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The History of Saint Augustine, Florida

Castillo de San Marcos at sunset

Saint Augustine, also known as the Ancient City, has a rich, storied past dating back even further than the earliest settlements of New England. Today, it’s a flourishing city situated in northeastern Florida.

With convenient access to natural areas and a charming historic district, Saint Augustine is a great place to live and visit. Let’s take it all the way back to the beginning and revisit the history of this city. 

Europeans Arrive in Florida

Florida was home to a vast array of indigenous tribes far before Europeans arrived. Juan Ponce de Leon, the first governor of the Island of Puerto Rico, became the first European to set foot in Florida in 1513. He was on an exploratory expedition in search of the Bimini or Fountain of Youth. He spotted the eastern coast of Florida on March 27th, Easter Sunday. 

Though there were many attempts to plant a settlement in Florida, the Spanish did not succeed until over 50 years after they first charted the land. In 1565, conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés overpowered a French outpost in the area in order to stake a claim on what is now Saint Augustine. The settlement was established 42 years before Jamestown and 55 years before Plymouth Rock making it the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States.  

The Early Days of Saint Augustine

Saint Augustine served as a military stronghold and a base for Catholic missionaries. As soon as the settlement was established, Spanish forces took control of much of the northeast coast of Florida. On many occasions, their authority was tested by English pirates and settlers. The Spanish started construction on the Castillo de San Marcos in 1672. This stone fortress proved to be an effective defense against their British adversaries. 

James Moore and his troops stormed the Castillo de San Marcos from the Carolinas in November of 1702. After a near two months siege, the British forces receded, setting the city ablaze as they fled. British general James Oglethorpe attempted to overtake Saint Augustine again in 1740 but was, again, unsuccessful. 

As British colonies crept closer, enslaved people fled to Florida to seek refuge. The Spanish government offered them sanctuary on the pretense that they pledge allegiance to the King of Spain and convert to Catholicism. Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose became the first community made up of freed slaves. 

Treaties and Shifting Power 

In 1763, England finally acquired Florida after the Seven Year War officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Saint Augustine and the rest of Florida were handed over to the British until 1783. After the American Revolutionary War, the colonies north of Florida were granted independence and Spain reacquired the region again from 1784 to 1821. 

In this period of time, sometimes referred to as the Second Spanish Period, many British settlers left to the colonies leaving behind a population of Menorcans. The Spanish government tried to attract more citizens with generous land grants, a ten-year tax-free occupancy, and a cash bonus for farmers. Eventually, they extended their offering to non-Catholics and slaveholders in a desperate bid for more settlers. 

The Second Spanish Period came and left with the Adams-Onîs Treaty of 1821. The region simply wasn’t as important to Spain and their neighbors to the north were eager to further expand the reach of their burgeoning nation. Spain peacefully handed Florida and their surrounding colonies over to the United States. Florida officially became a state in 1845 after the Second Seminole War. 

Modern-Day Saint Augustine

Saint Augustine gained acclaim as a quintessential vacation destination about 20 years after the Civil War. Henry Flagler, a former partner of John D. Rockefeller, broke ground on a resort for wealthy Americans to spend their winters. He later went on to construct a railway that connected the city to the most populated areas of the east coast. Flagler continued to build decadent hotels and develop the city into an ideal tourist location. 

Two of these original hotels serve as a space for Flagler College and Lightner Museum. The third location, Casa Monica, is the only original hotel that still offers a place for travelers to stay while visiting the city. Today, around 2 million visitors make the trip out to Saint Augustine to take in the beauty and history. Castillo de San Marcos as well as the historic downtown area draws in many tourists. 

Saint Augustine is a wonderful place to plant roots too. Around 14,000 people call this beautiful city home. Picturesque and biker-friendly, Saint Augustine is steeped in small-town charm. Residents also enjoy a reasonable commute to big cities such as Jacksonville and Orlando. 

Whether you’re just passing through or you live in St. Augustine, it offers a deep, fascinating history that deserves to stay alive in our collective memories!


1. National Park Service


3. City of St. Augustine

4. Old City

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