Spanish Florida and the Founding of St. Augustine

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Spanish Florida and the Founding of St. Augustine


In search of the legendary Fountain of Youth, Juan Ponce de León (1460-1521) landed on the shores of present-day northern Florida on Easter, March 27, 1513. He claimed the territory for his native Spain, but did not leave a lasting settlement at his point of first contact. The Spanish Crown sent six subsequent expeditions back to Florida to relocate the area of Ponce de León's landing and establish a settlement, but none were successful. Nearly 50 years passed until St. Augustine, Florida, was founded by a new generation of Spanish explorers, Christian missionaries, and European settlers. From its inception, St. Augustine was plagued by siege, Indian uprising, disease, and territorial boarder disputes. However, the small Spanish settlement, which predated the British settlement at Jamestown (1607) by 42 years, thrived under the stewardship of three nations to become the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in America.


Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519-1574) was commissioned by King Philip II of Spain to resecure Spanish possessions near present-day Jacksonville. In July of 1565 Menéndez de Avilés led a fleet of 11 ships and 1,900 men to Florida. On August 28, the Feast of St. Augustine, he entered a bay near the delta of the St. Johns River. Upon making landfall 11 days later, the explorer rededicated the land to Spain and ordered his men to build a fort, which he named St. Augustine after the Catholic holy day. The fort was built on the site of the local indigenous village of Seloy. The existing village was hastily fortified, but no initial plans for a more permanent fort structure were made.

The location chosen for Spanish fort and settlement was not selected by accident. The Spanish were not the first to settle the area around St. Augustine. French Protestants, known as Huguenots, established Ft. Caroline in 1564. The group, originally led by Jean Ribault, was plagued by problems of disease and supply shortages. Nonetheless, the French colony survived for over a year. Menéndez de Avilés's commission entailed ensuring that Spain's coastlines in the New World were free from interfering settlements from rival European nations—most especially France. Spain perceived the small colony as a threat to Spanish shipping interests between their colonies in the Caribbean and Europe. Control of northern Florida was thought to be vital. In 1565 soldiers under the command of Menéndez de Avilés seized control of Ft. Caroline. Menéndez de Avilés ordered most of the colony to be massacred, hanging the bodies of victims of in trees with the inscription "Not as Frenchmen, but as heretics." Incorporating the settlement that he had founded and the former French settlement on the St. Johns River, the Spanish secured their dominion over northern Florida.

Menéndez de Avilés continued to fulfill his obligations to the King of Spain by establishing a string of Spanish forts along the Northern Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina coastlines. Menéndez de Avilés was recalled to Spain in 1567, but his colony at St. Augustine thrived. The other outposts, however, did not fare as well as St. Augustine and within the span of 150 years had all been incorporated into French and then British territories. St. Augustine was left as the northernmost of these original outposts, and in 1672 with the construction of a stone fort, the Castillo de San Marcos, it became one of the most heavily armed and guarded forts in Spanish Florida, its strategic location acting as the first line of defense for Spanish territories in North America.

After the British established colonies to the north in Georgia and South Carolina, St. Augustine was the site of ongoing attempts of the British to gain land from rival Spain. In 1702 Governor James Moore of South Carolina laid siege to the city. Following closely two years later, Governor James Edward Oglethorpe of Georgia attacked St. Augustine. Neither attempt to take the city was successful.

In 1763 Spain ceded Florida to England in exchange for regaining control over the capital of Cuba. The British ruled St. Augustine for a 20-year period that coincided with the American Revolution. Florida, as a British possession, remained loyal to the British Crown. When the Revolution ended, Florida was granted back to Spain until the United States purchased the territory in 1821. The Castillo de San Marcos was renamed Ft. Marion, and St. Augustine was firmly under American control. The period after the American take-over of Florida marked a difficult time for St. Augustine. An epidemic of Yellow Fever swept the town in 1821, and a Native uprising in 1836 culminated in the Seminole War. No longer an active mission, trade hub, or large garrison town, the often-troubled economy of the city ground to a halt.


Though St. Augustine was precariously close to borders with rival colonies, the ongoing struggle among the Spanish, French, British, and later the Americans, for dominion over the area were due mainly to the town's prized location on shipping and trade routes. The Atlantic currents near St. Augustine allowed ships that disembarked from the town to make more expedient voyages to Europe than those that left similar New World ports just 100 miles (161 km) away. Control of the town granted the owner dominion over the Atlantic access waters to this trade route—and the possibility for substantial economic prosperity. In 1586 English buccaneer and mariner Sir Frances Drake (c. 1540-1596) landed in St. Augustine and burned the town in an attempt to gain control of the region. Despite the immense damage caused to the town, Drake was ultimately unsuccessful. In 1668 pirate captain John Davis attacked the city, killing 64 inhabitants. These periodic raids by privateers were detrimental to the economic growth of St. Augustine. Davis's raid not only encouraged the Spanish to reroute some trade to other ports in Spanish Florida, but also pointed to the need for a more stalwart defense system for the city.

The massive stone fort that the Spanish constructed to guard St. Augustine, the Castillo de San Marcos, was itself an engineering marvel. Though the pointed design of the fort was fairly standard, the Spanish could not find the building materials with which they were accustomed to using in the construction of such massive defense works. Quarrying hard stones and moving them to St. Augustine proved to be impractical. Thus, the builders of the Castillo de San Marcos utilized coquina (a compact, densely packed, concrete-like material of shell and hardened sediment), which could be locally quarried on nearby Anastasia Island and ferried across to St. Augustine. The material was solid enough to be used like stone, but it had a unique ability to "swallow" enemy cannon fire with little or no damage to the integrity of the fort's walls. This use of indigenous coquina, a strategic location near the confluence of the San Sebastian and St. John's rivers, and a strong military presence allowed Castillo de San Marcos to withstand repeated enemy attacks. As a Spanish, British, and United States outpost, the fort never fell into enemy hands until 1862 during the American Civil War.

Several archaeological investigations, over a span of decades, have helped to locate Ponce de León's landing area, the French colony, the settlement established by Menéndez de Avilés, and series of city fortifications, walls, and structures from various other periods. Recently, there has been a renewed interest in investigating the precontact and proto-historic (the earliest years of European contact with the New World) sites in the St. Augustine area. Archaeological investigations have yielded valuable information about the structure and nature of the society of the indigenous peoples who settled the area before Europeans. Studying these early settlements will facilitate archaeologists and historians in interpreting how Native American, and later African slave, societies changed as a result of European conquest. Paleopathology research, the study of the effects of disease on ancient remains, will aid in understanding the transfer and dissemination of various foreign diseases, and their devastating impact on indigenous, slave, and immigrant populations.


Further Reading

Landers, Jane G., and Peter H. Wood. Black Society inSpanish Florida. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Various. Oldest City. St. Augustine, FL: St. Augustine Historical Society, 1983.

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Spanish Florida and the Founding of St. Augustine

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