Bicycling through History

BICYCLING THROUGH HISTORY

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St. Augustine

The mainland of the North American continent was first sighted by the Spanish explorer and conquistador Don Juan Ponce de Leon on Easter, March 27, 1513. He claimed the land for the King of Spain and named it La Florida, which meant "Land of Flowers". Between 1513 and 1563 the government of Spain launched six expeditions to settle Florida. None proved to be enduring, but the claim to the area prevailed. The French established a fort and colony on the St. Johns River in 1564 and, in doing so, threatened Spain's treasure fleets which sailed along Florida's shoreline returning to Spain. King Phillip II of Spain soon named Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, his most experienced admiral, to be governor of Florida, with instructions to explore, protect and colonize the territory. Menendez was also directed to drive out any pirates or settlers from other nations whom he might find.

Admiral Menendez arrived off the coast of Florida on August 28, 1565, known as the Feast Day of St. Augustine. Eleven days later, he and his 600 soldiers and settlers came ashore at the site of the Timucuan Indian village of Seloy with banners flying and trumpets sounding. He immediately began to fortify the location. He named the area St. Augustine.

Using the military forces at his command, Menendez essentially destroyed the French garrison on the St. Johns River. On another occasion, with the help of a hurricane, he also managed to defeat a French fleet enroute to attack his forces. His primary efforts were devoted to building the fort to protect maritime trade and exploration. Having a safe port with fresh water and food supplies was vitally important. He developed the town and organized missions in the area to the convert native American Indians to the Catholic religion. He also supported explorations to find any valuable resources of the land around the northern peninsula of Florida.

St. Augustine, having been founded forty-two years before the English colony at Jamestown, Virginia, and fifty-five years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, is endowed with the distinction as the oldest permanent European settlement on the North American continent.

The most impressive remaining structure of Spanish efforts is the Castillo de San Marcos. The large diamond-shaped fort stands on the edge of Matanzas Bay, with a commanding view of the Atlantic Ocean inlet. This point provides clear view of any ships approaching St. Augustine. Construction of the Castillo began in 1672, and ended for the first time in 1697. The first fort was built of logs. The wood eventually deterioriated. Additions and renovations have been done over the centuries by the fort's Spanish, English and American masters. The fort's current 33-foot gray walls are constructed of coquina. The soft local shellstone was quarried on nearby Anastasia Island. The material is similar to coral and was known to "swallow" cannonballs, rather than cracking under their impact. Outside the walls are the moat and some remains of the log defense, the Cubo line. Rather than alligator-filled water, the moat contained vicious Spanish Bayonet cactus. Inside the Castillo are vaulted-ceiling chambers used in the mid-1800s as prison cells for Indians such as the famous chief, Osceola, who was captured under a white flag of truce. Originally, the mostly windowless rooms were used to store a year's supply of necessities, such as rice, flour, beans and coffee for the town. Spanish soldiers worked at the Castillo in 24 to 48 hour shifts, but no one lived there. It basically became a giant fortified warehouse. That changed in 1702, during the War of Jenkins' Ear. That conflict erupted as a result of Britain's outrage over Spain's alleged mistreatment of its merchant sailors, notably the cutting off of Capt. Robert Jenkins' ear. Many other battles ensued over the fort and the nearby community.

Maintaining St. Augustine became a mighty task for the Spanish over the next two hundred years. In 1586, English corsair Sir Francis Drake attacked and burned the town. In 1668, the pirate Captain John Davis plundered the town, killing sixty inhabitants. Without the courage, perseverance and faith of its early settlers it is doubtful that St. Augustine would have survived.

Only after the British established colonies in Georgia and the Carolinas, did Spain authorize the building of a stone fort to protect St. Augustine as assaults from the north became more frequent. The Castillo de San Marcos took twenty-three years to build, but once in place, stood as the town's stalwart defender. Major attacks were made against her in 1702 by Governor James Moore of South Carolina and in 1740 by General James Oglethorpe of Georgia. Neither seige was successful, however, and to this day, the stone fort has never fallen to enemy attack.

As a result of other military and political conflicts, Spain ceded Florida to England in 1763 primarily to regain control of Havana, now the capital of Cuba. This ushered in twenty years of British rule over Florida. This period coincided with the American Revolution, during which Florida remained loyal to the British Crown. In 1783, under the Treaty of Paris, Florida was returned to Spanish rule for a period of thirty-seven years. The Spanish relinquished control for the last time when Spain sold Florida to the United States of America. At a colorful military ceremony on July 10, 1821, US troops took possession of the territory and Spain was through with Florida forever. Soon after the American occupation, St. Augustine suffered a series of setbacks. In 1821, a yellow fever epidemic brought death to many newcomers. Also, uprisings by the Seminole Indians culminated in the Seminole War of 1836. This combination of events called a halt to development of St. Augustine's economy.

In 1845, Florida became the twenty-seventh state admitted to the Union. The Castillo de San Marcos was renamed Fort Marion in honor of Revolutionary War hero, Francis Marion, but the name did not stick. After having been the capital of East Florida for many years, the capital was moved from St. Augustine to Tallahassee in order to govern the fledgling state. Without continued government support, the town and its main landmark returned to some of its Spanish origins.

St. Augustine had finally begun to prosper when the American Civil War broke out in 1861. Although Florida had seceded with the rest of the Confederacy, St. Augustine was occupied by Union troops throughout most of the conflict. When the war ended in 1865, the town was three centuries old. The war's end brought speculators and land developers to Florida along with the beginnings of a burgeoning tourist industry.

In the 1880's, the sleepy little Spanish town began to bustle with the arrival of Henry M. Flagler and his financial interests from Ohio. He developed the town as a major resort for leisure travelers of the time. It was during the Flagler era that the inhabitants of St. Augustine turned to support the requirements of those who could afford a more luxurious lifestyle. Flagler and his wife had traveled to St. Augustine, where they found the weather delightful, city charming, but the hotel facilities and transportation systems totally inadequate. Flagler soon recognized the potential for developing the entire coastal area to attract visitors from northern climates. Although Flagler remained on the Board of Directors of Standard Oil, he gave up his day-to-day involvement in the corporation in order to pursue his interests in Florida. He returned to St. Augustine in 1885 and began construction on the 540-room Hotel Ponce de Leon. Realizing the need for a sound transportation system to support his hotel ventures, Flagler purchased the Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Halifax Railroad, the first railroad in what would eventually become the Florida East Coast Railway.

Henry Flagler eventually developed the railway system all the way down the coast to the Florida Keys. It could arguably be said that he did substantially more to promote tourism in Florida than Walt Disney. Flagler not only built hotels, but also the infrastructure to support other businesses like the citrus industry. St. Augustine was at a key point for all of the transportation down the Florida coast.

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