DISCOVERING ST. AUGUSTINE: America's Oldest European City

By Harbold, Laura | Humanities, November/December 2005 | Go to article overview

DISCOVERING ST. AUGUSTINE: America's Oldest European City


Harbold, Laura, Humanities


WHILE LEARNING ABOUT SPANISH colonialism in Florida, middle school students can investigate the eerie tale of a ghost named Catalina.

According to legend, Catalina was a Spanish colonist living in St. Augustine, Florida, during the French and Indian War. When the fighting ended, Spain ceded control of Florida to England, forcing Catalina and her family to flee to Cuba. In 1783, the Paris Peace Treaty ended the American Revolution and restored Florida to Spain. Catalina sailed back to St. Augustine, but died shortly after her return. Today, Catalina is one of St. Augustine's most famous ghosts, rumored to linger at the site of her beloved home.

At a summer workshop for teachers called "Between Columbus and Jamestown: Spanish St. Augustine," social studies teacher Mary Jackson created a lesson plan that capitalizes on the fascination of Catalina's story. Students are asked to write an imagined account of Catalina's daily life as a Spanish colonist in Cuba, or to examine a ghost legend from another period in St. Augustine's four-hundred-and-forty-year history.

Jackson's lesson plan is among dozens developed at the St. Augustine teachers' workshop, which aims to enhance curricula. Hosted by the Florida Humanities Council, the seminar was attended by four hundred teachers in 2004 and 2005. During week-long sessions, scholars specializing in St. Augustine's history and archaeology addressed participants and led walking tours of the city's historic quarter.

James Cusick, workshop facilitator and curator of the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History at the University of Florida, says Spanish rule is often marginalized in American history curricula. "The foundations of our political institutions and the ideas in our constitution all come out of the tradition that was established in the English colonies," Cusick explains, "whereas Florida represents another colonial world."

Spanish colonial St. Augustine was the earliest permanent European settlement in America, predating Plymouth and Jamestown. Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés came ashore on August 28, 1565, the Feast Day of Saint Augustine. Eight hundred soldiers and Spanish colonists joined Menéndez at the new village.

For almost two hundred years, St. Augustine withstood sieges from British colonists in Georgia and the Carolinas. Spanish possession of the city was interrupted only once, during the twenty-year British occupation after the French and Indian War.

In the early nineteenth century, the Napoleonic Wars in Europe diverted Spain from its colonial interests, allowing the United States to make a bid for possession of Florida. Under the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1821, Florida became a U.S. territory, and Spain retained its holdings west of Louisiana. In 1845, Florida became the twenty-seventh state.

"If you're looking at the development of the South, and you leave out what's happening in Florida, then you're missing most of the picture," Cusick says. Conflict caused by differing colonial policies between Spanish Florida and neighboring colonies defined life in the southern tier of the United States, he says. …

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