Castillo San Marcos - Courtesy Travel Thru History
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St. Augustine, FL/ Troy Media/ - There is really only one contender for the title of the oldest city in the U.S. St. Augustine, Florida with a current population of about 13,000 was founded in 1565 by a Spanish expedition of a few hundred soldiers and colonists led by
Pedro Menendez. It is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in what is now the U.S.
The several next earliest settlements all began in the 17th century:
Jamestown, Virginia (1607),
Santa Fe, New Mexico (1610),
Plymouth, Massachusetts (1620) and
New York (1624). So St. Augustine, an outpost built by the Spaniards to help protect the shipping route for their treasure ships returning to the home country, predates all other early settlements by several decades. (Only Santa Fe, although founded later, has much older surviving buildings.)
It is this relative antiquity that largely accounts for the attraction of St. Augustine for the visitor. Although the earliest wooden structures of the town are long gone, there still is a lot to see. Unfortunately, the town was attacked and burned by the English three times, with the last attack from South Carolina in 1702. This means the oldest building in St. Augustine, a Spanish style house on St. Francis Street, dates from 1702.
The reason why the intruders burned the town was they had failed to capture its recently completed stone fort. Constructed from 1672 to 1695, the
Castillo de San Marcos still dominates the harbour entrance from the Atlantic Ocean. This is a very well-preserved U.S. national historic site welcoming some 750,000 visitors a year. It has live interpreters and videos depicting 17th century Spanish military drills along with various historical exhibits. A dark side to the fort's history was that the U.S. government used it as a prison in the late 19th century to hold captured native Indian leaders who led the resistance to American westward expansion.
Turning to the town through the old gate (constructed in 1808), you can easily walk around the narrow streets of the historical district looking in on 18th century houses and a few surviving Spanish governmental buildings. Around the pedestrian way, St. George Street, there is an eclectic mix of modern shops, 19th century-style guest houses, museums, artisans' studios and good eateries. For the latter, try Harry's for seafood or Meehan's Irish pub or the Aleworks, all situated along the waterfront. A tourist trolley regularly runs through the historical zone as an alternative mode of transportation.
A stroll through the colonial quarter of St. Augustine gives the impression and some of the sights of an 18th century town. A short distance away from the harbour there is another treat in store for you. In the late 19th century St. Augustine attracted the attention of millionaire industrialist-developers from the northern U.S. They decided to complement the town's historical attractions with efforts of their own.
In the 1880s, they constructed the Ponce de Leon Hotel (now Flagler College), the
Alcazar Hotel (now the city hall), the Villa Zorayda (now a museum) and the Casa Monica Hotel. These are clustered close together on King Street and all were built in a beautiful, mock Italianate or Moorish style. Standing at the entrance to
Flagler College today, the visitor might well wonder what continent he or she was on.
To get an idea of what you could do with your fortune back then, visit the
Zorayda Museum to see an amazingly eclectic accumulation of Victorian era artifacts gathered from around the world. Meanwhile over on Cordova Street, The
Dow Museum of Historic Houses preserves nine buildings from the period 1790 to 1906. Be sure to check out the one lived in by the nephew of the Emperor Napoleon.
A little further away from the historical district, St. Augustine has many other interesting sites, including the original Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, the San Sebastian winery, an historic lighthouse, the Ponce de Leon Archaeological Park and a replica of an 18th century pirate ship moored in the harbour. When I visited there was a temporary bonus attraction as a replica of a 17th century Spanish galleon, crewed by young Spaniards, was open to the public.
A favourite with travellers interested in history, St. Augustine attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. It is one of those reminders of a sometimes neglected aspect of the American heritage. As the U.S. expanded into Florida (1821 onwards) and later to places like Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, Americans encountered other Europeans of Spanish culture long established in these areas.
Fred Donnelly (Oct 27, 1946 - Nov 1, 2014) graduated from Carleton University, Ottawa then received a PHD in Social History from Sheffield University, UK. He served as professor at the University of Alberta, then Rothesay, New Brunswick, and the University of New Brunswick, St. John until retirement in 2012.
Florida was ceded to the United States by Spain in the 1819 Adams-Onís Treaty, ratified in 1821; Florida officially became a U.S. possession as the Florida Territory in 1822. Andrew Jackson, a future president, was appointed its military governor and then succeeded by William Pope Duval, who was appointed territorial governor in April 1822. Florida gained statehood in 1845.
After 1821, the United States renamed the Castillo de San Marcos (called Castle St. Marks or Fort St. Mark by the British "Fort Marion" in honor of Francis Marion, known as the "Swamp Fox" of the American Revolution.
During the Second Seminole War of 1835-42, the fort served as a prison for Seminole captives, including the famed leader Osceola, as well as John Cavallo (John Horse) the black Seminole and Coacoochee (Wildcat), who made a daring escape from the fort with 19 other Seminoles.
In 1861, the American Civil War began; Florida seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. On January 7, 1861, prior to Florida's formal secession, a local militia unit, the St. Augustine Blues, took possession of St. Augustine's military facilities, including Fort Marion and the St. Francis Barracks, from the lone Union ordnance sergeant on duty. On March 11, 1862, crew from the USS Wabash reoccupied the city for the United States government without opposition. It remained under Union control for the remainder of the war. In 1865, Florida rejoined the United States.
After the war, freedmen in St. Augustine established the community of Lincolnville in 1866, named after President Abraham Lincoln. Lincolnville, which had preserved the largest concentration of Victorian Era homes in St. Augustine, became a key setting for the Civil Rights Movement in St. Augustine a century later.
After the Civil War, Fort Marion was used twice, in the 1870s and then again in the 1880s, to confine first Plains Indians, and then Apaches, who were captured by the US Army in the West. The daughter of Geronimo was born at Fort Marion, and was named Marion. She later changed her name. The fort was also used as a military prison during the Spanish-American War of 1898. It was removed from the Army's active duty rolls in 1900 after 205 years of service under five different flags. It is now run by the National Park Service, and is preserved as the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, a National Historic Landmark.