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Historical Background

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

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Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Puerto Rico

Location: City of San Juan; address, 501 Norzagaray Street, San Juan, PR 00901.

The major Spanish defenses of Puerto Rico comprise the San Juan National Historic Site: the forts of El Morro, El Cañuelo, and San Cristóbal; La Casa Blanca (The White House); and the old city walls. They demonstrate Spanish power in the New World. Spain began constructing some of them in the 16th century; thus they are the oldest fortifications of European origin in present U.S. territory. Puerto Rico did not yield the gold the Spanish sought, but it served as an effective base for exploration and defense. Ponce de León established the first colony there, at Caparra, in 1509, and used it as a base from which he sailed to Florida. In 1521, the Spaniards founded San Juan, their first permanent colony in the present territory of the United States, and constructed mighty fortifications to protect their treasure fleets and new base.

La Casa Blanca was built in 1525 as a home for the Ponce de León family. Until 1779, the heirs owned it. In the early years, it was the only stronghold for protection of the townspeople against marauding Carib Indians and pirates. Located on the harbor side of San Juan Island, near historic San Juan Gate, it was the formal entrance to the city through the surrounding defensive wall, where Spanish colonial officials were ceremoniously greeted as they stepped ashore. Now occupied by the Commanding General of the Antilles Command, U.S. Army, it is not open to the public.

San Juan NHS
San Juan National Historic Site.

Castillo de San Felipe del Morro (Castle of St. Philip on the Headland) rises 140 feet above the sea at the west end of the island. Begun about 1539, it was the first authorized defensive work, but did not assume its present proportions until the late 1700's. On the landward side, beyond the moat, is a broad grassy slope. Behind the walls are storerooms, gunrooms, quarters, chapel, and prison. Huge cisterns lie beneath the spacious courtyard, from which ramps, tunnels, and stairways lead to the various parts of the complex. The windswept limestone ramparts that crown the headland were a familiar sight to seafaring men for centuries.

El Cañuelo, or San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross), is a 50-foot-square fort across the harbor entrance from El Morro. Its walls are about 15 feet high, and the flat roof provides a platform for cannon. The Spanish began construction about 1610, when 200 slaves were brought to San Juan and artisans arrived from Spain to work on the defenses.

Castillo de San Cristóbal looms grimly above the city of San Juan. Its construction began about 1633, and by 1678 it resembled its present aspect. As at El Morro, a courtyard, or plaza de armas, is surrounded by gunrooms and barracks. Tunnels lead up to a main gundeck. Highest of all is the Caballero de San Miguel, a massive, two-tiered gun platform 150 feet above the sea at the east end of the island.

The city wall still stands around much of the old town, including the harbor front between El Morro and La Fortaleza. Other impressive remains extend from El Morro to San Cristóbal, on the ocean front. Construction of the walls began in the 1630's and continued intermittently for more than 150 years. On the landward side, much of the wall was razed during the 1800's as the city expanded.

The fortifications of San Juan have a colorful history. In 1595, Sir Francis Drake was lured to San Juan to capture 35 tons of precious metal, awaiting shipment to Spain. His 23 ships and army of 3,000 men faced 1,500 Spaniards with 100 cannon behind the partially developed defenses. Beaten off, Drake sailed for Panama and soon died of fever. Three years later George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, succeeded with a land attack. After a 2-week siege, Cumberland's standard rose over El Morro on June 21, 1598. Dysentery then accomplished what the Spaniards could not. Though forced to leave, the invaders tore down the land wall of El Morro and carried off 80 Spanish cannon.

Battery of El Morro
Battery of El Morro, one of several forts preserved at San Juan National Historic Site, Puerto Rico. The Spanish constructed El Morro between 1539 and the late 1700's.

In 1625, a Dutch fleet under Gen. Bowdoin Hendrick suffered little damage from El Morro's guns. After seizing the other fortifications, the Dutch threw a blockade around El Morro and began an artillery duel. But 38 days after they entered the harbor they were driven away. In 1797, the strengthened defenses of San Juan were again successful, against a much greater threat, when a British fleet of 60 vessels, bearing an army of 7,000 men, launched an attack. Gen. Ramón de Castro's defense of the eastern part of the city held firm; the Spaniards won the ensuing artillery duel and successfully counterattacked.

Adm. William Sampson, U.S. Navy, engaged the modernized batteries of San Juan with his flotilla for 2-1/2 hours on May 12, 1898, during the Spanish-American War, but neither side suffered much damage. U.S. forces landed on the southern side of Puerto Rico, but before they reached San Juan an armistice had been signed. Spain's long rule over the island, including the fortifications that now comprise San Juan National Historic Site, came to an end in 1898, when the United States acquired it.

The National Historic Site was established in 1949, but the U.S. Army uses the forts under a cooperative agreement between the Department of the Interior and the Department of the Army. Regulated public access is permitted, under the supervision of the National Park Service.

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Last Updated: 22-Mar-2005