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Colonial Period


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Historical Areas East of the Mississippi River

The Colonial Period 



Special Feature: Oldest existing forts in the United States, perfectly preserved.

Fort Matanzas
Fort Matanzas.
(Photo by Rinehart)

THE two venerable strongholds, Fort Marion (Castle San Marcos) and Fort Matanzas, on the Matanzas River in Florida, were declared national monuments by Presidential proclamation on October 15, 1924. Built by the Spanish, they are impressive memorials of the momentous epoch when European nations were struggling mightily for empire in the New World. These forts, constructed of coquina, a native material of sea shells which Nature has cemented together, have withstood for generations the effects of wind and weather.

Fort Marion. — This fort, the oldest defensive work still standing in the United States, was begun by the Spanish in 1672 as a protection to the town of St. Augustine. Containing four bastions, it is a symmetrically shaped structure of the type perfected by Vauban, the great French military engineer. Its massive ramparts are from 9 to 12 feet thick. Surrounded by a moat 40 feet wide, its only entrance is across a drawbridge. Beautifully arched casemates and carved cornices attest the artistic taste and skill of the Spanish builders. Besides living quarters for the garrison, the fort contains a council room, storerooms, a chapel, a chamber of justice, and dungeons. In one of the dungeons Osceola, the Seminole chief whose name is conspicuous in the tragic history of his people, once was imprisoned. Nearly all of the rooms open on the court, which is about 100 feet square.

Fort Matanzas. — Situated about 16 miles south of Fort Marion, Fort Matanzas guarded the South Inlet of the Matanzas River. It is a small fort, about 40 feet square, located on Rattlesnake Island. Having no moat, it could be entered only by the use of a ladder.

The word Matanzas means bloody. The fort takes its name from a gruesome event which occurred in the vicinity in 1565 when the Spanish slew some 300 French Huguenots.

Fort Matanzas can be reached by boat from Fort Marion or by the Ocean Shore Boulevard to Matanzas Inlet and thence by ferry.

Spain drives out France. — These forts were constructed during the international rivalries over Florida. Spain laid claim to this area through the discoveries of Ponce de Leon, the romantic adventurer who first explored the country in 1513 in quest of the "Fountain of Youth." But, in spite of this early visit, French Huguenots built a fort on the St. Johns River in 1564. Pedro Menendez was sent with a force to drive out these "French heretics", and sighted Florida on August 28, 1565. This was St. Augustine's Day, and Menendez consequently gave that saint's name to the settlement which he established .

Hostilities between the neighboring French and Spanish settlers soon began, and the Spanish were eventually victorious. The French fort was taken, and in addition a large number of Frenchmen, shipwrecked near Matanzas Inlet, were slain.

Spain versus England. — The French Huguenots had been driven out, but a stronger rival soon arose—England. Preying upon the West Indies and Florida, English buccaneers caused endless trouble to Spain and her struggling colonies. In 1586 Sir Francis Drake burned St. Augustine and its partially completed wooden fort.

After 1607, when the English fonded Jamestown, they began other settlements to the north and south. Spain, with her small garrison in Florida, needed a stronger fort if she hoped to retain this territory. Two events forced her hand. In 1668 John Davis, an English freebooter, sacked and plundered St. Augustine, and in 1670 the English founded Charleston, S. C., 200 miles north of the Spanish town. To protect themselves from the increasing danger of English aggression, the present stone fort, the Castle San Marcos (Fort Marion), was begun by the Spaniards.

Oglethorpe invades Florida. — With the founding of Georgia by James Oglethorpe in 1733, rivalry between the Spanish and the English became even more acute. Difficulties arose both on land and sea. Spain, anticipating war, built Fort Matanzas and reinforced Fort Marion.

In 1740 General Oglethorpe attacked St. Augustine. For 27 days, during the heat of the summer, more than a thousand Spaniards sweltered in the stifling courtyard of Fort Marion, only 100 feet square. Failing to take the fort as quickly as they had anticipated, the English became disheartened and gave up the siege. They finally secured the Floridas from the Spanish in 1763 at the close of the Seven Years' War.

Florida purchased by the United States. — In 1783 by the terms of the treaty at the close of the American Revolution, the Floridas were given back to Spain. The problem of raids by runaway slaves and Indians, always a cause of friction between Spain and England, continued to be a source of trouble between the United States and Spain. Georgia plantation owners, suffering from the depredations of these marauders, did not hesitate to cross the Spanish border and run them down. To end these conditions, negotiations for the purchase of Florida by the United States were consummated in 1821.

Under the American regime the trouble with the Indians increased. The second Seminole Indian War broke out in 1835, during which Fort Marion was used as a prison. The most famous prisoner incarcerated there was Osceola, the gifted Seminole leader.

Fort Marion, once vital outpost of the far-flung and mighty Spanish empire, has ceased to be useful for military purposes, but it has lost none of its charm for the visitor. The secret dungeon, Osceola's cell, the council chamber, and the chapel are invested with the atmosphere of romance. Proudly the castle stands upon the bank of the Matanzas River, showing no signs of decay. From its frowning ramparts the observer can look down the narrow streets of St. Augustine and see the old city gates, now a part of the monument, and the quaint Spanish buildings which the old fort for so many decades protected from the terrors of sack and plunder.

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Last Modified: Thurs, Nov 23 2000 10:00:00 pm PDT

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