St. Augustine and Fort Caroline - Jean Ribault and Pedro Menendez

Exploring The Role Of St. Augustine In The History Of Florida

St. Augustine, Older Than The Plymouth Colony (1565 vs. 1620)

As an important settlement in the early days of colonization in North America (The New World), St. Augustine has played an instrumental part in the history of Florida. In fact, St. Augustine is the oldest settlement in the United States that has been continuously occupied by Europeans. Founded in 1565 by Pedro Menendez, almost 50 years before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth (1620) the city has been through many interesting ups and downs over the years that are worth knowing about.

History has many things to teach and having a little more knowledge about the history of St. Augustine, and the history of Florida more generally will give you a greater appreciation for the area. Whether you are proud to live in the ‘Sunshine State’, or if you are planning to visit as a tourist, having a better understanding of where you are always helps you to forge a better connection with the destination. With more context and a sense of the forces and events that shaped the city to what it is today, you will be able to see the city through new eyes.

To this end, let’s look at some of the foundational moments in Florida’s history that highlight the role of the city of St. Augustine in that story.

Early Settlement

The city of St. Augustine was originally founded by one of the Spanish conquistadors, Pedro Menendez. Menendez was sent to the New World by King Philip II of Spain. This was primarily to expand Spanish control in the southeastern area of the New World and prevent French interests (and other empires) from settling and colonizing the region that is now known as Florida. Upon landing in the area, Menendez and his group established a settlement called San Agustin (St. Augustine).

Conflict with Jean Ribault and The French Huguenot Massacre

Jean Ribault was a French Huguenot, a community of Protestant Christian’s who were being persecuted by Catholics in France at the time Menendez was establishing St. Augustine in Florida. He was one of the leading French figures in the New World at that time, sent by Admiral Coligny (leader of the Huguenots) to scout locations for potential Huguenot colonies.

Knowing that King Philip II of Spain had recently sent Menendez to the New World with orders to hunt down and destroy French efforts to establish colonies in the southeast, Ribault attempted to gain the strategic advantage and attack Menendez first.

Ribault set sail from Fort Caroline with a plan to pre-emptively attack Menendez at St. Augustine. Unfortunately for Jean Ribault, intense storms caused his ships to be destroyed and all 350 men to be shipwrecked near present day Daytona Beach. In a very cunning counterattack, Menendez’s troops marched by land, through the storm and attacked the now poorly defended French settlement of Fort Caroline (present day Jacksonville). The fort was completely overwhelmed by the Spanish. Most of the French were killed and their supplies captured.

Back on the beach, Menendez was able to round up Ribault’s shipwrecked men under a banner of peace. Once bound, the French Huguenots were given the opportunity to deny their Christian faith as Protestants or be murdered by the Catholic Menendez. All but a few chose to be executed. It is estimated that almost 350 men (including Jean Ribault) were murdered near St. Augustine, Florida.
Today we refer to this as the Matanzas Massacre.

1562 Jean Ribault Explores Coast of Florida, Georgia and CarolinasEncounters with Indigenous Groups

Following these conflicts with the French, the Spanish throne attempted to rely on St. Augustine as a branching off point for expanding their reach in La Florida and the New World. However, early encounters with Indigenous groups hindered these plans. Faced with periodic attacks by hostile groups in the area like the Timucuan Indians, the settlement nevertheless endured.

Unlike Jean Ribault who had established good relationships with indigenous people like King Saturiwa of the Timucua, the Spanish looked to enslave them and sell them into captivity (a practice seen repeatedly by the Spanish conquistadors). This and other hostile actions toward the native people created bad relations between them and the Spanish.

St. Augustine Under British And Spanish (Again) Control

Attacks on the settlement of St. Augustine were also perpetrated by British and Spanish forces throughout the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries. Eventually, the settlement was given to the British as part of the Treaty of Paris which ended the Seven Years’ War.

Many of the former residents of the St. Augustine settlement left the area for Spanish-controlled locations following the British takeover. Many new governance changes and construction projects were initiated which reflected the cultural transformation that was taking place. The British ultimately controlled the area for about twenty years between 1763 and 1783.

In 1783, however, the settlement changed hands back to Spain following a new Treaty of Paris. In effect, Florida was given back to the Spanish by the United States for its assistance in the War of Independence. This new period of Spanish occupation was not marked by much of note in the history of Florida. Finally, in the early nineteenth century, the Spanish ended up trading Florida back to the Americans. From this time on, it would be a part of what is now the modern United States.

Florida And The Civil War

Florida became an American state in 1845. Soon afterwards, it played a small role in the American Civil War. Although it was controlled by Confederate forces in the early days of the war, it was soon taken over by Union troops and remained that way without incident. The Confederates did not attempt to take over St. Augustine again, and it soon became a Union stronghold.

Following the end of the war, St. Augustine continued to be occupied by a large amount of US Army soldiers. In fact, many of these soldiers decided to permanently settle in the area which shaped the area’s culture in the following years.

Dive Into The History Of Florida

These days, St. Augustine is a popular tourist destination for many domestic and international travellers. With an excellent climate and many historical sites to explore, it is one of many must-see Florida locations.

This quick jump through some of the pivotal events of the history of St. Augustine only represents a snapshot of the richness of the history of Florida. With many significant and interesting characters and unusual and noteworthy events to discover, there is so much more to discover and learn about Florida’s fascinating history. Re-discover your inner “explorer” and come check out the fascinating lives of Jean Ribault and Pedro Menendez for yourself.

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