St. Augustine's Historical Sites Older Than United States

The Florida Times Union, July 26, 2008 | Go to article overview

St. Augustine's Historical Sites Older Than United States


It wasn't hard to imagine all those blue-clad Spanish soldiers hunting wild pigs in the marsh, or fishing off the banks of the Matanzas River.

I felt sorry for them, foraging for their dinner in red-ribboned tricorn hats and hot wool uniforms while guarding Fort Matanzas from British attack in the mid 1700s.

National Park Service ranger Kevin McCarthy brought those soldiers to life Monday as he welcomed tourists to Fort Matanzas National Monument, 14 miles south of St. Augustine.

The way he told it, men had to be "decent Catholics" and have at least four front teeth to be hired as soldiers back then, because they had to rip cartridges open with their teeth to load their guns.

Dressed from head to toe in a colonial Spanish soldier uniform, McCarthy demonstrated with his gun why having those front teeth was important by demonstrating through pantomime.

"The rate of fire was three shots a minute," he said.

"Rip it, spit, put it in, ram it, aim and fire."

With gas prices at record highs, I decided to look close to home for day-trip adventures, and what better place than St. Augustine, founded in 1565, and a 30-minute drive south from Ponte Vedra Beach?

People come from all over the world to visit the oldest city in the United States, and with good reason. It's steeped in history and there's plenty to see and do.

I've been there many times before as a tourist, but not for a while, so I drove down there with my 14-year-old daughter, Caylie, for a daylong, hands-on history lesson.

I decided to visit the city's three forts, the Castillo de San Marcos, completed by the Spanish in 1695; Fort Mose, the first free black community in what is now the United States, founded in 1738; and Fort Matanzas, completed in 1742.

The castillo is one of the area's best-known attractions.

In the heart of the city, overlooking Matanzas Bay, it's the oldest masonry fort and best-preserved example of a Spanish colonial fortification in the country.

Fort Mose Historic State Park, just north of the city gates on U.S. 1, is fairly new and not as well known. What was once a fortress of log walls reinforced with an earthern berm is now an island in a saltwater marsh.

The Florida Park Service and Fort Mose [pronounced Moe-ZAY] Historical Society are working to tell the story of the fort and settlement where escaped slaves from British colonies once served as a first line of defense against potential British invasions. A free new visitor center features historic displays, and a 700-foot boardwalk takes visitors into the salt marsh for a view of the fort's site.

We began our trip at the 300-acre park containing Fort Matanzas, off Florida A1A.

There is no admission fee to the park, which includes a visitor center, nature trail and passenger ferry to carry visitors across the Matanzas River to the fort.

The park is open every day except Christmas, and the free ferry leaves every hour between 9:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. In June, July and August, it makes two trips every hour to accommodate all the visitors.

While waiting for the ride over to the fort, we watched an eight-minute history video in the visitor's center and then I read the official park service guide.

Matanzas is Spanish for "slaughter," and in 1565, the inlet there was the site of a massacre of French soldiers by the Spanish.

St. Augustine was the heart of Spain's coastal defenses in Florida; the Castillo de San Marcos, in the heart of the city, was its main protection, and Fort Matanzas was built to protect the city's back door.

"It was made for war, not recreation," ferry captain/ranger Elizabeth Carter told us on our short trip over to the amazingly well-preserved fort.

Once off the ferry, visitors are given about 45 minutes to explore, and we were warned to be careful while walking around the coquina-constructed 30-foot tower, sentry box, and soldiers' quarters. …

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