View of St. Augustine in 1891 from the former San Marco Hotel, Spanish St. on left, Huguenot Cemetery
lower left corner, Cordova St. on right
Founding by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés
Founded in 1565 by the Spanish conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied settlement of European origin in the contiguous United States. In 1562, a group of Huguenots led by Jean Ribault arrived in Spanish Florida to establish a colony in the territory claimed by Spain. They explored the mouth of the St. Johns River, calling it la Rivière de Mai (the River May), then sailed northward and established a settlement called Charlesfort at Port Royal Sound in present-day South Carolina. Spain learned of this French expedition through its spies at ports on the Atlantic coast of France. The Huguenot nobleman René de Laudonnière, who had participated in the expedition, returned to Florida in 1564 with three ships and 300 Huguenot colonists. He arrived at the mouth of the River May on June 22, 1564, sailed up it a few miles, and founded Fort Caroline.
Desiring to protect its claimed territories in North America against such incursions, the Spanish Crown issued an asiento to Menéndez, signed by King Philip II on March 20, 1565, granting him expansive trade privileges, the power to distribute lands, and licenses to sell 500 slaves, as well as various titles, including that of adelantado of Florida. This contract directed Menéndez to sail for La Florida, reconnoitre it from the Florida Keys to present-day Canada, and report on its coastal features, with a view to establishing a permanent settlement for the defense of the Spanish treasure fleet. He was ordered as well to drive away any intruders who were not subjects of the Spanish crown.
On July 28, Menéndez set sail from Cádiz with a fleet led by his 600-ton flagship, the San Pelayo, accompanied by several smaller ships, and carrying over 1,000 sailors, soldiers, and settlers. On the feast day of St. Augustine, August 28, the fleet sighted land and anchored off the north inlet of the tidal channel the French called the River of Dolphins. Menéndez then sailed north and confronted Ribault's fleet outside the bar of the River May in a brief skirmish. On September 6, he returned to the site of his first landfall, naming it after the Catholic saint, disembarked his troops, and quickly constructed fortifications to protect his people and supplies.
Menéndez then marched his soldiers overland for a surprise attack on Fort Caroline, where they killed almost everyone in the fort except for the women and children. Jean Ribault had already put out to sea with his ships for an assault on St. Augustine, but was surprised by a storm that wrecked his ships further south. Informed by his Indian allies that the survivors were walking northward on the coast, Menéndez began to search for the Frenchmen, who had made it as far as the banks of the Matanzas River's south entrance. There they were confronted by the Spaniard and his men on the opposite side. After several parleys with the Spanish, Jean Ribault and the Frenchmen with him (between 150–350, sources differ) surrendered; almost all of them were executed in the dunes near the inlet, thereafter called Matanzas (Spanish for "slaughters").
In May 1566, as relations with the neighboring Timucua Indians deteriorated, Menéndez moved the Spanish settlement to a more defensible position on the north end of the barrier island between the mainland and the sea, and built a wooden fort there. In 1572, the settlement was relocated to the mainland, in the area just south of the future town plaza. Confident that he had fulfilled the primary conditions of his contract with the King, including the building of forts along the coast of La Florida, Menéndez returned to Spain in 1567. After several more transatlantic crossings, Menéndez fell ill and died on September 17, 1574.
Invasions by pirates and enemies of Spain
Succeeding governors of the province maintained a peaceful coexistence with the local Native Americans, allowing the isolated outpost of St. Augustine some stability for a few years. On May 28 and 29, 1586, soon after the Anglo-Spanish War began between England and Spain, the English privateer Sir Francis Drake sacked and burned St. Augustine. The approach of his large fleet obliged Governor Pedro Menéndez Márquez and the townspeople to flee for their safety. When the English got ashore, they seized some artillery pieces and a royal strongbox containing gold ducats, the garrison payroll. The killing of their sergeant major by the Spanish rearguard caused Drake to order the town burnt.
