More than half a century before the Pilgrims set up a colony at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, and 42 years before the first permanent English settlement in North America was founded at Jamestown in Virginia, the Spanish established the city of St. Augustine in the far northeastern corner of Florida.
And yet, despite its status as the oldest continuously occupied settlement founded by non-Indigenous residents in the United States, St. Augustine is rarely mentioned in American history classes.
“I think it’s because it’s Spanish colonial history that we’re talking about,” says Nancy Sikes-Klein, mayor of St. Augustine. “Some people might say it’s Anglo biased.”
Retired American history professor Thomas Graham, who says he can trace his lineage back to the Spanish period, agrees.
“People are oriented towards the northeast, towards the original English-speaking colonies, and for the longest time, St. Augustine and Florida were part of the Spanish Empire,” says Graham, who taught at Flagler College in St. Augustine before retiring in 2008. “St. Augustine and Florida have been neglected for a long time. Although that’s changing a bit as our horizons have broadened.”
The Spanish controlled St. Augustine from 1565 until 1821, except for a brief period of English rule between 1763 and 1783. St. Augustine became part of the United States in 1821 when Spain peacefully turned its Florida territories, which had become a financial burden, over to the Americans.
Today, St. Augustine is a relatively small town. It covers 10.7 square miles (27.7 square kilometers) and has a population of about 15,000.
And, despite centuries of Spanish rule, little visual evidence of Spain’s influence remains in St. Augustine because most of the buildings from that era are long gone.
“We have a plaza, and we have streets laid out in a grid in a traditional Spanish, and before that, Roman style,” Graham says. “The streets are still here, the narrow streets, the small city blocks, and they survive as a part of the oldest part of St. Augustine.”
The oldest structure in St. Augustine is Castillo de San Marcos, a fort built by the Spanish in 1695 to protect against English attacks. The fort is now a national monument.
“It was designed to protect an entire town. Whoever controls the city of St. Augustine and that fortress, at the time, controlled the territory of Florida,” says Chris Leverett of the National Park Service. “The records we have of St. Augustine being under attack describe the town being surrounded by ships, and soldiers occupying the city, the town’s inhabitants taking shelter within the fort.”
The central plaza, as well as the buildings surrounding it, were a key part of St. Augustine’s heyday as a playground for wealthy Americans escaping harsh winters in northern U.S. states. In the 1870s, American industrialist Henry Flagler, a founder of Standard Oil, decided to build three world-class hotels — Hotel Ponce de Leon, Hotel Alcazar and Hotel Cordova — for rich visitors.
“He saw that wealthy northerners have discovered that St. Augustine had warm weather and sunshine in January, which New York did not have,” Graham says. “Prior to this, resort hotels tended to be what we would think of as frontier hotels. You went to one of these hotels and you expected to rough it. You expected that the accommodations and food would not be as good. And, Flagler said, ‘We’re going to change that.’”
But the wealthy didn’t stay long. Within 20 years, the rich discovered that Palm Beach, Florida, had even better weather. Today, Hotel Ponce de Leon is Flagler College and Hotel Alcazar, once famous for its casino and enormous swimming pool, houses city hall and a museum. Only Hotel Cordova, the smallest of the three, still hosts overnight guests, but is now called Hotel Casa Monica.
Still, tourism remains a main source of income for the city. More than 3 million people visited the St. Augustine area between July 2021 and June 2022. Many are day-trippers, and the city is looking for ways to entice them to stay longer.
“We would like to see the cultural visitor, the civic tourist so to speak, because we feel like they will stay longer and they will dig deeper,” Sikes-Klein says. “We have so many layers of history here that we want them to stay longer so that they can explore.”
The city hopes to attract even more visitors as St. Augustine’s status as the nation’s oldest continuously occupied U.S. city becomes more widely known. Centuries after its founding, the historic city still waits to be fully appreciated by a modern audience.