American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of The Southern States

Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam' Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press
1900

ST. AUGUSTINE
THE OLDEST TOWN IN THE UNITED STATES
By GEORGE R. FAIRBANKS


FAIR down on the Atlantic coast lies the old city of St. Augustine. Unlike most of our early towns, which have either been abandoned, like Jamestown, or rebuilt and modernized until their ancient form and fashion are no longer recognizable, St. Augustine has preserved its antiquity. Its newness is placed alongside, but does not overlie and hide, its ancient character. Its old self is still there, always to be felt and seen, and ever about the old city there cling historic associations which throw around it a charm that few can fail to feel.

The aroma of its life is in its past: and when we recall the fact that it is more than forty years older than Jamestown; that it was a comparatively old town when the Puritans landed at Plymouth; that here, for the first time, isolated within the shadows of the primeval forest, the civilization of the old world made its abiding place, where all was new and wild and strange; that this now so insignificant place was the key to a possible empire; that on its occupation or destruction rested French or Spanish domination; that it was a vice provincial court, boasted of its Addantados, men of the first mark and note, of its Royal Exchequer, its public functionaries, its brave men at arms; that its proud name, La siempre fiel cuidad de San Agustin ("the ever faithful city of St. Augustine"), was conferred by its monarch; that here the cross was first planted; that from the Papal chair itself rescripts were addressed to its governors; that the first great efforts at Christianizing the fierce, native tribes proceeded from this spot; that the martyrs' blood was first here shed; that around these walls the clash of arms and the battle cry have been heard, we may well feel a greater interest in this ancient city than is possessed by mere brick and mortar, rapid growth or unwonted prosperity.

The first European who visited this spot, so far as we know, was that sturdy cavalier, Juan Ponce de Leon, who in 1513 came to Florida in search of the fountain of youth, but, failing to find it, gave to Florida its name and perpetuated his own by the romantic quest upon which he came.

More than fifty years afterwards, St. Augustine was visited by Menendez with a Spanish fleet, and a permanent settlement was made. Admiral Coligny, a distinguished leader of the Huguenot party in France, harassed by the religious animosities which prevailed between the Roman Catholics and Protestants, conceived the idea of planting a colony of his co-religionists in America, both for their protection and to extend the possessions of France into the new world. For this purpose a small fleet was equipped in the year 1562, and sent out under the command of Captain Jean Ribaut. The expedition came upon the coast of Florida, near St. Augustine, the harbor of which they named the River of Dolphins, because of the many porpoises they saw there. They then entered the mouth of the River St. John's, planted a column of stone, and passed on to the coast of South Carolina, where they built a small fort called Charlesfort. Leaving there a small garrison, Ribaut returned to France, intending soon to return with a larger force.

Circumstances prevented his return, and it was not until 1564 that Laudonniere, with three vessels and a larger number of Huguenots, came prepared to make a permanent settlement of the country. He also came first to the River of Dolphins, and thence to the St. John's, called by them the River May, and after some delay in further explorations of the coast decided to plant his settlement on the St. John's, where he constructed a fort which he named Fort Caroline, on the south bank of the river, a few miles from its mouth. The colony, however, failed to obtain from the soil or the sea sufficient food, and were about abandoning the country in the following year, when Ribaut arrived with a larger and better class of people, to reinforce Laudonniere's settlement.

In the meantime, the Spanish sovereign had learned of these Huguenot expeditions, and of their encroachment upon a territory which he claimed for Spain by right of discovery, and at once set on foot an expedition under the command of Pedro Menendez to drive out of Florida the French Huguenots, whose faith he regarded with detestation.

Both the French and Spanish fleets came upon the coast of Florida about the same time. Ribaut passed St. Augustine and anchored off St. John's bar. Menendez followed and exchanged a few shots with Ribaut's vessels, and retired to the harbor of St. Augustine, where he landed his forces, occupying an Indian village called Selooe, which seems to have stood about half a mile north of the fort, upon a tidal creek.

Ribaut, learning of the landing of Menendez's forces, determined to attack the Spanish vessels, which lay outside because of the low water on the bar, and thus cut off the Spanish force from molesting the French at Fort Caroline. He had hardly put to sea before he encountered a terrible storm, by which his vessels were driven down the coast and cast ashore.

