Florida’s Historic Coast: A Melting Pot of Culture and Heritage

St. Augustine, Fla. - By the time the first English settlement in the new world was established at Jamestown, Va., St. Augustine had been a thriving coastal town for more than 40 years. Today this 451-year-old melting pot bubbles over with cultures near and far.

February 17, 2019
reenactment spanish conquistadors

Spanish Discovery and Colonization

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon discovered and claimed Florida for Spain in 1513. But it wasn’t until 1565 when Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded the settlement of St. Augustine along with his crew of 800 men, women and children of Spanish, African and Greek descent.

Today’s Fountain of Youth is the location of the actual first settlement of St. Augustine, which was the Indian Village of Seloy when Menendez came ashore. The first Spanish mission church was built on the adjacent grounds of the Mission Nombre de Dios, establishing the Nation’s first Catholic parish. The oldest structure in St. Augustine is the Castillo de San Marcos, built by the Spanish to defend the city from invaders.

The influence of Spanish history in St. Augustine is still evident today, more than four centuries later with historic buildings and attractions. It’s even reflected in the local cuisine.

British Occupation

Following the Spanish rule, the British occupation occurred not through conquest, but through treaty. British controlled St. Augustine and all of Florida from 1763 to 1784. This came about as a result of the Seven Years War. The British had captured Spanish Cuba and the Philippines. In order to get these valuable colonies back, Spain was forced to give up Florida to the British. Signed on February 10, 1763, the First Treaty of Paris gave all of Florida to the British. The Spanish of St. Augustine packed up all their possessions, including the forts’ cannons, and moved to Cuba.

St. Augustine remained a British colony until the American Revolution. While the War for American Independence was raging to the north, the Spanish were attempting to harass the British on their western frontier.

The 1783 Peace of Paris ended the American Revolution and returned Florida to Spanish rule. This time, however, a large part of the population, British and Minorcan who owned businesses and plantations, did not leave. With so few Spanish returning, the character of this Spanish colony changed, leading to the eventual purchase of Florida by the United States in 1821.

St. Augustine’s Multiculturalism Expands St. Augustine’s 450 plus years of history have been built and sustained by a diverse population. Through three centuries of Spanish occupation and decades of British occupation, this coastal city has survived pirate attack, war, disease, famine and the turbulence of political change to stand today as the oldest city in the Nation. By the late 1700s the town’s population was made up of Spanish, British, African and Mediterranean people.

Greek and Minorcan Culture - In 1777, Spanish St. Augustine welcomed 600 men, women and children of Mediterranean descent from a failed indigo plantation in New Smyrna. These new St. Augustine residents were Greek, Italian and Menorcan, who survived a period of indentured servanthood at a plantation established by the Scottish physician Andrew Turnbull as an economic endeavor for Britain. Turnbull’s plantation failed and cost many their lives working in deplorable conditions. They found refuge and a new home in St. Augustine. Descendants of these survivors are among many families in modern-day St. Augustine.

African American Culture

From its earliest days through the turbulent 1960s, African-Americans have played key roles in the story of St. Augustine. Africans were among the explorers and soldiers who first discovered Florida, sailing with Ponce de Leon and Pedro Menendez – not as slaves, but as soldiers in the service of Spain.

In 1738, slaves fleeing from the British Carolinas and Georgia were granted their freedom by the Spanish who occupied St. Augustine. In exchange for converting to Catholicism and pledging to join the Spanish in defending the Florida territory from their enemies, these former slaves found a home of their own. That settlement was Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, or Fort Mose for short where free men and their families formed a militia and the northern defense post for the nation’s oldest city and which remains today a Florida State Park just north of the city.

St. Augustine also played a pivotal role in the nation’s Civil Rights movement. On June 9, 1964, Civil Rights movement leader Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in St. Augustine during a protest for human rights. Alongside King was Andrew Young. Young led a night march from Lincolnville to the Constitution Plaza. The activists, being true to Dr. King’s non-violent strategy, walked away injured, many taken to area hospitals.

Where to find multicultural historic sites, tours and attractions

Castillo de San Marcos (1 S. Castillo Dr.) This massive fortress, which took more than 20 years for the Spanish to build (1672- 1695), helped protect Spain’s treasure fleets from the English and pirates. It is the oldest masonry fort in the United States and was designated as America’s first national monument. https://www.nps.gov/casa/index.htm

Colonial Quarter, ( 29 St. George Street) This 2-acre living history museum recreates St. Augustine’s storied past: 16th Century Spanish - The First City; 17th Century - Spanish Fortified Town; 18th Century - Spanish Garrison Town; 18th Century British - The 14th Colony. Visitors can explore the centuries and mingle with authentically costumed historic interpreters, participate in a musket drill, climb 35 feet to the top of a 17th century watchtower or sip on refreshments in the Taberna de Caballo, an intimate Spanish tavern. The Colonial Quarter

Fountain of Youth Archeological Park (11 Magnolia Ave) Commemorating the founding of La Florida by Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon and his legendary search for the Fountain of Youth, archeologists have discovered that it is the actual site of the original Spanish settlement in St. Augustine of 1565. Spanish colonial military cannon firings, an authentic 16th century boat works, and exhibits demonstrating how the Spanish explorers navigated the seas are part of this classic experience in St. Augustine. http://fountainofyouthflorida.com/

