Founded in 1565, St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied settlement of European and African-American origin in the United States. Forty-two years before the English colonized Jamestown and fifty-five years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, the Spanish established at St. Augustine this nation's first enduring settlement.
The architectural legacy of the city's past is much younger, testimony to the impermanent quality of the earliest structures and to St. Augustine's troubled history. Only the venerable Castillo de San Marcos, completed in the late seventeenth century, survived destruction of the city by invading British forces in 1702.
Vestiges of the First Spanish Colonial Period (1565 to 1764) remain today in St. Augustine in the form of the town plan originally laid out by Governor Gonzalo Méndez de Canzo in the late sixteenth century and in the narrow streets and balconied houses that are identified with the architecture introduced by settlers from Spain. Throughout the modern city and within its Historic Colonial District, there remain thirty-six buildings of colonial origin and another forty that are reconstructed models of colonial buildings.
St. Augustine can boast that it contains the only urban nucleus in the United States whose street pattern and architectural ambiance reflect Spanish origins.
Discovery of Florida
Historians credit Juan Ponce de Leon, the first governor of the Island of Puerto Rico, with the discovery of Florida in 1513. While on an exploratory trip in search of the fabled Bimini he sighted the eastern coast of Florida on Easter Sunday, which fell on March 27 that year. Ponce de Leon claimed Florida for the Spanish Crown and named it Florida after the Easter season, known in Spanish as Pascua Florida. This newly claimed territory extended north and west to encompass most of the known lands of the North American continent that had not been claimed by the Spanish in New Spain (Mexico and the Southwest).
In the following half century, the government of Spain launched no less than six expeditions attempting to settle Florida; all failed. In 1564 French Huguenots (Protestants) succeeded in establishing a fort and colony near the mouth of the St. Johns River at what is today Jacksonville. This settlement posed a threat to the Spanish fleets that sailed the Gulf Stream beside the east coast of Florida, carrying treasure from Central and South America to Spain. As Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés was assembling a fleet for an expedition to Florida, the French intrusion upon lands claimed by Spain was discovered. King Philip II instructed Menéndez, Spain's most capable admiral, to remove the French menace to Spain's interests.
Naming St. Augustine
On September 8, 1565, with much pomp and circumstance and 600 voyagers cheering, Menéndez set foot on the shores of Florida. In honor of the saint whose feast day fell on the day he first sighted land, Menéndez named the colonial settlement St. Augustine. Menéndez quickly and diligently carried out his king's instructions. With brilliant military maneuvering and good fortune, he removed the French garrison and proceeded to consolidate Spain's authority on the northeast coast of Florida. St. Augustine was to serve two purposes: as a military outpost, or Presidio, for the defense of Florida, and a base for Catholic missionary settlements throughout the southeastern part of North America.
Maintaining St. Augustine as a permanent military colony, however, was a mighty task. Without the courage, perseverance, and tenacity of the early settlers, it is doubtful that the community would have survived.
English pirates and corsairs pillaged and burned the town on several occasions in the next century. Clashes between the Spaniards and the British became more frequent when the English colonies were established in the Carolinas, and later, in Georgia. As a consequence, the Spanish moved to strengthen their defenses, beginning in 1672 construction of a permanent stone fortress. The Castillo de San Marcos was brought to completion late in the century, just in time to meet an attack by British forces from the Carolinas in 1702. Unable to take the fort after a two-month siege, the British troops burned the town and retreated.
British attacks continued, however. Plantation and slave owners in the English colonies resented the sanctuary that Spanish Florida afforded escaped slaves who successfully made their way to St. Augustine, which became a focal point for the first Underground Railroad. There, escaped slaves were given their freedom by the Spanish Governor if they declared allegiance to the King of Spain and embraced the Catholic religion. In 1738 the first legally sanctioned free community of former slaves, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, was established as part of the presidio’s northern defenses.
In 1740, an even stronger attack on St. Augustine was mounted by the Governor of the British colony of Georgia, General James Oglethorpe. He also failed to take the fort.
Treaty of Paris
The Treaty of Paris in 1763, ending the French and Indian War, gave Florida and St. Augustine to the British, accomplishing by the stroke of a pen what pitched battles had failed to do. St. Augustine came under British rule for the first time and served as a Loyalist (pro-British) colony during the American Revolutionary War. A second Treaty of Paris (1783), which gave America's colonies north of Florida their independence, returned Florida to Spain, a reward for Spanish assistance to the Americans in their war against England.
Upon their return, the Spanish in 1784 found that St. Augustine had changed. Settlers from a failed colony in New Smyrna (south of St. Augustine) had moved to St. Augustine in 1777. This group, known collectively as Minorcans, included settlers from the western Mediterranean island of Minorca. Their presence in St. Augustine forever changed the ethnic composition of the town.
