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Wednesday, July 27, 2022

USA’s Oldest European Settlement: Maybe Not What You Think


     What comes to mind as the oldest European settlement in the United States? Jamestown, Virginia? Plymouth (as in: Rock), Massachusetts ? Not surprising as these are the two that we learn most about in history classes. But both are wrong. The answer is… St. Augustine, Florida.


Photo by Kristin Wilson via Unsplash

     This area of Florida was first explored by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513. He called the area La Florida and claimed it for the Spain. At the time, de Leon was the Spanish Governor of Puerto Rico and searching for the legendary Fountain of Youth. Composed primarily of soldiers and their dependents, St Augustine was founded in 1565. It is the oldest continuously occupied European-established city and seaport in the USA.

Photo by Paul Brennan via Pixabay

     To guard the fledgling community of St. Augustine and hold the rest of La Florida for Spain, a wooden fort named Castillo de San Marcos was built. The original structure was wood as were a succession of replacement forts. Finally, in 1672 a larger and more permanent fortress was begun. The new walls were built of a local stone called Coquina. This surprisingly strong rock was formed by the compacting of colorful shells of the tiny coquina clam over centuries of changing environmental conditions. The new fort was completed in 1695 and still stands today in the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument.

Photo by and property of the author

     To augment the Castillo’s defenses, Spanish authorities also built a watch tower on Anastasia Island between the town of St. Augustine and the Atlantic Ocean. Just seven years after completion of the Castillo, British forces from the Carolinas attacked. After a two-month siege, the British troops were not able to take the fort, so they burned the town and retreated.

     Spanish Florida afforded protection to enslaved people who escaped to St. Augustine. The city became a principal destination for the first Underground Railroad. Arriving runaways were given their freedom by the Spanish Governor if they declared allegiance to the King of Spain and embraced the Catholic religion. Consequently, plantation owners and the southern British colonies were hostile to St. Augustine and continued frequent attacks.

      In 1738, Spanish authorities established the first legally sanctioned free community of former slaves, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, as part of St. Augustine’s northern defenses. In 1740, a strong attack on the city, mounted by the Governor of the British colony of Georgia, General James Oglethorpe, again failed to capture the fort.

     At the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, the Treaty of Paris gave Florida and St. Augustine to the British and the territory served as a pro-British colony during the American Revolution.

Photo from the National Archives

      At the end of the war, a second Treaty of Paris in 1783 gave America's colonies north of Florida their independence, and returned Florida to Spain as a reward for Spanish assistance to the Americans. This began the Second Spanish period for Florida.

     During this time, Spain suffered the Napoleonic invasions and struggled to retain its colonies in the Americas.  The expanding United States considered Florida crucial to its national interests. They negotiated the Adams-Onîs Treaty, which peacefully turned the Spanish colonies in Florida over to the United States in 1821.

Photos by and property of the author

      In 1845, Florida became a state.  The United States Army took over the Castillo de San Marcos and renamed it Fort Marion. In 1874, a lighthouse was built on the site of the old watch tower and two years later a brick lighthouse keeper’s home was also built there. Both are still standing.

Photo by Philip  Arambula via Unsplash

      Today, the colonial architecture and other remaining historic buildings in addition to the Castillo and lighthouse, provide powerful attractions for history buffs to visit St. Augustine.

  Ann Markim




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  1. Really interesting history, Ann. Lovely photos, too. Many thanks for sharing

  2. Really interesting history, Ann. And to think that in all the times I went to Florida, I never visited any of these fascinating places.

    1. I understand. When my daughter was young, we used to go to Florida every year. It was only after she became an adult that we discovered St. Augustine.