By: Raphael Cosme
THE EARLY YEARS
When it came to defending country territories in the New World, no other city in the United States could compete with St. Augustine’s castles and fortifications. Since Ponce de Leon landed on the beaches of Florida, claiming the land for the Spanish crown, talk of this new land ran through Europe, signifying the start of a new thirst for adventure, fame, and fortune. European investors, most likely from Western Europe, began to put pressure on the government in order to gain the benefits of the lucrative mines of the New World which were controlled by the Spanish empire of the Caribbean. Ponce de Leon was one of the explorers seeking such fortune. He set out on an expedition to the island of Bimini after conquering the eastern regions of the islands of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico.
The trails blazed by Ponce were followed by other ambitious conquistadors, like Panfilo de Narvaez, Hernando De Soto and Tristan de Luna, who hoped to find gold in La Florida but were unsuccessful. The threat of conquering North America that other European countries posed forced the Spaniards to move the Catholic missions to the northeastern part of Florida. In 1562, a group of French missionaries, commanded by Jean Ribault took advantage of the conquerors’ relocation and sailed two vessels across the Atlantic. They landed just south of the mouth of a big river, which would later become the St. Johns River, and built Fort Caroline, the first Florida castle. The Spanish monarchs believed that this French action constituted trespassing on the Spanish territory that was previously claimed by Ponce de Leon, and they were infuriated. Motivated by this anger, King Phillip II ordered Pedro Menendez de Aviles to demolish the Spanish fort in 1565 and instead build a city for the Spanish crown.
On September 8th, 1565, Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded the city of St. Augustine somewhere near what we know today as the Fountain of Youth. The continuous threat of pirates resulted in the construction of a wooden defense fort to protect the harbor and the new Spanish settlements. For thirty years, soldiers, farmers, craftsmen, and officials concentrated their efforts on establishing a foothold for Spain along the shores of the bay, which soon became known as Matanzas Bay.
By 1598, a rough, wooden bridge had been constructed across the marsh and the Spanish were able to venture west beyond the little tidal stream that meandered north through the tall grass. St. Augustine had just a few wooden forts surrounding the bay to protect the city that included over seven hundred people, one hundred and twenty houses, a hospital, plaza, market, church, and cemetery.
The unremitting threats to the city of St. Augustine from the British soldiers of the Carolinas as well as pirates from the south from the islands of the Bahamas forced the Spanish crown to further fortify the city of St Augustine.
CASTILLO DE SAN MARCOS
Queen Regent Mariana of Spain ruled during the minority of her son Charles II. On October 30th, 1669, she informed the Marques de Mancera, the viceroy of then New Spain (now Mexico), that she had informed Manuel de Cendoya, who was the governor of Florida, that some form of defense was necessary to protect St. Augustine, La Florida, and also New Spain.
In April 1671, Cendoya was successful in obtaining 12,000 pesos and fifteen masons, along with stonecutters and lime burners from the Spanish crown in Mexico City. These materials were used to begin the construction of a masonry work in the traditional medieval castle shape. Expert mason-stonecutters, Lorenzo Lajones, became the master of construction on the project. He had previously worked on fortifications for thirty-six years in France, Italy, and the Habana.
The oldest wooden fort at the time was the Presidio de San Agustín, which was still standing from the time of Menendez’s rule. During preparation for the construction of the stone fort near the St. Augustine harbor that would replace this fort, Cendoya received word of numerous threats on the Matanzas Inlet. He decided to examine the watchtower there, and soon after considered building a second stone fort there.
Later, in 1673, Nicolas Ponce de Leon II, one of the descendants of Juan Ponce de Leon, the “Discoverer of La Florida”, replaced deceased governor Manuel de Cendoya and continued with the construction of the new fuerte and presidio Castillo de San Marcos. The reconstruction of the Castle of San Marcos under his rule was quick, but did not follow exactly as planned. This was due in large part to the fact that the Native Americans who built the castle were not familiar with the production techniques being used and therefore made many mistakes during construction which required extensive rectifications. Additional problems soon arose. Epidemics caused by poor hygiene, bone dislocation caused by the mishandling of excessively heavy loads, and injuries caused by falling towers contributed to the high casualty rate. However, lack of funds remained the biggest problem for construction progress. Mexico sent hundreds of workers and thousands of pesos that essentially covered only food and wages. Nicolas Ponce de Leon II stepped down as acting governor of Florida in 1674 after the construction of the fort was halted by many natural disasters and a lack of resources from New Spain (Mexico).
