Ten weeks after setting sail from Spain, on the feast day of St. Augustine in 1565, Pedro Menendez de Aviles noticed land. When the admiral got here ashore two weeks afterward Sept. 8, he claimed the positioning for his nation and named it for the towering Catholic theologian on whose day it appeared throughout the water.
Thus begins the story of the northeast Florida settlement that outlasted the remaining to turn into the oldest constantly inhabited metropolis within the U.S. Earlier than the British — and later the unbiased states — overran their newfound landmass, the Spanish carved out a nook for themselves in a bid to protect their Caribbean pursuits. Historians of this abiding and stunningly numerous group lament that these days it’s a mere aspect be aware within the American saga.
“Once you take a look at St. Augustine, the story adjustments,” says Michael Francis, of the College of South Florida, St. Petersburg. “You begin to admire the long-term historical past in a manner that isn’t dominated by this English narrative that’s so prevalent.”
However earlier than Menendez may cement his position within the continent’s trajectory, the conquistador and his convoy — troopers and their households, maybe 800 in all — had a navy directive: King Phillip II despatched them with orders to expel the French Huguenots, who had just lately established a colony and constructed Fort Caroline close to present-day Jacksonville, in territory belonging to the Spanish crown.
Menendez wasted no time. In an overland ambush simply days after they arrived, his males marched by 40 miles of swamp and routed the fort’s defenders. In the meantime, the French naval officer Jean Ribault had sailed south to confront the Spanish at St. Augustine, however a storm blew the fleet off target and shipwrecked them close to what’s now Daytona Seaside.
Ribault and his troops, now on foot, trudged again towards Fort Caroline till an inlet blocked their progress. Menendez discovered them and, enlisting a captured Frenchman as translator, informed them they’d no fort to return to. A lot of the French surrendered.
Although the Spanish supplied to spare any Catholics, all however 10 proclaimed their Protestantism. The opposite 250 or so have been duly executed, and to this present day the inlet and its estuary bear the identify Matanzas — Spanish for “massacre.”
Two Centuries of Spanish Reign
The primary Jamestownians would not land ashore for an additional few a long time, and the oldest soon-to-be Plymouth pilgrims weren’t but 10 years previous. However the textbooks are wealthy with their tales, not St. Augustine’s.
“It’s not seen as a core of the U.S.,” says Susan Parker, govt director of the St. Augustine Historic Society, who grew up within the space. “We’re beginning as a nation to be somewhat extra open-minded as to what our historical past was like and who was a part of it, however that’s very gradual.”
Although management of the Atlantic seaboard finally fell to the English, for many years essentially the most vital European settlement on the continent belonged to Spain. The situation of St. Augustine was a strategic alternative. From there, the Spanish may shield their treasure fleet because it sailed to and from Veracruz, Havana and different Caribbean hubs. Additionally they explored inland, trying to find river passages to the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific.
The town rapidly grew to become the primary American melting pot. Francis says Sixteenth-century St. Augustine harbored immigrants from Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands, France, Eire, Germany, Croatia — demographics extra akin to fashionable cities than to its contemporaries.
It was additionally the positioning of the continent’s first documented Christian marriage: the interracial union of Luisa de Abrego, a free black girl, and Miguel Rodriguez, a Spanish soldier. And a century earlier than the Underground Railroad shuttled enslaved Africans to the North, many escaped south to a tiny haven exterior St. Augustine known as Fort Mose, the primary legally sanctioned free Black town in North America. All this, Francis notes, “in a location that within the twentieth century had Jim Crow.”
The inhabitants of St. Augustine was principally poor, subsisting on maritime meals like oysters and shellfish, plus some maize and shipments of cured meats, wine and cheese from different ports. However general they loved a snug existence so far as distant outposts go. After analyzing town’s early demise data, Francis says he discovered no signal of widespread destitution, suggesting the governors exaggerated of their correspondence with the Spanish crown.
What really flourished was Catholicism, because the Franciscans spread dozens of missions throughout Native American territory in an effort to proselytize the indigenous individuals. The continent’s first mission, forward of these in California and the Southwest, stood in what’s in the present day a St. Augustine metropolis park.
Colonial Energy Struggles
From the start, St. Augustine lived below the specter of British assault. In 1672 they started work on the still-standing Castillo de San Marcos, a fort manufactured from coquina, or shellstone, a malleable materials with a formidable potential to soak up cannon fireplace. Within the subsequent century they accomplished Fort Matanzas, a smaller construction, to protect the southern path to town.
Their strongholds didn’t save them. Through the Seven Years Struggle within the 1760s the British seized Havana, forcing Spain to cede Florida for its return. The occupation was short-lived: The Spanish regained Florida on the finish of the American Revolution, within the Treaty of Paris.
However over the approaching a long time their management weakened, and within the early nineteenth century the crown lastly wearied of its problematic peninsula. With the People poised to run them out anyway, Spain handed over Florida to the U.S. within the 1819 Treaty of Adams-Onis, and the U.S. took on the $5 million debt related to the colony. With that, the land switched palms for the final time.
In fact, lengthy earlier than Europeans started bickering over their squalid coastal settlements, Native American societies had risen and fallen throughout the continent for millennia. St. Augustine itself overlays the Timucua village of Seloy. And in a special sense the Mississippian complex of Cahokia — with its monumental earthen mounds and a inhabitants of maybe 20,000 within the centuries previous Columbus — deserves the excellence of America’s “oldest metropolis.”
La Florida Blossoms
Within the a long time after its annexation, Florida emerged because the tourism hub it stays in the present day, drawing snowbirds from the northern states. To foster that pattern, the entrepreneurs of St. Augustine embellished its heritage to “entertain the guests,” Parker says.
One such embellishment was Juan Ponce de Leon’s fabled quest for the fountain of youth, a beloved story with little grounding in actuality. The primary Spaniard to set foot on La Florida (the name he gave the region), Ponce de Leon by no means as soon as talked about restorative waters when writing of his voyages. His ambitions have been worldly: land, gold and status.
However the delusion persists, and a long-standing tourist attraction in St. Augustine bears the identify Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. “It’s a city that markets itself for its historical past,” Parker says. “It’s an financial engine.”
For a lot of, she added, their cultural heritage is simply as private as it’s industrial. Loads of residents stand squarely in a single camp of an esoteric disagreement over Ponce de Leon’s true touchdown website, claiming it to be 30 levels 8 minutes north (the latitudinal studying for his or her metropolis). Based mostly on the Spaniard’s personal account, they’re appropriate. However in 1990 a Florida sailor, retracing the Sixteenth century course, landed at 28 levels north, on Melbourne Seaside. To the residents of St. Augustine, such disputes matter.
Regardless of the reality, “it’s a spot the place individuals really feel strongly about historical past,” Francis says, including that they’re nonetheless shaping that historical past. “It’s not a museum, it’s an natural place. It adjustments over time. Persons are a part of this cloth that you simply see once you take a look at any interval of St. Augustine.”