Gonzalez-Alvarez House (14 St. Francis St.) “The Oldest House” was built in approximately 1702 and owned by a soldier named Tomas Gonzalez. In 1812, it was the home of St. Augustine mayor Geronimo Alvarez. Currently, the home is owned by the St. Augustine Historical Society and is open for public tours. http://www.saintaugustinehistoricalsociety.org/

Mission Nombre de Dios ( 27 Ocean Avenue) On Sept. 8, 1565, Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles came ashore and founded St. Augustine, the first permanent European settlement in what is now the United States. On that date, Father Francisco Lopez offered the first Holy Mass here—a site that became the home of the first Catholic parish in the nation. Added last year was a beautiful museum that tells the story of the mission, called “the most sacred acre in America” by President John F. Kennedy. http://missionandshrine.org/

Plaza de la Constitucion Established in 1573, the town square is named for its monument to the Spanish constitution of 1812. Soon after its erecting, when the monarchy was restored, all such monuments in Spanish territories were ordered to be destroyed. However, St. Augustine’s governor refused, and the original monument that stands here today is believed to be the only one remaining in the world.

The St. Photios Greek Shrine and Greek Orthodox Museum at 41 St. George Street is dedicated to the first colony of Greek and other Mediterranean people who came to America in 1768. The Shrine consists of exhibits depicting the life of early Greeks and Minorcans in America, the development of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, and the St. Photios Chapel. www.stphotios.org

St. Augustine Civil Rights Library is an extensive online archive created by Flagler College students and faculty. (www.CivilRightsLibrary.com) ACCORD Freedom Trail Project consists of 31 historic markers located at various sites significant to the St. Augustine Civil rights movement. A cell phone audio tour is available by calling 904-335-3002. www.accordfreedomtrail.org. Admission to the ACCORD Civil Rights Museum is by appointment only. Contact Liz Duncan at 904-347-1382. Admission is free (donations accepted). 79 Bridge St., St. Augustine.

St. Augustine Black Heritage Tours offer free Historic Walking Tours focusing on Black history and the Civil Rights movement in St. Augustine. http://staugustineblackheritagetours.com

First Saturdays: Militia Muster and Training at Fort Mose Historic State Park. From 9 a.m. - 2 p.m. members of the Fort Mose Militia offer visitors the opportunity to participate in the children’s militia training using wooden toy muskets and authentic uniform accessories. Admission is $4 per vehicle or $2 for pedestrians or bicyclists. 15 Fort Mose Tr., St. Augustine. 904-823-2232 www.floridastateparks.org/fortmose

Celebrate our multi-cultural past at one of these great events:

February: Flight to Freedom at Fort Mose. The Fort Mose the Flight to Freedom event recreates the 17th century experience of the hundreds of slaves who traveled here in search of freedom. 15 Fort Mose Trail, St. Augustine. 904-823-2232 www.floridastateparks.org/fortmose

March: Annual Commemoration of the Founding of Fort Mose. The founding of Fort Mose in 1738 is the central theme of programs presented throughout the day, including programing about the role of slavery in the struggle between Spain and Britain. Admission is $4 per vehicle or $2 for pedestrians or bicyclists. 15 Fort Mose Trail, St. Augustine. 904-823-2232 www.floridastateparks.org/park/Fort-Mose

March: St. Augustine Celtic Music & Heritage Festival - The sounds of the ancient Celtic peoples of Scotland and Ireland are as alive today as ever at the St. Augustine Celtic Music and Heritage Festival at Francis Field. The event features Celtic clans from around the world showing their ancestral pride, Highland games athletes demonstrating their mind-boggling strength, and vendors offering Celtic cuisine and handmade crafts. The Celtic Festival takes place at Francis Field, 29 W. Castillo Dr., St. Augustine 904-891-0326 www.celticstaugustine.com

June: Battle of Bloody Mose. This annual re-enactment of the June 26, 1740, Battle of Bloody Mose provides visitors with an exciting look at this pivotal battle between the British under the command of Georgia’s James Oglethorpe and the Spanish militia composed of former British slaves who had been granted their freedom by the Spanish. Admission is $4 per vehicle or $2 for pedestrians or bicyclists. 15 Fort Mose Trail, St. Augustine. 904-823-2232 www.floridastateparks.org/park/Fort-Mose

October: Greek Festival. A 3-day festival that celebrates St. Augustine’s Greek culture through music, dance and more takes place at Francis Field, 29 West Castillo Drive. www.stauggreekfest.com

Located midway between Daytona Beach and Jacksonville, Florida’s Historic Coast includes historic St. Augustine, the outstanding golf and seaside elegance of Ponte Vedra, and 42 miles of pristine, Atlantic beaches. For more information on events, activities, holiday getaways and vacation opportunities in St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches, go to the Visitors and Convention Bureau website at www.FloridasHistoricCoast.com, become a fan on Facebook or call 1.800.653.2489.

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