Florida – Ancient St. Augustine

Thirty-six miles southeast of Jacksonville, on the seacoast, is the oldest city in the United States, founded by Menendez in 1565, and existing to this day with the characteristics of a Spanish town of the sixteenth century, which have been also reproduced in the architecture of most of the newer buildings. A small inlet from the ocean, about fifteen miles south of the mouth of St. John’s River, stretches its arms north and south, the latter arm, called Matanzas River, seeking the sea again about eighteen miles below. It thus forms Anastasia Island, sheltering the harbor like a breakwater, and behind it the city is built, being protected by a sea-wall nearly a mile long, built of coquina or shell-stone. Another arm of the sea, called San Sebastian River, is a short distance inland, so that the town site is really upon a peninsula. About five thousand people reside permanently in St. Augustine, a few of Spanish descent, and more of them the offspring of a colony of Minorcans who came in 1769, but in winter the Northern visitors to the palatial hotels swell the population to over ten thousand. The town is built on a level sandy plain, and the older streets are narrow, being only a few feet wide and without side-walks. The projecting balconies of some of the ancient houses almost touch those opposite. The old streets are paved with coquina and the old houses are built of it, this curious shell-limestone, quarried on Anastasia Island, hardening upon exposure to the air. A few streets running north and south, crossed by others at right angles, and a broader front street bordered y the sea-wall which makes a fine promenade, compose the town. This sea-wall of coquina is capped with granite, and was built after the American occupation of the city. At its northern end is Fort Marion and at the southern end St. Francis Barracks, the United States military post, so named because it occupies the site of the old Convent of St. Francis, having some of its coquina walls incorporated in the present structure. The harbor in front, which in past centuries sheltered so many Spanish fleets and those of Spanish enemies as well, is now chiefly devoted to yachting.

When Menendez and his Spaniards first landed they built a wooden fort commanding the harbor en-trance, surrounded y pine trees, which they named San Juan de Pinos. This was afterwards replaced by Fort San Marco, constructed of coquina, which was nearly a hundred years building, and was finished in 1756. Upon the transfer of Florida to the United States this became Fort Marion. It is a well-preserved specimen of the military architecture of the eighteenth century, built on Vauban’s system, cover ing about four acres, with bastions at the corners, each protected by a watch-tower, and is surrounded by a moat, the walls being twenty-one feet high. The fort is in reasonably good preservation, and is said to have been constructed mainly by the labor of Indians. It took so long to build and cost so much under the wasteful Spanish system that one sovereign wrote that it had almost cost its weight in gold; yet it was regarded then as supremely important to be finished, being the key to the Spanish possession of Florida. Over the sally-port at the drawbridge are carved the Spanish arms and an inscription recording the completion of the fort in 1756, when Ferdinand VI. was King of Spain and Don Hereda Governor of Florida. It mounted one hundred of the small guns of those days, and the interior is a square parade ground, surrounded by large casemates. Upon each side of the casemate opposite the sally-port is a niche for holy water, and at the farther end the Chapel. Dungeons and subterranean passages abound, of which ghostly tales are told. This fort is the most interesting relic of the ancient city, a picturesque place, with charms even in its dilapidation.

There are other quaint structures in this curious old town. A gray gateway about ten feet wide, flanked by tall square towers, marks the northern entrance to the city, the ditch from the fort passing in front of it. In one of the streets is the palace of the Spanish Governors, since changed into a post-office. The official centre of the city is a public square, the Plaza de la Constitucion, having a monument commemorating the Spanish Liberal Constitution of 1812, and also a Confederate Soldiers’ Monument. This square fronts on the sea-wall, and alongside it and stretching westward is the Alameda, known as King Street, leading to the group of grand hotels recently constructed in Spanish and Moorish style, which have made modern St. Augustine so famous. These are the Ponce de Leon, the Alcazar and the Cordova, with the Casino, adjoined by spaclous and beautiful gardens. These buildings repro-duce all types of the Hispano-Moorish architecture, with many suggestions from the Alhambra. The Ponce de Leon, the largest, is three hundred and eighty by five hundred and twenty feet, enclosing an open court, and its towers rise above the red-tiled roofs to a height of one hundred and sixty-five feet, the adornments in colors being very effective. To the southward of the town, adjoining the barracks, is the military cemetery, where a monument and three white pyramids tell the horrid story of the Dade massacre during the Seminole War. Major Dade, a gallant officer,. and one hundred and seven men, were ambushed and massacred y eight hundred Indians in December, 1835, and their remains afterwards brought here and interred under the pyramids. Opposite the barracks is what is claimed to be the oldest house in the United States, occupied by Franciscan monks from 1565 to 1580, and afterwards a dwelling. It has been restored, and contains a collection of historical relics.

St. Augustine has had a chequered history. In 1586, Queen Elizabeth’s naval hero, Sir Francis Drake, sailing all over the world to fight Spaniards, attacked and plundered the town and burnt the greater part of it. Then for nearly a century the Indians, pirates, French, English and neighboring Georgians and Carolinians made matters lively for the harried inhabitants. In 1763 the British came into possession, but they ceded it back to Spain twenty years later, the town then containing about three hundred householders and nine hundred negroes. It became American in 1821, and was an important military post during the subsequent Seminole War, which continued several years. It was early captured y the Union forces during the civil War, and was a valuable stronghold for them. This curious old town has many traditions that tell of war and massacre and the horrible cruelties of the Spanish Inquisition, the remains of cages in which prisoners were starved to death being shown in the fort. Its best modern story, however, is told of the escape of Coa-coo-thee, the Seminole chief, whose adventurous spirit and savage nature gained him the name of the ” Wild Cat.” The ending of the Seminole War was the signing of a treaty by the older chiefs agreeing to remove west of the Mississippi. Coa-coo-chee, with other younger chiefs, opposed this and renewed the conflict. He was ultimately captured and taken to Fort Marion. Feigning sickness, he was removed into a casemate giving him air, there being an aperture two feet high y nine inches wide in the wall about thirteen feet above the floor, and under it a platform five feet high. Here, while still feigning illness, he became attenuated y voluntary abstinence from food, and finally one night squeezed himself through the aperture and dropped to the bottom of the moat, which was dry. Eluding all the guards, he escaped and rejoined his people. The flight caused a great sensation, and there was hot pursuit. After some time he was recaptured, and being taken before General Worth, was used to compel the remnant of the tribe to remove to the West. Worth told him if his people were not at Tampa in twenty days he would be killed, and he was ordered to notify them by Indian runners. He hesitated, but afterwards yielded, and the runners were given twenty twigs, one to be broken each day, so they might know when the last one was broken his life would pay the penalty. In seventeen days the task was accomplished. The tribe came to Tampa, and the captive was released, accompanying his warriors to the far West. This ended most of the Indian troubles in Florida, but some descendants of the Seminoles still exist in the remote fastnesses of the everglades.