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District Court finds the Shipwreck Discovered off the Coast of Florida is la Trinité from the Lost French Colony of Fort Caroline

This post is coauthored by Nathan Dorn, rare book curator, and Robert Brammer, senior legal information specialist.

We previously brought you a post on the discovery of a shipwreck off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida that was thought to be related to the lost French colony of Fort Caroline. Fort Caroline represented the first attempt by a European power to establish a permanent settlement in Florida. That attempt was short lived because the colony came to a bloody end when Spain dispatched Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to destroy the colony. Menéndez de Avilés engaged in a brief naval skirmish with French commander Jean Ribault who led a flotilla that was sent to resupply Fort Caroline. A hurricane, however, interrupted the battle. With Ribault’s ships at sea, Menéndez took advantage of the opportunity to attack the colony by marching overland through the storm to sack the fort. Soon after, Menéndez de Avilés found the survivors of Ribault’s shipwrecked fleet. Rather than taking them prisoner, he executed almost all of them, including Ribault, at what is now known as Matanzas Inlet. An account of the French exploration of Florida and the founding of Fort Caroline is recorded in Theodor de Bry’s Brevis narratio eorum quae in Florida Americae provi[n]cia Gallis acciderunt, a text that includes engravings that are based upon the work of the French artist Jacque Le Moyne De Morgues, who accompanied the French colonists to Fort Caroline to paint the indigenous population and fauna.

Bry, Theodor de, 1528-1598. Brevis narratio eorum quae in Florida Americae provi[n]cia Gallis acciderunt: Francoforti ad Moenum: Typis Ioan[n]is Wecheli, sumtibus vero Theodori de Bry, venales reperiu[n]tur in officina S. Feirabe[n]dii, 1591. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division

Bry, Theodor de, 1528-1598. Brevis narratio eorum quae in Florida Americae provi[n]cia Gallis acciderunt: Francoforti ad Moenum: Typis Ioan[n]is Wecheli, sumtibus vero Theodori de Bry, venales reperiu[n]tur in officina S. Feirabe[n]dii, 1591. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division

The company that discovered the shipwreck in question in 2016, Global Marine Salvage, filed an in rem action titled, Global Marine Exploration, Inc. v. The Unidentified, Wrecked And (For Finders-Right Purposes) Abandoned Sailing Vessel. They asserted “a possessory and ownership claim pursuant to the law of finds, a salvage award claim, a request for declaratory judgment that no government had the authority to interfere with their exploration and recovery of the site, and a claim for a preliminary injunction prohibiting rival salvors from conducting search or recovery operations at the site.”  Global Marine then “complied with a publication requirement of Local Admiralty Rule 7.03(d)(1) “, but no claims were filed and the court issued a default against the vessel.

A week later, the Republic of France filed a claim, contending the ship was “from the French Royal Fleet of 1565 commanded by Ribault” and claimed “it had not abandoned sovereignty over the ship.” The State of Florida also appeared and made a claim that was “expressly subordinate to the claim of the Republic of France,” taking a position in support of France’s claim, but asserting that if the ship was not found to be France’s, then Florida would be its owner since it was “embedded in the sovereign submerged lands of the State of Florida” and had been “abandoned by its owner.”

France later filed a motion to dismiss under the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) that was supported by 800 pages of evidence, claiming the District Court did not have subject matter jurisdiction over the ship because “it is the French Royal Vessel la Trinité and has immunity from Global Marine’s claims.”

Global Marine responded to France’s motion to dismiss, marshaling the support of experts on its behalf. In June 2018 , a magistrate judge decided that by a preponderance of the evidence, the ship is Jean Ribault’s ship, la Trinité . The magistrate relied on 1) the location where the ship was discovered, present day Cape Canaveral, as the location where la Trinite’ likely sank, 2) that the sixteenth century French cannons are consistent with the cannons listed on the artillery register of la Trinite’, and 3) that the ship contained a stone monument bearing the coat of arms of the French King, and la Trinite’ was likely carrying multiple, similar monuments. Based upon this evidence, the magistrate concluded the shipwreck is more likely than not la Trinite’, the property of France.  The magistrate held that a foreign state, or its property, is presumptively immune from the jurisdiction of U.S. Courts and since no statutory exception applied, France’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction was granted.

It should be mentioned that the stone monument that was discovered in the wreck is similar to the monument placed at the mouth of the River May (now known as the St. John’s River) by Ribault in 1562, as it is depicted in one of Theodor de Bry’s engravings.

The magistrate's order finding that the ship is Jean Ribault's la Trinite'. (Underlining added).

The magistrate’s order finding that the ship is Jean Ribault’s la Trinité and dismissing the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. (Underlining added).

To see what the shipwreck looks like, and see some of the artifacts, including the stone monument, you can take a look at Global Marine’s page here.

So, what did Ribault’s ship, la Trinité look like before it sank in 1565?  La Trinité was the largest of seven ships that comprised Ribault’s fleet and served as his flagship. Theodor de Bry’s engravings, while likely an imperfect rendering of Le Moyne’s work, offer some insight into the appearance of Ribault’s fleet.

Bry, Theodor de, 1528-1598. Brevis narratio eorum quae in Florida Americae provi[n]cia Gallis acciderunt: Francoforti ad Moenum: Typis Ioan[n]is Wecheli, sumtibus vero Theodori de Bry, venales reperiu[n]tur in officina S. Feirabe[n]dii, 1591. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division

Bry, Theodor de, 1528-1598. Brevis narratio eorum quae in Florida Americae provi[n]cia Gallis acciderunt: Francoforti ad Moenum: Typis Ioan[n]is Wecheli, sumtibus vero Theodori de Bry, venales reperiu[n]tur in officina S. Feirabe[n]dii, 1591. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division

4 Comments

  1. Iona McAvoy
    October 2, 2018 at 10:45 pm

    Thank you for another fascinating journey

  2. Warren E. Brown, Esq.
    October 3, 2018 at 5:59 am

    03 October 2018 — Ladies and Gentlemen at the Library of Congress — What a wonderful historical report dealing with the early history of North America and the many European interests which were desirous of staking out a claim in this evolving new world.

    Congratulations on a very fine article which I enjoyed receiving.

    Warren E. Brown, Esq.
    Washington, D. C.
    .

  3. Walter R. Mattfeld
    May 4, 2019 at 7:02 pm

    I am unaware of anyone attempting a search for the FOUR FRENCH SHIPS SUNK IN the Saint Johns River circa 1565. WHY is no one looking for them? One was sunk by cannon fire from the French fort, after its capture by the Spanish, in 1565. Another THREE FRENCH ships were sunk near the mouth of the St. Johns River, by the French who scuttled them to prevent their falling into Spanish hands. Eyewitness accounts (1565) of the fall of the French fort, called Fort Caroline, suggest it was on the south bank of today’s St. Johns River, along the area now called “St. Johns Bluff” on modern maps. Regrettably, this area has been extensively excavated to make Jacksonville a deep-sea port. Perhaps the remains of these four French ships exist today as land fill or “berms” along the St. Johns River?

  4. Bev
    December 1, 2020 at 10:53 pm

    What about the treasure hunters who spent counless man-hours and possibly millions of dollars to find the wreck? This is so unfair to them!

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