Years ago I found that a description of a probable fireball type impact event had been recorded by the 16th century French explorer, Laudonniere. The value of Laudonniere’s report to me was the similarity it had to other fireball impact reports I had collected. It did not seem likely that he actual area affected by this event could be located because the exact location of Laudonniere’s Fort Caroline, which was around a mile from the event, was not know, and the description of the event suggested a small scale Tunguska type aerial explosion that would leave little lasting physical evidence.
Years later, during the process of putting rare books online, I noticed a comment by James Oglethorpe that indicated the town of Thunderbolt, Georgia, was named from the translation of a native word for the area where an unusual lightning bolt event had formed a spring which tasted of iron and sulfur. At the time I thought that perhaps the event near the St. John’s river (the currently accepted former “River May” and local of Fort Caroline) Laudonniere witnessed was part of a meteor shower that had also affected the coastal area near the Savannah river where Thunderbolt is located or that both events might be related to some common geological factor. It was of course also possible that the events were not connected at all and, even if they were, it would be hard to prove so I didn’t pursue the observation further.
Recently (2008), however, while imaging some old rare maps, I noticed a feature described as “lighten stones” near the Thunderbolt settlement so I again became interested in the possibility of identifying a past impact site. (This turned out to be an English translation of the German family name, Lichtenstein.) As I looked over other maps to see if I could find other references to these stones I noticed that there was actually a “River May” nearby on the South Carolina side of the Savannah river. This intrigued me as Laudonniere stated that Fort Caroline was built near the river they had named “May” because it was discovered by them on the first of May. Looking at older maps the Savannah river does not appear by that name but seems replaced by a quite extensive river called May! Superficially this would seem proof positive that the Thunderbolt event legend and the fireball impact witnessed by Laudonniere were indeed connected because they were referring to the same event! Unfortunately it’s not that easy because, as other old maps and accounts of travel are added to the data, what was where becomes more of a matter of who can be trusted.
Since no trace of Fort Caroline has been found in the St. John’s river area its former existence in that area is based on interpretations of accounts given by Laudonniere and other explorers of that time period–the 1560s. These accounts are the principal data and need to be read carefully–preferably from original manuscript if available. Unfortunately there are interpretive translations of these accounts that include commentary and may not accurately reflect the original in all details. Not having the language skills to read the original manuscripts, I’ve relied on Hakluyt’s English translations as he had direct contact with both Ribault and Laudonniere and also had access to material no longer available.
(various old links that still seem to work):