It is April 2, 1513 and a Spanish galleon lies just off the coast of a new land. A smaller boat brings a landing party ashore. The first Spaniard, Don Juan Ponce de Leon, will step foot on what soon will be called the Treasure Coast. He claims this new land for Spain and names it La Florida, land of flowers. Although others have come to America’s shores this is the first time anyone has made a claim in the name of a country. La Florida covers most of the North American continent. Over the next three centuries Spanish, French, British, Confederate and USA flags will fly and lay their claims.
Five centuries later millions of people inhabit the state of Florida. For the next three months we will be Floridians. Since this is the 500 year anniversary, it seems only right that we begin our first snowbird winter in North America’s oldest, continuously inhabited city, St. Augustine. We will spend the next eight days at Anastasia State Park. The park is located on Anastasia Island just across Matanzas Bay via the beautiful Bridge of Lions and Route A1A.
St. Augustine was not, however, Spain’s first attempt to colonize La Florida. There had been six previous attempts. The French were successful in establishing a fort, Fort Caroline, approximately 50 miles north near what is now Jacksonville in 1564. With the French threatening his Treasure Fleet as it sailed La Florida’s east coast on the way back to Spain, the king appointed Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, Spain’s most experienced admiral, as governor. His mission was to explore and settle the New World. He arrived on August 28, the Feast Day of St. Augustine, thus naming the new settlement after the patron saint. He occupied the indian village of Seloy and even claimed the council house to billet his officers. A larger, better equipped French Navy would have dominated the Menendez forces had they not been caught in a hurricane. The French survivors attempted to march back to Fort Caroline but were stopped by the Spanish forces and executed. With that defeat French control of La Florida ended. Today the bay is still called Mantanzas Bay, meaning slaughter.
Ponce de Leon never mentioned a Fountain of Youth. There were statements that this might exist in other governmental documents. Legend suggests that the advanced age (80-90) of many Timicua people when the European average lifespan was less than 40 may have been the source. Others believe Ponce de Leon was searching for an aphrodisiac for the King who in his later years married a very young woman.
A wooden fort, Castillo de San Marcos, was built to defend the settlement. St. Augustine defended herself not only against other nations but against pirates such as Sir Francis Drake who raided and burned the city in 1586. The town was rebuilt. Almost a century later, privateer Robert Searles would raid the town in 1668. In 1670 the British established Charles Town (now Charleston) and raised another threat to Spanish territory. A new stone fort made from local coquina stone took most of two decades to build and was completed in 1695. In 1702 the British attacked St. Augustine. Unable to subdue the Castillo San Marcos they burned the town to the ground. There is no building in St. Augustine that predates 1702.
By the time of the American Revolution, St. Augustine was in the hands of the British and became a haven for loyalists. Three signers of the Declaration of Independence, Arthur Middleton, Edward Rutledge and Thomas Heyward, Jr., were placed under house arrest in the city. Other prisoners did not fair so well being housed in the Castillo now known as Fort St. Marks. Florida was returned to the Spanish in 1784 as compensation for having aided the patriots.
The native Timicuan (pronounced Tim – i (short i) – quan) people had lived in northern Florida for over 4,000 years. Within 250 years they would all but vanish and the few survivors would be absorbed along with Creek, Yamasee, Oconee and runaway slaves to form the Seminole nation. The word Seminole is a corruption of the Spanish word cimarrones, meaning untamed or wild ones. During the War of 1812 the Seminole sided with the British. The First Seminole War, 1817-1818, occurred when the United States invaded Spanish held Florida. After destroying Seminole villages, Andrew Jackson went on to attack Spanish settlements. In a 1819 treaty negotiated by John Quincy Adams, then Secretary of State, and Spain’s Minister, Luis de Onis, Florida became American territory. Between 1835-1842 in response to the Indian Removal Act, the Second Seminole War erupted. This stands as the bloodiest Indian war in American history. Florida’s admission as a state was delayed because it wanted to enter as a slave state. It finally did enter as a slave state in 1845 when Iowa entered as a free state.
Many of the first families to settle in the area came from the Aviles area of Spain. Later immigrants came from the Canary Islands and the Cracker families arrived with their cattle herds. While St. Augustine is an interesting place to visit at any time of year, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas bring out a special beauty when the city dons festival lights. The tree at the Visitors Center is decorated with pictures and family names of the founding families.
So join us as we wander through St. Augustine by day and night.