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St. Augustine - Birthplace of America

Posted By Sheila O'Connor, Monday, January 1, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Oldest Settlement

Like most of us, you probably thought that Jamestown was the oldest city in America. But like most of us, you’d be wrong. The honor of America’s oldest continuously occupied European settlement actually goes to St. Augustine in Florida. And the nation’s oldest city was founded in 1565, a lengthy 42 years before the English colonized Jamestown. The city belonged to the Spanish in those early days, and everywhere you turn here, you’ll be reminded of the significance of this city to the history of the United States.

The state of Florida itself was discovered by Ponce de Leon who claimed the territory for Spain and the Catholic Church in 1513. The name La Florida means "land of flowers”. But the English were not far behind and Sir Francis Drake was the first British visitor. He saw a lighthouse and came ashore then promptly burned the city to the ground.

The city of St. Augustine was discovered by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565. These days the influence of all countries who have claimed the town can be felt. "The whole town has a European flavor” says gallery owner Jan Miller who owns Butterfield Garage gallery. And you can see this almost everywhere you walk. History is waiting around every corner, it seems. And walking is one of the best ways to discover this history. The city gained kudos in 2006 as one of the top 10 most walkable cities in the nation.

Castillo de San Marcos

One of the best places to start that walk is at the Castillo de San Marcos, a National Monument that has been standing as sentinel over the city since 1672, a fact that makes it the oldest masonry fort in the US, as well as America’s oldest man-made monument. It took 21 years to finish the walls that are made of coquina, a porous material made of tiny seashells quarried from Anastasia Island across the water. The fort was commissioned by Spain’s Queen Regent Mariana who realized that St. Augustine was critical to the defense of the Florida coast, which at the time was getting attacked by pirates and other enemies.

History tells us that whoever controls the fort holds the key to all of Florida. Although originally built by the Spanish, the fort has been taken over in turn by the British, Spanish and Americans until it was finally declared a National Monument in 1924.

If you’re lucky, you can catch soldiers in period costume fire the cannon. It’s quite a sight. The blue and red uniforms made from wool might make you think the poor volunteer soldiers are sweating buckets, but their undergarments are made to allow the condensation that forms to keep them cool.

Hotel Ponce de Leon

No doubt one of the places where guests were kept cool was at the beautiful and grand Hotel Ponce de Leon, built in the Spanish Renaissance style. The building is now the Flagler College. In the days when the building was a hotel, guests had to stay for the whole season and pay the princely sum of $30/day, all in cash. Al Capone was even said to be a frequent visitor here.

Thomas Edison was the reason the hotel/college had lights in its day. These days, in the dining room, you can find outstanding glasswork by Louis Comfort Tiffany, valued at $35 million. With all this history and artwork, the students should be inspired to greatness!

Henry Flagler himself was a farmer and at age 14 he joined his brother’s general store where he saved his money and invested in grain, then salt and then grain again. He later met Rockerfeller and they started Standard Oil. He came to St. Augustine on his honeymoon and fell in love with the area. He built a Methodist church and in those days churches came with land. Flagler asked for the land (the church wasn’t using it) and they gave it to him. He then did the same for the Baptist church but they asked him not to build a bell tower which he agreed not to do. Flagler wanted to turn St. Augustine into a winter home for the rich and in many ways this is what he did.

But tragedy was to hit the family. Flagler’s daughter died giving birth to his granddaughter, and Flagler built a church in her memory. This is the beautiful Presbyterian Church, plain and comfortable inside but with a Venetian Renaissance style outside. This splendid church was built in a few days less than a year (361 days) with the labor of 1000 workers, all working 12 hour shifts. The work never stopped. It’s the only church of its kind in America and is now Flagler’s burial place.

Lightner Museum

Across the street from the college, you’ll see the Lightner Museum, originally Flagler’s second hotel--the Alcazar Hotel. This acted as an entertainment area for Flagler’s Ponce de Leon hotel guests-- after all they stayed for months and had to have something to do! Lightner later bought it in 1946, during the Depression, and it now houses brilliant cut glass, antique furnishings, period costumes, mechanical musical instruments and many of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s stained glass works. The impressive collections document American life during the Victorian Age and early 20th century. These days, this is the equivalent of Florida’s Smithsonian Museum.

And when those visiting guests got unruly, Henry Flagler knew exactly where to put them. He built the town’s Old Jail in 1891 and this actually served as a real jail until 1953. It was finally placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1987.

But if you’d rather see homes instead of jails, check out the period houses at the Old St. Augustine Village, a city block that is the location of 9 houses, all different and all nestled among courtyards and gardens. The owner, Kenneth W. Dow, bought one house for his collection of artworks, furniture and antiques gathered from his travels around the world, but soon ran out of space and bought another house. This went on for some time until he had squired a substantial collection of houses—9 in all—to go along with his substantial collection of artifacts. History doesn’t record what his wife thought of all this "stuff!”

Historic Living

This particular city block wasn’t wanted by St. Augustine and it is actually now owned by the city of Daytona Beach. The historic homes span from 1790 to 1910 and one even belonged to the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, Prince Achille Murat, who resided here before moving to Tallahassee.

