account is attributed to de Gourges. If this publication date is correct, Dominique de Gourges must have spent most of his time writing on his return trip across the Atlantic Ocean to France. Revenge has become well known in France. The Spaniards knew little about the event as the Spanish accounts appeared in official documents.

This 16th century “short story” lacks the version that the Indians could have told.

Susan R. Parker holds a doctorate in colonial history.

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