In 1675, the new governor, Pablo de Hita, hastened from Veracruz to St. Augustine to monitor the embankment where the big cannons would be placed at the Castillo de San Marcos. He took command of two major sections of the castle Baluarte San Carlos and Baluarte San Agustín. The reports of possible pirates and British attacks on the city led to his downfall, and new master builders challenged the pirate attacks until 1695, when the Castillo de San Marcos was finally completed.
Since then, the Castillo de San Marcos offered a strategic site for Spanish position in the New World and also provided protection for thousands of tons of gold and silver from Peru and Mexico. In 1750, new additions were built inside of the castle, especially bedrooms for the soldiers and jail cells for the prisoners. On July 10th, 1821, the Spanish flag was taken down, and, with a thunder of cannons, the twenty-three stars of the United States flag soon fluttered above. By 1825, the name of the castle was changed to Fort Marion or Fuerte Marion. In 1942, the U.S. Congress re-instated the original name of Castillo de San Marcos.
Fort Matanzas attracts thousands of visitors each year. Besides the uniqueness of having to board a ferry to reach it, the hidden history of the fort spawns the curiosity of the tourists there. According to ranger Griselle Fuellner, “The name ‘Matanzas’ means ‘massacre’, because at this particular site, close to two hundred and fifty French missionaries were killed while trying to escape from Menendez’s soldiers after their fort was destroyed at the St. Johns River in 1565.” Some historians disagree with the translation of “massacre”, or mass killing. According to new evidence, the real event has been described as a confrontational battle between two heavily armed groups of soldiers, and the Spanish soldiers earned their victory. All women and children were rescued and sent to either St. Augustine or Puerto Rico to wait to be extradited.
The Spanish soldiers of St. Augustine soon recognized the necessity of building a second stone fort, further south to protect the Matanzas Inlet and city.
Construction was imminent after the constant reports of enemy ships appearing at the mouth of the river near the southern tip of Anastasia Island. Furthermore, the residents of St. Augustine had taken to trading their goods via the Matanzas Inlet, a practice that was threatened by the ships’ presence.
In 1740, Manuel de Montiano, the governor of Florida who held a lot of political power under the authority of the Spanish crown, ordered the construction of another fort to protect the Matanzas inlet. He hired slaves, indigenous workers, and Cuban workers from the city of St. Augustine to build it. By 1772, the fort was finished, and included five large long-range cannons. That same year, twelve English ships attempting to enter the river were chased away from the Spanish territory with just a few shots. The new fort provided protection to the gold fleet, coming from the Potosi mines, as they travelled through the Gulf Stream to Spain. In 1921, Fort Matanzas was transferred to the National Park Services. It took four years of renovations to impart public access, and was soon declared a national monument in 1924.
More than two hundred and fifty years ago, African-born slaves risked their lives to escape from forced labor on both public works and on English plantations in South Carolina. After the Spaniards granted freedom to the runaway slaves, they made their way south to St. Augustine. In 1738, when an influx of more than one hundred African fugitives arrived in St. Augustine, the Spaniards established a fort and the town of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, the first black town in what is now the United States. At present, the physical remnants of the fort are no longer standing, but in 1986, historians and archaeologists were successful in securing a spot in the history books for the site.
One of these pioneers was Dr. Kathleen Deagan, who, with students from the University of Florida unearthed what they presumed to be the structure of the Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose. Thousands of artifacts were found at the site, which lent credence to University of Vanderbilt researcher Jane Landers’ theory of the presence of a fort. Landers found all the manuscripts referencing Fort Mose in the archives of Spain, Cuba and South Carolina. Those manuscripts confirmed how King Charles II from Spain signed the order of freedom exclusively for black people in Florida in 1693.There were three slave communities that were identified during the transport to America and end at Fort Mose: “Mandinga”, “Cravali” and “Congo”, from West Africa. These fugitive African slaves were recognized as the first free black towns in North America. They allied with the Native Americans in exchange for their conversion to Catholic devotion. For the Spanish headquarters in St. Augustine, it was a significant drain on manpower to rebuild the city, and so most of the black slaves who had fought during the British invasion were recruited from the military battalion. The black town at Fort Mose had twenty-two palmetto houses to shelter thirty-seven men, fifteen women, and, fifteen children. The town members attended Sunday mass at the wooden church that served as the priest residence, while non-military habitants cultivated the land and tended the animals.
Currently, all that is left of the original Fort Mose is nothing more than submerged ruins in coastal waters near the forest, but it has been named a Florida Historic State Park. The National Park Service maintains an exterior visual exhibit which includes informative signs to go along with an observatory platform that expands over the marsh.
Thanks to National Park Services, St. Augustine Historical Society, Charles A. Tingley, Kate Poage and Alexandra George, for your support in writing this article.