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The first St. Augustine, all three of them

Fort San Filipe II at Santa Elena, SC
Fort San Filipe II at Santa Elena, SC
© From the book, “Earthfast, the Dawn of a New World” by Richard L. Thornton

On September 28, 1565 a colonizing expedition led by Spanish Governor Pedro Menéndez de Avilés arrived off the South Atlantic Coast. He had a contract with the King of Spain, whereby he was to found three colonial towns in La Florida within a one year period. He landed 200 soldiers nearby the next day. On September 7, he landed 300 soldiers plus their wives and children. The next day, he landed 100 more colonists, plus most of the expedition’s supplies and munitions. A communal building in the nearby Native village of Seloy was fortified and converted into a casa fuerte or block house. The colonists took over the homes of the Natives.

The forts built by Captain Juan Pardo were for small units of infantry.
© From the book, “Earthfast, the Dawn of a New World” by Richard L. Thornton

The Spanish first dispatched a small fleet to the north to determine the location of the French colonists’ Fort Caroline. The Spanish approached the fort under the pretense of being friendly, but soon showed their true intent by firing on French ships. The Spanish and French lost contact with each other as a hurricane approached. The Spanish ducked into an estuary as the entire French fleet sailed past them, looking for a fight to settle who could colonize North America.

On September 18, Menéndez launched an overland assault on the fort during a hurricane. By the morning of September 21, Fort Caroline was flying the Spanish flag and most male Protestant colonists had been executed. The entire French fleet, which had chased after the Spanish ships, was wrecked by the hurricane. Over the next few weeks, most of the survivors of the ship wrecks were put to the sword.

All published references, all but one book, plus all online references like Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica and the Catholic Encyclopedia state that the Spanish colony was founded in St. Augustine Bay, FL and Fort Caroline was located “somewhere” on the St. Johns River in present day Jacksonville, FL. The problem is that not one colonial era map or archive from any European country backs up those statements. They were the speculations of two mid-19th century amateur historians.

The first location of St. Augustine was established in September 1565. Fort St. Augustine was definitely relocated to Anastasia Island, FL in March of 1566, while at the same time, most of the colonists were transported to Port Royal Sound, SC to occupy the new capital of Santa Elena. From 1566 to 1576, St. Augustine was essentially a fortified coast guard station, with a garrison of less than 100 men. Due to a Native American uprising, Santa Elena was temporarily abandoned in 1576. The settlement on St. Augustine Bay was then across the harbor to its current location. The first Fort San Marcos was built at that time. It was burned by the English in 1587. Afterward, timbers salvaged from the buildings at Santa Elena were used to re-build St. Augustine, while Santa Elena was permanently abandoned.

Searching for the facts

The journey began in 2007, when a small group of researchers began the attempt to create a more complete understanding of the Native American history of the South Atlantic Coast. By 2011, it was obvious that the French did not build Fort Caroline (1564) in the Jacksonville, Florida area. By early 2012, the location was believed to be somewhere on the south side of the Altamaha River in Georgia. In December of 2013 the ruins of two ancient earthen forts were found on the South Channel of the Altamaha River. In the spring of 2014, researchers stumbled upon an even more amazing fact from Spanish Colonial archives. The first St. Augustine was built near the mouth of the Satilla River in Georgia.

It is one thing to write a journalistic article for general public consumption. Writing a technical report for the scientific community is another matter. A journalistic article should be factual, not opinionated like a blog, but it also should not be cluttered with technical information that makes the text flow roughly.

A technical report, that will turn the history books upside down, must be thoroughly backed up with facts and look at alternative interpretations of those facts. It was in the process of creating a technical report on the search for Fort Caroline that the glaring error on St. Augustine’s history appeared. Until the discovery of the earthen forts on the Altamaha River, there were aspects of Fort Caroline’s location that are subject to interpretation and debate. Such was not the case with St. Augustine.

