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7 minute read

History

AMERICA’S

OLDEST CITY

THROUGH THE CENTURIES

By Kaye D. Schmitz

Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, founding father of St. Augustine.

LOCAL TIP

Castillo de San Marcos is a very well preserved historic site. They have daily cannon demonstrations, a theater with some good videos, and set up some rooms so you can see how soldiers may have lived during their time at the fort. – Kyle L.

al economy, with Saint Augustine as a central player. Florida oranges were first cultivated in the early 1500s and joined the trade routes, along with gold and silver from Panama and Mexico to the Philippines, in return for porcelain and silk from China. 

On Easter morning in 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon piloted his three ships northwest from Puerto Rico to the Timucua village of Seloy, located in what is now Saint Augustine, Florida. Balmy air drifted over the Spanish conquistador as his landing vessel gently bumped the sandy shore and his boots carved footprints into the wet sand. Trooping inland from the beach, Ponce delighted in the aromatic blooms that greeted him amid the thick foliage, so the explorer planted a cross, claimed the land in the name of Ferdinand II and named it La Florida.

The birth of Saint Augustine’s history is often credited to Ponce de Leon and his search for the elusive Fountain of Youth. His primary motive, however, was for gold and other treasure, not, sadly, youth-inducing waters. While he is recognized as the first European to step foot on the North American mainland, as far back as 3000 BC, evidence exists that the Timucua Tribe flourished in the area and its members numbered between 200,000 and 300,000 when Ponce arrived. Only 200 years later, their number had dwindled to a mere 100, due to European diseases and death at the hands of the conquerors. Today, it is believed the tribe no longer exists.  

Although Ponce was killed in a native skirmish in 1521, the next few decades saw Spain create the world’s first globThe next 200 years brought other explorers and discoveries—and almost constant fighting for control of the rich land. Spaniard Pedro Menendez, for example, landed at the river of Dolphins on August 28, 1565, the Spanish festival day for the Saint, Augustine, and named the area in the saint’s honor. Ironically, Frenchman Jean Ribault’s ships found the mouth of the St. Johns River on the same day and moved steadily toward Menendez with the intention of destroying him and claiming the same land for France. But nature intervened and a storm overtook Ribault’s vessels just south of the Matanzas Inlet, leaving the shipwrecked forces vulnerable to Menendez, who captured them, ferried them across the inlet and then massacred them…all 350 sailors in one fell swoop. 

Twenty years later, Englishman Sir Francis Drake sailed into Saint Augustine where he robbed the treasury of 2,000 pounds and then sacked and burned

Casa Monica today is still reminding us of the past.

the rest of the town. Even though Drake made no attempt to seize the land for England, the small fort of San Juan de Pinos was fortified with limestone, and then again, eighty years later with coquina to protect against another invasion.  

By the early 1700s, the fledgling American colonies set their sights on Florida’s riches and for the first 50 years of the century, Saint Augustine was attacked by both the Carolinas and Georgia. In 1700, in fact, Spain’s King Charles II died without an heir, so the search for his successor boiled over to the New World and became known as Queen Anne’s War. This was the excuse South Carolina’s Governor James Moore needed to lead an expedition against Saint Augustine and its newly fortified fort. The siege lasted 58 days, but the fort held strong. As the British retreated, however, they burned Saint Augustine to the ground. Again. A meager 60 years later, a 1762 treaty ceded Florida to Great Britain in exchange for Cuba.

The 20 years that followed saw not only peace in the war-torn area but also prosperity with the creation of sugar and indigo plantations. With Saint Augustine indigo bringing the highest price in London, the town remained loyal to England during the Revolutionary War and the San Marco fort housed many American prisoners. In 1784, Florida changed hands again and was re-ceded to Spain in exchange for the Bahama Islands.  

But the young American frontiersmen weren’t content to leave neighboring Florida under the Spanish flag. So the Battle of 1812 found them in Florida again, where they captured Fernandina to the north and attacked Saint Augustine. The town’s defenses held, but on July 12, 1821, Florida became a United States territory and the fort was renamed “Fort Marion.” One of the most illustrious prisoners in the newly named fort was Seminole chief, Osceola, captured in 1836 and held captive until he was sent to Charleston, where he died a few months later. In 1845, Florida was voted the 27th state and its flag became the Stars and Stripes. As was Saint Augustine’s history, its flag changed yet again when, in 1861 it seceded from the United States, only to return as a Union protectorate a year later.  

Between 1878 and 1889, Saint Augustine took on new importance in the tourist and hospitality industry when Henry Flagler completed his railroad connecting Saint Augustine and New York and built his luxury hotels, the Ponce de Leon and the Alcazar. Even President Theodore Roosevelt stayed in the Hotel Ponce de Leon, creating enough buzz and momentum for the addition of a pier and boardwalk in Saint Augustine beach within the next several years.   

Left: Pedro Menendez arrived to the new settlement and celebrated the first Mass on the day of Saint Augustine in 1565. This scene is on the back wall of the Cathedral-Basilica. Right: First mass in the new settlement as depicted in a 19th-century artist’s conception of the landing.

It was during this hotel boom that the legendary Fountain of Youth finally became associated with the name of Ponce de Leon. Luella Day McConnell, after having abandoned her physician practice in Chicago, bought the current Fountain of Youth property in 1904 with cash and diamonds—earning her the name of “Diamond Lil.” She associated the Fountain of Youth myth with Ponce de Leon and then enhanced it by claiming to have discovered a large coquina cross and asserting that Ponce, himself, had positioned it to point to the fountain.

In keeping with the tourist boom, in 1925, David Davis dredged 13 million cubic feet of sand to form the subdivision known as Davis Shores and the lots sold out in several hours. Two years later, The Bridge of Lions was dedicated and connected Anastasia Island with Saint Augustine’s downtown. Fort Marion’s name was officially changed in 1942 by the U.S. Congress back to Castillo de San Marcos after having been declared a national monument by President Calvin Coolidge years earlier. The fort remains the oldest European fortification in America today. 

The 1960s saw immense racial tension and Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested in Saint Augustine in 1964, the year before the city commemorated its 400th anniversary. Today, Saint Augustine is credited with being the oldest continuously populated city in the country and planning is already underway to celebrate its 500th anniversary in 2065.    

LOCAL TIP

To get a taste of the history, you can hop on any of the Red Train tours. While they drive you around, they share many funny stories. – Ayla P.

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Kaye D. Schmitz is a local author (www.kayedschmitzauthor. com). Her newest book, ON DEADLY GROUNDS, a murder-mystery suspense, takes place just east of Asheville, NC, and will be released by Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas on May 8, 2020.  

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