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In Search of St. Augustine

Beyond the tourist trappings and sunny beaches, inquisitive travelers can find remnants of America's Spanish past

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Fresh juice. Driftwood. Seashells. Gator heads. Gator heads? The sun-faded sign at Tom's Fruit and Gifts shop appeared as a relic from a time before the beaches erupted with high-rises on Anastasia Island, just south of St. Augustine. And when we told Tom's proprietor, Bill Grohowski, we had driven from Vermont to learn about Florida's 287 years as part of Spain, he smiled and said we'd come to the right place.

"This store is built on an old coquina pit," he told us, explaining that coquina, a stone formed from compressed shells, was the Spaniards' favorite building material in these parts. "Most of this island's little lakes were Spanish coquina pits," he added, before directing us to a rarely visited site, down a nearby alley covered with loose shell, to the Old Beach Road, at Riviera Street.

There we found a ruined stone chimney from which a big red cedar grew at a slant, all that remains of what may have been a barracks for Spanish coquina quarriers. In the 1670s, workers hired to do the heavy lifting made one real per day, about 20 cents, plus corn rations. Wagons hauled the coquina blocks to the shore, then rafts took them to St. Augustine's waterfront to be mortared into the new fortress, Castillo de San Marcos. By then, St. Augustine was more than a century old. Spanish Florida was even older.

It was in 1513 that Juan Ponce de León first saw these beaches. Because it was Easter and the season of flowers, Pascua Florida, Ponce dubbed his discovery La Florida. It is unclear where he landed, but St. Augustine is one possibility. Talk about succinct: his narrative tells us only that he "went ashore to get information, and take possession."

Once you've found a parking space along the cramped streets of St. Augustine (the visitor's center on San Marco Avenue across from the Castillo is your best bet), look east toward the bay front. Imagine there, a fleet of 42 British vessels bearing down on the harbor. The year is 1586, and Sir Francis Drake and his 2,000 soldiers and sailors have come to attack the Spanish garrison town of San Augustín. As villagers dash into the woods to hide, the British trample gardens and cut down flowering orange trees.

An Indian's arrow killed Ponce on his second trip to Florida, in 1521. But by then he had made a major discovery: the Gulf Stream. He said its "water ran so swift it had more force than the wind." Treasure galleons from South America and Mexico now sailed to Cuba, then rode the Gulf Stream north. Near St. Augustine, they caught westerly winds and turned east, to haul their looted bullion to Spain.

Molten riches coursed through Europe's economic veins

The gold and silver sizzled through Europe's economic bloodstream like heroin. According to historian Edward McNall Burns, Europe's precious metals supply totaled about $400 million in 1492. By 1600, it was $2 billion. "No other cause was so fully responsible for the growth of a capitalistic economy," Burns wrote. This booty came from Incan and Aztec treasuries as well as from mines in Mexico, Bolivia and Peru. Enslaved native peoples worked the hellish pits. In 1519, Indians in the region from Panama northward, soon to be called New Spain, numbered 25 million; by 1605, imported European diseases and enslavement reduced the population to a mere one million.

For the Spanish, these were giddy times. By 1492, they had finally expelled the last of the Moors, their rulers since A.D. 711. High on New World riches and religion, Spain went on a geopolitical toot. By 1520, it was the reigning superpower in Europe and the Americas. But as the ingots poured in, Spain tussled—in various combinations—with France, the Netherlands and Britain, and with other countries too. They fought over hegemony and over gold. But their nastiest fights were over whose way of worship was the true way. It was this fight that led to the founding of St. Augustine.

From Spain's gold-centered point of view, La Florida was a sandy, swampy, snaky, sweltering zero. Hernando de Soto tramped through with more than 600 men in 1539. Nearly half died, including de Soto. No gold. Others, too, failed. And so by 1561, Philip II had declared Florida not worth settling.

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