In 1609 and 1611, expeditions were sent out from St. Augustine against the English colony at Jamestown, Virginia. In the second half of the 17th century, unsettled groups of Indians, forced southward by the expanding English colony in Carolina, made raids into Florida and killed the Franciscan priests who served at the Catholic missions. Requests by successive governors of the province to strengthen the presidio’s garrison and fortifications were ignored by the Spanish Crown. The charter of 1663 for the new Province of Carolina, issued by King Charles II of England, was revised in 1665, claiming lands as far southward as 29 degrees north latitude, about 65 miles south of the existing settlement at St. Augustine.
The English buccaneer Robert Searle then sacked St. Augustine in 1668, killing sixty people and pillaging government buildings, churches and houses, after which his pirates ransomed off some of their hostages and sold others into slavery. This raid and the establishment of the English settlement at Charles Town spurred the Spanish monarchy to finally acknowledge the threat represented by the new English colonies to the north and strengthen the city's defenses. In 1669, Queen Regent Mariana ordered the Viceroy of New Spain to disburse funds for the construction of a permanent masonry fortress, which began in 1672. Before the fortress was completed, buccaneers Michel de Grammont and Nicolas Brigaut planned an attack in 1686 which was foiled: their ships were run aground, Grammont and his crew were lost, and Brigaut was captured ashore by Spanish soldiers. The Castillo de San Marcos was completed in 1695, not long before an attack by Governor Moore's forces from Carolina in November, 1702. Failing to take the fort after a siege of 58 days, the British troops burned St. Augustine to the ground as they retreated. In 1740, the town was again besieged, this time by the governor of the British colony of Georgia, General James Oglethorpe, who was also unable to take the fort.
Loyalist haven under British rule
The Treaty of Paris (1763), signed after Great Britain's victory over France and Spain during the Seven Years' War, ceded Florida to Great Britain and consequently St. Augustine became a Loyalist haven during the American Revolutionary War. The second Treaty of Paris (1783), which recognized the independence of the former British colonies north of Florida, also ceded Florida back to Spain, and as a result many of the town's Spanish citizens returned to St Augustine. Refugees from Dr. Andrew Turnbull's troubled colony in New Smyrna had fled to St. Augustine in 1777, and made up the majority of the city's population during British rule. This group was, and still is, referred to locally as "Menorcans", even though it also included settlers from Italy, Corsica and the Greek islands as well.
Second Spanish period
During the Second Spanish period (1784-1821) of Florida, Spain was dealing with invasions of the Iberian peninsula by Napoleon's armies in the Peninsular War, and struggled to maintain a tenuous hold on its territories in the western hemisphere as revolution swept South America. The royal administration of Florida was neglected, as the province had long been regarded as an unprofitable backwater by the Crown. The United States, however, considered Florida vital to its political and military interests as it expanded its territory in North America, and maneuvered by sometimes clandestine means to acquire it. The Adams–Onís Treaty, negotiated in 1819 and ratified in 1821, ceded Florida and St. Augustine, still its capital at the time, to the United States.
Territory of Florida
Florida remained an organized territory of the United States until 1845, when it was admitted into the Union as the State of Florida. The Territorial Period (1821-1845) was marked by protracted wars with the Creek Indian groups who occupied the peninsula, collectively known as "Seminoles", during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). The United States Army took command of the Castillo de San Marcos and renamed it Fort Marion after General Francis Marion, who fought in the American Revolutionary War. The capital of the territory was moved to Tallahassee in 1824.
Florida joined the Confederacy after the Civil War began in 1861, and Confederate authorities remained in control of St. Augustine for fourteen months, although it was barely defended. The Union conducted a blockade of shipping. In 1862 Union troops gained control of St. Augustine and controlled it through the rest of the war. With the economy already suffering, many residents fled.
