By BY SUSAN PARKER
The plans were first overheard some time in August of 1702.
A Choctaw Christian woman eavesdropped on English traders in what is today western Georgia. The traders were colonists from the English colony of South Carolina.
What she heard was their plans to move down the Atlantic coast to attack the Spanish in St. Augustine.
She headed to the Spanish post in Apalache (today’s Tallahassee area) and shared the secret intelligence with officials there. Two fast messengers were sent to warn Florida Gov. Jose de Zuniga about the pending strike. The news of the English plan reached our town on Oct. 27.
For us today, the idea that is would take two months for news from Tallahassee to reach St. Augustine seems absurd. In 1702, this information traveled overland by horse and probably by human foot.
The Carolinians used the opportunity presented by England’s declaration of war in May 1702 over who would become king of Spain. The 12-year conflict is known as the War of the Spanish Succession. News of the war took from May until August to reach Carolina from England.
Now on the alert, Gov. Zuniga set about to assess his position.
We must remember that Zuniga made his decisions based on the information available to him. He relied a great deal on testimony of three captured Englishmen.
They reported that there were about 1,000 men headed to St. Augustine — half over land, half on ships. South Carolina Gov. James Moore had seized about 40 ships in Charleston harbor and used 14 of them for the St. Augustine expedition.
The ships brought artillery and ammunition for the English to set up a siege at St. Augustine. The English knew that they would have to take Castillo de San Marcos in order to succeed.
Zuniga realized that he did not have enough men or enough working weapons to mount a defense. So he and the council of war decided to wait it out inside Castillo de San Marcos, completed just seven years before.
Zuniga waited as long as he could to decree that all St. Augustine residents come into the fort for protection. On Nov. 9, the gate of the Castillo closed behind the residents. It would be opened only for patrols and messengers.
The Carolinians arrived in St. Augustine the next day. They had already raided and destroyed coastal Spanish mission towns in their path toward of St. Augustine. The English invaders occupied the town for 52 days while St. Augustinians watched from inside the fort.
For the most part the siege was a tedious waiting game with little activity. On Dec. 27, Spanish warships appeared at the inlet and changed the dynamic. The English began retreating right away, burning buildings as they left. St. Augustine was left in ashes.
From a local perspective, the siege eliminated buildings erected before 1700 with the exception of the Castillo. But the siege of St. Augustine and the failure of the Carolinians to take the capital of Florida had wide ramifications.
Historian Charles Arnade called the siege “one of the first large engagements of the century-long international struggle for dominance of the North American continent.” England did not achieve control of the Atlantic coast down to the Florida Keys for another 60 years. (In 1763, Florida was transferred to Great Britain by treaty agreement.)
For just over seven weeks in 1702, the future of the American Southeast and the western Atlantic Ocean hung in the balance as the residents of Spanish St. Augustine waited out the siege of their town by the English from Carolina.