The oldest city in America
Apr 22, 2008
|From Ponce de Lion to Henry Flagler - Tuesday, April 22
The oldest continuously occupied settlement in America
While Columbus is credited with discovering America, what he mainly discovered were the Virgin Islands. Credit for being the first European to set foot on the American mainland goes to Juan Ponce de Lion. (It should probably go to the anonymous Spanish sailor who pulled the dinghy ashore so the great Ponce could step out without getting his armor wet, but Ponce was captain of the ship and RHIP. This historic event took place in the year 1513, on the beaches of what is now St. Augustine.
Fortunately for Juan, the seven foot natives that greeted him were friendly. Not speaking Spanish they hadn’t figured out yet that this 4’-11” pygmy was claiming them for Spain. For the sake of the paperwork Ponce needed a name for what he was claiming, and it would never have occurred to him to ask the natives what they called it, (a fortunate blunder that gave him time to get away, and probably prolonged his life for a few more months!)
The place was pretty enough, and Spain was having it’s annual Festival of Flowers that month, so Ponce decided to name his conquest ‘Florida’. Since he was claiming everything from Labrador to the Rio Grande, the whole continent of North America was to be known as Florida - and so it was on the maps of the day. Fortunately for the Democrats, the Florida of today is considerably smaller.
Ponce was eager to explore his discovery, but on the other side of the peninsula he ran into natives who were not quite so friendly. This tribe had the good sense to put an arrow in him, and he died without ever seeing Spain again. One of those historical facts that reminds us there is indeed a GOD!
Settlement did not begin until the 1560’s, when the Spanish king feared that the French and English might want to get in on his looting of the new continent. To stop them he dispatched a general named Melendez to come here and build a fort. The settlement that grew up around the fort became St. Augustine, recognized today as the oldest city in the United States.
The Saint Augustine of today is a city of considerable beauty. A rich mix of cultures that have all contributed to it’s heritage. Spanish, French, English, Italians and Greeks blended together with the Indians, Africans, Asians and South Americans, and from the architecture to the food, the result is colorful and inviting.
There’s a relaxed atmosphere in the town. Trams loaded with tourists slow the traffic some, but the locals take it in stride and don't seem to mind. On the pedestrian streets of Old Town you see Flagler College students mixed in with geezer groups like Elderhostel - and sooner or later every school kid in Florida comes here on a field trip to learn about their history.
We spent three happy days in St. Augustine, camped at Anastasia State Park across the Bridge of Lions and south of the black and white striped lighthouse. The park is cool and relaxing, with the campsites buried in the shade of the forest, and long stretches of clean white beaches if you want to venture into the sun. From the park it’s a short drive into town, where there is plenty of parking and trams available for a reasonably priced ticket that is good for three days.
We rode and walked all over Old Town, visiting shops and historic sites like the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse and the Old Jail. One very special place is a block of old homes that have been restored, and you can wander through them and imagine how life might have been here over the years. If you like history and architecture it’s a photographer’s paradise, with comfortable old homes, stone statuary, profuse gardens and rusty old fences.
Other highlights included a visit to the spring Ponce hoped might be his ‘Fountain of Youth’, and brunch at a Mayan restaurant we found quite by accident. Fresh squeezed orange juice to die for, and an Apocalypto Sandwich to take you the rest of the way to heaven. Chorizo, egg, beans, avocado, cheese and tomato, on a fresh roll they bake themselves, with habanero salsa for the brave (or foolish). The owner waited on us at a sidewalk table, and it was absolutely the best experience of the day.
We saved the fort, Castillo de San Marcos for another day, and we’ll visit it tomorrow before we leave town.