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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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The central plaza, laid out in 1596, was the Spanish colony's gathering place until 1763, when Spain ceded Florida to Britain. Twenty years later, the treaty ending the American Revolution returned Florida to Spain. That second Spanish period ended in 1821, when the United States formally took possession.

"When the Spanish were here, the plaza was a marketplace, a military parade ground, a place to socialize and gossip," Adams told us. In Spanish times, he added, this town of 2,000 had 40 wine-and-rum establishments, many run by widows.

One tavern still stands, the González-Alverez House at 14 St. Francis Street. Owned by the St. Augustine Historical Society, it is known as the "Oldest House." Initially palm thatched, it was probably home to a Spanish soldier and his Timucua wife. After 1702, when the British burned St. Augustine, townspeople rebuilt the house Spanish style: one story, flat roof, coquina walls. Floors were of tabby, a concrete made from seashells.

Its history has names and faces

One certain resident of the house, Tomás González y Hernández, was a 20-year-old sailor when he arrived in St. Augustine from Tenerife, the Canary Islands, in 1721. He became an artilleryman at the Castillo and married a local girl. Like other soldiers, González and his wife would have subsisted on produce from their backyard garden, supplemented by oysters and clams from the bay. Indians sold turkey and venison. Tomás' wife bore ten children—one every 18 months. Six apparently survived beyond childhood.

In narrow lanes, closely spaced houses turn their backs to the street, opening instead in the Spanish tradition to gardens at the side or in the back. At the northern edge of St. George Street, visit the coquina towers of the old city gate, which have graced the town since 1808. Between Charlotte and St. George streets, you'll find the mission-style 18th-century Cathedral of Saint Augustine (904-824-2806) with its Spanish Renaissance-style bell tower that was added in 1887. Dating to 1594, the parish is the oldest in the United States.

The Gonzálezes went through rough patches when garrison pay failed to arrive, as it often did. They had few pieces of furniture, and at night their sleeping pallets must have taken up much of the house's floors.

Life was not without its excitements. In the summer of 1740, intent upon taking St. Augustine for the crown, British General James Oglethorpe marched down from Georgia and set up batteries across the bay. The González family gathered with other St. Augustinians under the Castillo's sheltering walls. Upstairs, on the gun deck, Tomás manned a cannon. For 30 days the British and Spanish lobbed shells at each other. Finally, ships from Havana sailed up the Matanzas River into the bay, bringing supplies. With the Castillo restocked, Oglethorpe cut his losses and marched home.

When the Spanish were forced to leave Florida, Tomás, then 62, put his house up for sale, and with his wife and their children, boarded a ship for Havana. Not until 1805, after years of haggling, and long after the couple had died, did an English real estate agent finally send the González children any money, about half the sale price.

On our last evening, we strolled along the harbor, musing on the city's densely layered history, on its inhabitants across the centuries. Some—Tomás among them—live on as identifiable individuals; countless others remain nameless. We studied the 306-year-old Castillo de San Marcos, brooding over the bay. The builders of this fortress—Spanish stonecutters, overseers, blacksmiths, teamsters, quarrymen, lime burners, Indians of the Guale, Timucua and Apalache tribes, free blacks and slaves, Spanish convicts, captured Englishmen—are largely lost to history. Their legacy is the impregnable Castillo itself. For centuries, it rose out of the subtropical wilderness, walls plastered white, guard tower red—the colors of Spain.

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