In the 300 years between Ponce de Leon’s landing, somewhere near Daytona Beach, and the signing of the Adams-Onis Treaty in 1819 ceding Florida to the United States, Northeast Florida was a hotbed of conflict with the European countries of France, Spain and Great Britain fighting to colonize the “New World” and Native Americans trying desperately to hold onto their lands.
Today’s forts of St. Augustine, the Castillo de San Marcos, Fort Menendez and Fort Mose provide a glimpse into the clash of cultures that eventually gave way to a unified nation.
Castillo de San Marcos
Not long after Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded St Augustine in 1565, the need for a fortified structure became evident. Over the next 100 years, nine wooden forts were built at various sites throughout the settlement.
After an attack by English pirate Robert Searle in 1668, Governor Francisco de la Guerra petitioned Mariana, Queen Regent of Spain, for a masonry structure to be built to protect the citizens of St. Augustine and Spain’s interest in the region. Construction of the Castillo de San Marcos began in October 1672.
Made from the stone coquina, Spanish for shells, the fort was built by Native American laborers and workers brought in from Havana, Cuba over the next 23 years. It was completed in 1695.
Coquina, which is a similar to limestone, is a composite of small shells that have bonded together. The coquina used to build the Castillo was quarried from nearby Anastasia Island and ferried across the Matanzas Bay to the construction site.
The stone proved very effective in absorbing the impact of shells from English cannons, which made it an invaluable tool in the survival of the fort as well as the city of St. Augustine.
Over the next 120 years, Spain and England fought for control of Florida, and ownership of the fort was traded back and forth between them. Though the fort now bears its original name, during the British occupations it was called both Fort St. Mark and Fort Marion.
Eventually, Britain gained control of the fort through the 1819 Adams-Onis Treaty, which left Texas to the Spanish and ceded Florida to the United States.
During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers took control of the fort without firing a shot in January 1861, but they did not hold it for long. Along with the city of St. Augustine, the fort was re-occupied by Union troops in March 1862 when acting mayor Cristobal Bravo surrendered to Union Navy fleet commander C.R.P. Rodgers.
Post-Civil War, the fort was used to house prisoners from the Indian wars in the West as well as deserters from the Spanish-American War. In 1900, the fort was taken off the active duty rolls after more than 200 years of service.
Castillo de San Marcos is open daily from 8:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults. Children 15 and under are free. For information, call 904-829-6506 or go to nps.gov/casa.
Two miles north of the Castillo de San Marcos, the site of the first legally sanctioned free African settlement in the United States commemorates the lives of determined slaves who risked their lives for liberty.
In 1738, the Spanish governor of Florida chartered the Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose (Fort Mose) for slaves fleeing from the English colonies in Georgia and the Carolinas.
The Spanish established the fort for two reasons: To cripple the colonial plantation system and to provide a first line of defense against attack from the north.
In exchange for their freedom, the slaves had to agree to three conditions: 1) They had to accept the Catholic religion, 2) They had to swear allegiance to the Spanish King and 3) They had to join the Spanish militia.
The colony lasted for 25 years until the Spanish left Florida in 1763.
Though there are no remains of the earth and wooden structures that made up the community, the site is designated as a National Historic Landmark for its significance in U.S. history.
Today, visitors can glimpse life as it was in the camp at the newly constructed museum and explore the grounds where exhibits are on display. Throughout the year, the Florida State Park Service and the Florida Humanities Council sponsor living history events onsite. In the living history re-enactments, volunteers dress in period costume and demonstrate the events and daily activities of those 38 men and their families who took up residence at the fort.
The visitor center and museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday through Monday. Admission is $2. Children 5 and under are free. For information, call 904-823-2232 or go to floridastateparks.org/FortMose.
Though the Castillo de San Marcos is a major tourist attraction drawing attention for its imposing presence in the heart of the city, the smaller and lesser-known Fort Matanzas, 14 miles south, was equally important to the defense of St. Augustine.
For two months in 1740, British governor of Georgia James Oglethorpe led a campaign to capture the city of St. Augustine. Though the offensive eventually failed, Ogelthorpe managed to cripple the settlement by blockading the Matanzas Inlet, which stopped the delivery of much-needed food and supplies. Once the siege was over, Florida Gov. Manuel de Montiano ordered a masonry fort be built at the Matanzas Inlet to replace the existing wooden tower.
Fort Matanzas was built between 1740 and 1742 with labor provided by convicts, slaves and additional troops from Cuba. Like the Castillo, the outpost was built with the readily available coquina.
After years of decay, the fort was resurrected in the 1930s as one of FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects. Open to the public since 1939, Fort Matanzas National Park includes a visitor’s center, nature trails and a shaded picnic area.
The park is open from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, and the National Park Service provides passage to the fort by ferry hourly from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
On the first Saturday of the month, re-enactors dress in 18th-century Spanish military attire and present cannon-firing demonstrations in addition to tales of the soldier’s life at the fort. Admission is free. For information, call 471-0116 or go to nps.gov/foma.