Henry Flagler and the railroad
Henry Flagler, a co-founder with John D. Rockefeller of the Standard Oil Company, spent the winter of 1883 in St. Augustine and found the city charming, but considered its hotels and transportation systems inadequate. He had the idea to make St. Augustine a winter resort for wealthy Americans from the north, and to bring them south he bought several short line railroads and combined these in 1885 to form the Florida East Coast Railway. He built a railroad bridge over the St. Johns River in 1888, opening up the Atlantic coast of Florida to development.
Flagler began construction in 1887 on two large ornate hotels in the city, the 540-room Ponce de Leon Hotel and the 250-room Hotel Alcazar. The next year, he purchased the Casa Monica Hotel across the street from both the Alcazar and the Ponce de Leon. His chosen architectural firm, Carrère and Hastings, radically altered the appearance of St. Augustine with these hotels, giving it a skyline and beginning an architectural trend in the state characterized by the use of the Moorish Revival style. With the opening of the Ponce de Leon in 1888, St. Augustine became the winter resort of American high society for a few years.
When Flagler's Florida East Coast Railroad was extended southward to Palm Beach and then Miami in the early 20th Century, the rich mostly abandoned St. Augustine. Wealthy vacationers began to customarily spend their winters in South Florida, where the climate was warmer and freezes were rare. St. Augustine nevertheless still attracted tourists, and eventually became a destination for families traveling in automobiles as new highways were built and Americans took to the road for annual summer vacations. The tourist industry soon became the dominant sector of the local economy.
Civil Rights movement
In late 1963, nearly a decade after the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation of schools was unconstitutional, African Americans were still trying to get St. Augustine to integrate the public schools in the city. They were also trying to integrate public accommodations, such as lunch counters, and were met with arrests and Ku Klux Klan violence. Local college students held non-violent protests throughout the city, including sit-ins at the local Woolworth's, picket lines, and marches through the downtown. These protests were often met with police violence. Homes of African Americans were firebombed, black leaders were assaulted and threatened with death, and others were fired from their jobs.
In the spring of 1964, St. Augustine civil rights leader Robert Hayling asked the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and its leader Martin Luther King, Jr. for assistance. From May until July 1964, King and Hayling, along with Andrew Young, organized marches, sit-ins, and other forms of peaceful protest in St. Augustine. Hundreds of black and white civil rights supporters were arrested, and the jails were filled to capacity. At the request of Hayling and King, white civil rights supporters from the North, including students, clergy, and well-known public figures, came to St. Augustine and were arrested together with Southern activists.
St. Augustine was the only place in Florida where King was arrested; his arrest there occurred on June 11, 1964, on the steps of the Monson Motor Lodge's restaurant. The demonstrations came to a climax when a group of black and white protesters jumped into the hotel's segregated swimming pool. In response to the protest, James Brock, the manager of the hotel and the president of the Florida Hotel & Motel Association, poured what he claimed to be muriatic acid into the pool to burn the protesters. Photographs of this, and of a policeman jumping into the pool to arrest the protesters, were broadcast around the world.
The Ku Klux Klan responded to these protests with violent attacks that were widely reported in national and international media. Popular revulsion against the Klan and police violence in St. Augustine generated national sympathy for the black protesters and became a key factor in Congressional passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, leading eventually to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both of which provided federal enforcement of constitutional rights.
Modern St. Augustine
In 1965, St. Augustine celebrated the 400th anniversary of its founding, and jointly with the State of Florida, inaugurated a program to restore part of the colonial city. The Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board was formed to reconstruct more than thirty-six buildings to their historical appearance, which was completed within a few years. When the State of Florida abolished the Board in 1997, the City of St. Augustine assumed control of the reconstructed buildings, as well as other historic properties including the Government House. In 2010, the city transferred control of the historic buildings to UF Historic St. Augustine, Inc., a direct support organization of the University of Florida.
In 2015, St. Augustine celebrated the 450th anniversary of its founding with a four-day long festival and a visit from Felipe VI of Spain and Queen Letizia of Spain.
On October 7, 2016 Hurricane Matthew caused widespread flooding in downtown St. Augustine.