Menendez, being apprised of Ribaut's movements, and satisfied that the French vessels would be either driven afar or wrecked on the coast, determined to take the initiative, march across the country and surprise Fort Caroline in its weakened condition, during Ribaut's absence. Guided by natives familiar with the country, he traversed the forty miles of low, flat woods, and reaching his destination in the early morning made a sudden attack upon the French fort and easily captured it. Moved by a morbid hatred of the French Protestants, as intruders on the Spanish territory, and still more as enemies to his faith and hence entitled to neither mercy nor compassion, most of them were slaughtered in the onset, and Menendez caused his prisoners to be hung on the neighboring trees, with an inscription that he did this to them " not as Frenchmen, but as Lutherans." Some twenty or more escaped with Laudonniere to two vessels at the mouth of the river and thence to France.

All of Ribaut's vessels having been wrecked along the coast between St. Augustine and Canaveral, although most of the people escaped with their lives, they had no means of regaining Fort Caroline or of leaving the coast for any point of refuge. Wrecked and wretched, they moved northward along the coast, and at Matanzas, an inlet twenty miles below St. Augustine, they were met by Menendez, who had returned from Fort Caroline, and was informed of their shipwreck and condition by natives living along the coast. Ribaut asked safe conduct, but Menendez refused all overtures for terms of surrender, requiring unconditional submission to his will or clemency. The result was that, as fast as the French were brought across the inlet in small parties, he directed that they should all be killed. This sad tragedy is commemorated by the name, still borne by the inlet, Matanzas, the place of slaughter.

The French Huguenots thus disposed of, Menendez proceeded to lay out and build his proposed city. A castle and religious house were first constructed, the castle as a protection against the Indians, or the French, should others come. The castle or fort was built of the trunks of trees, in an octagonal shape, near the present fort, and the dwellings were located in the southern portion of the peninsula on which the present city stands. The shoalness of the water on the bar was a protection against an attack by sea, and the bay on one side, and the Maria Sanchez Creek and St. Sebastian River on the other made the town secure against an attack by land.

Menendez, having secured the safety of his settlement, returned to Spain, little dreaming of the retribution soon to fall upon his fortified posts on the St. John's from the hand of Dominic de Gourgues, who, with a force of some two hundred and fifty men, left France in 1568, with the purpose of avenging the massacre of his countrymen. Arriving on the coast in April, he passed the mouth of the St. John's and brought his three vessels into Cumberland Sound. Here, communicating with the Indians, whom he found very hostile to the Spaniards, he gathered a large force of Indian allies, attacked the Spanish forts at the mouth of the St. John's River, captured them after but little resistance, and then marched against Fort Caroline, changed to San Matteo. Although the fort was well garrisoned, the Spanish commander, believing that he was surrounded by a superior force, fled, and De Gourgues captured the fort, meeting With little resistance. In retaliation for the massacre of the Huguenots, he hung his prisoners to the same trees, with the inscription, burned upon a plank, that he did this " not as to Spaniards, but as to traitors, thieves, and murderers."

No further attempt was made by the French to colonize the southern Atlantic coast, and thus ended the sad beginnings of what, under other circumstances, might have proved the establishment of French colonization along our whole Atlantic coast.

The annals of St. Augustine during the remainder of the life of Menendez present only the usual vicissitudes of new settlements, the alternation of want and supply and occasional disaffections and annoyances by unruly soldiers or hostile Indians.

Unluckily for the little city, Sir Francis Drake, in 1586, returning from the coasts of South America, discovered, in passing, the Spanish lookout on Anastasia Island, at the entrance of the harbor. Having sent some boats in, a town across the bay was discovered. During the night, a fifer came out to the fleet playing the Prince of Orange march, and informed Sir Francis that the Spaniards had abandoned their fort. This report proved to be true, and Sir Francis found that in their haste they had left behind some ten thousand dollars in the treasury chest. Being fired upon by some of the inhabitants, he burned the town.

An engraved plan of Drake's descent upon St. Augustine, published in England upon his return, represents an octagonal fort between two streams, and at the distance of half a mile another stream, and beyond that the town, with a lookout and church and monastery. The plan shows three squares lengthwise, and four in breadth, with gardens on the west side. The relative position of the town with reference to the entrance to the harbor is correctly shown, and there seems no sufficient ground to doubt the identity of the present city with the original location.

