Florida: St. Augustine Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This resort and retirement town has a rich historic past as the oldest permanent white settlement in the United States. Historic points of interest include Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, which is the oldest standing fort in the United States, and the restored Spanish colonial historic district.

Site Office

St. Augustine Historical Society

271 Charlotte Street

St. Augustine, FL 32084

ph.: (904) 824-2872

Web site: www.oldcity.com/oldhouse/historical .html

St. Augustine lays claim to being the oldest continuously settled city in the United States. During its turbulent history, St. Augustine has been under the jurisdiction of several governments–the first Spanish period (1565-1763), the British period (1763-1784), the second Spanish period (1784-1821), and, finally, the U.S. period (1821-present).

Peopling of Florida

The first people to settle in what is now Florida were Indians who arrived more than ten thousand years ago. The first Europeans did not arrive until the late fifteenth century. John Cabot, sailing under the English flag, was said to have reached these shores in the 1490’s. Amerigo Vespucco, according to other accounts, also may have been an early visitor. Juan Ponce de León is credited, however, with being the official “discoverer” of Florida. Whether he was seeking his fortune in gold or the mythical “fountain of youth,” which was said to possess miraculous powers of rejuvenation, is unclear, but he did name the peninsula Florida, claiming it for Spain.

Ponce de León left Puerto Rico with three ships on March 3, 1513. He sighted land on April 2, and named it La Florida. By all accounts, he seems to have landed somewhere between the mouth of the St. Johns River and Cape Canaveral. He made a second expedition to Florida in 1521. On this trip he met with hostile Indians and was mortally wounded when an arrow pierced through his protective cloak of armor. He died in Cuba shortly after the attack.

After other failed attempts at colonization, the Spanish government discontinued further expeditions. When the French began to express an interest, however, the Spanish king, Philip II, reconsidered his decision. The news of a French settlement at Port Royal, in what is now South Carolina, persuaded Philip to order the Spanish naval commander, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, to remove the French and establish a colony in Florida.

Spanish Occupation

On September 6, 1565, Menéndez arrived at the northeast coast of Florida. He called the port St. Augustine, in honor of the patron saint of his hometown. Two days later, on September 8, Menéndez claimed Florida under the banner of Spain. In less than three months, with help from bad weather, he rid Florida of the French presence. He also established the Ordinances of Governance, a code of laws designed to encourage the development and growth of towns. He also set up councils, or cabildos, to collect taxes.

Despite these efforts, St. Augustine was constantly assaulted by French privateers and faced perpetual threat of attack by Indians. It was not until the 1580’s that conditions stabilized and the Spanish settlers’ lives resumed a normal pattern. It was a short respite, however. In 1586, Englishman Sir Francis Drake attacked and burned the town. The Spaniards rebuilt, with assistance from other Spanish colonists who moved there from Santa Elena, Florida.

British Intrusion

In 1672 the settlers began construction of Castillo de San Marcos, a stone fort to provide protection against attack. In the 1680’s periodic troubles with the Indians and the English placed the town on alert. In 1702, the situation came to a head when the English governor of Carolina, James Moore, assembled an Anglo-Indian army with plans to take St. Augustine. By November of that year, the siege of St. Augustine was well under way. When four Spanish ships sent by the governor of Havana reached the shore, the English retreated. In their wake, they left behind a smoldering town. Buildings, homes, even the Governor’s House were destroyed. Later, in 1740, and again in 1743, the British general James Edward Oglethorpe, founder of Georgia, led two unsuccessful assaults on the town.

During the 1750’s, the French and Indian War erupted between France and Britain. Britain prohibited exports to all neutral ports, including St. Augustine. With trade between Spanish and British ports suspended, St. Augustinians faced the prospect of starvation. In 1760, the British captured Havana and exchanged Cuba for Florida. In February, 1763, Britain and Spain signed the Treaty of Paris, which made Florida a British possession. Britain then divided the territory into East and West Florida.

It would prove an important treaty with great consequences for the future of St. Augustine. Thousands of residents fled when they heard the news. Although the British encouraged the Spanish inhabitants to stay, many could not accept the change and decided to settle in Cuba or Mexico. Public officials, clergy, and ordinary citizens left. For all intents and purposes, the British assumed control of a ghost town.

British Administration

Gradually, the new owners began to put their stamp on the town. In August, 1764, Colonel James Grant, the first governor of British East Florida, arrived. The Scots-born Grant had fought against the Indians and the French in Ohio and Canada, and against the Cherokees in South Carolina. Prior to his assignment in East Florida, he had participated in the siege of Havana. Grant proved a popular governor. He was also one of the few colonial officials of that era to forge peaceful relations with the neighboring Indians. Further, he promoted the development of plantations in East Florida, leading to growth and a new era of prosperity.

