St. Augustine: 450 Years Of Living History

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A city of firsts & oldests

St. Augustine
St. Augustine

There are few cities in the world—much less in the United States—that exude a greater combination of history, art and culture than St. Augustine, FL. The year 2015 marked its 450th anniversary, making it the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement within the borders of the contiguous United States. Since its inception, St. Augustine has switched hands from the Spanish to the British back to the Spanish and eventually the United States, where it was briefly the capital of the Florida Territory when it became a U.S. possession in 1822. Here are some of the 10 most notable dates in St. Augustine history.

A statue in downtown St. Augustine erected in honor of Spanish explorer and governor of Puerto Rico, Juan Ponce de León, who claimed La Florida for the Spanish crown while sailing as far north of the future site of St. Augustine in 1513. (Photos by Dave Gil de Rubio)
A statue in downtown St. Augustine erected in honor of Spanish explorer and governor of Puerto Rico, Juan Ponce de León, who claimed La Florida for the Spanish crown while sailing as far north of the future site of St. Augustine in 1513.
(Photos by Dave Gil de Rubio)

April 2, 1513—
Juan Ponce de Leon sighted land off the coast at 30 degrees 8 minutes longitude; which would have put him off the coast of St. Augustine. The very next day he came ashore (we do not know exactly where) and claimed La Florida (as it was originally called) for Spain.

Sept. 8, 1565—The Birth of St. Augustine
Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles along with 800 settlers landed here, held the first feast of Thanksgiving with the natives, established the first Catholic Parish on the North American Continent and named their new settlement St. Augustine.

March 1668—Captain Robert Searle sacks the City of St. Augustine
Captain Robert Searle and his privateers sailed from Jamaica to loot the silver ingots (metals that can be shaped into various things) held in the royal coffers (small chests) at St. Augustine. Under the cover of night, they slipped into the harbor and attacked the sleeping town, killing 60 people and pillaging government buildings, churches and homes. The devastation wrought by these pirates prompted Spain’s Council of the Indies to issue money to build a massive stone fortress on Matanzas Bay to protect the city. The Castillo de San Marcos still stands as an enduring reminder of Florida’s gripping heritage. This event is reenacted every year on the first Saturday in March.

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The Castillo de San Marcos

1672 to 1692—The Castillo de San Marcos is built to protect the City of St. Augustine 
The Spanish feared Searle would return to St. Augustine; also the British were now inhabiting lands to the North (Jamestown). The Castillo took a bit more than 20 years to build. It is made of coquina rock, a native stone found here.

1738—The establishment of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose
Fort Mose (pronounced “Moh-say”) became the first legally sanctioned free black town in the present-day United States.

DSCN5934June 13, 1740—The Siege on St. Augustine
Georgia Governor James Oglethorpe led the siege of St. Augustine by blockading the city, including the Matanzas Inlet. Anticipating Oglethorpe’s attack, Governor Manuel de Montiano had earlier sent a courier to Havana asking for supplies since there were only enough for three weeks.

1764 to 1784—St. Augustine and all of La Florida becomes British territory and remains so through the American Revolution.
In 1777, a group of 600 Menorcans arrived in St. Augustine. Instead of fleeing from rebels, these people sought sanctuary from the cruel conditions under which they had labored on Dr. Turnbull’s indigo plantation at New Smyrna, FL. Recruited from Spain’s Baleric Islands, Italy and Greece, they had come to New Smyrna in 1768 to work as indentured servants. The mistreatment they suffered at the hands of Turnbull and his overseers convinced them to escape from the plantation and walk 60 miles to St. Augustine. Thanks to the work of their parish priest, Father Pedro Camps, the Menorcans were granted asylum. Fortunately, the booming economic conditions of the times meant that instead of the Menorcans becoming a burden on the town, their labor was in great demand and they were able to quickly become an important addition to the community.

DSCN5950b1812—The Spanish Constitution of 1812 was established on March 19, 1812 by the Cádiz Cortes, Spain’s first national sovereign assembly.
Each of the Spanish Colonies was ordered to finance and build a monument to commemorate the new form of government. St. Augustine—still under Spanish rule—did so. In 1814, King Ferdinand VII abolished the constitution and ordered all monuments to be torn down. The Constitution Obelisk in Saint Augustine survived. The constitution was reinstated during the Trienio Liberal (1820–23) and again briefly from 1836-37 while the Progressives prepared the Constitution of 1837. St. Augustine has the only lasting Spanish Constitutional monument in the world.

July 10, 1821—Florida became a United States Territory and St. Augustine became a U.S. Pioneer settlement. Florida became the 27th state on March 3, 1845.
In 1883, access to St. Augustine improved dramatically when the Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Halifax River Railroad opened a line that carried visitors directly from a steamboat landing on Jacksonville’s south side to the oldest city.

DSCN5952Jan. 10, 1888—
Henry Flagler’s Hotel Ponce de Leon began hosting America’s elite for winter vacations. Called Spanish Renaissance in style, the hotel rose above the surrounding orange groves and its massive twin towers dominated the skyline of the ancient city. Its interior, designed by Bernard Maybeck, captured the opulence of America’s Gilded Age, and the windows created by Louis Comfort Tiffany provided an almost-mystical aura to the building and its 540 guest rooms. Flagler also commissioned the former Hotel Alcazar, which currently has its spa, Turkish bath and three-story ballroom being used to house the Lightner Museum.

DSCN58191961 to 1964—Civil Rights movement in St. Augustine
As with many southern cities in the U.S., Blacks in the community challenged the racial status quo. Sit-ins, marches and demonstrations led by Reverend Martin Luther King, Andrew Young and many others began to gain national attention in the summer of 1964.

1965—The Nation’s Oldest City celebrates its 400th Birthday
The oldest city’s culture and history were presented in a week-long celebration featuring parades, re-enactments and speeches that gained national attention.


Read about the St. Augustine Distillery.

Read about wildlife in St. Augustine and see additional photos here.

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