Second Spanish Period
During what is called by historians the Second Spanish Period (1784 to 1821), Spain suffered the Napoleonic invasions at home and struggled to retain its colonies in the western hemisphere. Florida no longer held its past importance to Spain. The expanding United States, however, regarded the Florida peninsula as vital to its interests. It was a matter of time before the Americans devised a way to acquire Florida. The Adams-Onîs Treaty, negotiated in 1819 and concluded in 1821, peaceably turned over the Spanish colonies of East and West Florida and, with them, St. Augustine, to the United States.
Florida Becomes a State
For the next twenty-four years, East Florida and with it St. Augustine remained a territorial possession of the United States. Not until 1845 was Florida accepted into the union as a state. The Territorial Period (1821-1845) was marked by an intense war with native Indians, the so-called Second Seminole War (1835-1842). The United States Army took over the Castillo de San Marcos and renamed it Fort Marion.
In 1861, the Civil War began. Florida joined the Confederacy, but Union troops loyal to the United States Government quickly occupied St. Augustine and remained in control of the city throughout the four-year long war. St. Augustine was thus one of the few places in the United States where Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1862, actually freed any slaves. After the war, land was leased to freed slaves on what was then the west bank of Maria Sanchez Creek. Initially called Africa, the settlement later became Lincolnville and is today listed in the National Register of Historic Places, along with three other historic districts in the city.
Twenty years after the end of the Civil War, St. Augustine entered its most glittering era. Following a visit to the crumbling old Spanish town, Henry Flagler, a former partner of John D. Rockefeller in the Standard Oil Company, decided to create in St. Augustine a winter resort for wealthy Americans. He owned a railroad company that in 1886 linked St. Augustine by rail with the populous cities of the east coast. In 1887, his company began construction of two large and ornate hotels and a year later added a third that had been planned and begun by another developer. Flagler's architects changed the appearance of St. Augustine, fashioning building styles that in time came to characterize the look of cities throughout Florida. For a time, St. Augustine was the winter tourist mecca of the United States.
Newport of the South
In the early twentieth century, however, the very rich found other parts of Florida to which they could escape. With them fled Flagler's dream of turning St. Augustine into the "Newport of the South." St. Augustine nevertheless remained a tourist town. As Americans took to the highways in search of a vacation land, St. Augustine became a destination for automobile-borne visitors. The tourism industry came to dominate the local economy.
The city celebrated its 400th anniversary in 1965 and undertook in cooperation with the State of Florida a program to restore parts of the colonial city. The continuation of an effort actually begun in 1935, what became known as the "Restoration" resulted in preserving the thirty-six remaining buildings from the colonial era and the reconstruction of some forty additional colonial buildings that had previously disappeared, transforming the appearance of the historic central part of St. Augustine. It was in great part a tribute to such efforts that King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia made this small city a part of their 2001 visit to the United States.
Civil Rights Era
In 1964, St. Augustine played a role in America’s civil rights struggle when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a local campaign to dramatize national efforts designed to secure Congressional approval of what became the landmark Civil Rights Act of that year. The city now contains a series of historical markers noting sites associated with the civil rights movement here.
The first of Henry Flagler's three great hotels, the Ponce de Leon, was adapted for use as an institution of higher learning in 1971. As Flagler College, it expanded to embrace a student body of some 1,700 by the end of the century, offering a traditional four-year arts and science degree program. The second of his hotels, the Alcazar, has since 1948 contained the Lightner Museum, (and in 1973 the City of St. Augustine municipal offices). The third Flagler hotel, originally called the Casa Monica, stood vacant for thirty-five years before St. Johns County converted it for use a county courthouse in 1965. In 1999, under private ownership, the building was restored to its original function, and is now the only one of Flagler's three great hotels still serving that purpose.
St. Augustine Attracts Visitors
Some 2 million visitors annually make their way to St. Augustine, lured by the sense of discovering a unique historic part of America. While the venerable Castillo de San Marcos remains the traditional magnet for visitors, there are many other appealing historical sites and vistas.
The City of St. Augustine maintains architectural control over the colonial city, insuring that the inevitable change which occurs in a living urban area respects the past.
View the Periods of History in St. Augustine
- Before 1492: Pre-Columbian or Pre-Historic Period
- 1513 to 1565: Discovery Period
- 1565 to 1763: First Spanish Colonial Period
- 1763 to 1784: British Colonial Period
- 1784 to 1821: Second Spanish Colonial Period
- 1821 to 1845: U.S. Territorial Period
- 1845 to 1861: Early Statehood Period
- 1861 to 1865: U.S. Civil War
- 1865 to 1885: Post-Civil War Period
- 1885 to 1913: Flagler Era
- 1913 to 1919: World War I Era
- 1920 to 1926: Boom Time
- 1926 to 1941: Depression Era (Florida)
- 1941 to 1945: World War Two
Watch the video, Preserving the Past for the Future, St. Augustine's Early History.