During the Revolutionary War, St. Augustine remained loyal to the Crown and even enjoyed a period of calm and relative prosperity. Thousands of loyalists from neighboring Georgia and the Carolinas settled in the northern portion of Florida and made clear their feelings toward the “rebel” Americans by burning in effigy such prominent figures as John Hancock and Samuel Adams. The British used the Castillo, which they renamed Fort St. Mark, as a military base. Throughout the duration of the war, East Florida endured various invasion attempts from Georgia. In the summer of 1778, however, East Florida forces turned the tables, this time invading Georgia as far as Savannah. The northern frontier of Florida was, thus, protected.

Return of the Spanish

In the meantime, refugees continued to flood into St. Augustine. Carolina rebels, who had been imprisoned at St. Augustine and then paroled, further aggravated the housing shortage. Britain at this time was also involved in hostilities with Spain, and in May, 1781, neighboring West Florida fell to the Spanish. Five months later, George Washington defeated the British general Lord Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown, which effectively ended the Revolutionary War. While the Americans celebrated their victory, St. Augustinians shuddered, fearing an imminent attack.

In May of the following year, Sir Guy Carleton, the British commander, ordered the evacuation of both Savannah and St. Augustine. The news came as a crushing blow. Residents were devastated and felt betrayed. Two months later, Carleton changed his mind, instead claiming East Florida as a haven for refugees from Savannah and Charleston. Thousands came, many of them in ill-health and with no funds.

Despite the daily turmoil, living conditions continued to improve, and some semblance of a cultural life developed. St. Augustine’s first theater opened in March, 1783, and its first newspaper, The East-Florida Gazette, had already began publishing one month earlier. Abruptly, everything changed in June, 1783, when East Florida was returned to Spain, under the terms of peace negotiated between the Spanish and British. With the return to Spanish authority, most of the British residents fled to the Bahamas, Jamaica, the West Indies, Bermuda, or the United States. Evacuations began almost immediately. Meanwhile, Americans flooded in, taking advantage of Spanish land grants.

The transition period was chaotic. Bands of outlaws raided the area, especially the plantations north of St. Augustine, looking for cattle, horses, and slaves. Some of the previous Spanish residents, who had fled when Britain assumed power, returned. A few Britons chose to stay, even though they were forced to take an oath of allegiance to the new government and convert to Catholicism. Later, they were allowed to remain Protestant, but the oath was still a requirement for residency.

Spanish-speaking settlers were encouraged to come to East Florida. Generous inducements were offered to residents of the first Spanish period to return, in the form of extra land, stipends, and compensation for former estates. Some accepted the offers, and some immigrants came directly from Spain.

American Intervention

In March, 1812, a plan to rid Florida of Spanish influence received the approval of U.S. president James Madison. Rebel forces, calling themselves “patriots,” came to the outskirts of St. Augustine. Florida governor Juan José de Estrada refused to surrender. The following month about one hundred U.S. soldiers came to aid the rebels, but Madison soon withdrew support for their actions and the troops left.

Two years later, the Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812. The treaty allowed portions of West Florida that the U.S. had seized during the war to remain in that country’s hands. Meanwhile, Spain’s hold over the rest of Florida continued to deteriorate. The United States wanted to annex the rest of Florida, but negotiations dragged on for years. Finally, in March, 1821, President James Monroe appointed General Andrew Jackson the military governor of the entire territory of Florida. On July 21 of that year, the Spanish flag was lowered over Castillo de San Marcos and the American flag raised over Fort Marion, the fort’s new name. Yet St. Augustine remained very much a cosmopolitan town with English, Spanish, and French as its languages.

The first assembly of the governing body, the Territorial Legislative Council, met in Pensacola in the early 1820’s. Pensacola had been the capital of West Florida, St. Augustine of East Florida. One of the first decisions the council had to make was to select a more central location for the new territorial capital. Ultimately, Tallahassee, a former Indian site that consisted of little more than a few huts at the time, was chosen.

Seminole Wars

Meanwhile, relations between the United States and the Indians worsened, escalating into the Seminole War. Under the 1823 Treaty of Moultrie Creek, the Seminoles had exchanged all claims to Florida in exchange for four million acres in the central part of the territory. The treaty evaporated in a series of raids and retributions, and in late 1835 the situation erupted into open warfare. Despite the fighting, St. Augustine prospered during the war. Soldiers and refugees poured into St. Augustine, there was a building boom, and speculators looked at the town with promise. The war finally petered out in 1842.

In 1845, Florida entered the union as a slave state. Subsequently, it joined the Confederacy when the U.S. Civil War broke out. From 1862 to 1865, however, Union forces controlled St. Augustine.

