Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Historic St. Augustine

One of my favorite places in Florida is St. Augustine.  Its a very historic place.  Its a compact city that's easy to get around either by walking or biking  Its got several historical attractions and is very close to some great beaches and coastal waterfronts.  But, I really love all the history.  It was originally founded in 1565 by the Spanish and remained mostly under Spanish control until 1821.  For almost 250 years it was a Spanish city.

I've spent several winters in St. Augustine.  In this post, I revisit some of the historical attractions in the St. Augustine area that I've explored.

One place I explored was up near Jacksonville to visit the Ft. Caroline National Memorial and the Timucuam Preserve.  Ft. Caroline was the first French settlement on North America.  It was started in 1562 near the mouth of the St. Johns River but only lasted 3 years when the Spanish decided they didn’t like having a French settlement near their Caribbean trade routes.  The Spanish raided the settlement and massacred most of the settlers.  They also pursued some of the fleeing colonist south to St. Augustine (to the Matanzas River Inlet) where they finished off most of the remaining French settlers. That was it for the French in North America for awhile until they started settlements in Canada and down the Mississippi River.  At Fort Caroline there's a small museum and a reconstructed replica of the French fort.  The museum also has some exhibits about the Timucuans.

Fort Caroline National Memorial
The Timucuans were the native people of northern and central Florida.  They lived mostly along the coastal areas.  There were about 10,000 Timucuans prior to the Europeans arriving.  The Timucuans were friendly and initially helped the settlers.  But things turned bad for them when disease struck and the European’s started taking what they wanted from them.  By the early 1700’s, they had all died or been killed. Today there are no Timucuans. 

During one stay, I happened to learn about one of St. Augustine’s darker moments in its recent history.  It was a brutal unsolved murder of a socialite that happened in 1973.  Athalia Ponsell was a former New York model, dancer, television personality, and fiancee of Joseph Kennedy Jr.  She retired to St. Augustine in the 1970’s.  Within two months of arriving in the city, she married the mayor, James Lindsley, who was known to settle most disputes with his fists.  The marriage didn’t go well and within a few weeks they had separated and were living in separate houses.
Athalia Ponsell

Athalia was an outspoken political activist and took a strong interest the city’s affairs.  She ended up being very critical of certain county and city officials and rustled a lot feathers.  Early one evening she was found hacked to death on the front steps of her home in one of St. Augustine’s upscale neighborhoods.  The murder weapon was a machete.  Her neighbor, the county commissioner, who she was having an ongoing feud with, was charged with the murder.  Even though a blood trail was found leading to his house and one witness saw him leaving the crime scene, he was acquitted within 2 weeks.  No other persons were charged and the murder remains unsolved.  Pretty strange for this type of murder of a mayors wife and go unsolved.

Athalia Ponsell's House at 124 Marine Street
The Castillo de San Marcos is a key landmark that dominates the waterfront of St. Augustine.  The Castillo is a large diamond shaped fortress that the Spanish built in 1672 to defend the area.  Its been fully restored and is now a very popular National Park Monument.  I’ve visited several times and on one trip wanted to revisit to review it’s period as a prison for Native American Indians.  When Spain ceded Florida to the US in 1821, the Castillo became a US Army fort and was renamed Fort Marion.  The Army used it mostly as a prison.  After the Civil War, it was as a prison for Native American Indians.  When Geronimo’s band of Chiricahua Apaches surrendered to General Crook in 1886 they agreed to be incarcerated in the east for 2 years with understanding that they would be returned to a reservation in the west with their families.  President Grover Cleveland didn’t agree with the terms Crook offered and had the Apaches sent to Florida to be held indefinitely as prisoners of war.

Castillo de San Marcos
The main band of Chiricahua’s along with Geronimo’s family was sent to Fort Marion.  A total of 491 Chiricahua’s were held at Fort Marion with all but 85 of them being women, children, and non-combatants (even the Apache scouts who helped the Army track down Geronimo were imprisoned).  Geronimo and fifteen others were sent to Fort Pickens outside of Pensacola.  The Chiricahua’s didn’t fair well at Fort Marion.  There was little space for them and most had to live in tents on the upper walls of the fort.  During the two years there, 24 died and all the children were taken from there parents (without their consent) and sent to Carlise PA.  After two years at Fort Marion, the Chiricahua’s were sent to a prison in Alabama for 6 years and then incarcerated at Fort Sill Oklahoma for 20 years.  They were released in 1914 by an act of Congress, 28 yrs after they had agreed to a 2 year imprisonment.  Pretty bad treatment given that most were women and children and who had done nothing wrong.

At the Castillo, there is one room with two small plaques about the Western Native Americans held at the fort.  When I asked one of the interpreters about the Apaches that were held at the fort, she new very little.  There are only four pages of pictures in a book at the front desk that you have to ask permission to see.  The park service pamphlet on the Castillo has only 10 words mentioning that Indians captured in western military campaigns were held at the fort.

Fort Mose is just north of St. Augustine.  It was established by the Spanish in 1738 as a free black settlement.  The Spanish offered asylum to fleeing slaves from the British colonies and many settled at Fort Mose.  Things went pretty well for the people at Fort Mose until the British temporarily took back St. Augustine in 1763 as part of the Treaty of Paris.  Most of the free blacks and Spanish settlers fled to Cuba.  Fort Mose is a state historical park with a small museum.

These are just some of the historical things I've explored in St. Augustine. 


  1. Great piece! I live in Jacksonville and we love to spend time in St. Augustine.