Near the northern tip of Florida on the Atlantic coast stands St. Augustine, which was established in 1565 and is the oldest continuously occupied city in the country. While the historic part of the city is filled with T-shirt and coffee shops, two fascinating national monuments nearby, Castillo de San Marcos and Fort Matanzas, add depth to the story of Florida's origins.
Ponce de Leon was the first European to come to the area and named it La Florida, the land of flowers. Later, when the Spanish brought gold and silver from Central and South America back to the mother country, they needed an outpost close to their trade routes and St. Augustine was established.
Now, the French also had designs on this new land, and actually built a fort, Fort Caroline, 40 miles north of St. Augustine a year earlier, 1564, in an attempt to break the Spanish monopoly. The two powers clashed and the Spanish captured Fort Caroline, ending the presence of the French in the area.
This was no small Spanish victory. The word matanzas means "slaughter" in Spanish, which pretty well describes what happened to the French. That word, matanzas, stands out in history because it later was given to a fort built by the Spanish almost 200 years later.
St. Augustine prospered as a Spanish holding for almost 20 years, but in 1586 the town almost lost its foothold. War had broken out between Spain and England, and Sir Francis Drake was in the region looking to gain England a share of the New World. With a huge fleet at his disposal, Drake attacked St. Augustine and his men burned St. Augustine to the ground.
While the Spanish held on to St. Augustine, over the decades the residents struggled with Indian raids and pirates. In 1669 the queen of Spain, Mariana, ordered that a fortress be built there to protect Spanish interests in the New World. Though called the Castillo (the Castle of St. Marcos), no royalty lived there - it was simply a fortification to protect the town of St. Augustine.
But it was quite a fortress. The castle was built of coquina, a limestone made up of shells and sand. Nine previous wooden forts erected by the Spanish in the same area had not survived. But with coquina, the enemies' cannonballs just seemed to be swallowed by the walls, like sinking into taffy. They started building this fort in 1672 but didn't finish until 1695.
But the inlet into the Matanzas River was still unprotected. So the Spanish built Fort Matanzas (1740-1742) to defend the "backdoor" to St. Augustine. This fort is more like a watchtower, not a real fort. A park ranger explains that "it sat as a deterrent, like a police car on the side of the road."
The castle withstood all attacks and was never conquered by force. The British got control of Florida in 1763 at the end of the French and Indian Wars. But 20 years later the treaty that ended the American Revolution returned Florida, and therefore the castle and fort, back to Spain in 1783. But by now, Spain couldn't really control its territory and in 1821 ceded Florida to the United States. The castle became a prison for Seminole Indians and later Plains Indians. The structures were decommissioned in 1900 and both became national monuments in 1924.
A visit to the two monuments is a child's dream come true. Castillo de San Marcos has a moat, thick walls, a courtyard, cannons, and lots of rooms to explore. Fort Matanzas looks like a classic fort on an island. It's best to visit Castillo de San Marcos first and then drive about 15 miles south to Fort Matanzas. If you plan to arrive at Castillo de San Marcos when it opens at 8:45 A.M., you can visit both monuments comfortably in one day - a good winter trip.
Before you go, you might want to read A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America, which traces the era between Columbus' voyages to the new world in 1492 and Plymouth Rock. In it the author, Tony Horwitz, goes back and forth between the history and his own travels. He has a good chapter on the settlements in St. Augustine.
Here's a plan of attack for visiting these two monuments:
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
Castillo de San Marcos is in the center of St. Augustine, just outside the walled part of the city. Metered parking is available on the monument site.
* Before you enter the castle, sit on a bench and look out at the channel that was protected by the cannons. The large cannons had a three-mile range.
* Walk around the outside of the perimeter of the castle and note the old Spanish flag flying overhead. The shape of the castle is a square with five-sided bastions at each corner. The outline is difficult to see from the ground, but it means there are no blind spots when sentries patrolled on the upper level.
* Once in the castle, take the self-guided tour - you pick up a brochure at the entrance. Forts were military bases, not homes. During the Spanish period, soldiers walked to work from their homes in town. Only soldiers assigned to guard duty stayed in the castle overnight. And unlike castles in the middle ages, the moat around the castle didn't have any water. Cattle needed for the soldiers grazed there.
* While touring the exhibit rooms, be sure to feel the block of coquina. And in the powder magazine, stoop down to crawl into the original gunpowder room. This small chamber was built to protect precious gunpowder from enemies or fire.
* Also take time to watch the short film. Volunteer re-enactors dressed as Spanish soldiers of the time demonstrate how to load and fire a canon and musket. Their instructions are given in Castilian Spanish but with English subtitles.
* Be sure to attend a ranger talk. Presentations are given on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays on the hour starting at 10 a.m. Rangers recount the history of the castle. "This 'storming the castle' thing went out with the Middle Ages," a ranger said. "When the British burned St. Augustine yet again in 1702, all the people living in the town came into the castle. The smell of people was bad enough but think of the livestock living with you."
* Try to schedule your visit to attend a cannon firing demonstration; they're held Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays on the half hour starting at 10:30 a.m. Volunteers wear costumes made of 25 pounds of hot wool, even on the hottest summer day.
* Notice that roving VIPs (Volunteers-in-Parks) wear appropriate uniforms for the region: a polo shirt, khaki pants, and a wide brim hat. When I volunteer in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I wear a heavy buttoned-down shirt and a ball cap.
Fort Matanzas National Monument
The Fort Matanzas Visitor Center is on Anastasia Island and accessible by car. The fort itself is on Rattlesnake Island, which can be reached by a five-minute free ferry ride operated by the National Park Service. The whole stay at the fort is about 40 minutes - the fort is small and doesn't take long to explore, and you also have to leave the fort itself with the same group you came with. But there are other activities near the visitor center.
* Watch the eight-minute video at the visitor center. This film gives a good overview of the history of the area.
* Hike the nature trail (0.6 mile) through a maritime forest near the visitor center. The trail, mostly on a boardwalk, goes through live oaks, saw palmetto, and red bay trees. If you're lucky, you might see a gopher tortoise mid-morning or late afternoon.
* Ask about the great horned owls nesting close to the visitor center. A pair of owls was spotted a few years ago, and then disappeared. They were seen again in December 2009 and produced a chick in early February. They may be nesting again in the same spot.
* Definitely take the ferry to see the fort. The ferry runs on the half-hour between 9:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. and is first-come, first-served.
* Bring binoculars on the ferry. You can see pelicans, snowy egrets and other shore birds.
* Once at the fort, climb up to the top of the tower via a well-secured ladder. Note the old Spanish flag.
* Go down to the bottom floor of the fort where soldiers slept. Note the modern hoodies hanging on hooks.
* Once back to your car, drive across the highway to the beach area. You can walk and fish but you can't drive on the beach. See an article by Bob Janiskee on the driving ban.
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument: www.nps.gov/casa
Fort Matanzas National Monument: www.nps.gov/foma
A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America by Tony Horwitz (Paperback - Apr 28, 2009)