The year is 1748, and as the sun begins to rise it emits a powerful glow that radiates off the eastern side of a small, stone structure situated in the middle of nowhere. The inhabitants of this simple building include seven Spanish soldiers, who have just risen and are beginning to engage in their daily duties. The main focus of these individuals is to maintain the safety and security of the residents of St. Augustine, who live several miles to the north. The seven soldiers patrol the waterways surrounding the Matanzas Inlet from their fortified watchtower and temporary residence: Fort Matanzas.
“In essence, the fort was the lock on the backdoor to St. Augustine,” Dick Orsini, captain of the Queen Matanzas II ferry, said.
Fort Matanzas is a monument that commemorates the Spanish phase of Colonial American history in Florida. The name Matanzas comes from the root word mata, meaning to kill. Hence, Matanzas refers to “the place of many slaughters.”
In 1562, French Hugenot Jean Ribault attempted to establish a base within Spanish America in the name of the King of France. His attempt failed, but two years later Fort Caroline was built on the St. Johns River under the direction of Rene de Laudonniere. The Spaniards viewed the establishment of Fort Caroline as trespassing on land they had discovered and explored. Therefore, King Philip II sent Pedro Menendez to build a settlement in Florida.
On August 28, 1565, Menendez, after a brief confrontation with French forces led by Ribault, established St. Augustine. Two weeks later, Ribault, whose troops outnumbered the Spaniards, set out to attack and gain control of St. Augustine. Fortunately for the Spaniards, a hurricane struck the northeast coast of Florida, scattering Ribault’s vessels down the coast. This allowed Menendez’s troops to travel on foot and capture the enemy base.
Eventually, the remaining French troops surrendered. Menendez had 245 prisoners put to death on the beaches 14 miles south of St. Augustine – thus, the name Matanzas.
In 1569, a wooden watchtower and thatched hut were built just north of the Matanzas Inlet to house six soldiers. These individuals took turns scanning the ocean waters for possible enemy threats. If a ship was sighted, a runner or man on horseback or in a log canoe was sent to alert St. Augustine.
In 1733, Gen. James Oglethorpe founded the English colony of Georgia on land claimed by Spain. On June 13, 1740, Oglethorpe began the siege of St. Augustine by blockading the Matanzas River. Due to the approaching hurricane season, the lack of naval support and the fact that St. Augustine was well prepared, Oglethorpe raised the siege and withdrew his forces.
The siege of 1740 convinced Gov. Manuel de Montiano that he needed to build a better, more equipped watchtower than the existing wooden structure. Montiano therefore summoned engineer Pedro Ruiz de Olano to build a stronger, more reliable stone structure.
The English gained control of Fort Matanzas, as well as the rest of Florida, by treaty in 1763. They, too, maintained the fort as a watchtower. Unfortunately, by the time Florida was ceded to the United States in 1821, the interior of the Matanzas fort was in ruins.
On Oct. 15, 1924, the fort was proclaimed a national monument, and in 1933 control of the fort was transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service. Today, due to much stabilization and restoration, the fort stands similar to its original design.
Fort Matanzas was made of coquina, a natural fragile-shell-stone. its main strengths were its strategic location and its armament supply. In 1750, five cannons were mounted to cover all approaching directions. Today, two cast iron cannons, mounted in 1793, remain. At the rear of the gundeck there was a water cistern that was capable of holding 1,500 gallons of water.
Fort Matanzas was made of coquina, a natural fragile shell-stone. Its main strengths were its strategic location and its armament supply. In 1750, five cannons were mounted to cover all approaching directions. Today, two cast iron cannons, mounted in 1793, remain. At the rear of the gundeck there was a water cistern that was capable of holding 1,500 gallons of water.
Fort Matanzas was built on an island less than two acres large. Today, due to time, tides and man, the island now occupies more than 200 acres and is referred to as Rattlesnake Island. The fort is accessible by boat only. The Matanzas Queen II, a ferry capable of holding 22 passengers, makes trips from the Visitors Center to the fort daily.
Dick Orsini, who has ferried passengers to the fort for 24 years, said the biggest change he has seen over the years is the “addition of new bathrooms.” He also said, “The number of visitors coming to the fort is growing steadily. Annually, 50,000 people visit the park.”
Orsini stressed all people should visit the fort. “It is a part of history, a very early part of our history,” he said. “If you come to visit, let the ambience seep in. The fort is special because when you visit you go back in time. Even if it is only psychological, you have a chance to step out of the 20th century.”