Situated along the shores of St. Augustine in northeastern Florida stands the only surviving 17th-century military construction in the United States, Castillo de San Marcos.
A product of forces both political and technological, the fortress is evidence of empirical competition that defined so much of the colonial era. Its history is woven into the fabric of America.
On this episode of America’s National Parks, the many faces of Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, as told by Rangers who preserve and protect this historic fort.
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Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.
In 1673, Manuel Cendoya had arrived in St. Augustine, at one of a series of wooden forts that had been destroyed and rebuilt many times over. He was charged by Mariana, Queen of Spain, to repair the fortifications of St. Augustine.
The wooden structure was in a dilapidated condition. St. Augustine was an outpost that indirectly defended the Spanish Caribbean and New Spain, but it was never self-sufficient. The viceroy of New Spain (Mexico today) was supposed to send a subsidy from his coffers each year to support the garrison and town. However, for many years, this subsidy never came. The people of St. Augustine were close to starving, and there were no funds to repair the old fort.
In 1668, a pirate ship, under disguise penetrated St. Augustine’s meager defenses. In the confused darkness, the pirates seemed everywhere as they stormed ashore. The Governor and a meager handful of soldiers were able to take refuge in the wooden fort. Others and civilians ran into the woods as the pirates systematically sacked the town. By the time the pirates left the next day, 60 people were dead.
The sack of St. Augustine was a blessing in disguise, for it shocked Spanish officials into action. The governor of Cuba, as well as the viceroy of New Spain, finally sent money and troops to bring St. Augustine up to strength. Back in Spain, Queen Mariana commanded the viceroy to pay the Florida funds on time and ordered a permanent fortress and to support a full 300-man garrison in Florida.
Meanwhile, the Governor’s tenure in Florida was ending, and the Queen appointed Manuel Cendoya to the governorship.
Arriving in Veracruz, he proceeded to Mexico City to confer with the viceroy. He asked for 30,000 pesos for the construction of one main and two auxiliary fortifications. In December word arrived of an even greater threat than that of pirates. The general council of finance discussed the matter and allowed Cendoya only 12,000 pesos to begin construction of just one fort. If suitable progress was made, they would consider sending 10,000 pesos yearly until completion.
On assuming the governorship, he moved promptly on the matter of fortifications. For more on the Pirate influenced design, here’s Ranger Allen Arnold.
The fort itself was constructed of a unique material that has ensured its survival over the last 350 years. Here’s Ranger Jill Leverett.
When Britain gained control of Florida in 1763, St. Augustine became the capital of British East Florida, and the fort was renamed Fort St. Mark until the Peace of Paris when Florida was transferred back to Spain and the original name was restored. Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1821; who designated it an Army base named Fort Marion in honor of American Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion.
Over the decades, coastal forts have been used for many purposes, one of the most nefarious being prisons for Native Americans. Fort Marion was used to incarcerate Plains Indians, Geronimo’s Apache, and most notably, 200 Seminole, 20 of whom escaped.
Ranger Jill Leverett again.
Today, the St. Augustine area is a haven for recreation, especially golf, featuring several championship courses. But the first golf course in the State of Florida was carved right into the grounds of the fort. Jim Purdy, Park Interpreter.
The fort was declared a National Monument in 1924, and after 251 years of continuous military possession, was deactivated in 1933. The 20.48-acre site was subsequently turned over to the United States National Park Service. In 1942 the original name, Castillo de San Marcos, was restored by an Act of Congress.
Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest and largest masonry fort in the continental United States. It’s open every day except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. All visitors must exit the Castillo no later than 5:15 p.m. Tickets are required and can be purchased in advance online. The city of St. Augustine operates a pay parking lot that can accommodate vehicles up to 21′. A free parking lot for larger vehicles is available a few blocks away.
It’s also worth noting that as this episode airs, the monument is closed in preparation for Hurricane Dorian, which only recently received category five status. All are keeping all those in the path of this storm in our thoughts.