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Artist Le Moyne documented early settlement in Florida

Special correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 11:48 PM

Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues came to Florida in 1564 with an expedition of French settlers intent on claiming at least a part of the New World for France.

Religious wars between Catholics and Protestants raged throughout Europe during this time. In an era of travel and exploration, Europeans discovered in America, Africa and Asia people who lived with very different customs and institutions. Many Europeans thought the newly discovered cultures uncivilized and vastly inferior to their own.

French explorers brought with them men to record their experiences in the New World: historians, priests and settlers. Le Moyne, a cartographer and artist, arrived with a group who established Fort Caroline near the mouth of the St. Johns River, called the Riviere de Mai (River May) by the French.

Le Moyne, commissioned by the French government to chronicle the colonization of and habitats in Florida, crafted a nontechnical account of the American Indians and the land where they lived through his drawings. His narrative, "Brevis narratio," was written 20 years after he left Florida. The German translation and engravings were published by Théodor de Bry in Frankfort in 1591. Much of what we know about the early recorded history of Florida comes from the work of Le Moyne.

The French fort was located very close to Timucua villages. Like Florida's other northern tribes, the Timucua lived in dome-shaped, palm-thatched huts protected by a circular palisade or fence of vertical logs. The chief's house was built on a mound in the center and was a larger, rectangular structure. Another building served as both a temple and meeting place for the community.

A shell mound was a common feature in Timucua villages, and was actually a refuse pile that was built higher as generation after generation consumed and discarded millions of shellfish. French colonists in Florida in 1560 noted that the Timucua also constructed earthen mounds as shrines and tombs for the dead. Other Florida Indian groups constructed similar mounds around the state. One such mound has been preserved at Philippe Park in Pinellas County.

A large mound, thought to have been built by the Mocoso Indians, once stood near the site of the Tampa Convention Center. The Mocoso also constructed Picnic Mound in southeast Hillsborough County and possibly the Jones Mound southeast of Lake Thonotosassa.

Le Moyne's work was shaped by his assumptions and preconceptions about Florida's indigenous people. What resulted was not a precise account of how the natives lived and what they looked like, but how a European saw the natives. This is not to say that Le Moyne's works hold no historical value. Quite to the contrary, they are the only contemporary images of native life in Florida, and, coupled with archaeological and anthropological evidence, they give some idea to what life was like more than 400 hundred years ago in Florida. They also present us with insight into Le Moyne's life and, by extension, the lives of Florida's early European settlers.

The works were further distorted by the engraver, de Bry, whose own prejudices and preconceptions are combined with possible misinterpretations of the drawings themselves. Also contributing to the distortion is that Le Moyne was not able to travel extensively throughout Florida. He stayed close to the short-lived fort, thereby limiting the scope of his knowledge of Florida's first people to the Timucua who lived near the European settlement.

His works were first published in a book, "Narrative of Le Moyne surnamed de Morgues," the English translation of which was not published until 1875. They received wider notice in de Bry's "America, pt II," published in Frankfort in 1591.

Le Moyne's originals no longer exist, and it is unknown what exactly happened to them. The French settlement at Fort Caroline was attacked by Spanish forces in 1565, led by Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who founded the town of St. Augustine the same year. LeMoyne was able to escape the fighting with his life but likely not much else.

The Spanish legacy in Florida lives on, embodied by St. Augustine (the country's oldest city) and other landmarks in the state. The short-lived Fort Caroline isn't any less important, and LeMoyne's place as one of the most important chroniclers of Florida is more than secure.


Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He encourages your questions and comments. He can be reached by email, rkp@tampabayhistorycenter.org, or by phone, (813) 228-0097.
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