The oldest fortified European settlement in North America has been found – in theory at least.

According to two Florida researchers, the legendary Fort Caroline settlement was found. The announcement made during an international conference at Florida State University reveals the fort built by the French in 1564 is located approximately 70 miles away from where researchers thought it stood.

“This is the oldest fortified settlement in the present United States,” historian Fletcher Crowe said. “This fort is older than St. Augustine, considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in America. It’s older than the Lost Colony of Virginia by 21 years; older than the 1607 fort of Jamestown by 45 years; and predates the landing of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts in 1620 by 56 years.”

For more than 150 years researchers have been searching for Fort Caroline – the first French colony in the United States that was intended to provide refuge for the Protestant Huguenots. Spain saw the settlement as a threat to its empire in the New World. On Sept. 20, 1565, Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and his armada attacked the settlement. More than 140 French were killed.

The fort was believed to be located east of downtown Jacksonville, Fla., on the south bank of the St. Johns River – close to where the national memorial is located. Crowe and co-author Anita Spring contend the site is actually located near the Georgia coast between Brunswick and Savannah, approximately 70 miles from the Jacksonville site.

Researchers came to their conclusion after cross-referencing maps housed at France’s national library, coastal charts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and maps published by the U.S. Geological Survey. The maps in France located Fort Caroline along the southeastern coast of North America. Researchers used the coordinates written down by Menéndez after the French were massacred to prove that the fort is located on Rhetts Island, southeast of Darien, Ga.

“The actual latitude of what we believe is Fort Caroline is well within the margin of error of 16th-century navigational instruments, about 17 miles,” Crowe said.

One of the main reasons researchers had thought the fort was built near Jacksonville was the language of the local Native American tribes. It was long believed they spoke Timucuan, the native language of Northeast Florida. Rather, the latest study proves they spoke Guale.

“The Guale speakers lived near Darien, Ga. They did not live in Northeast Florida, where Jacksonville is,” Spring said.

While the site has yet to be excavated, the discovery is regarded as an important one.

“This really is a momentous finding, and what a great honor it is for it to be announced at a conference organized by the Winthrop-King Institute,” said Martin Munro, a professor in Florida State’s Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics. “It demonstrates the pre-eminence of the institute and recognizes the work we do in promoting French and Francophone culture in Florida, the United States and internationally.”