- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2007


This city almost erected a billboard outside Jamestown, Va., to congratulate it on its 400th birthday — and remind everyone that St. Augustine passed that milestone four decades ago. It would have said, “Happy birthday to our younger brother,” former Mayor George Gardner said.

This month, Jamestown is celebrating the anniversary of its founding on May 14, 1607, making it the oldest English settlement in the nation. Queen Elizabeth II paid a visit, greeted by Vice President Dick Cheney. A Time magazine cover trumpeted “America at 400.”

But St. Augustine is the oldest city in the United States, and its historians and officials wonder what all the Jamestown brouhaha is about. Their city was founded Sept. 8, 1565, by Spaniard Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his expedition of 500 soldiers, 200 sailors and 100 farmers and craftsmen. Some brought their wives and children. They, not the Pilgrims, celebrated the first Thanksgiving in the New World. The first schools, hospitals and banks in what is now the United States were built here.

Not that many Americans know.

“We speak English, and we’re reared in … English historical traditions, which have tended to depreciate what the Spanish have contributed to history,” said Bill Adams, the city’s director of Historic Preservation and Heritage Tourism. Historians have tended to “write the Spanish out of their history books or diminish their contributions. So Americans have inherited that.”

Mr. Adams says St. Augustine is also to blame for why it gets no respect compared with Jamestown and Plymouth, Mass., where the Pilgrims settled in 1620.

“It hasn’t advertised itself very well. It hasn’t gotten any press,” Mr. Adams said.

He said St. Augustine’s contribution to American history should be celebrated. He thinks the city will get more notice with the growing Hispanic population of this country and the 450th anniversary in 2015. The king and queen of Spain, who visited in 2001, will be invited back.

“I don’t know how long it will take before the Spanish people realize that St. Augustine is their Williamsburg or their Plymouth or their Jamestown,” Mr. Adams said. “St. Augustine is not only the birthplace of European culture and settlement in the United States, but of Spanish culture” in North America.

William Kelso, director of archaeology at Historic Jamestowne, who helped discover the missing fort in Virginia, said he understands the importance of St. Augustine. He attended the city’s 400th birthday celebration in 1965.

“St. Augustine is an untold story, almost like Jamestown,” Mr. Kelso said. “All the colonies have something to add to the creation story of modern America.”

Despite similarities among St. Augustine, Plymouth and Jamestown, St. Augustine has one big difference.

“We are a living city,” Mr. Gardner said, while Jamestown and Plymouth are reconstructions. “This is the oldest town plan in the United States. It still exists. It is still intact. There are 36 buildings dating back to Colonial times and 40 that were reconstructed for the city’s 400th birthday.”

Although Jamestown was Virginia’s capital from its founding until 1699, it had ceased to exist in the mid-1700s. It was settled for economic reasons; religion led to Plymouth’s founding. Spain established St. Augustine for military reasons.

“They didn’t come here to settle Florida. They didn’t come here to mine its riches. They didn’t come here to colonize. They came here to set up a military base that would prevent their enemies from establishing a position from which they could menace the treasure ships of Spain off the coast,” Mr. Adams said.

In those early years, St. Augustine’s settlers had to defend against French and British attacks, sometimes hostile Indians, mosquitoes, disease, pirates and hurricanes.

“Perseverance against tremendous odds accounted for the city’s survival,” Mr. Gardner said.

To protect St. Augustine, the Spanish built the Castillo de San Marcos, an imposing fort constructed of the stone coquina between 1672 and 1696.

In 1738, the Spanish established Fort Mose, an outpost about two miles north of the Castillo. It was the first free-black community in what is now the United States.

About 100 men, women and children lived in the settlement. Most had been enslaved by the British and were given their freedom if they could escape and make their way to the Spanish territory. As a condition, they had to serve in the militia and convert to Roman Catholicism, said Derek Hankerson, a filmmaker and member of the Fort Mose board of directors.

St. Augustine also can lay claim to the first European birth in what was to become the United States — Martin de Arguelles, born in 1566 or 1567. That beats the birth of Virginia Dare in North Carolina in 1587 and the first Pilgrim birth of Peregrine White on board the Mayflower in Cape Cod Harbor in 1620, said David Nolan, a writer and historian in St. Augustine.

“In fact, in 1577 — a decade before Virginia Dare — Pedro Menendez Marques wrote that were ‘forty-four women, sixty-two children, and 11 pregnant women’ in St. Augustine,” Mr. Nolan said.

“Do you expect that the Spanish were here for 42 years without procreating?” Mr. Adams said.

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