While St. Augustine is a popular vacation destination, visited by many vacationers year after year, it has a deeper history than you may have known. A history that dates back to the early 1600s, before any American city was ever created. Today, old Spanish forts, buildings and roads St. Augustine offers beautiful golf courses, secluded beaches and parks.
Only Santa Fe, New Mexico, established in 1607, comes close to rivaling St. Augustine, Florida as the oldest continuously inhabited city in America. St. Augustine, founded in 1565, allegedly had its first European visitor in 1513, when Juan Ponce de Leon came ashore. This Spanish explorer, who had joined Columbus’ second voyage in 1493 as a “gentleman volunteer,” was contracted in 1512 by King Ferdinand of Spain to explore new islands northwest of Puerto Rico, where de Leon was governor.
Ferdinand said he would make de Leon “governor for life” of any place he discovered, but that de Leon would have to bear the cost of exploration and settlement. There were specific instructions in the contract as to the distribution of Native Americans, gold and other profits obtained from new lands. De Leon set out from Puerto Rico with three ships and no less than 200 men. The original ships’ logs were abridged by a Spanish historian who left many questions.
After sailing past the Bahamas on Easter Sunday, Ponce’s armada eventually spotted land, thought to be another island, and named it La Florida for its lush and colorful landscape (Spaniards call Easter Pascua Florida, the festival of flowers). Historians debate exactly where the ships came ashore, and while some believe it was the point now called Ponce de Leon inlet (in Melbourne Beach), many claim the point of disembarkation was today’s St. Augustine.
Popular legend has it, of course, that Ponce de Leon was looking for the Fountain of Youth, and St. Augustine has an attraction that plays upon this. The Fountain of Youth National Archaeological Park was a tourist attraction created by city resident Luella “Diamond Lil” McConnell in 1904. Her ploy worked wonders for the city’s economy, and today you can still pay an entrance fee, enjoy the beautiful peacocks roaming the property, go see a scenic tribute to Ponce, and take a sip of water that will allegedly keep you from aging.
But long before Diamond Lil saw the opportunity to attract wealthy New Englanders to her little piece of paradise, one Juan Menendez de Aviles established the first settlement. (Ponce had sailed around the Keys to Florida’s west coast and was eventually killed by a poisoned Indian arrow to the thigh). Menendez got his colony going nearly 50 years before English settlers arrived in Jamestown. St. Augustine, far outside the original 13 colonies, was Spain’s center of power on this continent for almost 200 years.
It wasn’t easy being a settler in St. Augustine. Life was filled with adversity and challenge. As if plagues and famine weren’t enough, the settlers were also at risk for hurricanes, a natural disaster about which they knew little. St. Augustine was also constantly under attack: from Native Americans, the French and the British.
By 1672, Queen Mariana of Spain decreed that a fortress should be built and Castillo de San Marcos was erected. The British failed twice to take the city once the fort was finished, but finally succeeded in 1763 and held on during the Revolutionary War. The Treaty of Paris returned the city to Spanish rule but a declining Spanish economy paved the way for the sale of Florida to American in 1821.
Everything changed in 1883 when oil tycoon Henry Flagler came to St. Augustine. He determined the location so desirable that he invested heavily in developing the city as a winter resort. Flagler’s railroad brought more and more New Englanders to Florida and many of the more wealthy contributed to the city’s rise by building homes and businesses Some of St. Augustine’s most beautiful architecture today is his doing. Most notable among them are two downtown architectural marvels—the Ponce de Leon Hotel and the former Hotel Alcazar, now the Lightner Museum.
The Ponce de Leon, now the centerpiece of Flagler College, was completed in 1888, the Alcazar a year earlier. Both were commissioned by Flagler and designed in the same Spanish Renaissance Revival style. Both facilities appear in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and the Ponce de Leon is a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Elegant if not ostentatious for their time, the hotels were popular winter hangouts for the wealthy. The renowned artisans commissioned to appoint them included Louis C. Tiffany—yes, that Tiffany—whose works remain part of the Ponce décor of the Ponce and appear in collections across the street at the Lightner Museum.
Yet at its core, St. Augustine’s beauty comes from the “look” of being planned like a typical 16th Century walled Spanish Colonial town. St. George Street, which bisects the Plaza to the south and north, is where one can find the remains of the Old City Gates. Historic St. George Street buildings worth a look include the Arrivas House, the Avero House (now the St. Photios Greek Shrine), and the De Mesa-Sanchez House. Overall, the city boasts an impressive array of architecture from the 18th and 19th centuries, and you will enjoy seeing it now that you have a taste of the rich history of amazing St. Augustine. If you’re planning your next vacation, look into the history and charm of St. Augustine as a possible destination.