The First Claim of the New World: Historic St. Augustine
During the centuries of the Middle Ages, North America remained a wild, untamed country, unknown to the civilizations of Europe. As the nations of Europe established colonies in the West Indies, Spain's Don Juan Ponce de Leon claimed part of the North American mainland for Spain, naming it La Florida, or Land of Flowers.
While the Spanish made several attempts to establish a settlement in the area, the French were the first to succeed. Because of this, Spanish treasure ships returning along the Florida coastline faced foreign attack. In response to this threat, Spain sent Admiral Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles to take back the peninsula as governor of Florida. Admiral Menendez arrived off the coast of Florida on August 28, 1565, on the feast day of St. Augustine. For that reason, the first Timucan Indian village the Spanish forces conquered was renamed St. Augustine.
Menendez defeated the French forces with brilliant military strategies and the help of a Florida hurricane, establishing Spain as the controlling nation in Florida. The Spanish settlers founded St. Augustine forty-two years before the English colony at Jamestown, Virginia, and fifty-five years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, making St. Augustine the oldest European settlement in America.
As Britain moved in from Georgia and the Carolinas, however, military defense became a necessity. Spain constructed the Castillo de San Marcos, with its thick coquina stone walls defending St. Augustine. The fort never fell to outside forces, despite repeated British invasion attempts and Indian uprisings. Whenever it did change hands, it was by treaty. Five different flags would fly over the fort as Florida was traded back and forth between Spain, Britain and the United States, and as the Confederacy battled the Union during the American Civil War.
Today, the Castillo de San Marcos houses several museum exhibits of the colonial era, and visitors can explore its star-shaped ramparts. Living history re-enactments take place each weekend, weather permitting, with Spanish soldiers patrolling the walls and giving demonstrations on the mechanics of firing muskets and cannons. Nearby Ft. Matanzas, built to guard the rear access to St. Augustine through the Matanzas inlet, also offers tours and demonstrations.
St. Augustine retains the legacy of its historic past through its architecture. The historic downtown plaza area preserves the Spanish colonial style and village design of the late fifteenth century. These attractions include the Basilica Cathedral of St. Augustine and the Oldest House in America. Several ghost tours are available, along with brochures revealing the lives of the former inhabitants of the settlement.
As the oldest remaining European settlement in North America, St. Augustine leaves visitors a lasting impression of history through its time-tested forts, buildings, and monuments.
Copyright 2006 National Scenic Byways