Ever wonder why the tiny fledgling settlement St. Augustine built a coquina stone fortress with walls 30 feet high and 14 feet thick for defense?
According to local historical guide and author Skadi Beorh , 344 years ago this month when raiders of the English pirate Robert Searles attacked, up to half the town’s inhabitants lay dead in the streets after rushing out in their night clothes to help the beleaguered Spanish garrison defend their city. One tiny victim of the raid – a five year old girl, reputed to have been shot by accident by Searles himself, had the last name of Ponce de Leon.
“The Searles raid was a pivotal moment in history for St. Augustine. Recognizing their vulnerability, Spain’s Council of the Indies put up the money for the Castillo fort to be built,” said William Kunze, who heads up the Searles’ Buccaneers reenactment group and has portrayed the notorious pirate captain in the battle since 1990. “In a hundred-year span, the attack was one of three attempted pirate raids on the city, but this one was different because the others were repelled. In this sneak attack, they actually did get in the ravage the city.”
Before the pivotal attack, the town had been protected by a series of wooden forts, one of which was uncovered on the grounds of the historic Colonial Quarter by City Archaeologist Carl Halbirt just last year.
Starting tomorrow, February 28 and continuing through Saturday, March 2, events to mark this most bloody attack in the city’s history will be featured at the Fountain of Youth and in the Old City downtown on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with a parade on Friday and a spectacular reenactment of the battle on Saturday.
The public is invited to visit the Fountain of Youth where an authentic 17th century buccaneer encampment will be set up from Thursday afternoon through Saturday.
A parade in the downtown on Friday afternoon will begin at 5 p.m. at Cathedral Street and proceed down St. George Street to the Santo Domingo Redoubt on Orange Street (by the parking garage).
Events and demonstrations will continue all day Saturday at FOY, leading up to the reenactment of the raid and battle in the downtown at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday.
The pirate invaders will emerge from Aviles Street, America’s oldest, and engage in a battle with the Spanish Garrison that will include black powder muskets and live cannon fire. The battle reenactment will continue through the Plaza de la Constitucion, down Charlotte and Treasury to St. George Street. The Spanish will make a heroic final stand at the Redoubt and the field near the old City Gates. Best viewing of the battle for the public will be at the plaza and Redoubt on Orange Street.
Kunze said most people call Searles a pirate, but in reality –like many marauders of the day, Searles had an actual “Letter of Marque” from the English crown.
“This deemed him ‘privateer’ rather than a pirate, although I’m sure the townspeople had some other choice names for him,” Kunze said.
Kunze also pointed out that while people in modern times associate pirates with ‘treasure’, the more typical pirate booty consisted of foodstuffs and supplies such as barrels of rum and molasses.
Another little known aspect of the Searles raid was that some of the townspeople were taken aboard the ship as hostages, along with 40 out of 60 of the town’s cows.
Kunze added with a wink, “Some of the wives decided to stay with the pirates.”
Kunze grew up in Florida and said he developed a love for the 16th century and his state’s history early on, and thus for America’s Oldest City.
“The idea is to keep the city’s heritage alive, and living history events like this one are a way to reach out to people, and especially children, in a way that gets them excited about the city’s incredible past. On a personal level, history has been my lifelong passion, so for me, this is a great opportunity to pass it on,” he said.
For more information on Searles’s Sacking of St. Augustine, reenactment volunteer and event information, as well as some fascinating historical documentation, check out the group’s website at www.Searlesbucs.com.