Along oyster beds, sand dunes, and marshy coastal lowlands rise the church spires and walls of a medieval coastal city. This isn’t Northumbria’s Holy Island or Normandy’s Mont-St-Michel, though. This is the City of St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city continuously occupied by Europeans and African-Americans in North America. This settlement on Florida’s First Coast predates the arrival of the Mayflower pilgrims at Plymouth in 1620 and even the 1607 founding of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement.
The Age of Reconnaissance
St. Augustine was founded by the Spanish in 1565 as part of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century European push to discover, explore, and settle new lands beyond Europe. This “Age of Reconnaissance” is one of the hallmarks for historians of the transition from the late Middle Ages into the Early Modern period in Europe.
Historian J. H. Parry describes the medieval beginnings of this push, especially in Spain:
“The initial steps in expansion were modest indeed: the rash seizure by a Portuguese force of a fortress in Morocco; the tentative extension of fishing and, a little later, trading, along the Atlantic coast of North Africa; the prosaic settlement by vine and sugar cultivators, by log-cutters and sheep-farmers, of certain islands in the eastern Atlantic. There was little, in these early- and mid-fifteenth-century ventures, to suggest world-wide expansion.”
In the later fifteenth-century, though, this expansion indeed exploded globally. The desire to expand wealth through acquisition of new lands, slave labor, and precious metals and stones, as well as the desire to convert any newly-discovered peoples to Catholicism, were powerful enticements for Spain to explore. Developments in nautical navigation, map-making, and ship technology made exploration possible.
Spain’s first encounter with the Florida coast came during the explorations of a medieval Spaniard, Juan Ponce de Léon (b. ca. 1460 in Léon, Spain). In early April 1513, with a license from Spain’s King Ferdinand II (1452–1516), Ponce de Léon sailed from Puerto Rico looking for Bimini (the Bahamas) and, legend has it, the Fountain of Youth. He found Florida instead, landing somewhere between St. Augustine and Melbourne Beach.
Claiming it for Spain, he gave the supposed island its Spanish name of La Florida, or Pascua Florida, depending on which source you look at; both names suggest Ponce de Léon was struck by the abundance of flowers he must have seen. (“Pascua Florida Day” is a state holiday and is celebrated on or around April 2nd each year.) He then sailed southward around the peninsula to explore further. Ponce de Léon returned to Spain and procured Spain’s consent to colonize the New World; thus Spanish settlement began.