In Search of St. Augustine

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

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.

Then, in 1564, French Huguenots landed near today's Jacksonville and built a fort they named Caroline. Where the Spanish had seen Florida as a no-gold wasteland, Jean Ribaut, a Huguenot leader, saw Eden, a land the "fairest, frutefullest, and plesantest of all the worlde."

Now French Protestants—heretics!—squatted in Philip's Florida. Worse, they were nicely situated to attack the galleons near where the treasure fleets turned east, toward Spain. This called for action. And Philip knew just the man.

If the French are there, the land must be valuable

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés had served as captain general of the annual treasure fleet to the Americas. He had also done jail time on a trumped-up smuggling charge. So when the king needed a tough guy, he turned to Menéndez: "You will explore and colonize Florida," he commanded, "and if there be settlers or corsairs of other nations not subject to us, drive them out."

In 1565, Menéndez sailed from Cádiz with about 30 vessels, carrying approximately 2,600 sailors and soldiers, administrators, priests, farmers, millers, tanners, locksmiths and silversmiths. Meanwhile, France's Jean Ribaut had his orders too: "Do not let Menéndez encroach upon you, any more than he would let you encroach upon him."

Scouting ahead of his armada, which had been scattered by storms, Menéndez sighted a good harbor on September 3. He named it San Augustín, for his hometown's patron saint. A few days later, after a foray to the north and a preliminary skirmish with the French, he sailed back to set up shop at St. Augustine. Timucua Indians greeted the Spaniards as they stepped onto the white beach in their thigh-high boots, and tights and puffy breeches, hot sun glinting off their metal armor and helmets. The Timucua, who sensibly wore little, must have been bemused by the sight as the Spanish blew trumpets, beat drums, shot off cannon, celebrated mass, and then, one by one, kissed a cross. It was September 8. St. Augustine was now a Spanish municipality.

Hospitably, the Timucua offered the Spaniards their village's palm-thatched communal house to use as their fort. Arriving ships swelled the new colony to 500 soldiers, plus a hundred men, women, children and officials, whom Menéndez termed "useless people." Meanwhile, the soldiers did what they could to fortify the communal house, expecting an immediate French attack.

A fort affords Florida some security

Just as the Spaniards were digging in, two French galleons from Fort Caroline appeared on the horizon. But before Jean Ribaut could strike, a sudden storm blew his ships to the south. Exploiting the bad weather, which lasted for days, Menéndez ordered a hard march up the coast, through wind and floods, to take Fort Caroline by surprise. Of 240 in the garrison, 132 were killed.

To the south, the storm-blown French ships foundered. The French soldiers trudged back north, unaware the Spanish had taken their fort. Menéndez, with 50 soldiers, persuaded 200 of the bedraggled Frenchmen to surrender. Then, except for ten professed Catholics, whom Menéndez afforded safe passage to St. Augustine, he had them skewered. Soon after, he captured Ribaut and 150 Frenchmen. Except for the musicians and four Catholics, he killed them too.

St. Augustine, for now, was free to fulfill its mission of warding off attacks on the royal treasure fleets. That is, when it wasn't combating fire, famine and pestilence. In 1586, Sir Francis Drake burned the place to charcoal. St. Augustine rebuilt. In 1668, English pirates destroyed it again. It was time, the Spaniards decided, to build a proper fort. They stockpiled Anastasia Island coquina on the St. Augustine waterfront and, in 1672, broke ground for the Castillo.

More than three centuries later, driving into St. Augustine, we negotiate the outlying jumble of car dealerships and condos, then thread the narrow streets of the historic district to the harbor. Abruptly, the Castillo looms on its grassy swath. A national monument, it is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States and one of the best-preserved. It looks encrusted with time.

"Probably, it's the most hurricane-resistant building in Florida," Castillo superintendent Gordon Wilson told us when we visited him at the National Park Service offices. Over a door, someone had taped up a photocopy of Titian's portrait of Pedro Menéndez, his dark hair cropped, wearing a ruff and puffy sleeves. Hand-lettered on the picture, it said: "Pedro Has Left The Building."

History is the attraction

"We have about 600,000 or 700,000 visitors a year," Wilson told us as we walked around the Castillo's gray-white walls. He said the fort was never taken. In 1702, British forces from Carolina gave St. Augustine one of its periodic burnings, but all 1,500 residents crowded into the Castillo for 50 days, until a warship from Havana chased the British away. "Legend says cannonballs stuck in those soft coquina walls as if they were cheese, doing no damage," said Wilson. "Otherwise, right now we might be looking at condominiums."

Travelers have been visiting St. Augustine at least since 1827, when the 23-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson wintered here to cure his tuberculosis. But it was after the railroad's arrival in the 1880s that tourists began coming by the thousands, staying at the magnificent new hotels of oil and vacation mogul Henry Flagler, to sun on the white beaches, to fish, to play golf and tennis.

Even modern St. Augustine's premier attraction remains its long history. The old section is compact, and you can walk the lanes. In the 1790 Murat House, which Napoléon's nephew once rented, the museum director showed us a musket ball embedded in a wall. We asked who had fired it. He shrugged. When a town has been around for five centuries, some stories are lost.

One afternoon we drove north of town to Guana River State Park, 2,200 acres on a barrier island between the Atlantic Ocean and the Tolomato River section of the Intracoastal Waterway. What the early Spanish colonizers saw, we can see today at the park: hardwood hammock, shell mound, salt marsh, inland marsh, pine flatwoods, coastal strand, and beaches and dunes. These seven different types of habitat support a lot of wildlife, such as bobcats and threatened loggerhead sea turtles, which lay their eggs on the park's protected beaches, and more than 175 species of birds, including ospreys and bald eagles and threatened least terns. Somewhere in, or near, the park, although nobody knows where, the Spanish built a mission—La Natividad de Nuestra Señora de Tolomato.

Saved by the state

In fact, given America's love of the bulldozer, it is astonishing how much of Spanish St. Augustine remains. Bill Adams, the city's director of historic preservation and heritage tourism, said it's lucky that any of it is left. By 1959, the year the state of Florida began buying them, only 36 of the 300 buildings here in 1821 still stood. The city took over in 1997. All 36 buildings were saved.

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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