St. Augustine, Florida’s Founding City

September 5, 2013 by

North America, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration

Steeped in history that spans nearly 450 years, St. Augustine is a city that celebrates its heritage while looking forward to the future. The history of Florida’s Founding City is evident at almost every turn: the brick-lined streets and verdant open spaces invite visitors to slow down and experience the almost palpable air of age, while the coquina walls of its forts and city gates seem almost constructed of a time gone by.

In 2015, St. Augustine will celebrate its birthday as the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in North America. But the city is not waiting until 2015 to get the party started. The Nation’s Oldest City started hosting events in 2012, creating three years of programming leading up to the big day. To get a true sense of the city, though, it’s necessary to think beyond the Spanish settlers and realize St. Augustine’s continuous place in Florida—and the United States’—history.

Most visitors flock to St. Augustine for a variety of reasons: the wide range of architecture, its place in the settling of North America or maybe searching for the Fountain of Youth, as Ponce De Leon did. Perhaps the best place to start is on St. George Street, the anchor of the historic center. Lined with a mixture of original and carefully reconstructed homes for various periods, a walk down St. George Street puts you in the proper frame of mind for the juxtaposition of centuries that you’ll find in St. Augustine. St. George Street is a pedestrian-only street, so no need to worry about cars, but you will be tempted by a large number of restaurants and souvenir shops. Try to stay on course and check out a few more historic sites before succumbing to the siren’s call of freshly baked pastries or that perfect pint at St. George’s Tavern.

The Spanish

St Augustine Castillo de San Marcos National Monument

Castillo de San Marcos National Monument

Though Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon is most famous for having explored Florida in the search for the Fountain of Youth, it was actually Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés who founded San Agustín (as it was originally known) in September, 1565. The site of the original fort can be explored at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, a 15-acre privately owned park that also contains a freshwater spring reputed to be the same freshwater source referred to by Ponce de Leon in Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas’ Historia General. St. Augustine served as the capital of Spanish Florida for two hundred years, turning back invasions by the French and British.

To get a taste of St. Augustine’s Spanish past, visits to the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument and Fort Matanzas are imperative. Be sure to admire the workmanship of Castillo de San Marcos (it took 23 years to complete), which was a crucial part of the city’s defense. Constructed of coquina, a virtually indestructible limestone comprised of coral and broken seashells, the walls of the fortress have withstood 300 years of pounding: both by enemy shells and nature’s violent storms. It was removed from the Army’s active duty rolls in 1900 after 205 years of service under five different flags. A bit further off the beaten path (a boat ride is required to reach it), Fort Matanzas is smaller than you’d think, but played an important role in guarding the settlement. Now, the Fort also guards the wide variety of flora and fauna that can be found around the barrier island where it is located. For a more domestic view of St. Augustine at that time, visit the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse, which was built more than 200 years ago out of red cedar and cypress and is held together with wooden pegs.

After the end of the French and Indian war in 1763, the Treaty of Paris gave Florida to the British. Not much remains of the British occupation, as it only lasted for 20 years.

Florida’s Independence

St Augustine Lighthouse

St Augustine Lighthouse

The 1783 Treaty of Paris gave American colonies north of Florida their independence and ceded Florida to Spain once again; it remained in Spanish hands until it was awarded to the U.S. as the Florida Territory in 1822. Future U.S. president Andrew Jackson was appointed as the military governor; Florida gained statehood in 1845. St. Augustine played a large role during the Civil War; after Florida seceded joined the Confederacy, St. Augustine was captured by the Union army 1862 and remaining under Union control until Florida rejoined the U.S. in 1865. After the Emancipation Proclamation, the town of Lincolnville was established as a residential area for freed slaves and would later become an important location during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

The era after the Civil War is, other than the Spanish occupation, the era that is most evident in St. Augustine’s history and culture. The St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum not only allows an expansive view of the city after climbing its 214 steps, but the 1875 lighthouse also allows glimpses of St. Augustine’s past through the historic keepers’ house and the Maritime Museum. The St. Augustine Alligator Farm, established in 1893, is one of the oldest attractions in Florida and still delights visitors today.

Entrepreneur and oil executive Henry Flagler is credited with changing the face of St. Augustine, though, arriving in the 1880s and transforming the city into a winter resort for wealthy northerners (Flagler is also famous for running the railroad all the way down to Key West). Commissioning an architectural firm from New York to design several extravagant buildings in St. Augustine, including the Ponce de Leon Hotel and the Alcazar Hotel, Flagler brought a new aesthetic to the town, one that remains today. Visit the Grace Methodist, Ancient City Baptist or the ornate Venetian-style Memorial Presbyterian Church for more examples of Flagler’s remaining influence.

St. Augustine and the Civil Rights Movement

St Augustine Fort Mose

Fort Mose. Photo credit: Ebyabe via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps what is less well known is the fact that St. Augustine was a pivotal site of the Civil Rights Movement. When efforts to integrate the schools and public places were met with violence and protests from the KKK, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and its leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. helped carry out forms of peaceful protest from May until July 1964. The resulting violence from the KKK drew national attention and became a key factor in Congress passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

To learn more about St. Augustine’s role in the Civil Rights Movement, follow the Freedom Trail of historic sites of the civil rights movement and visit the museum at the Fort Mose site, the location of the 1738 free black community that was established to offer refuge for freed slaves from the British colonies in the north. The city’s first museum of African-American history is located at the historic Excelsior School, which was built in 1925 as the first public high school for blacks in St. Augustine. In 2011, the St. Augustine Foot Soldiers Monument, a remembrance of participants in the civil rights movement, was established downtown.

Visiting St. Augustine Today

St Augustine

St Augustine. Photo credit: Doug Kerr via Flickr.

Visitors today can explore not only the historic sites in St. Augustine (there are more than 60 attractions that offer insight into the four and a half century history of the town), but also enjoy activities such as golfing, shopping, parasailing or exploring the Atlantic Ocean through fishing, sailing, surfing or simply enjoying the beaches.

The 450th birthday of Florida’s Founding City and the Nation’s Oldest City promises to be an event to remember; we recommend visiting even before the 2015 festivities to get the party started early.

Take a tour of St Augustine

– Katie Coakley

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