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The Story of St. Augustine Florida

By Michelle Whitmer

Forty-two years before the English set foot in Jamestown and 55 years before the Pilgrims landed a Plymouth Rock, St. Augustine was the thriving capital city of La Florida, a territory spanning from Newfoundland to the Florida Keys.  As the first permanent European settlement in the New World, St. Augustine bears an exceptional history as the oldest city in the continental United States.  No wonder the Spanish nation referred to St. Augustine as la siempre fiel ciudad, "the ever-faithful city."

This year, the city of St. Augustine is celebrating its 443rd birthday with a weeklong series of events that commemorate the founding of the nation's oldest city.  Scheduled for August 28 through September 1, the annual event celebrates St. Augustine's unique history and provides a colorful look at life during early European colonization of Florida.

In 1565, King Philip II of Spain appointed Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, the country's most experienced admiral, governor of La Florida.  King Philip II instructed him to explore and colonize the territory and eliminate any other European settlements, specifically the French settlement at Fort Caroline.  Menendez set sail in June 1565 intending to follow his king's orders and hoping to find his son, Juan, who disappeared at sea off La Florida's coast.

Along the voyage, Menendez's fleet encountered storms that claimed several ships.  Despite many tribulations, they first sighted land on August 28, the feast day of Augustine of Hippo.  In honor of this day, Menendez arrived at Fort Caroline, where the French were anchored off the St. Johns bar.  After a quick battle, the French retreated and Menendez sailed south.

On September 8, 15656, Menendez anchored in St. Augustine with 500 soldiers, 200 sailors and 100 passengers.  The landing was a momentous occasion, with banners swaying in the coastal wind, trumpets sounding, artillery booming and hopeful settlers cheering.  Menendez came ashore at the Timucuan village of Seloy, much to the surprise of its residents, who were filled with awe and curiosity at the enormous galleons and unfamiliar Spanish culture.  Surprisingly, Menendez did not receive orders, nor did he personally desire, to eradicate the Native Americans.  This is an extraordinary contrast to the Northern treatment of Indians by subsequent European colonists.

Dr. Michael Gannon, distinguished service professor emeritus a the University of Florida and preeminent authority on the founding of St. Augustine, explains in his book, Florida: A Short History, the Spanish colonists "did not expropriate native American lands or push them back along an ever-advancing frontier, as happened later with the Indian lands of the Anglo-American country to the north." Menendez held sincere interest to convert the natives, not drive them out or kill them.  In fact, the two cultures exchanged traditions and ways of life.  Spanish men married native women and adopted the Timucuan diet and methods of food preparation.  According to Gannon, Spanish missionaries "taught European farming, cattle raising, carpentry, weaving, and, in many instances, reading and writing" to the citizens of Seloy.  Members of the Timucuan tribe resided both in and out of St. Augustine, as did Africans, who served in the Spanish army and navy.

When Menendez arrived in La Florida, free and enslaved African were present from previous shipwrecks.  Of the Africans who served in the Spanish army and navy, several were high-ranking officers, with their wives and children living in St. Augustine.  The cultural mix of Timucuan, Spanish and African at this settlement was an extremely rare occurrence.  St. Augustine historian and author David Nolan explains, "Textbooks portray Jamestown, Virginia, as the first place of African inhabitants," which is far from the truth.  Africans occupied St. Augustine more than four decades before the Englishmen landed at Jamestown, but some residents of Virginia allege Jamestown is the first settlement with African presence.

Much to the surprise of historians, Jamestown has deceptively claimed quite a few "firsts."  Nolan warns, "Three words you must be careful with are first, only and older."  These words not only instill importance and utmost significance, but they also draw crowds to any location or event bearing one of the three terms, making them financially important, as well as historically. 

This past May, Jamestown commemorated its 400th birthday with a hug festival spanning three days.  A decade's worth of planning brought about a celebration entitled "America's 400th Anniversary," which stunned scholars and historians.  Gannon states, "Florida was Europe's first frontier in North America.  Its history of permanent settlement by Europeans goes back over four and quarter centuries.   One would not know that fact, however, from reading the typical American history textbook - even some used in Florida's own school system."  Nolan also is baffled at Jamestown's claim as America's birthplace, stating "1565 comes before 1607 on any calendar...They just went over the line when they ignored the difference between 1565 and 1607 - not good history and not good mathematics."

