St. Augustine’s Colorful Past Follows A Colonial Trail

The Early History of the Nation’s Oldest City

April 18, 2019
reenactment colonial blacksmith

In an epic of Native Americans, Spanish conquistadors, and British privateers vying for influence, St. Augustine emerges triumphant as one of the oldest cities in America with one of its most colorful pasts. Center your stay on the city’s colonial sites to experience the empires and events that highlight its early history!

Before blazing the colonial trail, use this primer to set your historical bearings straight:

  • 1565-1763: St. Augustine earns fame as the first permanent European settlement in what is now the U.S., kicking off the first period of Spanish rule.
  • 1763-1784: Diplomatic agreements make Florida part of the British Empire.
  • 1784-1820: Spain’s support of America during the American Revolution returns Florida, and St. Augustine, to Spain.
  • 1821: In a final change of hands, the U.S. purchases Florida from Spain. St. Augustine emerges as an American city tinged with an array of influences.

And now, to re-join our tour:

Don’t let the name mislead you – the Fountain of Youth is actually one of St. Augustine’s oldest sites. Excavations at this archaeological park have unearthed a cross fashioned from coquina stones – according to archaeologists, by Ponce de Leon and his crew. The site is believed by many to mark Ponce de Leon’s arrival point in America. Overlooking Matanzas Inlet, it’s a historic stretch of the imagination to envision the explorers approaching America for the first time.

Throughout the park, sites commemorate both the Spanish and Native American influences on St. Augustine. At the Spring House, you can view the coquina cross and sip water from the spring believed to bubble with miracles. If not miracles, you’ll believe in the spring’s refreshment – it sustained the Timucuan Indians for thousands of years before Ponce de Leon’s arrival. The park’s "First Encounters" exhibit illustrates the intersection of these cultures.

To hone in on the area’s Native American influence, walk the grounds that once marked the Timucuan village of Seloy. Excavated skeletons and pottery fragments have dated the Native American occupation of these grounds to 1000 B.C. You can also view the site of Native American burials, both pre-historic and Christian, deemed one of the most important archeological finds in the southeast U.S.

Near the Fountain of Youth, the steel cross drawing your eye to the sky commemorates the 400th anniversary of Pedro Menendez de Aviles’ arrival, making St. Augustine the first permanent Christian settlement in America. Today, the site, known as Mission Nombre de Dios, holds a chapel reflective of the Spanish mission style of the 16th century and several other shrines and statues made in modern times, but mirroring days gone by.

Take a walk through time at the Manucy Museum and the Gonzalez-Alvarez House, part of the Oldest House Complex administered by the St. Augustine Historical Society. Since being constructed out of coquina ( St. Augustine’s signature shellstone building material) in the early 1700s, the Gonzalez-Alvarez House has been updated to reflect the city’s varying colonial occupations.

Similar to the Gonzalez-Alvarez residence, the Peña-Peck House was built during the first Spanish period, altered during the British period and altered again during the second Spanish period before housing a New England family after the U.S. purchase of Florida!

Historic forts conjure the dueling empires that shaped this city. The Spanish began building Castillo de San Marcos, now America’s oldest masonry fort, in 1672, but changes by the British, second-period Spaniards and Americans tweaked the fort as it stands today. Boat to Fort Matanzas National Monument on Anastasia Island to trace the repeated attempts of the British to invade St. Augustine. Or, catch a re-enactment at Castillo de San Marcos – cannons and swords will fill in the audio-visual blanks.

For more of that feel-like-you’re-there feeling, observe living history interpreters within the Colonial Quarter demonstrate cooking, blacksmithing and ship building circa 1740. Of course, just to walk the streets of America’s oldest city is to be transported to a different place and time.

kid with telescope and balloons
St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches