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Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

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Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings


Location: St. Johns County, on Anastasia and Rattlesnake Islands, 14 miles south of St. Augustine on Fla. A1A (Ocean Shore Boulevard); accessible also by Intracoastal Waterway; address, 8635 A1A South, St. Augustine, FL 32080.

The deciding scenes in the Spanish-French struggle for Florida, in 1565, occurred in the vicinity of Fort Matanzas National Monument, where Spain achieved potential control of the entire continent of North America and actual domination of the present Southeastern United States for nearly 200 years. During most of that period, Matanzas was a typical Florida military outpost, strategically important as a defense to the south entrance of St. Augustine, the capital of Spanish Florida.

The year after the French established Fort Caroline, in 1564, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés arrived under orders from the Spanish Crown to drive the intruders out of Florida. He founded St. Augustine as his base of operations and seized Fort Caroline when the French commander, Jean Ribaut, and a party of some 558 who had set out from the fort to attack the Spanish were shipwrecked far south of St. Augustine. The party marched up the coast in two groups. Menéndez and about 40 men met the first group of about 208 when they were halted by their inability to cross the inlet south of Anastasia Island. Deploying his small force so that it appeared much larger, Menéndez persuaded the Frenchmen to surrender and put all but eight of them to the knife.

Fort Matanzas NM
Fort Matanzas National Monument.

A week later the second group, numbering about 350, under Ribaut himself, arrived at the same place and were also met by Menéndez. Seeing evidence of the previous incident, about 200 Frenchmen fled south, but the Spanish finally captured most of them. Ribaut and the remainder surrendered, and all but 16 were promptly killed. Thus, the location was named Matanzas, meaning "slaughters."

Matanzas came to occupy a key position in the defenses of St. Augustine. By 1569, a blockhouse for 50 soldiers had been built. Later, a "sentinel house" was located at Matanzas, one of a system along the coast. A sentinel house consisted of a thatched palmetto hut, equipped with wooden watchtowers, which accommodated about six soldiers. When the soldiers at Matanzas sighted a ship, a runner carried the news to St. Augustine.

Matanzas Tower
Matanzas Tower, constructed by the Spanish in the years 1740-42 on the site of earlier fortifications, was a key defense of St. Augustine, capital of Spanish Florida.

The present structure, called Matanzas Tower by the Spanish, was built after the English siege of Castillo de San Marcos in 1740 by Gen. James Oglethorpe, founder of Georgia. Construction on marshy little Rattlesnake Island, near the mouth of the Matanzas River, was difficult, but the tower was completed before the end of 1742 in spite of lack of royal support. The English garrisoned it during the period they held Florida, 1763-83, after which the Spanish reoccupied it. Spain, however, had little concern for her crumbling New World empire in the early 19th century, and the interior of the tower was already in ruins when Florida passed to the United States, in 1821.

Mantanzas Tower is still impressive although partially destroyed. It was designated as Fort Matanzas National Monument in 1924 by Presidential proclamation; and in 1933 transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service. A visitor center lies almost directly across from it on Anastasia Island. The monument area includes property on both sides of the inlet.

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Last Updated: 22-Mar-2005