The province was then under the government of Don Pedro Menendez, a nephew of the Adelantado, who, after the departure of the English fleet under Drake, began, with some assistance from Havana, to rebuild the town.

A body of Franciscan missionaries came to Florida in 1592, and established missions among the Indians at various points along the coast and in the interior. For a time considerable apparent success attended these efforts; but a few years later a concerted attack was made by the Indians upon the missionaries, several of whom were massacred at their posts. Hostilities became active in 1638 between the Appalachian Indians and the Spanish settlements upon the coast. The Indians were soon subdued, large numbers were brought to St. Augustine, and as a punishment for their outbreak they were forced to labor - it is said for sixty years - upon the public works and the fortifications, in quarrying and transporting the coquina stone from Anastasia Island.

About this period the English settlements in Carolina were established, which was considered an encroachment upon the territory claimed by the Spanish Crown by virtue of discovery and occupation. Unfriendly feelings speedily grew up between the English and Spanish colonies, embittered by difference of religious faith and an inherited rancor on both sides.

In 1648, St. Augustine is described as having more than three hundred householders, and containing a flourishing monastery of the Order of St. Francis, with fifty brothers in residence, all zealous for the conversion of the Indians. The parish Church was built of wood.

But the poor little city was destined not to rest in peace. In 1665, one hundred years from its foundation, it was visited by Captain Davis, an English buccaneer and free booter, of a class then numerous in those seas. He landed his forces near the city, marched directly upon the town, looted and plundered it without meeting, it is said, with any resistance from the Spanish garrison in the fort, which numbered some two hundred men at arms. The easy capture of the town by this casual freebooter indicated the necessity for stronger fortifications and better means of resistance.

The Castle of San Marco had been commenced and partly constructed by the labor of the Appalachian Indians, no doubt very slowly and unwillingly rendered. Don Juan Marquez de Cabrera, having been appointed Governor in 1687, at once applied himself to the completion of the castle and other fortifications.

The English settlements in Carolina continued to create much dissatisfaction. The Spanish Crown claimed the whole Atlantic coast as their province of Florida, and it is so designated on ancient maps, even including Delaware and Pennsylvania, then being settled by Penn and his colonists. An attack was made in 1681 on a Scotch and English settlement at Port Royal by three armed galleys sent out from St. Augustine. Many of the English colonists lost their lives, and much property was destroyed, which later led to bitter retaliation.

Menendez, by his contract with the Spanish Crown, had been authorized to take to Florida five hundred negro slaves, but did not avail himself of the privilege, and it was not until 1687 that one Captain de Aila brought the first Spanish negro slave into Florida. Later the inhabitants of Carolina complained that the authorities at St. Augustine seduced and harbored their runaway slaves, which was not denied, but justified by the claim that they did it for the good of the souls of the negroes.

Hostilities having broken out between England and Spain, and a bitter feeling already existing between the English in Carolina and the Spaniards in Florida, Governor Moore, of South Carolina, led an expedition into Florida in 1702, and with a considerable force made an attack upon St. Augustine by sea and by land. H e easily captured the town, and the inhabitants retired to the fort, where they were besieged for over a month. For want of heavier guns, Moore was unable to capture the fort, and had to retire; not, however, till he had committed the useless barbarity of burning the town. Upon the departure of the English forces, the inhabitants gladly set to work to repair or rebuild their ruined homes.

About this period the building of a sea wall was begun, to protect the town from the encroachment of the sea, and leisurely proceeded for many years. Portions of this ancient wall may yet be seen within the present wall, which was built by the United States after the change of flags.

In 1704, Governor Moore again appeared before the old city, and partially destroyed its habitations, but was unable to make any impression on the stalwart castle. Bad feelings were reciprocally held for many years by the English in Carolina and the Spaniards in Florida.

In the meantime, another English settlement having been made in Georgia by General Oglethorpe, the English drew nearer to Florida and occupied a country still claimed by the Spanish Crown. The Spanish Governor notified Oglethorpe to depart, and gave indications of a forcible attempt to dispossess the new colony. Oglethorpe determined to be beforehand with the Spaniards, and organized an expedition made up from his own colony and Carolina, and proceeded to invest St. Augustine by sea and by land. The town was now, however, better fortified, and the Castle had been greatly strengthened. Oglethorpe's batteries on Anastasia Island were too light to make an impression upon the walls of San Marco, the soft rock imbedding his balls without injury. The siege lasted thirty eight days, but, being unable to reduce the Castle, Oglethorpe at last gave up the attempt, and withdrew his forces. The marks of his cannonade may still be seen on the eastern walls of the fort.

