St. Augustine – Historic Landmarks

AMONG the sturdy adventurers of the Sixteenth Century who sought both fame and fortune in the path of discovery, was Ponce de Leon, a companion of Columbus on his second voyage, a veteran and bold mariner, who, after a long and adventurous life, feeling the infirmities of age and the shadows of the decline of life hanging over him, willingly credited the tale that in this, the beautiful land of his imagination, there existed a fountain whose waters could restore youth to palsied age, and beauty to efface the marks of time.

The story ran that far to the north there existed a land abounding in gold and in all manner of desirable things, but, above all, possessing a river and springs of so remark-able a virtue that their waters would confer immortal youth on whoever bathed in them; that upon a time, a considerable expedition of the Indians of Cuba had departed northward, in search of this beautiful country and these waters of immortality, who had never returned, and who, it was supposed, were in a renovated state, still enjoying the felicities of the happy land.

Furthermore, Peter Martyr affirms, in his second decade, addressed to the Pope, ” that among the islands on the north side of Hispaniola, there is one about three hundred and twenty-five leagues distant, as they say which have searched the same, in the which is a continual spring of running water, of such marvellous virtue that the water thereof being drunk, perhaps with some diet, maketh old men young again. And here I must make protestation to your Holiness not to think this to be said lightly, or rashly; for they have so spread this rumour for a truth throughout all the Court, that not only all the people, but also many of them whom wisdom or fortune hath divided from the common sort, think it to be true.” Thoroughly believing in the verity of this pleasant account, this gallant cavalier fitted out an expedition from Porto Rico, and in the progress of his search came upon the coast of Florida, on Easter Monday, 1512, supposing then, and for a long period after-wards, that it was an island. Partly in consequence of the bright spring verdure and flowery plains that met his eye, and the magnificence of the magnolia, the bay, and the laurel, and partly in honour of the day, Pascua Florida, or Palm Sunday, and reminded, probably, of its appropriateness by the profusion of the cabbage palms near the point of his landing, he gave to the country the name of Florida.

On the third of April, 1612, he landed a few miles north of St. Augustine, and took possession of the country for the Spanish Crown. He found the natives fierce and implacable; and after exploring the country for some distance around, and trying the virtue of all the streams, and growing neither younger nor handsomer, he left the country without making a permanent settlement.

The settlement of Florida had its origin in the religious troubles experienced by the Huguenots under Charles IX. in France.

Their distinguished leader, Admiral Coligny, as early as 1555, projected colonies in America, and sent an expedition to Brazil, which proved unsuccessful. Having procured permission from Charles IX. to found a colony in Florida, a designation which embraced in rather an indefinite manner the whole country from the Chesapeake to the Tortugas, he sent an expedition in 1562 from France, under command of Jean Ribault, composed of many young men of good family. They first landed at the St. John’s River, where they erected a monument, but finally established a settlement at Port Royal, South Carolina, and erected a fort. After some months, however, in consequence of dissensions among the officers of the garrison, and difficulties with the Indians, this settlement was abandoned.

In 1564 another expedition came out under the command of Rene de Laudonniere, and made their first landing at the River of Dolphins, being the present harbour of St. Augustine, and so named by them in consequence of the great number of dolphins (porpoises) seen by them at its mouth. They afterwards coasted to the north, and entered the River St. John’s, called by them the River May.

Upon an examination of this river Laudonniere concluded to establish his colony on its banks; and proceeding about two leagues above its mouth, built a fort upon a pleasant hill of ” mean height ” which, in honour of his sovereign, he named Fort Caroline.

The colonists after a few months were reduced to great distress, and were about taking measures to abandon the country a second time, when Ribault arrived with reinforcements.

It is supposed that intelligence of these expeditions was communicated by the enemies of Coligny to the court of Spain.

Jealousy of the aggrandizement of the French in the New World, mortification for their own unsuccessful efforts in that quarter, and a still stronger motive of hatred to the faith of the Huguenot, induced the bigoted Philip II. of Spain to despatch Pedro Menendez de Aviles, a brave, bigoted, and remorseless soldier, to drive out the French colony and take possession of the country for himself.

The compact made between the King and Menendez was that he should furnish one galleon completely equipped, and provisions for a force of six hundred men ; that he should conquer and settle the country. He obligated him-self to carry one hundred horses, two hundred horned cattle, four hundred hogs, ‘four hundred sheep and some goats, and five hundred slaves (for which he had a permission free of duties), the third part of which should be men, for his own service and that of those who went with him, to aid in cultivating the land and building. That he should take twelve priests, and four fathers of the Jesuit order. He was to build two or three towns of one hundred families, and in each town should build a fort according to the nature of the country. He was to have the title of Adelantado of the country, as also to be entitled to a Marquis and his heirs after him, to have a tract of land, receive a salary of 2000 ducats, a percentage of the royal duties, and have the freedom of all the other ports of New Spain.