Late Nineteenth Century Revival

Economic lethargy and decay in the immediate post-Civil War era gave way to a revival of sorts the following decade as the orange crop produced a short-lived boom. St. Augustine also had long been of interest to outsiders. Journalists and fiction writers frequently wrote about the city. The erection of the St. Augustine Hotel in 1869 foreshadowed the town’s future role as a prominent tourist center, while the development of the railroad meant it would be easier for people to visit, especially northerners seeking a respite from the long and bitter winter months.

In 1884, one of the winter guests was Henry M. Flagler, a cofounder of Standard Oil Company and one of the richest men in the United States. He returned a year later with an ambitious plan to build the best and biggest resort hotel in Florida, one that would rival any hotel in the world.

In January, 1888, Flagler opened the Hotel Ponce de León. It was a lavish structure designed in a style that was called Spanish Renaissance but borrowed freely from other architectural styles and epochs–a dash of Roman motifs here, a smattering of medieval details there. Nearby, Flagler built a smaller hotel, the Alcazar, to handle overflow business. A winter resident from Boston, Franklin W. Smith, attempted to erect his own hotel, the Casa Monica, but the expenses proved too great, and he eventually sold out to Flagler. Flagler renamed it the Cordova.

In essence, Flagler was a one-man enterprise zone. He also purchased a railroad on the outskirts of town so that his guests would have easy access to the town. His other businesses in St. Augustine and vicinity included a baseball field, a laundry, and a dairy. He helped build four churches. In addition, he was the benefactor of a hospital, owned the building that housed the local government, built a wharf, operated a real estate firm, and established a residential subdivision near his hotels.

The townspeople had mixed feelings about Flagler. Some supported his wildly ambitious plans; others resented the presence of the opinionated, stubborn outsider who wanted everything done in his own fashion. St. Augustine’s days as a mecca for the wealthy and elite were numbered, however. The development of other Florida resort towns soon undercut St. Augustine’s status as the “Newport of the South.” Ironically, it was Flagler himself who was partly to blame, for it was he who began to look elsewhere–to Palm Beach specifically–to establish a new dream town.

Rather than the flashy winter resort town that Flagler envisioned, St. Augustine soon settled into a considerably more sedate year-round community. For many it became the ideal retirement home. The Flagler era officially ended with the entrepreneur’s death on May 20, 1913.

St. Augustinian History

St. Augustinians have always been aware of their town’s rich historical associations. As early as the 1880’s, the St. Augustine Historical Society was founded to preserve the town’s historical sites and structures. In 1924, Fort Marion reverted to its original Spanish name and was designated a National Historic Landmark as Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. Fort Matanzas, which had been built south of St. Augustine as an outpost of the Castillo, also received National Historic Landmark status, as did the city gate. In the mid-1930’s, there was talk of restoring the town to the glory of its Spanish days, using funds from the Washington, D.C.-based Carnegie Institution. The outbreak of World War II delayed plans, but on June 19, 1959, the St. Augustine Historical Restoration and Preservation Committee was established. It was later renamed the Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board.

Funded by a private organization, the commission focused its attention on physical restoration. It initially acquired thirty-four parcels of land and restored or reconstructed twenty-nine buildings. The second phase consisted of twenty restorations. The restored area is centered around St. George Street, and features tour guides costumed as early Spanish settlers. The hotels developed by Henry Flagler also have been preserved and put to new uses. In 1968, the former Hotel Ponce de León became Flagler College, and the former Cordova Hotel was transformed into the St. Johns County Court House. The Alcazar Hotel houses the Lightner Museum and the St. Augustine municipal offices. Another site of interest is the Fountain of Youth Park, north of St. Augustine. It features a well in a grottolike setting and is reputedly the “fountain of youth” sought by Ponce de León.

For Further Information
  • Federal Writers’ Project. Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State. New York: Oxford University Press, 1939. A general history of the state.
  • Landers, Jane. Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose: A Free Black Town in Spanish Colonial Florida. Washington, D.C.: American Historical Association, 1990. A history of African Americans in St. Augustine when it was a Spanish colony from 1784 to 1821.
  • Lyon, Eugene. The Enterprise of Florida: Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and the Spanish Conquest of 1565-1568. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1976.
  • Martin, Sidney. Florida’s Flagler. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1949. For information on Flagler and his era.
  • TePaske, John Jay. The Governorship of Spanish Florida, 1700-1763. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1964.
  • Verrill, A. Hyatt. Romantic and Historic Florida. New York: Dodd Mead, 1936. Another general history of the state.
  • Waterbury, Jean Parker. The Oldest City: St. Augustine Saga of Survival. St. Augustine, Fla.: St. Augustine Historical Society, 1983. This anthology is the best and most comprehensive history of St. Augustine throughout all its various historical periods.
  • Wright, J. Leitch, Jr. British St. Augustine. St. Augustine, Fla.: Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board, 1975.
  • _______. Florida in the American Revolution. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1975. More specialized studies of the town as well as the greater East Florida area.
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