David Lauderdale

History starts here with 450th anniversary of Ribaut's colony

Plymouth Rock, Jamestown, Roanoke Island, St. Augustine.

Even to school children, the building blocks of North America are as familiar as Columbus sailing the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety-two.

But forget all that.

The oldest known European settlement in what is now the United States of America was right here in Beaufort County.

French Huguenot Jean Ribaut arrived in 1562 -- 450 years ago this month -- sailing two ships and 150 men into a harbor "so large and magnificent that they named it Port Royal."

His moated colony was called Charlesfort on what is today Parris Island. Ribaut, with the sound of our first developer, declared there was no "fayrer or fytter place."

When Beaufort and Port Royal celebrated the 400th anniversary of this occurrence in 1962, a play with a cast of 100 was commissioned and performed nightly for a week at the Depot Theater on Parris Island.

A review in the (Charleston) News and Courier gives a hint that the Charlesfort story wasn't a happily-ever-after fairy tale.

"Violence began with a clash of wills between queen and cardinal, mounted to the waterfront battle between Catholic and Protestant and hit a peak at Charlesfort where the colonists mutinied and murdered their captain," Michael Soper wrote of Elizabeth Dooley's play, "Prologue to Freedom."

Ribaut had left the scene before the mutiny. He recorded the story of Charlesfort while imprisoned in the Tower of London. He would return to the New World, only to be martyred by Spaniards in Florida when he refused to renounce his Protestant faith.

Charlesfort lasted a little less than a year before its men built an open boat, used bedding and shirts for a sail and headed for home, resorting to cannibalism to survive the voyage.

No, it's not a fairy tale. But it's the true story of mankind -- and Beaufort County's often overlooked central role in the fray.

The 450th anniversary of Ribaut's colonization of the New World won't feature a three-act play or the "Huguenot Half Dollars" that were redeemable at any bank in Beaufort County during the 1962 celebration. No solid silver medals will be sold, or given to the presidents of the United States and France.

But the U.S. Marine Corps will unveil a poster celebrating the Charlesfort/Santa Elena National Historic Landmark on Parris Island.

Beginning Thursday, weekly lectures and a period-music performance will inform us that Ribaut is more than a busy street in Beaufort.

And that there's so much more to the story than Columbus sailing the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety-two.

Related content