The repeated outbreaks of the Indians and the inroads of the English had discouraged all attempts at cultivation in the vicinity, and the city remained little more than a garrison town, until, by the Treaty of 1762, Florida was ceded to the English Crown. The Spanish inhabitants nearly all left with the garrison for Cuba. The English flag was raised upon the Castle of San Marco, and an English Governor, an English garrison and English colonists came in to occupy the city and the province. Judicious measures were at once taken to advance the interest and growth of the city and the two Floridas. Bounties were offered for the production of indigo and naval stores, and a considerable commerce at once grew up. Roads were opened, and settlements made in the interior and on the coast. During the twenty years of English occupation extensive barracks were erected in the city, which was much built up and improved; and, could it have remained under the English flag, Florida would have been as well populated and as prosperous as the other colonies of England in America. The acknowledgment of the independence of her other colonies, which had organized a confederacy against her rule, rendered Florida of little consequence as a small and isolated colony, and, in 1783, England ceded Florida back to Spain.

As a consequence of this recession and change of government, the English inhabitants nearly all left for Carolina and Georgia or the British West India Islands. St. Augustine fell back into its old condition of a garrison town; the works of improvement begun by the English were abandoned, and the old city renewed its sleepy existence. There was indeed some attempt by land grants to induce immigration, but with no great result.

So things went until 1821, when, fearing that England intended to acquire Florida, which would be a menace to the interests of the United States, President Monroe, under a resolution of Congress, ordered troops into Florida. St. Augustine was threatened, but not conquered or reduced. The country was raided, plantations were devastated, and much injury done before the United States troops were recalled. Finally, Spain was worried into an agreement to sell Florida to the United States for a pecuniary compensation.

In the year 1821, the Spanish flag, planted at St. Augustine in 1565, was hauled down finally, and the Stars and Stripes waved over the Castle of San Marco, which by a senseless order was renamed Fort Marion, which name it now bears. The Spanish inhabitants generally remained, and their descendants still constitute the larger portion of the resident population of the ancient city. Under American rule people from the adjoining States came in and began to establish settlements, but the Indian tribes still held possession of the largest portion of the territory.

In 1835, the Seminole Indian War broke out; for seven years hostilities were maintained, and it was not until 1842 that peace was restored. St. Augustine suffered with the rest of the territory, and little progress was made in population or prosperity. It still remained the leading town, though that did not mean much, and when the war was over other towns, notably Jacksonville, grew into importance. Some invalids, not many, came for a winter's sojourn, but there was little change until the Civil War. At an early day Commodore Dupont came into the harbor with his armed vessels, and the town was quietly surrendered, supplied with a garrison, and went into an enforced apathy from which it never emerged until the war was over.

After 1865, a new era sprang up for St. Augustine; railroad communication was opened to Tocoi, on the St. John's, and, later on, to Jacksonville. Winter visitors began to come in large numbers, and hotels on a large scale were built Finally, Mr. H. M. Flagler became interested in the old city, and built the famous and most beautiful Ponce de Leon, the Alcazar, and the Cordova, with many other handsome buildings. He purchased and improved the railroad, filled in the marshes of the St. Sebastian, and erected a new city alongside of the old. The population has been doubled, and its attractions have greatly increased. A railway system has been established, taking in the whole east coast of Florida as far down as Miami, with connecting lines of steamers to Key West, Havana and Nassau. Few towns can now boast of more attractive residences, and none of such magnificent hotels for the solace of the traveler. After a varied existence of over three centuries, the ancient city has put on a new life of elegance and prosperity.

Dear old city! how many sweet associations it has for the many thousands who have visited it in these past years! How many walks on the sea wall; how many boat rides on its placid waters; how many excursions into its meandering creeks, and strolls along the beach of Anastasia Island; how many cozy corners in the loggia of the Ponce de Leon, and the corridors of the Alcazar, come at the call of memory!

The gray and time worn old Castle of San Marco, with its gloomy portals and dark chambers, seems in a moment to carry the visitor back three centuries to another people and another age. People may come, and people may go, but the old Castle will remain for centuries, a memorial to the long past age of the Spanish monarchy in America.

Historic towns of the Southern States

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