St. Augustine, FL, Oldest City in the U.S.

View of St. Augustine in 1891 from the former San Marco Hotel, Spanish St. on left, Huguenot Cemetery lower left corner, Cordova St. on right

St Augustine, Florida, the oldest constantly inhabited city in what is today the United States was not founded by the English, but by the Spaniards.

The Spanish colony was founded 42 years before the English settled Jamestown. Virginia and 55 years before the Pilgrim arrived in Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts.

Spain had wanted to establish a colony in the area since Juan Ponce de León first sighted the North American mainland on Easter Sunday March 27, 1513. Another name in Spanish for Easter is La Pascua Florida (Feast of Flowers), so de León named the place La Florida.

Even though the Spanish crown tried to colonize the area almost immediately, all their attempts failed and French Huguenots established a fort and a colony near the St. Johns River in 1564. The French settlement in the area didn’t seat well with king Phillip II who saw the potential danger to the fleets bringing treasure to Madrid from the New World. He ordered Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to take a fleet to La Florida, eliminate all non-Spanish colonies as well as explore and lay claim to the territory.

Why St. Augustine?

De Avilés arrived in Florida on the Feast of St. Augustine of Hippo, August 28, in the year 1565. He landed eleven days later and routed the French. Once in possession of the settlement, he proceeded to rename it San Agustín. The Spanish admiral returned to his ships and proceeded to chase those French settlers that had escaped. Eventually, in the middle of a storm, he captured and executed all the former colonists of the area.

The Spaniards were now free to fortify the town, which they did. It was a good thing for even though the town was the only European colony in the continental U.S. for the next few decade, there was continuing raids from French and, later, British forces.

The main fortification was the Castillo de San Marcos. It took 30 years to build it and still stands today.

In 1586, the English privateer, slaver and pirate Sir Francis Drake, raided and burned St. Augustine, but being short of men and not having license to start a colony, retired. The surviving Spanish colonists, who had escaped into the wilderness returned and re-established the town.

The British attacked and destroyed St. Augustine again in 1668. Once more it was rebuilt.

In 1762, as part of the Seven Years War, the British took Havana, the capital of Cuba, from Spain. The following year, as stipulated in the Treaty of Paris, London gave Havana back to Madrid in exchange for La Florida. For the next twenty years Florida was under British rule, even reminding loyal during the American War of Independence. Then, under the 1783 Treaty of Paris, Florida and St. Augustine went back to the Spanish crown.

They would remain in Spanish hands until 1821. Even though Madrid sold Florida to Washington in 1819, the US would not take control until July 10 two years later.

That same year, a yellow fever epidemic killed a good part of the population of the city.Twelve years later, the city suffered another setback when a Seminole revolt caused the Second Seminole War in 1836.

Florida Joins the Union

Florida became the 27th state admitted to the Union on May 3, 1845 and the Castillo de San Marcos was renamed Fort Marion, in honor of Francis Marion, the American revolutionary hero known as the Swamp Fox. The capital of the new, united Florida was established in Tallahassee and St. Augustine lost its status as the capital of East Florida. But Florida stayed in the Union barely 20 years. On January 10, 1861 Florida seceded, joining the Confederacy the following month. Right away, Union troops occupied St. Augustine. They stayed for the largest part of the war.

When the Civil War ended, St. Augustine, like most Southern areas, suffered under occupation and the activities of the carpetbaggers. But, in addition, the conclusion of the conflict also brought the beginning of the tourist industry, speculators and land developers.

One of these was businessman was Henry M. Flagler. Coming to Florida for his health and falling in love with St. Augustine, he built the 540-room Ponce de León Hotel, bought various small rail lines and started the Florida East Coast Railroad. Flagler’s railroad brought the well-to-do from the North to enjoy the ongoing yacht races and the newly built golf courses and the tourists stayed in Flagler’s hotel. It was a sweet deal for Flagler and St. Augustine.

But Flagler decided to move farther South, to Palm Beach, and by 1919 the St. Augustine economic boom turned into a bust.

Today, the city’s main industry is still tourism. Spanish colonial buildings, the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, the Castillo de San Marcos – now a National Monument -, and a pretend Fountain of Youth are its major attractions.