By the time Englishmen arrived at Jamestown, St. Augustine was bustling town with a fort, hospital, church, seminary, shops and homes.  The thriving city served as the capital of La Florida, which encompassed the territory where the Englishmen landed.  When the Pilgrims came ashore at Plymouth Rock in 1620, St. Augustine was already up for urban renewal.  Even the first Thanksgiving feast occurred in St. Augustine on September 8, the day Menendez arrived.  In New England, Dr. Gannon is famous for pointing out the first Thanksgiving took place in St. Augustine 55 years before the Pilgrims landed.  Up North, Gannon is known as "The Grinch Who Stole Thanksgiving."

Jamestown also has professed to be the birthplace of free enterprise in what would become the United States.  But those familiar with the history of St. Augustine would point out that free enterprise was embraced from day one in the coastal community.  Menendez paid for the expedition that brought Europeans to the New World, offering them limitless opportunities to fulfill the ventures of their dreams.  Certainly, this qualifies as an earlier account of free enterprise.

Charles Tingly of the St. Augustine Historical Society provides a unique perspective, as he is the former governor of the Jacksonville Jamestown Society, an organization of descendants who can trace their ancestry to Colonial Jamestown.  Tingly explains, "There is this whole fixation on the 13 revolting Colonies.  There were many Colonies that were not revolting.  If we don't include the totality of Colonies in the United States, then we are missing Florida and many others."  Tingly cites the early New England monopolization of textbooks as a significant reason as to why the Spanish founding of the United States has been etched out of history.

St. Augustine Mayor Joe Boles has actually been working very closely with executive director of Jamestown's 400th commemoration to better plan for St. Augustine's upcoming 450th birthday and the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon's discovery of Florida.  Mayor Boles comments on the comparison of the two historic cities, "I personally do not see any competition.  I wish Jamestown the best and appreciate their willingness to share all their information and their willingness to celebrate their founding...Certainly, they can celebrate English settlement.  We are going to celebrate the found of the New World."

Along with the mayor, St. Augustine's residents are hastily awaiting this year's birthday bash.  The annual events celebrating the founding of St. Augustine traditionally capture the cultural richness and way of life during early Spanish rule in Florida.  Festivities begin on August 28, the feast day of Augustine of Hippo and the day Menendez fist sighted Florida. In recognition of the Christian origins, re-enactors portraying Franciscan monks and their Native American converts will stroll throughout the city.

Before the Spanish called St,. Augustine home, the Timucua tribe had lived off the land for at least 500 years.  Menendez came ashore upon the Timucuan village of Seloy, located at the present site of the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park.  In honor of the area's original inhabitants, the park will feature Timucuan cultural and lifestyle demonstrations on August 29. 

The following two days' festivities celebrate 16th century entertainment and recognize the role women played during Florida's early colonization.  St. Augustine women, in authentic clothing, will demonstrate weaving, hand dyeing,  and other skills utilized by settlers.  Sixteenth century entertainment will include jugglers, madrigal singers and actors presenting period skits and comedies.

The week-long series of events culminate on September 1 with a remarkably detailed reenactment of Menendez's historic landing.  Archaeological teams from the University of Florida have verified the landing point of Menendez fleet to be located at eh Mission of Nombre de Dios, the first of many missions established by the Spanish.  It was here that Menendez claimed the land for Spain.  And, it was here that Menendez knelt to kiss a wooden cross presented to him by the chaplain of the expedition, Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales.  In remembrance of this significant historic moment, a striking reenactment of Menendez's landing will take place at Mission of Nombre de Dios.  Every year, the same mass and hymns are recited that once filled the hearts of eager and optimistic Spanish colonists.

For more information on the annual celebration and other events in St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & the Beaches, call the Visitors and Convention Bureau at (800) 653-2489 or visit

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