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Colonial America | Colonies | St. Augustine (Est. 1565)

St. Augustine was founded in 1565—42 years before the English colonized Jamestown and 55 years before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock—making it the oldest continuously occupied European settlement on the North American continent.

Spanish explorer Ponce de León, the first governor of the island of Puerto Rico, was the first European to explore the southern part of the North American continent in 1513. He claimed the land for Spain and named it La Florida, meaning "Land of Flowers." In 1521, he tried to establish a settlement but was unsuccessful, as he ran into conflict with the area's native inhabitants. At least six more Spanish expeditions were launched to La Florida between 1513 and 1563. Each of them failed.

Jean Ribault monument

The Jean Ribault monument and plaque
is located on St. Johns Bluff near
Jacksonville, Florida.

In 1562, French Captain Jean Ribault was commissioned to lead an effort to explore northern Florida. Ribault's expedition reached the Florida coast in late April. Sailing north along the Florida coast, the expedition landed on the St. Johns River near present-day Jacksonville where they befriended the local Timucua. Ribault later sailed further north and established a small French colony called Charlesfort before returning to France. Three years later, Ribault was dispatched once again with a fleet of seven ships in an effort to strengthen the Floridian colony.

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés

Read a brief biography of
Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.

Meanwhile, Spain was making similar preparations to revisit Florida when word of France's efforts to colonize the new land were revealed. On September 8, 1565, a force of 600 men under Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Spain's most reputable admiral, arrived in Florida on the Feast Day of Saint Augustine. Naming the settlement St. Augustine in honor of the saint, Menéndez oversaw construction on the site of an ancient Timucuan village near the place where Ponce de León had landed in 1513. Menéndez claimed Florida for Spain in the name of King Phillip II. By royal decree, he was to push out the French colonists, establish Spain's exclusive claim of North America by building a military outpost, and set up a string of Catholic missions along the Florida coast.

Timucua Village

Learn more about the Timucua
the native inhabitants
of the area near St. Augustine.

Menéndez successfully and efficiently carried out the king's instructions. After defeating Ribault at sea, the Spanish colonists worked on building the town, establishing missions for the Church, and building forts to prevent any further intrusion by foreign powers. Maintaining the colony, however, was no easy task for the settlers.

Over the next century, St. Augustine was burned and pillaged on several occasions by pirates and various English forces. In 1586, the town was burned and sacked by the English explorer Sir Francis Drake. In 1665, Captain John Davis, a pirate, attacked and destroyed the town, killing 60 inhabitants and taking whatever valuables he could find. After England established colonies in Georgia and the Carolinas, assaults to the colony became more frequent.

In an effort to protect its vulnerable settlement, Spain authorized the building of a massive stone fort in 1672. The Castillo de San Marcos took 23 years to build. Completed in 1695, San Marcos sheltered St. Augustine during the 1702 raid by South Carolina Governor James Moore and the 1740 assault by General James Oglethorpe of Georgia.

St. Augustine managed to stay in Spain's possession throughout the French and Indian War. With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, however, Florida and St. Augustine were handed over to the British. Under Britain's rule, the former Spanish colony served as a Loyalist outpost during the Revolutionary War. St. Augustine traded hands once again in 1783 with the signing of the second Treaty of Paris. The newly independent Americans rewarded Spain for their help during the Revolution and once again gave Spain ruling rights to St. Augustine.

Learn more about the
history of Florida.

In 1942, Congress restored the
original name of "Castillo de San
to the fort in honor of its
Spanish heritage.
Castillo de San Marcos
The fort still stands today.

Learn more about St. Augustine.

Distracted at home with invasions from Napoleon's French troops, Spain's attention was no longer focused on North America. At the same time, Americans were quickly expanding the United States and saw Florida as a desirable addition. They succeeded in 1821 with The Adams-Onis Treaty, which peaceably gave the United States Spain's Florida colonies, including St. Augustine. The United States took over the Castillo de San Marcos while fighting the Second Seminole War, renaming it Fort Marion.

After a 24-year period of territorial warfare, Florida was finally admitted to the Union as a state in 1845. Today, evidence of the first Spanish Colonial Period is still prominent in the unique architecture and layout of St. Augustine. The narrow streets and balconies on the houses reflect a strong Spanish influence. Now famous as the oldest European settlement in North America, tourism drives the economy of St. Augustine, Florida, as residents and tourists alike appreciate the area's beauty, as well as its colorful history.

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