Fort Matanzas National Monument is on the east coast of Florida, about 14 miles south of St. Augustine, on a narrow passage of water that connects the Matanzas River to the Atlantic Ocean. Known as the Matanzas Inlet, this channel was strategically important for the Spanish as they battled other European nations for control of the New World. For almost 200 years, the Spanish used the Matanzas Inlet to strengthen their coastal defenses and settlements in Florida. Here they built a watchtower on the barrier island where the Matanzas River and Inlet meet. Today, Fort Matanzas is a unit of the National Park System that stands as a testament to the Spanish empire’s determination to protect its territorial claims for control of the New World against the French and British.
The story of Fort Matanzas and the origin of its name began in 1564, when King Philip II of Spain received news that Frenchman Rene De Laudonniere had established a settlement on land claimed by Spain. Located at the mouth of Florida’s St. Johns River, the French base at Fort Caroline posed a serious threat for Spanish treasure fleets sailing to and from Europe. French establishment of Fort Caroline amidst the Protestant Reformation fueled the tensions between the Spanish and the French. The news that Huguenots--French Protestants--were settling in Florida further aggravated the devoutly Catholic King Philip. Although the Spanish empire clearly demonstrated its objection to the Huguenots' presence in Florida, the French continued to supply the settlement, and in May of 1565, Jean Ribault sailed to Fort Caroline with 600 soldiers to reinforce the French post.
Soon after Ribault reached Fort Caroline, King Philip ordered Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles to remove the French and establish Florida’s first Spanish settlement. By August, Aviles reached the eastern coast of Florida with 800 Spaniards. After a brief skirmish with the French, Aviles and his men retreated south of Fort Caroline and founded Florida’s first Spanish post in the area where St. Augustine is today. Once the Spanish settled in Florida, the French began planning an attack on the newly founded Puerto San Agustin, and on September 10, Jean Ribault and his men moved to attack the Spanish post. Although the French initially sailed toward St. Augustine, a hurricane changed their course, and Ribault and his men landed south of their intended destination.
As the French lay shipwrecked on the coast of Florida between present day Daytona Beach and Cape Canaveral, Aviles and his men headed north to Fort Caroline and attacked the French settlement. Because Ribault and his soldiers left the post unprotected, the Spanish easily captured Fort Caroline, killing most of its residents, except for women and children Aviles sent by ship to Havana. With Fort Caroline destroyed, Aviles returned to San Agustin and met with some Timucuan Indians who informed him about Ribault’s shipwreck a few miles south. Aviles immediately jumped at the opportunity to remove the French from Florida marching 14 miles south of the Spanish post with 50 soldiers to an inlet where they massacred early 250 of the shipwrecked French Huguenots, including Ribault. From that moment on, the inlet and river became known as Matanzas, which in Spanish means “slaughters”. The park commemorates the killing of the French Huguenots by the Spanish.
After the French massacre, the Spanish town at St. Augustine continued to grow, and by 1695, the Spanish completed Castillo de San Marcos, which eventually became the heart of Florida’s coastal defenses. Although Castillo de San Marcos protected the coast of St. Augustine from pirate and enemy attacks, the Spanish soon realized that the stone fortress could not protect the town from its one and only weakness, the Matanzas Inlet. Since the inlet allowed enemy vessels to attack St. Augustine from the rear, the Spanish began building watchtowers on a barrier island near the inlet that would allow them to control the Matanzas River. Initially, the towers the Spanish constructed were simple structures made out of wood, which often needed replacement since the material could not withstand fires and the wet Florida climate. After numerous pirate attacks and as the British threat intensified, the Spanish recognized the need for a stronger fort.
Completed in 1742, Fort Matanzas is 50 feet wide and 30 feet high, built out of coquina, a local shell stone that the Spanish also used in their construction of Castillo de San Marcos. The Spanish usually stationed two gunners and four infantrymen at Fort Matanzas, but as international tensions increased, so did the numbers of soldiers stationed at the fort. Five guns protected the inlet; some weighing six pounds and one up to 18 pounds, they could easily reach a target less than a half a mile away. To maintain the fort, the Spanish rotated soldiers monthly between St. Augustine and Fort Matanzas, keeping soldiers on high alert to ward off British fleets. After defeating the British who attempted to gain control of the inlet in 1742, Fort Matanzas never again fired its guns.
When the Treaty of Paris of 1763 transferred Florida to Britain at the end of the French and Indian War, the British gained control of Fort Matanzas. In the initial years of the British occupation, the fort saw little change to its infrastructure, but as the American Revolution gained momentum, the British began to add more cannons. Although the struggle during the war of independence took place in the north, British forces faced a possible threat from the Spanish, who under General Bernardo de Galvez had already captured Pensacola. Before the Spanish could launch an attack, the British lost. The second Treaty of Paris returned Florida to Spain in 1784. The Spanish made little effort to maintain Fort Matanzas after that, so by the time the United States acquired Florida in 1819, the fort was in poor condition.
After its abandonment, erosion and rainwater took a heavy toll on the historic structure. In the late 19th century, Henry Flagler’s resorts began attracting wealthy visitors to Florida, especially St. Augustine. Many traveled to the Matanzas Inlet to see the ruins. They petitioned the United States Congress to save Fort Matanzas, and in 1916, after recognizing the fort’s historic significance, the Federal Government began to restore the site.
At Fort Matanzas National Monument, visitors can enjoy a ferry ride, explore the fort and nature trails, and learn about the history of the site. To reach Fort Matanzas, visitors must take a ferry from the visitor center.
Fort Matanzas National Monument is located at 8635 A1A South approximately 15 miles south of St. Augustine, FL. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. The national monument is open daily from 9:00am to 5:30pm, and closed on Christmas Day. The visitor center is open from 9:00am to 4:30pm. Admission to the park is free, and there are no fees for taking the ferry to the fort. For information on the ferry schedule and park, visit the National Park Service Fort Matanzas National Monument website or call 904-471-0116.