His force consisted, at starting, of eleven sail of vessels with two thousand and six hundred men; but, owing to storms and accidents, not more than one-half arrived. He came upon the coast on the 28th of August, 1565, shortly after the arrival of the fleet of Ribault. On the 7th day of September, Menendez cast anchor in the River of Dolphins, the harbour of St. Augustine. He had previously discovered and given chase to some vessels of Ribault, off the mouth of the River May. The Indian village Selooe then stood upon the site of St. Augustine, and the landing of Menendez was upon the spot where the city of St. Augustine now stands.

Fray Francisco Lopez de Mendoza, the Chaplain of the expedition, thus chronicles the disembarkation and attendant ceremonies:

“On Saturday the 8th day of September, the day of the nativity of our Lady, the General disembarked, with numerous banners displayed, trumpets and other martial music resounding, and amid salvos of artillery.

“Carrying a cross, I proceeded at the head, chanting the hymn Te Deum Laudamus. The General marched straight to the cross, together with all those who accompanied him; and, kneeling, they all kissed the cross. A great number of Indians looked upon these ceremonies, and imitated whatever they saw done. Thereupon the General took possession of the country in the name of his Majesty. All the officers then took an oath of allegiance to him as their general and as adelantado of the whole country.”

The name of St. Augustine was given, in the usual manner of the early voyagers, because they had arrived upon the coast on the day dedicated in their calendar to that eminent saint of the primitive church, revered alike by the good of all ages for his learning and piety.

On the l0th day of July, in the year 1821, the standard of Spain, which had been raised two hundred and fifty-six years before over St. Augustine, was finally lowered forever from the walls over which it had so long fluttered, and the Stars and Stripes of the youngest of nations rose where sooner or later the hand of destiny would assuredly have placed them.

It was intended that the change of flags should have taken place on the 4th of July; owing to a detention this was frustrated, but the inhabitants celebrated the 4th with a handsome public ball at the governor’s house.

The Spanish garrison and officers connected with it, returned to Cuba and some of the Spanish families, but the larger portion of the inhabitants remained.

In December, 1835, the war with the Seminole Indians broke out; and for some years St. Augustine was full of the pomp and circumstance of war. It was dangerous to venture beyond the gates; and many sad scenes of Indian massacre took place in the neighbourhood of the city. During this period, great apparent prosperity prevailed ; property was valuable, rents were high; speculators projected one city on the north of the town, and another on the west; a canal to the St. Johns, and also a railroad to Picolata; and great hopes of future prosperity were entertained. ‘With the cessation of the war, the importance of St. Augustine diminished ; younger communities took the lead of it, aided by superior advantages of location, and greater enterprise, and St. Augustine has subsided into the pleasant, quiet, dolce far niente of to-day, living upon its old memories, con-tented, peaceful, and agreeable, and likely to remain with-out much change for the future.

Of the public buildings, it may be remarked that the extensive British barracks were destroyed by fire in 1792; and that the Franciscan Convent was occupied as it had been before, as barracks for the troops not in garrison in the fort. The appearance of these buildings has been much changed, by the extensive repairs and alterations made by the United States government. It had formerly a large circular look-out upon the top, from which a beautiful view of the surrounding country was obtained. Its walls are probably the oldest foundation in the city.

The present United States Court House, now occupied by many public offices, was the residence of the Spanish governors. It has been rebuilt by the United States, and its former quaint and interesting appearance has been lost, in removing its look-out tower, and balconies, and the handsome gateway, mentioned by De Brahm, which is said to have been a fine specimen of Doric architecture.

Trinity Episcopal Church was commenced in 1827, and consecrated in 1833, by Bishop Bowen, of South Carolina. The Presbyterian Church was built about 1830, and the Methodist chapel about 1846.

The venerable-looking building on the bay, at the corner of Green Lane and Bay Street, is considered the oldest building in the place, and has evidently been a fine building in its day. It was the residence of the attorney-general in English times.

The monument on the public square was erected in 1812-13, upon the information of the adoption of the Spanish constitution, as a memorial of that event, in pursuance of a royal order to that effect, directed to the public authorities of all the provincial towns. Geronimo Alvarez was the Alcalde under whose direction it was erected. The plan of it was made by Sr. Hernandez, father of the late General Hernandez. A short time after it was put up, the Spanish constitution having had a downfall, orders were issued by the government that all the monuments erected to the constitution throughout its dominions should be demolished. The citizens of St. Augustine were unwilling to see their monument torn down ; and, with the passive acquiscence of the governor, the marble tablets inscribed PLAZA DE LA CONSTITUCION being removed, the monument itself was allowed to stand; and it thus remains to this day, the only monument in existence to commemorate the farce of the constitution of 1812. In 1818, the tablets were restored without objection.

