St. Augustine Enhances Perspective on U.S. History
Posted on March 13, 2019
By Paris Wolfe
History is written by the victors. Thus, the Anglo-centric settlers of the United States have given a distinctly British influence to American history. A visit to historic sites in St. Augustine, Florida, shakes that up.
For example, asked to name the earliest U.S. settlements, one might say Jamestown or Plymouth. That would be only partially correct. In May 1607, Jamestown became the first ENGLISH settlement in the New World. Then, in 1620 the Puritans stepped onto Plymouth Rock.
But 42 years before the English, in September 1565, the Spanish established the first continuously occupied settlement, St. Augustine, in the northeast corner of Florida.
As for Columbus in 1492, he neither stepped foot on the actual continent nor established a settlement.
My recent visit to St. Augustine exposed more of that 454-year heritage and dispelled some oft-repeated legends.
One of the legends is that Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon landed in Florida looking for the fountain of youth. Certainly he landed on Florida shores in 1513. In fact, a 15-foot statue at GTM Reserve along the coastal highway marks the geographic coordinates 30°8´ indicated in his journal.
However, one St. Augustine historian tells the story like this: During his travels to Florida, Ponce de Leon met local Timucuan Indians. These Native Americans were tall, healthy and enjoyed long lives … most likely because of lifestyle. They had healthy diets and active lives in the Florida forests. Ponce de Leon noted their health and longevity, speculating they’d found a fountain of youth.
Ironically, disease brought by Europeans ravaged Native American communities that lacked immunity to the foreign viruses. And the tribes were eventually obliterated.
Perhaps the most impressive artifact of Spanish history in the coastal city is the Castillo de San Marcos. Made of coquina — an indigenous building material of compressed tiny shells — the Spanish fort marks the northeast edge of downtown. The current Castillo, completed in 1695, was preceded by nine wood-and-earth forts, all destroyed by the city’s enemies.
I’ve spent most of my life in the Western Reserve, so Florida’s broad-and-deep Spanish history challenges my Anglo-centric worldview. And that is what travel is destined to do — broaden awareness and thus understanding of the world. What is now Florida was actually two colonies, the 14th and 15th — and so different from the first 13.
While 324 years old, the Castillo still stands strong with its high walls, expansive dry moat and vintage weaponry. Park Rangers offer a variety of talks on history and culture, explaining to visitors how the Castillo and the city went from Spanish control to British and back to the Spanish in the 18th century. The Spanish remained in power in Florida until the area was purchased by the United States in 1821. Renamed Fort Marion, the Castillo was used by the U.S. Army until 1899. It became a national monument in 1924.
Across the street from the Castillo, the whimsical St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum also challenged my perceptions of the great English Empire. In American history classes decades ago, I learned that English admiral Sir Francis Drake was a great explorer. He circled the globe from 1577 to 1580 and helped defeat the Spanish Armada. In British history, he’s a hero.
At the Pirate Museum, I saw him differently. The Spanish colonists experienced Drake as a looting privateer — a “pirate,” perhaps, raiding their boats and cities, then taking the spoils to England. Drake famously attacked Spanish colonists in St. Augustine in 1586 in the name of the English queen.
Again, the victors wrote history. Was Drake a hero or villain?
Both historic and playful, the Pirate Museum mixes reality and romance, feeding “bad-guy” fascinations of children and adults alike. The museum has its roots in owner Pat Croce’s childhood. Croce’s name may sound familiar; he has owned the Philadelphia 76ers and been a television commentator and personality.
Croce’s fascination began in boyhood after watching Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in the 1935 swashbuckling movie “Captain Blood.” He read everything he could to learn more and began collecting pirate memorabilia about 40 years ago. He originally kept artifacts in his home near Philadelphia.
In 2005, he opened the museum in Key West. Recognizing that the island was better suited to bars and water sports, in 2010 he relocated the museum to St. Augustine, just opposite the place where pirates such as Drake and Robert Searles landed to attack the city.
Croce’s collection is like a series of portals to the past. Top artifacts touched by real pirates include
- A treasure chest that belonged to pirate Thomas Tew
- Captain William Kidd’s small, wooden ditty box
- An authentic Jolly Roger flag, one of only three left in the world (the other two residingin Europe)
- The Taj Mahal Treasure Clump, found by author and diver Arthur C. Clarke on an underwater expedition.
While legends Captain Kidd and Blackbeard are well represented, I was fascinated by stories of early 18th-century pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read — two of several female pirates.
St. Augustine offers more than a glimpse into layers of American colonial history. The city has such depth and breadth that it’s easy to spend a week or more exploring museums, shopping, dining and visiting beaches. But those are other stories.
My partner and I drove to St. Augustine from Northeast Ohio, a 970-mile trek we split into two days. You also can fly into Jacksonville and drive about 45 minutes to the city. Or make a two-hour drive from Orlando after a Disney World adventure.
Because we traveled by RV, we landed at North Beach Camp Resort, five miles north of downtown between the Atlantic Ocean and the North River. Directly across the street from the resort is access to the Atlantic Ocean and its white-sand beaches. And, at the back, a fishing dock reaches into the North River.
The Usina family, who owns the campground, also owns The Reef, an upscale seafood restaurant on the ocean and Aunt Kate’s, a family-friendly dining option on the river.
For those not traveling by RV, the St. Francis Inn — a bed-and-breakfast with roots in 1791 — in downtown St. Augustine is just opposite the Castillo and nestled in the shopping district. It combines the atmosphere of the past with the comforts of the present.
The food scene is vibrant. Among our repeat visits were Catch 27 in the shopping district and Café Alcazar at the Lightner Museum. The little cafe is situated at the bottom of a now-empty historic indoor swimming pool.
Aunt Kate’s Restaurant: 612 Euclid Ave., St. Augustine, 904-829-1105, aunt-kates.com.
Café Alcazar: 25 Granada St., St. Augustine, 904-825-9948, thealcazarcafe.com/cafe-alcazar.
Castillo de San Marcos: 1 S Castillo Drive, St. Augustine, 904-829-6506, nps.gov/casa.
Catch 27: 40 Charlotte Street, St. Augustine, 904-217-3542, catchtwentyseven.com.
Flagler College: 74 King St., St. Augustine, 800-304-4208, flagler.edu.
North Beach Camp Resort: 4125 Coastal Highway, St. Augustine. 904-824-1806, northbeachcamp.com.
The Reef: 4100 Coastal Highway, St. Augustine, 904-824-8008, thereefstaugustine.com.
Saint Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, 12 S. Castillo Drive, St. Augustine, 877-467-5863, thepiratemuseum.com.
St. Francis Inn Bed and Breakfast: 279 St. George Street, St. Augustine, 904-824-6068, stfrancisinn.com.