Last updated on June 29th, 2020 at 04:35 pm
St. Augustine, America’s oldest European city, was founded in 1565, long before the Pilgrims (1620) or Jamestown (1607.)
St. Augustine is one of Florida’s most popular destinations and people are often surprised about its history, since US history is dominated by the story of English-speaking people. I love how when visiting, you can discover stuff you didn’t know about the city and Florida.
I learned a lot, and here are five cool little things I discovered about St. Augustine history.
Ponce de Leon was really short
When you visit St. Augustine, you can’t help but soak up the history of the Spanish explorers. It’s everywhere – from the magnificent fort, the Castillo de San Marco, which commands the waterfront, to the narrow lanes that make the historic district so charming.
It all started with Juan Ponce de Leon, the explorer who led the first European expedition to Florida in 1513 and named it. His statue stands at the head of the main street at the harbor, and it would be a commanding presence if it had been built at a monumental size.
The statue, however, is built life size, which means Ponce de Leon is this little guy on a big pedestal.
He was only 4 foot 11 inches tall! (The helmet makes him look a bit taller.)
It was founded by the Spanish, but the pioneers who are still around are the Minorcans
St. Augustine started as a Spanish colony, was handed to Britain in a treaty in 1763, was returned to the Spanish in 1783 and became part of a new U.S. territory in 1821.
In the meantime, a key group of settlers arrived – folks from Minorca, an island in the Mediterranean off Spain.
If it weren’t for the Minorcans, historians say, St. Augustine probably wouldn’t be celebrating 450 years as the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in America.
And the Minorcans are still there. Many old St. Augustine families trace their ancestry to several hundred Minorcans who came to Florida in 1768 as indentured servants to work on a New Smyrna indigo plantation. When this plantation failed, the surviving Minorcans (hundreds died of dysentery and malaria) walked to St. Augustine and most never left.
Next time Florida changed hands (when Britain ceded it to Spain in 1783), it is the Minorcans who kept St. Augustine going.
Want to taste a little Minorcan heritage? Many restaurants serve Minorcan clam chowder and St. Augustine relishes the fiery datil pepper. (It’s as hot as a habanero.) While not from Minorca, the Minorcans adopted it centuries ago as their own and use it in a variety of recipes. St. Augustine has a Datil Pepper festival annually in October and many shops sell datil pepper products.
The historic streets are NOT cobblestone
One of the most delightful things about St. Augustine history is that so much of the historic old city is preserved. Narrow lanes and alleys are lined with century-old buildings, some dating to when the Spanish first settled.
To folks used to smooth pavement, the uneven street surfaces in the historic district are part of the charm.
But historian and author Karen Harvey, who leads private historic tours, warns:
“Don’t ever say we have cobblestone. We have bricks!”
When the old bricks get too uneven, the city carefully removes each brick, cleans it up and replaces the very same brick back in the road.
Cobblestones are rounded natural stones. Bricks are rectangular and manmade.
One of those brick streets, Avila Street, is the oldest street in the United States, Harvey says.
St. Augustine was key to the 1960s Civil Rights movement – and the town embraces that history
When I think of the Civil Right Movement, places like Birmingham and Selma come to mind. Until I visited, I didn’t realize St. Augustine belongs in that list.
Terrible things happened in St. Augustine.
Civil Rights leader Andrew Young led a peaceful march on June 9, 1964, and he was brutally bludgeoned by a white mob.
A week later, black and white protesters jumped into a whites-only pool at the Monson Motor Lodge and the manager poured acid in the water to drive them away.
Martin Luther King was arrested on the steps of the Monson Motor Lodge and held in the St. Augustine jail.
Civil Rights leaders, however, say those often horrifying events directly led to the passage within weeks of the landmark Civil Rights Act in July 1964.
Today, to the surprise of some, you hear about these events in St. Augustine history from the cheerful guides on the ever-present tourist trolley tours. You also see monuments and markers at several sites.
There are bronze footprints in Constitution Plaza to mark where Andrew Young marched. The area was renamed Andrew Young Crossing, and inspiring quotes by Young are engraved in the sidewalk near a small monument. (This plaza has always been called the slave market; there’s a historic marker with details.)
Across the street, what is now a Wells Fargo bank branch has a mural marking the site of the Woolworth’s sit-in and the actual lunch counter is preserved inside, complete with the original menu.
The Monson Motel is long gone and a new Hilton is on the site. But the steps where Martin Luther King was arrested have been preserved and are marked with a brass plaque.
The St. Augustine’s Civil Rights story is important, says Dana Ste. Claire, director of heritage tourism for the city, because “it is the story of America.”
Andrew Young Crossing: The intersection of King Street and St. George Street at the west end of Constitution Plaza.
Hilton Hotel and Martin Luther King steps: 32 Avenida Menendez, St. Augustine. The steps are located in the interior courtyard.
Woolworth’s lunch counter, now inside Wells Fargo Bank, 33 King St., St. Augustine, free and open to visitors.
Here’s a site rich with information about the Civil Rights movement in St. Augustine and the ACCORD Freedom Trail.
There were African slaves in St. Augustine long before the ‘official’ first slave ship to US
In 2019, considerable attention was paid to the 400th anniversary of the first slaves being brought to the New World. (These Africans arrived near Jamestown in 1619.)
But St. Augustine’s settlers had brought slaves to the Spanish colony years earlier. Records show there were 56 slaves in St. Augustine by 1602, according to a story in USA Today. (Black slaves helped build the Spanish fort, Castillo San Marcos in 1672.)
More resources for exploring St. Augustine
- St. Augustine Castillo de San Marcos: This national monument across the street from the Pirate Museum is the #1 thing to do in the area.
- The 120-year-old St. Augustine Alligator Farm has one of the best bird rookeries in the state for viewing and photographing birds in spring and early summer. Year-round, the gators and crocs are fun to see too.
- The St. Augustine Pirate Museum is a fun but authentic museum with rare artifacts.
- Anastasia State Park is a coastal treasure for camping and its beaches.
- Fort Matanzas, 14 miles south, is a smaller Spanish fort built 50 years after the Castillo de San Marcos. It’s a great stop because you take a small boat to the fort past spectacular scenery. And it’s free.
- Princess Place Preserve, a nearby county park with an 1888 hunting lodge once owned by a princess. Good hiking and camping. Free.
- Washington Oaks Gardens State Park: Historic gardens plus unusual, beautiful coquina-rock beach.
- Flagler Beach, an Old Florida beach town.
- Faver-Dykes State Park for paddling and camping