The Roanoke colony was established in 1585, Jamestown in 1607. The pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. While all of these events are an important part of the nation's beginnings, none of them marked the first permanent settlement in what would later become the United States. That distinction belongs to St. Augustine, Florida, established by the Spanish in 1565. Today, St. Augustine survives as the nation’s oldest continuously occupied city, and is now gearing up for its 450th birthday bash.
On September 8, 1565, Spanish explorer Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles landed ashore at an inlet (later called Matanzas Inlet) on the eastern coast of today’s Florida. Planting the Spanish flag, he declared the harbor and surrounding land in the name of the Spanish Empire and began setting up a permanent settlement. He named it after St. Augustine, the patron saint of brewers. While other Spanish explorers came to the New World looking for “God, gold and glory,” this was not exactly the case for Menendez, historian Dr. J. Michael Francis told Smithsonian.com. “He hoped to link the Atlantic Seaboard with the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Ocean and New Spain, what later would become Mexico … He was really trying to establish a commercial empire in Florida,” explains Francis.
The history of Spanish explorers in Florida didn’t start with Menendez, of course. In 1513, Juan Ponce de León was the first recorded European to officially set eyes upon the peninsula. Despite the legend saying he “discovered” Florida while looking for the fountain of youth, historians now agree that Ponce de León travelled due to his own political aspirations.
Organizers hope September’s 450th anniversary celebrations will bring more attention to a city that doesn’t always enjoy the same fame as other early settlements. “One of the challenges that St. Augustine faces, and Florida history in general, is that the narrative of U.S. history typically begins with the English story of Jamestown and the pilgrims … the reality is that the Spaniards predated all of that and were attempting to creating establishments all the way back in 1513,” says Francis.
St. Augustine’s 450th birthday celebrations will begin on September 3, and will include a free concert on September 4 featuring R&B musicians Aaron Neville and Mavis Staples. The celebration will continue through the week, including a historical reenactment of Menendez’s landing on September 8—exactly 450 years to the day from the original landing.
For those planning to make their way south for the city’s birthday festivities, here are six of the most historic places in St. Augustine to celebrate:
El Galeon Andalucia
The Spanish empire reached its height by the mid-16th century, having conquered the Incas and Aztecs, among other peoples. Spain looked to stake their claim to “La Florida” next, but the French had set their sights on the area and were attempting to create permanent settlements there. Out of their need for empire-building, the Spanish built humongous ships that could carry a crew, cargo for colonization and, most importantly, equipment for defense. When Menendez arrived on the shores of St. Augustine in 1565, he was accompanied by a fleet of these Spanish galleons.
The El Galeon Andalucia is a 170-foot, 495-ton wooden replica of a galleon that once sailed the seas to the New World. The ship has six decks, three masts and seven sails. It sails the Atlantic Ocean with a crew that lives aboard the ship 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Although it travels throughout the summer to various United States cities, the ship calls St. Augustine its United States homeport. It will be docked in St. Augustine through the month of September and available for tours in which visitors will get to see how sailors lived in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park
In September 1565, Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his fleet of galleons landed upon the shores of what would late become this 15-acre park. Now known as the “Fountain of Youth Archeological Park,” it's the place where the nation's oldest city was founded.
This park has been an active archaeological site since the 1930s. In that time, archeologists have found over 97,000 artifacts relating to the Menendez landing, the early Spanish settlements and even earlier Timucua Indian colonies, which date as far back as 3,000 years ago. Even with all of that digging, only 30 percent of the park has been explored by scientists and researchers.
Francis says the site deserves more recognition for its place in the nation's history. “[This park] really is one of the most important archeological sites in the country,” he says. Today, visitors are welcome to explore for themselves and watch the archaeologists in action.
The park also has its famed "Fountain of Youth," which pours out water from a natural spring. There's no historic documentation connecting the fountain to Juan Ponce de León's quest, although it's reportedly been a tourist attraction since at least the 19th century.
Castillo de San Marcos
After repeated attacks by the British and pirates in the early days of St. Augustine, the Spanish took measures to defend their fledging settlement. So, they began construction on a fort they named Castillo de San Marcos, which was finished in 1695. Built out of indigenous soft white limestone made from broken shells and coral—a material called coquina—the fort withstood sieges and time to become the oldest stone fortress in the continental United States, according to Francis.
In near-constant use for 200 years, this almost 21-acre fort surrounded by a moat has provided protection for several nations throughout its time. The British took control of the fort and the entire city of St. Augustine thanks to the Treaty of Paris of 1763. Spain got it back as a term in the settlement of the American Revolutionary War. In 1821, Spain ceded the entire state of Florida to the United States. During the Civil War, it became important ammunition storage for the Confederacy. Finally, the fort was returned to the United States and decommissioned in 1899.
Today, the Castillo de San Marcos is a national park, with the moat still protecting the coquina stone towers peering out over the Atlantic.
Plaza De La Constitucion
In the heart of St. Augustine is the Plaza De La Constiucion, part of the city’s National Historic Landmark site and the oldest public plaza in the United States. According to Francis, the plaza and public market were established under the governorship of Gonzalo Méndez de Canzo in 1598. Ordinances required the plaza to be laid out like a compass.
The plaza's main monument is the Spanish Constitution Monument, dedicated to the establishment of Spanish Constitution of 1812. It is also where the city has chosen to remember the veterans of America’s wars. Monuments dedicated to the American Revolution, the Confederacy, World War II, Korean War and the Vietnam War are also scattered throughout the park. In 2011, the St. Augustine Foot Soldiers monument was added, commemorating those who fought for civil rights in the 1960s.
Concerts are held in the park during the summer, including during the 450th birthday celebration.
While many Americans envision the Underground Railroad helping slaves escape to the North in the 19th century, in the 17th centuries and 18th centures, slaves often escaped to the South, toward the Spanish territories of Florida and Mexico. The Spanish Empire offered slaves of the British colonies a chance at freedom—provided they pledged allegiance to the king and the Catholic Church.
Due to this influx of people, the Spanish governor established a fortified town for the escapees in 1738. Called Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose (later Fort Mose), the place is considered the first legally sanctioned free black town in United States history. Within the town, the Spanish also organized a militia of former slaves to help defend St. Augustine from British attack, which is exactly what the militia did in the Battle of Bloody Mose. When the British finally took control of St. Augustine in 1763, most of the settlers fled, not wanting to be sent back into slavery.
There are no original structures left at this National Historic Landmark today, but reenactors provide a chance to look at “living history” throughout the year. Additionally, recent findings by archeologists have led to fundraising to reconstruct the fort to its 1738 appearance.
The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine
Legend says that Menendez first spotted land along today’s Florida coast on August 28, 1565. August 28 is also the feast day for the Catholic patron saint of brewers, St. Augustine of Hippo. Upon reaching land several days later, Menendez celebrated Mass and named the site after the saint. The Catholic Church thus recognizes St. Augustine as "America’s first parish." The city’s Cathedral Basilica also dates back to the late 18th century and is considered one of the oldest churches in the United States.
In July, in recognition of the 450th birthday of the city and the parish, the Vatican gave the basilica a gift—a historic loan of a relic from the city’s patron saint. It took four years of planning to bring the knucklebone of St. Augustine to the Florida city named after him, but the relic will be on display at the basilica through the end of September. The knucklebone is said to date back to the 5th century, and this is the first time it has left the Vatican.