In 1607, a small band of settlers founded the first permanent English outpost in the Americas, Jamestown in the Colony of Virginia. At that time, another town already had existed since 1565 in a different part of the New World. Last year, St. Augustine, Florida, which traces its roots to that 16th-century settlement, celebrated its 450th anniversary. That supports its claim to be the oldest continuously occupied European community in the country. Given its history, St. Augustine offers visitors a setting which captures not just the stories but also an authentic atmosphere of its colorful past. That comes to life primarily in the city’s 144 square block historic district.
The Colonial Quarter is a good place to begin exploring. The neighborhood is a living history museum, with emphasis on the first word. A blacksmith, carpenter and other costumed historic interpreters combine facts with fun as they help onlookers relive the way things were over the centuries. They recall the expedition led by Don Pedro Menendez-de Aviles, a Spanish admiral, who arrived in 1565 and set up an encampment near a Timucuan Indian village. That tribe was one of a number of Native American groups which began occupying the area some 10,000 years ago.
Menendez wasn’t the first Spanish explorer to come ashore in the region. In 1513, Ponce de Leon led an expedition seeking to find and claim uncolonized lands, a journey that gave birth to the legend of the Fountain of Youth. A fable about vitality-restoring waters was familiar on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, but there’s no evidence that de Leon was searching for the potion. Somehow accounts of his supposed quest found their way into history books and the story stuck. The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park occupies the place where Menendez encountered the friendly Timucua people and established the settlement which over time evolved into present-day St. Augustine. Attractions include a reconstructed portion of the Indian village, ship building and other exhibits, and cannon and weapons demonstrations.
Other than a brief interlude (1763-1784) when Great Britain gained control of Florida, St. Augustine remained under Spain’s rule. That accounts for the Mediterranean architecture and other reminders of Spanish influence. By the time the United States took possession of the city by treaty in 1821, it already was 256 years old. Reminders of those early years abound. The Gonzalez-Alvarez house, aka “The Oldest House,” was constructed in the early 18th century. It was built in the Spanish Colonial style, with touches of Britain’s Colonial architecture which were added when that country controlled St. Augustine.
Records date the Oldest Wooden School House back to 1716. Speaking animatronic figures of the schoolmaster and pupils introduce themselves and describe a typical day of classes. One boy is wearing a dunce cap, the penalty for not knowing his lesson.
Among places in St. Augustine where visitors may encounter ghosts, or at least tales about them, is the Old Jail. This historic Victorian-style building housed criminals from 1891 to 1953. The gallows in back were used to administer capital punishment, and explain why the property is one among many in town that is said to be haunted by spirits. Because of its role at a time of exploration and conflict in the New World, St. Augustine has its share of forts. Most imposing is the Castillo de San Marcos, a massive 17th century stronghold built by the Spanish to defend the Florida coastline. Some rooms surrounding the central courtyard are furnished to reflect garrison life, while others contain exhibits about military history.
A different story comes to light at the site of Fort Mose (Moh-say), hidden away in marshes north of St. Augustine. There, in 1738, a group of slaves who had escaped from British colonies built a log fortress and founded the first free community of ex-slaves. While the original structure is long gone, a small museum describes the events by means of videos, interactive exhibits and objects found during archaeological digs.
Given the age of St. Augustine, it’s no surprise that the city is an archaeologist’s dream location. A wealth of artifacts has been uncovered over the years and much more remains buried beneath the streets, buildings and back yards.
Some 100,000 artifacts have been uncovered at the Fountain of Youth Park including Native American pottery, carved beads, shell tools and three dog burial sites. Evidence of the 16th century Spanish settlement there ranges from religious amulets to olive jars. Work at the Fort Mose site has uncovered objects that shed light on the social, religious and military life at that unique settlement. There’s often a dig underway somewhere in the city which interested visitors may observe.
While the more than 60 historic sites and attractions are the main reason why most people visit St. Augustine, it also manages to keep one foot planted firmly in the present. Sun worshippers find a choice of inviting beaches that stretch some 40 miles north to Ponte Vedra just above Jacksonville, each with its own appeals.
The two-mile long beach at Anastasia State Park consists of gleaming white quartz sand. Aptly-named Crescent Beach is one of the most scenic and unspoiled in the area. A statue of Ponce de Leon guards the towering dunes and shell-laden shore of Ponte Verde Beach, which he spotted during his 1513 journey.
A beach watched over by Ponce de Leon makes a fitting symbol for what awaits visitors to St. Augustine and surrounding area. While history is the biggest draw, present-day activities make welcome additions to the mix. The oldest city in the country is home to enough variety to appeal to people of all ages and many interests.
For more information, call (800) 653-2489 or go to: floridashistoriccoast.com