The Founding of Castillo de San Marcos

Don Manuel de Cendoya

About four o'clock on Sunday afternoon, October 2, 1672, Governor Manuel Cendoya walked to a likely looking spot between the strings marking out the lines of the new fortification. He thrust a spade into the earth, and thus broke ground for the Castillo de San Marcos, the stone fort which would replace the succession of smaller wooden forts and would guard the settlement of San Agustín and hold the colony of La Florida for Spain.

Cendoya had arrived in St. Augustine just over a year before with his wife and two infant children. He was specifically charged by Mariana, Queen Regent of Spain, to repair the fortifications of St. Augustine. At that time he had served the Spanish Crown for nearly 23 years, beginning his military service as a private and advancing through the grades of ensign and captain to major and serving in Italy, Flanders, Guipúzcoa, and Extremadura. However, little is known about his experiences or even length of duty in those theaters. Nevertheless, his appointment as governor of Florida certainly capped his military career.

By 1668, the previous Castillo de San Marcos, a wooden structure, was in a very dilapidated condition. St. Augustine, built as an outpost which, by its location, indirectly defended the Spanish Caribbean and New Spain (Mexico), was never self-sufficient. The viceroy of New Spain was supposed to send a situado or subsidy from his coffers each year to support the garrison and town of St. Augustine. However, many years, this subsidy never came. By 1668 more than 400,000 pesos, or eight years' payments, were owed to Florida! The people of St. Augustine were close to starving, and there were certainly no funds to repair the old fort. The beams under the gun platforms, as well as the platforms themselves, were so rotten that they could no longer support cannon. The sea had washed out the shoreline, and waves crashed against the palisade.

In that same year of 1668, a pirate ship under disguise as the situado from New Spain penetrated St. Augustine's meager defenses. In the confused darkness, the pirates seemed everywhere as they stormed ashore. Governor Francisco de la Guerra and a few handfulls 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 they left the next day, 60 people of the community were dead. The Spanish noted that the pirates had taken careful soundings of the inlet. They probably intended to come back and seize the fort and make it a base of operations. Otherwise, they would have burned the town.

The sack of St. Augustine was a blessing in disguise, for it shocked Spanish officialdom 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 Regent Mariana added her authority by ordering the viceroy to pay the Florida funds on time and added a good amount for building a permanent fortress. She also commanded him to support a full 300-man garrison in Florida.

Meanwhile, Governor Guerra's tenure in Florida was ending in 1669, and Queen Mariana appointed Manuel Cendoya to the governorship. Cendoya left Spain in July 1670 aboard the flota or annual merchant fleet to the Caribbean. With him was his wife, Doña Sebastiana de Olazarraga y Aramburu, their 15-month old son Pedro Antonio, and their new 3-month old daughter.

Arriving in Veracruz, he proceeded to Mexico City to confer with the viceroy. He asked for 30,000 pesos (about $210,000 in year 2000 dollars) for the construction of one main and two auxiliary fortifications. In December word arrived of an even greater threat than that of pirates. The British had established a settlement called Charles Towne (Charleston) only two day's sail north of St. Augustine. Cendoya urged that money be allocated to build a fort on St. Catherine's Island (Georgia), also. The general council of finance discussed the matter and allowed Cendoya only 12,000 pesos ($84,000) to begin construction of just one fort. If suitable progress were made, they would consider sending 10,000 pesos yearly until completion.

Meanwhile, Cendoya's journey to Mexico City and housing costs for his family were creating personal financial problems. He could not draw his governor's pay until he arrived in Florida, so he was forced to borrow 16,000 pesos ($112,000) from the situado fund. And for a sure means of eventually recovering his expenses, he placed his then two-year old son on the military roll. Enlisting a child as a private so that his soldier-father could get the pay and rations of the son was a contemporary European military practice.

Finally, in April 1671 the 12,000 pesos and the situado was released, and Cendoya finally got on his way to Florida. He stopped in Havana where he arranged for the engineer Ignacio Daza to come to Florida the following year, and he obtained masons, stone cutters, and lime burners which he took with him to St. Augustine, arriving on July 6.

On assuming the governorship, he moved promptly on the matter of fortifications. Only a week after his arrival, he began securing Indians to serve as laborers to quarry the coquina stone and gather oyster shells and transport these materials to the building site which was to be just north of the old Castillo. He ordered that shovels, picks, pry bars and other tools be made as well as barrels, boxes, and carts. Two lime kilns were constructed to burn the oyster shells into lime.

By the time Engineer Ignacio Daza in September 1672, a substantial amount of lime and stone had been accumulated at the building site. On October 2, the trench for the footings was begun, and five weeks later, the first stones were laid.

However, this energetic start did not last long. By January "the contagion prevailing in the provinces" had sickened and killed many of the Indian workers. The first 10,000 pesos promised from New Spain failed to arrive, and Cendoya was forced to pledge his own salary. When he tried to get reimbursed for his stay in Mexico City, the Council of the Indies in Spain refused his petition on grounds that the stop in New Spain had not been justified, and that Cendoya had arrived at his post in St. Augustine six months late.

The eventual receipt in St. Augustine of the formal disapproval of the petition became moot. Don Manuel de Cendoya had died on March 8, 1673, a month after the Council had made their decision. Perhaps he himself had been a victim of the un-named epidemic that had raged in Florida that winter. Nevertheless, under his direction in this short time, the two seaward bastions and curtain of the new Castillo de San Marcos had been raised to the height of 11 feet.

A feeling persists that in rejecting Governor Cendoya's petition, the Council of the Indies had ill-treated the man. Cendoya's personal meeting with the viceroy in New Spain had instead benefited the royal service immeasurably. Without the presence of Cendoya, the viceroy could have delayed the situado and the royal order to supply funds for new fortifications indefinitely. Instead, Manuel de Cendoya's initiative procured the money and the labor as well as the skills of the engineer Ignacio Daza and made a substantial beginning on the fortress that still stands today as the Castillo de San Marcos.

Arana, Luis Rafael and Albert Manucy. The Building of the Castillo de San Marcos. Eastern National Park and Monument Association, 1977.

"Don Manuel de Cendoya and Castillo de San Marcos, 1669-1673" El Escribano, January 1972. St Augustine Historical Society.

Last updated: October 2, 2018

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