Yesterday marks the 455th anniversary that Europeans permanently settled in what was to become the contiguous United States. The city of St. Augustine was founded by Spanish explorers in 1565, and lies on the Atlantic coast of northeastern Florida. The city owes its name to the coastline being sighted by the Spanish Explorers on August 28, the feast day of St. Augustine. The only older city in American territory is that of San Juan, Puerto Rico, which was founded forty-four years earlier in 1521.
St. Augustine owes its existence to the Spanish Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who would later became the first governor of Florida. The Admiral was dispatched by the Spanish Crown to what is now Jacksonville. His mission was to destroy the French outpost of Fort Caroline and eliminate the presence of the Huguenot French, which the Spanish considered to be heretics. Once this was complete, he was charged to fully explore and settle the region as a bastion of Spanish might.
The French acted to prevent the Spanish incursion at the newly established St. Augustine, but unfortunately for the French the initial naval engagement was indecisive. The subsequent engagement saw the French forces ravaged by a squall and effectively destroyed as a fighting force. Stealing a march on his foes, Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés moved to overwhelm the lightly defended Fort Caroline. His assault would see many of the men in the fort killed and their bodies hung from trees with inscriptions saying they had not been hung as Frenchmen but as heretics.
After his return to St. Augustine, a Spanish patrol captured the French survivors who had made it ashore. While Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés would accept their surrender, he ended up ordering all executed excepted a few professing to be Catholic and an even smaller number of Protestants who had skills useful to the new Spanish colony. With this act the nearby inlet would be named the Matanzas Inlet, which is Spanish for “slaughters.”
The city would serve as the Spanish capital of Florida for over 200 years, surviving invasions by pirates and being burned to the ground by Sir Francis Drake, only losing its capital status when traded to Great Britain in exchange for Cuba and the Philippines following the First Treaty of Paris in 1763 that ended the Seven Years War. The British in turn designated it the capital of British East Florida. This did not last, however, for the British returned the territory to Spanish control twenty years later as a result of the Second Treaty of Paris in 1783. This same treaty would recognize the independence of the former British colonies north of Florida.
St. Augustine would remain in Spanish possession until the signing of the Adams-Onís Treaty in 1821, which saw it transferred to the control of the still young United States. Florida had by this point become a burden to the Spanish Empire, who could not easily afford to continue sending settlers and soldiers to garrison the territory. With this being the case, the decision was made to cede the territory to the United States in exchange for putting their shared boundary dispute along the Sabine River in Spanish Texas to rest. A major triumph for the United States, the Treaty would officially establish the boundaries of US territory as well as American western claims through the Rocky Mountains all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In exchange, the United States would pay roughly $5,000,000 to residents with claims against the government of Spain, and formally relinquish claims to several Spanish areas, including the parts of Spanish Texas that were over the Sabine River.
The treaty would only hold for less than a year. In August 24 of 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spanish control and as a result asserted de facto control over the former Spanish Texas. Instead of this leading to new conflict between Mexico and the United States over Spanish Texas, however, both states decided to sign the Treaty of Limits in 1828, and by 1832 the border as laid out by the Adams-Onís Treaty was confirmed as being the boundary between the two former colonies.
St. Augustine currently stands as a monument of what Spanish colonized Florida looked like. Starting in the 1960s, the State of Florida cooperated with the City of St. Augustine to restore more than 36 buildings to their historical appearance, the upkeep of which has been maintained by the City of St. Augstine since 1997. Given these historical reminders of the past, as well as several museums, churches, parks, and the World Golf Hall of Fame, St. Augustine is well worth the visit.
Where To Learn More About St. Augustine
- 99 Epic Things To Do — St. Augustine, Florida: Insider tips and travel advice for this historic city in Florida.
- Walking St. Augustine: An Illustrated Guide and Pocket History to America’s Oldest City: An illustrated guidebook and history written by a highly regarded historian of the city.
- Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830: An examination and comparison of the British and Spanish empires in the Americas from their arrival until their exit.
- The Rise and Fall of the Spanish Empire: A concise and easily understandable history of the Spanish’s Empire rise to prominence in European and World politics, before its replacement by other superpowers.
- Empire: How Spain Became a World Power, 1492–1763: An examination of what factors played a role in the rise of the Spanish Empire to prominence, from international business to global enterprises involving many non-Spaniards.
Want to learn more about Florida or history? Check out these recent articles:
The Cigar Capital of the World: The Ybor City Historic District in Tampa Florida
With the turn of the twentieth century no city in the United States of America was as well-known for its cigars as that…
Only 15 Years of Peace in the History of the United States of America
In the entire history of the United States of America there has been a grand total of 15 years when we have not been at…
Want to learn more about war, history, and/or art? Follow this publication to get regular updates on new articles:
Traveling through History
A publication focused on presenting individuals, locations, objects, and events from history to encourage knowledge of…
This article contains some affiliate links to books that serve as references to the St. Augustine, Florida, and the Spanish Empire. If you choose to purchase these books or resources via my affiliate links, you will help support my writing and research at no additional cost to you.