Governor Pedro Menéndez de Avilés wrote several reports to the King of Spain, concerning the progress on colonizing La Florida. One did not lie to the King of Spain and expect to keep one’s head. Menéndez stated that he first sighted land on August 28, 1565 (Feast Day of St. Augustine) at Latitude: 30°30'00"N. That location is near the southern end of Amelia Island, FL. All references state that Menéndez first saw land at present day St. Augustine, FL. That city’s latitude is 29°53'45"N. It is not even close.

Menéndez stated that the latitude of Fort Caroline was at location a little over 31°. The latitude of the South Channel of the Altamaha River (Georgia) at the Interstate 95 bridge is 31°20'09"N. That sounds fairly close. Some of his later letters suggest that the first location of St. Augustine was at about the latitude of 31° on a promontory where rivers from the north and south met. That location matches the confluence of the Satilla and Little Satilla Rivers in Georgia. Earlier letters suggest a more southerly location, but not at St. Augustine, FL.

So where was the first St. Augustine?

Pinpointing the location of the first town of St. Augustine gets into the same gray areas that hampered the search for Fort Caroline. A surviving drawing of the first fort shows it on a curved promontory that protrudes into the bay or sound. A map produced in 1578 by the royal geographer of Spain, Geronimo Chaves, shows a large town name San Mateo on the south side of the St. Marys River, which now divides Florida and Georgia.

Fred C. Cook, a professional archaeologist in Brunswick, GA has found what he thinks are Colonial Spanish artifacts near the banks of the Little St. Marys River. However, he currently believes that this is the location of Fort Caroline and Fort San Mateo. The Little St. Marys River can be as shallow as one foot at that location. No sailboats could have floated there because of the depth of their keels. The location could possibly be that of Mission San Mateo or perhaps the first St. Augustine.

Another potential location for the first St. Augustine is the northern end of Amelia Island, FL where the Spanish built Fort San Carlos and Americans built Fort Clinch. Even though Port Fernandino on Amelia Island is adjacent to the state line, it is the deepest port on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. It would have made an excellent location for a colonial town. It does not seem to be located at the confluence of two rivers flowing from the north and south, but perhaps could be interpreted as such.

The Native village of Seloy is mentioned briefly in one letter by Menéndez, but never is shown on a Spanish map. All French, English and Dutch maps locate Seloy on the north side of the Satilla River in Georgia. Nevertheless, all references, plus history and archaeology books published by Florida universities place Seloy somewhere near St. Augustine.

In 1773, botanist William Bartram visited the ruins of a large Indian town in the vicinity where European maps show Seloy to have been. Through the years, amateur collectors have found numerous European artifacts in the soil at that location. Several other large Native American town sites are known along the Satilla River.

A promontory at the confluence of the Satilla and Little Satilla Rivers matches closet the physical descriptions of the first St. Augustine by Menéndez. To the east is one of the deepest harbors on the Atlantic Coast of North America, St. Andrews Soun. One of the first Spanish missions on the South Atlantic Coast, San Pedro, was founded in the vicinity of this promontory. The location is 22 miles south, “as a crow flies,” from the probable site of Fort Caroline on the Altamaha River. That is just about right for the two days that the Spanish army took to reach Fort Caroline.

There is also physical evidence. On the satellite image of St. Andrews Sound, a triangular moat and a trapezoidal earthwork can be clearly seen. Are they the ruins of Spanish colonial forts? The answer is “Maybe, yes and maybe, no.” They could date from the British colonial era, the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Antebellum Period or the American Civil War. There were numerous military actions on the coast of Georgia during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. These earthworks could not even be fortifications, but merely something connected with agriculture. However, while triangular forts were common during the Early Colonial Period, they are not typical of later eras.

To get beyond the level of archival research and speculation, on-site archaeological work will be required on Amelia Island, the shores of the Little St. Marys River, the shores of the Satilla River and the South Channel of the Altamaha River. The full story of North America’s heritage has yet to be told.

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