The bridge and causeway are the work of the government of the United States. The present sea-wall was built between 1835 and 1842, by the United States, at an expense of one hundred thousand dollars.

I cannot perhaps better conclude these historic notices than by giving the impressions of the author of Thanatopsis, one whose poetic fame will endure as long as American literature exists. Writing from St. Augustine in April, 1843, he says:

“At length we emerged upon a shrubby plain, and finally came in sight of this oldest city of the United States, seated among its trees on a sandy swell of land, where it has stood for three hundred years. I was struck with its ancient and homely aspect, even at a distance, and could not help likening it to pictures which I had seen of Dutch towns, though it wanted a windmill or two to make the resemblance perfect. We drove into a green square, in the midst of which was a monument erected to commemorate the Spanish constitution of 1812, and thence through the narrow streets of the city to our hotel.

“I have called the streets narrow. In few places are they wide enough to allow two carriages to pass abreast. I was told that they were not originally intended for carriages; and that in the time when the town belonged to Spain, many of them were floored with an artificial stone, composed of shells and mortar, which in this climate takes and keeps the hardness of rock; and that no other vehicle than a hand-barrow was allowed to pass over them. In some places you see remnants of this ancient pavement; but for the most part it has been ground into dust under the wheels of the carts and carriages introduced by the new inhabitants. The old houses, built of a kind of stone which is seemingly a pure concretion of small shells, overhang the streets with their wooden balconies; and the gardens between the houses are fenced on the side of the street with high walls of stone. Peeping over these walls you see branches of the pomegranate, and of the orange trees now fragrant with flowers, and, rising yet higher, the leaning boughs of the fig with its broad, luxuriant leaves. Occasionally you pass the ruins of houses—walls of stone with arches and staircases of the same material, which once be-longed to stately dwellings. You meet in the streets with men of swarthy complexions and foreign physiognomy, and you hear them speaking to each other in a strange language. You are told that these are the remains of those who inhabited the country under the Spanish dominion, and that the dialect you have heard is that of the island of Minorca.

‘Twelve years ago,’ said an acquaintance of mine, when I first visited St. Augustine, it was a fine old Spanish town. A large proportion of the houses which you now see roofed like barns, were then flat-roofed ; they were all of shell rock, and these modern wooden buildings were not then erected. That old fort which they are now repairing, to fit it for receiving a garrison, was a sort of ruin, for the outworks had partly fallen, and it stood unoccupied by the military, a venerable monument of the Spanish dominion. But the orange-groves were the wealth and ornament of St. Augustine, and their produce maintained the inhabitants in comfort. Orange-trees of the size and height of the pear-tree, often rising higher than the roofs of the houses, embowered the town in perpetual verdure. They stood so close in the groves that they excluded the sun; and the atmosphere was at all times aromatic with their leaves and fruit, and in spring the fragrance of the flowers was almost oppressive.’

“The old fort of St. Mark, now called Fort Marion,–a foolish change of name—is a noble work, frowning over the Matanzas, which flows between St. Augustine and the island of Anastasia; and it is worth making a long journey to see. No record remains of its original construction; but it is supposed to have been erected about a hundred and fifty years since, and the shell rock of which it is built is dark with time. We saw where it had been struck with cannon balls, which, instead of splitting the rock, became imbedded and clogged among the loosened fragments of shell. This rock is therefore one of the best materials for fortification in the world. We were taken into the ancient prisons of the fort-dungeons, one of which was dimly lighted by a grated window, and another entirely without light; and by the flame of a torch we were shown the half-obliterated inscriptions scrawled on the walls long ago by prisoners. But in another corner of the fort, we were taken to look at the secret cells, which were discovered a few years since in consequence of the sinking of the earth over a narrow apartment between them. These cells are deep under ground, vaulted overhead, and without windows. In one of them a wooden machine was found, which some supposed might have been a rack, and in the other a quantity of human bones. The doors of these cells had been walled up and concealed with stucco, before the fort passed into the hands of the Americans.

“You cannot be in St. Augustine a day without hearing some of its inhabitants speak of its agreeable climate. During the sixteen days of my residence here, the weather has certainly been as delightful as I could imagine. We have the temperature of early June as June is known in New York. The mornings are sometimes a little sultry; but after two or three hours a fresh breeze comes in from the sea sweeping through the broad piazzas, and breathing in at the windows. At this season it comes laden with the fragrance of the flowers of the Pride of India, and sometimes of the orange-tree, and sometimes brings the scent of roses, now in bloom. The nights are gratefully cool; and I have been told by a person who has lived here many years, that there are very few nights in summer when you can sleep without a blanket.”