Flashback Friday: St Augustine turns 450 years old – a quick historical narrative of the city’s importance

Pedro_Menéndez_de_AvilésLast month marked the 450th Anniversary of the founding of St Augustine – The oldest continues settlement in what is now the United States of America. Founded by  Pedro Menéndez de Aviles in September 1565, the city became a leading center of culture and commerce in the Spanish-held New World. The city was the Capital of Spanish Florida from 1565 to 1763, and when the British took control of Florida after the Seven Years War, it became the Capital of East Florida. St Augustine was also the territorial Capital of US Florida until 1824, when the new city of Tallahassee took over as the administrative center for the territory. I have divided up this piece into three parts – Spanish St Augustine, British St Augustine and American St Augustine.

Spanish St Augustine

In its first month of existence St Augustine survived the attempts by the French based in Fort Caroline (which is located at the mouth of the St John’s River just east of the modern Dames Point Bridge) . The next year Martín de Argüelles was born in St Augustine, marking the first child birth of a person of European descent in what is now the United States of America. The Spanish continued to build the city including the construction of the Castillo de San Marcos from 1672 to 1695. St Augustine reached it’s apex under Spain around this time and would begin a decline in the first decade of the 1700’s.

In 1740, the British from the new colony of Georgia (which was really just the town of Savannah) attempted to capture St Augustine. 1740 Siege of St Augustine led by British General James Oglethorpe who was the founder of the colony of Georgia. As is well-known Oglethorpe believed in rehabilitating debtors and thus Georgia became largely a penal colony. The area settled around Savannah had long been contested between Britain which ruled the Carolina’s and Spain which ruled Florida.  Oglethorpe’s settlement meant Savannah was to remain British for the rest of the colonial period.

In 1739, the War of Jenkins Ear which was essentially the North American theater of the War of Austrian Succession broke out. By 1740, England felt they could knock Spain out of the American part of the war by capturing St Augustine. On his way to St Augustine, Oglethorpe captured Fort Mose the first settlement for free blacks in what is now the United States. The residents had mostly been runaway slaves from the British colonies. When the British captured Fort Mose, the free black residents fled to St Augustine where they played a critical role in the city defense.

Oglethorpe and his British forces began the siege of St Augustine on June 13th. The Spanish decided while St Augustine was under siege to launch a counter-offensive aimed at Fort Mose where the British had left behind a garrison. The Spanish and free black force liberated Fort Mose and within weeks a Spanish fleet from Havana had reached St Augustine prompting a British withdrawal back to Savannah.

Florida had been saved from British occupation for at least the next twenty-three years,. However beginning in 1702, St Augustine had fallen into decline. Spanish neglect and a focus on other colonies that were safer from British raiding led to a de-emphasis of Florida. . In 1763, after British victory in the French and Indian War (The American theater of the French and Indian War) Florida became British for the next twenty years.


St Augustine during the British period. This was the biggest growth spurt for the city until Henry Flagler came to town.

St Augustine during the British period. This was the biggest growth spurt for the city until Henry Flagler came to town.

British St Augustine

The Seven Years War/French and Indian War ended formally on this day in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris. With this treaty Florida changed hands from the Spanish to the French.

The Seven Years War was the first truly world war which had battles in Europe, the Middle East and India as well as North America. In North America the war has been historically called “The French and Indian War,” but it was simply a theater in the larger world war between Britain and her allies versus France and her allies.

The British had captured Havana during the fighting and the Spanish needing the important port back handed Florida over to the British in exchange for the return of Havana. This began a twenty-year period of British rule in Florida which may not seem like a long period of time but was critical in the region’s development.

Spain had long neglected the colony since Queen Anne’s War (1702-1711) instead choosing to abandon smaller settlements and fortify larger ones as military outposts. By 1763, only Pensacola and Saint Augustine remained permanent settlements and both had seen depopulation since the beginning of the century. The British quickly divided Florida into East and West with capitals at Saint Augustine and Pensacola.

While the British did not do a whole lot with Pensacola they did expand Saint Augustine dramatically, and the population swelled even further when loyalists from the Carolinas and Georgia fled to the city during the American Revolution. The British gave generous land grants to move colonists from further north into Florida.

They also looked to start new settlements in the east including the famous Andrew Turnbull settlement at New Smyrna Beach.

The Spanish joined the Franco-American side in the Revolutionary War in 1779 and recaptured Pensacola in 1781. They never made an attempt to recapture Saint Augustine, which by this time had become one of the most populated British outposts in North America (behind only Montreal, Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Charleston) and those loyal to the crown fleeing the war further north generally found safe haven in the East Florida capital.