Another house worth visiting is the Ximinez Fatio House, one of the original B&Bs in the town. Like most houses of its day, the kitchen is situated away from the house. This prevented the house being destroyed should the kitchen catch fire and helped keep extra heat out of the main building. Air conditioning did not exist and the heat would have been oppressive.

But oppressive heat or not, movie producers and directors always recognize a good thing when they see it And they saw it in the historic Aviles Street which has recently been used in the movie, The Celestine Prophecy. Dating back to 1572—35 years before the advent of Jamestown—this is one of the oldest streets in America and is typical of a Spanish street, just what the movie directors wanted.

Of course the oldest town is a fitting place for the Oldest House. "The Oldest House and complex gives a representation of how people lived from 1723 thought he Revolutionary War to the present day”, says Lynn Lesioka, a docent at the Oldest House, also known as the Gonzalez-Alvarez House, after the families that lived there. This is the oldest surviving Spanish Colonial dwelling in Florida. Check out how small the house was with only 3 rooms. Originally two rooms and one story high, the structure was changed when the British occupied it and added a second floor. The present house dates back to the early 1700s and these days it also houses the Museum of Florida’s Military and the Florida history Museum.

From the oldest house, be sure to check out the Oldest Schoolhouse as well. Built before 1763, with wooden pegs and handmade nails, this school stands just as it did over two centuries ago. Check out the roll call for the last class ever to attend. There’s even a photograph of those pupils with their descendents. Compare your elementary school experience and you’ll see that maybe it wasn’t so bad after all!

Do you know, for instance, what the children had to use instead of money to pay the teacher? Not only did children have to learn their lessons, they had to bring coal and food for the teacher as well. Bartering in exchange for lessons was often the order of the day. If you got this right, go to the top of the class!

The city of St. Augustine is also famous for its spring, known as the Fountain of Youth. The water was originally used by Native Americans and later Ponce de Leon in 1513. Here you can stroll the gardens, explore the excavations, see the life-sized exhibits and planetarium and drink from the prehistoric India Spring that Ponce de Leon hoped was the elixir of life. Check out the Navigator’s Celestial Planetarium showing how sailors of yesteryear navigated with the stars. The sky is shown on the exact day Ponce de Leon made his landmark discovery of North America. It is still operated by hand. There’s also a native Indian burial site on the premises which came as a surprise to the Smithsonian Institute team who discovered it.

Olde World Shopping

But if all this history makes you just want to switch off and spend half a day shopping, then you can do that too. Fantastic shopping opportunities are everywhere, particularly in the charming shops along ancient St. George Street. There it’s pedestrian traffic only among the hundreds of shops and boutiques that meet just about every need and desire.

And you just might run into bookstores in this city where the most well-known and well-loved author was Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Yearling. Among the guests in her modest but lovely home, now open to the public, were Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, A.J. Cronin and Dylan Thomas.

Exotic Wildlife

And when it comes to discoveries, one you’ll be glad you found is the Alligator Farm. Opened in 1893, this houses all 23 known species of crocodilian, plus exotic birds, monkey and giant tortoise. The farm celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1993.

"Crocodile tears are tears that are not real”, says a docent leading a school group around. "The expression came from the ancient belief that crocodiles shed tears while eating their victims.” The school group suddenly stops in its tracks, in awe of an albino crocodile. "It’s also said that those who gaze upon these beautiful albino reptiles will receive good fortune,” smiles the docent. And several school kids nod in agreement, or is it in hope?

Near the Alligator Farm is Marineland - a great place to watch and even feed dolphins, a creature humans feel much more inclined to interact with. Watch them play and frolic with their trainers. The center is used for marine scientific and dolphin research and if you always fancied swimming with dolphins, then this is your chance. You get to swim and play with the dolphins in their 450,000 gallon rectangular oceanarium in a program that’s normally reserved only for the staff members who work with them. Check it out.

More Colonial Icons

Another "must-see” in town is Florida’s first and still-working Lighthouse, built in 1824. St. Augustine’s oldest surviving brick structure is also its only "high-rise” building. It’s well worth a walk up the 219 stairs (equivalent to a fourteen story building) for the view at the top. The St. Augustine Lighthouse is one of 30 lighthouses still standing in Florida, and one of only six open to the public.

Also open to the public is the living history museum at the Colonial Spanish Quarter. Here the life of Spanish soldiers and their families is depicted in 1740. You’ll see how craftspeople like the calligrapher, the blacksmith, carpenter and leather worker went about their business. When you stroll through this area, you’ll also see how families gardened and prepared food.

But St. Augustine isn’t just all about history. It has its share of romance too. Want to snuggle up in a cozy B&B? Then check out Casa de Solana which dates back to 1821 and which you’ll find on historic Aviles Street. Each room is different and the lodging is surrounded by a walled courtyard. This inn promises an "oasis of comfort” and without a doubt, this is what you’ll find here. You’ll enjoy a whirlpool tub and open fireplace just to set the scene.

St. Augustine is not only the oldest city in America, it’s one of the nation’s most romantic and charismatic as well. It’s a "must-see” on every traveler’s list.

Photo credits: All photos courtesy of Sheila O'Connor.

Sheila O’Connor is a freelance travel writer who lives in San Francisco. Although Sheila has traveled all over the world, she says there is nowhere quite like home—San Francisco.

Tags:  Castillo de San Marco  Florida  Hotel Ponce de Leon  St. Augustine 

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