Walking St. Augustine; An Illustrated Guide and Pocket History to America’s Oldest City by Elsbeth “Buff” Gordon. University of Florida Press, 2015 paper.
Just to give the reader some idea of the antiquity of the oldest city in the continental U.S., St. Augustine had been in existence for 224 years when George Washington was inaugurated as our first president in 1789. Britain had just relinquished Florida back to the Spanish in 1783. It became part of U.S. territory from 1821 to 1845 when it was granted statehood. St. Augustine played a significant role in several periods of the state’s history. Elsbeth “Buff” Gordon’s ‘time line’ is a good summary of St. Augustine history.
Most of historic St. Augustine can be comfortably walked, and Gordon provides walking itineraries. There are, however, sites that require a short car trip. The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park manages to rise above the category “tourist destination.” It has a beautiful setting. Fort Mose Historic State Park housed the first free African-American community in the U.S., established as a refuge for slaves escaping from the British colonies. Fort Matanzas, an outlying fort built as part of the defenses of Castillo de San Marcos, is a magical place, administered by the National Park Service and a short ferry ride amongst Florida’s coastal marshes.
The Castillo de San Marcos – Fort Marion - was a Spanish enterprise. Its construction began in 1672, a fortification intended to defend nearby Anastasia Island against intrusions by pirates and by raiders from the British colony of Georgia. Fort Marion never had any big-time opponents and hence was never breached and never surrendered. It is a well-preserved example of a star-fort military fortification. It has a moat, but the moat was not permanently flooded because the coquina stone in its ramparts would weaken after long periods of contact with water.
The Castillo de San Marcos was eventually named after Francis Marion, a hero of the American Revolution. In the early nineteenth century it was used as a prison for Native Americans who were resisting the spread of white settlement. Perhaps its most famous inmate was Osceola, an influential Seminole chief who took part in the Second Seminole War. Osceola, by the way, was captured under a flag of truce.
Coquina is a local stone quarried in blocks on Anastasia Island. It is a sedimentary rock composed of shell fragments. When first quarried it is soft but hardens over time. It was a good material for Castillo de San Marcos because it would absorb the impact of cannon balls, rather than shattering.
Gordon points out that coquina stone is different from tabby. Tabby is a type of concrete made by burning oyster shells to create lime that is then mixed with water, sand, ash, and broken oyster shells. The technology of tabby concrete was brought from Spain and used wherever its primary ingredient, shells, was available.
Gordon is most interested in the architectural history of the town, and its citizenry. Less so its early inhabitants. Timucuan Indians were settled in the coastal areas stretching from Cumberland Island in coastal Georgia to the lake district of central Florida. Estimates of their population vary from 50,000 to 200,000. In the early Spanish period their population plummeted, from warfare and European infectious diseases.
The Timucuan are best known from the engravings of a Belgian, Theodore de Bry. Much traveled in Europe, de Bry never made it to North American and hence had no contact with the Timucuans that his engravings have immortalized. Rather he used sketches that were made from life by Jacques Le Moyne, a French artist and member of an expedition to Florida in 1564. Much about Timucuan life has been gleaned from these engravings, though it is likely that the images of their muscular, graceful bodies were a romanticized version of reality.
In addition to the early Spanish settlers, Gordon mentions the Minorcans. They were Europeans from an island in the Balearic Sea off the Mediterranean coast of Spain. They had been recruited to establish the colony of New Smyrna and were under some degree of servitude. When that colony failed they migrated to St. Augustine and were granted freedom and sanctuary. They are an example of one of the several forms of servitude in Florida prior to Civil War emancipation.
Of course the most common form of servitude was black slavery, and Gordon is a little disappointing in her account of St. Augustine’s slaves and their liberation. Most St. Augustinians who fought in the Civil War did so on the side of the Confederacy. The St. Augustine Blues, mobilized in 1860 and part of the Army of Tennessee, fought in the Battle of Vicksburg.
Judging from Walking St. Augustine, the town began a several decade-long slumber in the post-Civil War period. Its primary industry in the Gay ‘90s was tourism, and that has remained the case up to the present. Perhaps the most important phenomenon in the late nineteenth century was Henry Flagler’s creation of a series of luxury hotels for a wealthy East Coast clientele.
Flagler built three huge hotels, the Ponce de Leon, the Alcazar, and the Cordova. All three are serving other functions these days, and housing tourists has been left to chain hotels and motels on the periphery of the city and to bed and breakfasts located in St. Augustine’s Victorian homes, the boarding houses of an earlier day.
Much of the housing in the old city is too expensive for those who work in its service sector; it is rapidly becoming second homes. There have been a few new commercial structures built in a traditional style with second floor loggias. St. George Street provides good examples.
Take a stroll in an interesting city and take along Walking St. Augustine.