Saint Augustine

views updated May 14 2018

Saint Augustine

Saint Augustine, Spanish capital of Florida and East Florida, 2004 estimated population 12,157. Saint Augustine, the earliest permanent city of European origin in the United States, was an afterthought. Pedro Menéndez De Avilés, charged by Philip II in 1565 with cleansing the Florida coast of French interlopers, hurried across the Atlantic to destroy Fort Caroline, a French fort in the mouth of the Saint Johns River, only to find it reinforced by a fleet under Jean Ribault. Menéndez fell back to the nearest harbor and took possession of it in the king's name, commandeering and fortifying an Indian village. In honor of the patron saint of Avilés, he named the camp Saint Augustine. From there, he marched on during a hurricane and took Fort Caroline. Ribault's ships were wrecked in the storm, and the castaways received short shrift as pirates. Having cleared the land of intruders, Menéndez moved to strengthen Spain's hold on the Southeast by founding forts and settlements at every deep water port and far into the interior. But this expansion was premature. Famines, mutinies, and Indian warfare gradually reduced the Spanish presence to Saint Augustine and the capital of Santa Elena, on Parris Island.

Sir Francis Drake stopped by Saint Augustine in 1586 to burn the houses and cut down the fruit trees. Governor Pedro Menéndez Márquez reacted by abandoning Santa Elena to consolidate his forces. In 1599 the city was again devastated, this time by a fire and a hurricane. After some debate over whether to abandon the flood-prone port, with its shallow bar and sandy soil, the Spanish rebuilt Saint Augustine where it was.

As Florida's one Spanish municipality, formally titled "the noble and loyal city," Saint Augustine was the seat of all branches of government. The two officials of the royal treasury were also regidores (governors) of the cabildo. The royal governor doubled as captain-general. Florida was a presidial colony, with officers, warehouses, and quarters for convicts and slaves. Of the 300 to 350 soldiers stationed there, a portion was always on detachment at secondary garrisons or on coast guard and supply vessels. A creole elite of floridanos drew pay as reserve officers while tending to their personal trading ventures and ranches in the provinces. Indian chiefs stalked through town, delivering Spanish-imposed labor levies and burdened with food and other products from the provinces.

Saint Augustine was also a religious center. The parish priest exercised a monopoly on sacramental services for non-Indians and supervised the confraternities. The friary, headquarters of the Franciscan province of Santa Elena, which took in both Florida and Cuba and at full strength numbered seventy missionaries, provided the community with a grammar school and a locus for political opposition.

In 1668 Jamaican privateers raided Saint Augustine in the dead of night, killing sixty people in the streets. Their captain, Robert Searles, allowed his Spanish prisoners to be ransomed but kept all the Indians, free blacks, and mestizos to sell as slaves. This raid, followed by the founding of Charleston in 1670, persuaded the Council of the Indies to grant Florida a larger share of the defense budget. The Castillo de San Marcos, begun in 1672 and completed in 1695, fortified the center of the settlement at the expense of the peripheries. Provincial defenses were neglected and food reserves fell to dangerous lows as extra laborers and maize were channeled toward the capital.

The castillo quickly proved its worth as a place of refuge from pirates. Later governors added a seawall to protect the city from storms. The Christian Indians, however, were left exposed not only to pirates but also to their native enemies equipped with firearms to take slaves for the English. The demoralized provinces collapsed during Queen Anne's War, and by 1706, Saint Augustine had lost its hinterland.

Twice in the eighteenth century English invaders besieged the castillo without success. After 1702, when they watched Colonel James Moore of Carolina destroy their homes, the fifteen hundred or so inhabitants rebuilt Saint Augustine as a walled city, with earthworks and a fort, Mose, to defend the only road out of town. In 1740, when General James Oglethorpe of Georgia came to lay siege, the city was saved. However, the Indian refugees living in pueblos outside the walls were not as fortunate. When the Spanish refused to come to their aid during Colonel William Palmer's attack in 1728, many of them left Florida for good. The last remnants of the missions were secularized and the Franciscans, bereft of purpose, split into factions.