Many colonists in Saint Augustine planned an invasion American held Georgia but the expedition seems to have never really begun. The Americans also contemplated invading Florida, but did not. They would save their invasion for the next war with Britain a few decades later in 1814, something we celebrate and honor later this year.

The British departed Florida in 1783 but an indelible mark was left on the future US state. The economy had been diversified and new settlers had come. The beginnings of American Florida were now in place.

American St Augustine


The Ponce De Leon Hotel in 1901

The Americans took control of St Augustine after the Adams-Onis treaty in 1819. The city continued to be an important regional hub and was revived by Henry Flagler’s presence and the railroad in 1880’s. During this period some St Augustine’s most lasting tourist attractions were built including the Ponce De Leon Hotel (now Flagler College) Memorial Presbyterian Church and the Alcazar Hotel. The Alligator Farm and Fountain of Youth Park were also created during this period. Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad which would be the single biggest factor in the state’s transformation from a rural backwater, to a tourist mecca and eventually to a megastate was based in the city.

As Jacksonville grew in importance and Daytona Beach became a tourist attraction, St Augustine’s importance began to wane. But it’s symbolic importance remained.

The oldest city in what is now the United States provided the backdrop for a tense summer in 1964. Florida under the leadership of Governor Ferris Bryant was defiant in the civil rights era.  Bryant who followed the visionary Leroy Collins as Governor was a decided step back for the Florida. The Florida Legislature of the early 1960s was also especially hostile to Civil Rights, though that could entirely be blamed on the fact that reapportionment that should have followed the Baker v. Carr decision was put off until 1968 and thus the legislature was still disproportionately rural, Democratic and conservative- Jeffersonian and Segregationist.

In 1963, the NAACP targeted St Augustine as a community which could be used a powerful symbol of segregation in the south. The city  was about to celebrate the 400th anniversary of its birth.

Sit ins began at St Augustine lunch counters in 1963 much as they had in Greensboro and other southern cities a few years earlier. Unlike the relative enlightenment of the upper south, much of Florida was a Ku Klux Klan hotbed and violence ensued. The Democratic Party in St Johns County was also dominated by segregationist sentiment, as well as a desire to hold onto power and so local political leadership was unified against the movement. Under this pressure of violence, local African Americans began to rethink their strategy and the demonstrations began to die out.

At this point Martin Luther King entered the picture.  St Augustine became the focus of King’s movement for the long hot summer of 1964.After King targeted St Augustine’s beach and downtown for integration, violence from local white citizens once again flared up. The Florida Legislature in its special report issued during the 1965 Legislative session blamed black Muslims from Jacksonville and “northern agitators” for the violence.

However, subsequent investigations have revealed that the local white population had violent elements and that the local political leadership including the St John’s County Sheriff’s office (which was singled out for praise in the Legislative report) were in fact less than even handed. The situation in St Augustine was tense and violence against the civil right demonstrators had a similar galvanizing affect on passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through the House (Senate passage would come later after a filibuster which included Florida Senators George Smathers and Spessard Holland was broken) that the Selma incidents would a year later on passage of the Voting Right Act of 1965.

A Federal Court sided with the demonstrators after local officials prohibited them from organizing and machining at night. Local law enforcement claimed that they could protect the demonstrators only during the day. After the court order Governor Bryant, stated that he would stand on his constitutional rights as the Governor of Florida and would reject the court order. The state officially in its 1965 report blamed the Court order on lawyers from “New York and Chicago.” Florida may have been on the periphery of the civil rights revolution prior to 1964, but state officials had learned to mimic the talking points of other southern leaders like Ross Barnett, James Patterson and George Wallace.

The beach integration efforts were thwarted by the local police who left several demonstrators in the water to potentially drown. One of the staging grounds for the summer was the Monson Motel, which was open to whites only.  There some white and black civil rights supporters went for a swim together  and the motel’s owner sought to intimidate the swimmers by pouring acid in the pool. Dr King was also arrested for appearing on the motel’s premises. The Monson was recently torn down and replaced by a Hilton. One wonders if this was done to avoid the embarrassment this hotel represented on an otherwise great and historic city, St Augustine.

Following the Civil Rights era great pains were taken to preserve St Augustine’s history and turn it into an attractive destination for tourists similar to Charleston, SC, Savannah, Ga. or Williamsburg, Va. Today St Augustine is one of the standout destinations for domestic tourists in Florida.



  1. Maybe you should have run this as three separate articles. This is more like a college term paper than an article on a blog site. Too much to read. My eyes hurt.


    1. Maybe we should re-run them as three separate pieces? Thanks for the suggestion. Makes sense.


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