As military expenditures escalated during the wars for empire, Saint Augustine's presidio and population grew, and with them opportunities for illicit trade and smuggling. Florida's newly appointed auxiliary bishop reported English ships in the harbor and English traders walking about town. Southeastern Indians were demanding—and getting—English goods as gifts from a Spanish governor. It was time again to consolidate. In 1763, after the Seven Years' War, Spain exchanged Florida for British-held Havana. Approximately three thousand soldiers, friars, floridanos, and slaves, in company with eighty-three Indians, pulled up stakes and left, mostly for Cuba.

Twenty years later the British returned Florida to Spain. From 1784 to 1821, Saint Augustine was the capital of East Florida, a colony much changed in character. Few of the expatriates returned. The populace was a cosmopolitan mixture of Minorcans and others from the Mediterranean, assorted Europeans, Canary Islanders, Scots, English, Americans, and Africans. The soldiers of several companies from Cuba were mulattoes or free blacks and the Hibernian Regiment was Irish, as were two of the governors. A distinctive style of domestic architecture developed featuring two-story houses of coquina with a loggia, an outside stairway, and a balcony facing the street. The public buildings erected included a parish church, a school, a hospital, and barracks.

Plans for further progress were interrupted when the Napoleonic invasion of Spain created a vacuum in metropolitan government. To commemorate Spain's Constitution of 1812 local liberals erected a monument on the plaza that stood there undisturbed through royal reversals, distant wars for independence, transient republics, and Jacksonian invasions. By the time the United States annexed East Florida in 1821, Saint Augustine was Spanish chiefly in name.

See alsoMenéndez de Avilés, Pedro .


Charles W. Arnade, The Siege of St. Augustine in 1702 (1959).

Albert C. Manucy, The Houses of St. Augustine, 1565–1821 (1962; repr. 1992).

Luis Rafael Arana and Albert Manucy, The Building of Castillo de San Marcos (1977).

Amy Turner Bushnell, The King's Coffer: Proprietors of the Spanish Florida Treasury, 1565–1702 (1981).

Kathleen Deagan, Spanish St. Augustine: The Archaeology of a Colonial Creole Community (1983).

Jean Parker Waterbury, ed., The Oldest City: St. Augustine, Saga of Survival (1983).

Additional Bibliography

Feldman, Lawrence H. The Last Days of British Saint Augustine, 1784–1785: A Spanish Census of the English Colony of East Florida. Baltimore, MD: Clearfield, 2003.

Kapitzke, Robert L. Religion, Power, and Politics in Colonial St. Augustine. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.

Manucy, Albert C. Sixteenth-Century St. Augustine: The People and Their Homes. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997.

                                Amy Turner Bushnell

Saint Augustine

views updated May 17 2018


SAINT AUGUSTINE, a city in northeastern Florida, is the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in North America. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded Saint Augustine in September 1565 to displace a French colony at Fort Caroline. The city's excellent strategic position above the Straits of Florida made it vital to the Spanish empire: the harbor provided protection for the plate fleets (the fleets that every year carried a fortune in American silver back to Spain), and as the English and French invaded the New World, Saint Augustine anchored Spanish interests in the area. The splendid fort, El Castillo de San Marcos, begun in 1672, withstood two English sieges. In 1763, Spain ceded Florida to the British, who made Saint Augustine the capital of East Florida.

Spain recovered Florida in 1783, only to sell it to the United States in 1819. When Florida became a state in 1845, Tallahassee was made the state capital. Occupied by Union troops early in the Civil War, Saint Augustine saw no action. In the 1880s, oil baron Henry Flagler, attracted by the mild climate and beautiful beaches, brought in the Florida East Coast Railway and built the extravagant Ponce de Leon Hotel, turning Saint Augustine into a fashionable winter resort for the wealthy. After 1937, restoration of the Castillo and the city's Old Town made Saint Augustine more appealing to modern sightseers. The population in the 2000 census was 11,592.


Waterbury, Jean Parker, ed. The Oldest City: Saint Augustine, Saga of Survival. Saint Augustine, Fla.: Saint Augustine Historical Society, 1983.


See alsoExplorations and Expeditions: French, Spanish ; Florida ; Spanish Borderlands .

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St. Augustine