Getting to Know the First Settlers of St Augustine

J. Michael Francis spent nearly a decade combing through thousands of scribbled notes, ship logs and dusty relics to chronicle Florida’s Spanish past. He hoped that one day he could bring that once hazy picture into sharp focus.

For the chair of the Florida Studies program at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, that day was Thursday (3/15/2018), when the website, La Florida: The Interactive Digital Archive of the Americaswas formally unveiled. 

Francis and his team have identified more than 13,000 of Florida’s earliest colonial settlers, representing men and women from the Americas, Africa and Europe. And they weren’t only from Spain — some came from Portugal, Greece, Italy, Holland, Belgium, France, Germany and Croatia.

We catch up with Michael Francis and local historian Scott Grant at the Ponte Vedra Cultural Center giving a presentation on this digital archive and sharing some wonderful information on things found on it.

Honoring the Fallen of the 2nd Seminole War

The 12th Annual Commemoration of the end of the 2nd Seminole War was held in St. Augustine on Saturday, August 17, 2019. The event featured a parade and a ceremony at the pyramids at the National Cemetery to honor all those who perished in that conflict. The parade began at 10:45 a.m. at St. Francis Barracks, and then proceeded to the National Cemetery. Historical re-enactors in period costume participated in the parade, and members of the public were welcome to join them. In 1842, officers, soldiers, and musicians paraded through the streets of St. Augustine to inter the casualties of the war in the gardens of the St. Francis Barracks. Three coquina pyramids were erected in the cemetery at that time to mark the burial place of more than 1,400 soldiers who died during those wars. The pyramids are known as the Dade Monument after Major Francis L. Dade, who was a leader in the Seminole Wars. This annual heritage event was organized by the West Point Society of North Florida and The Seminole Wars Foundation.

16 Rabbis Honored with a Commemorative Plaque

The St. Augustine Jewish Historical Society held a reception to honor the 16 Rabbis arrested in St. Augustine on June 18, 1964. Both the plaque dedication and the reception were held on the site of the arrest, at the Hilton Garden Inn Bayfront, 32 Avenida Menendez in St. Augustine, which was the Monson Hotel in 1964. The event began at 10:30 a.m. on the steps where Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested in June 1964 at the then Monson Hotel. A reception followed the dedication of a plaque to commemorate the largest mass arrest of Rabbis in United States history. Stacey Heath brought and read a statement from Rabbi Sills who was one of the 16 Rabbis and is still alive but in fragile health, living in Eugene Oregon.

The Battle of Bloody Mose

Fort Mose in St. Augustine is the site of the first legally sanctioned free African American settlement. While the fort itself no longer stands, the site it stood on still feels full of the groundbreaking history that was made there. In 1738, the Spanish governor of Florida chartered the settlement of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosa, or Fort Mose. This was the very first of its kind, because it was built specifically for those people fleeing slavery from the English colonies in the Carolinas. The 1740 Spanish victory at the Battle of Bloody Mose is reenacted annually in St. Augustine. This was the 277th anniversary of the battle, and the event was presented by Florida Living History, Inc., and the Fort Mose Historical Society from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 15, 2019, at Fort Mose, just north of historic St. Augustine. Visitors could participate in the commemoration of the battle and enjoy reenactments of the 1740 battle that forced the British to retreat from Spanish Florida. Reenactments of the battle itself took place at 12:00 noon and at 2:00 p.m. Other activities occurred throughout the day, with musket demonstrations and colonial Florida craft-making stations, including blacksmithing, 18th-century foods, finger weaving, and pine needle basket weaving. There were also a variety of free children’s activities, plus food and craft vendors. Before and after the battle, visitors could enjoy interacting with volunteers in period dress while they step back in time and experience what it was like on the fateful day before the big battle between the British, who were occupying Fort Mose, and the Spanish from the Castillo. Scenes include Yamassee natives preparing for battle, British soldiers planning the surprise attack of the Castillo de San Marcos, and British General Oglethorpe and his forces encamped at Fort Mose.

La Santa Maria Arrives in St Augustine

The tall ship Nao Santa María, a replica of one of the most famous ships in all of human exploration, arrived into harbor in St. Augustine at midday on Tuesday, April 23, 2019. The historic ship will remain here for a limited engagement, from April 24 through May 5, 2019. The Santa María was one of the three Spanish vessels that made the journey of discovery, captained by Christopher Columbus, in 1492. The ship will be open for tours during this visit from 10:00 a.m. through 7:00 p.m. each day. Guests will be able to roam through all five of the ship’s decks and browse the informative panels on the history of the Santa María and imagine what it was like to be a Spanish sailor 500 years ago.

St Augustine’s Veterans Day 2018

The Military Officers Association of America – Ancient City Chapter and Veterans Council of St. Johns County hosted this event at Anastasia Baptist Church. There were atrium displays from 9:30-11 a.m., and the main event began at 11:11 a.m. The displays included the Traveling Vietnam Wall and Agent Orange Quilt of Tears. Admission was free.

St Augustine Lighthouse 144 Years Later

An anniversary celebration took place on Saturday, October 13 from 11 A.M. to 3 P.M. featuring Meet-the-Lighthouse-Keeper photos, a cake cutting at 2 P.M., games on the front lawn, and self-guided tours of the historic tower and Museum exhibits. The celebration will launch a year-long observation culminating with the 145th anniversary on October 15, 2019.

A Film by Derek Hankerson

Gullah Geechee Corridor & the East Coast Greenways documentary features the rich culture of African Americans in St. John’s County, Florida while highlighting three cycling trails known as Rails to Trails, the SEA Island Loop, and the East Coat Greenways.  The national release of the full-length film is scheduled for October 2018 during Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Month.  An exclusive showing occurred on September 27th at the St Augustine Lighthouse at 6:00pm. Derek Hankerson the writer, producer and director of the film introduced the film to a packed house. After the film there was a question and answer session.

“Why We Went” Rabbis Letter Read in St Augustine

On June 20th 2018 the public joined the Jewish Historical Society in the Ponce de Leon Ballroom at Flagler College, where Lee Weaver (playwright & actor) read the letter written by the Rabbis caught up in the largest mass arrest of Rabbis in US history on June 18, 1964 in St Augustine, Florida. The Rabbi’s were in St Augustine to support Martin Luther King in the struggle for civil rights. The letter details on why they came to St Augustine.

Tolomato Cemetery 2018

Tolomato Cemetery is located in St Augustine, Florida, the oldest European-founded city in the United States, and was in use as a cemetery from the 18th century until 1884. This beautiful space is the last resting place of some 1,000 St. Augustinians, including many people important to the history of Florida and the United States.  It is a distillation of St Augustine history in less than one acre, starting with the First Spanish Period, when Tolomato was a Franciscan mission, and going through its use as a cemetery during the British Period and the Second Spanish Period and then on through Florida’s Territorial and early Statehood periods.

It is an evocative place about which there are many legends and tales, but which also reveals  the real stories of the real people.  It reminds us of the connections of this tiny place, on what was once a strategic point but is now a vacation coast,  with people throughout the world. Burials include those of people from Spain, Cuba, Ireland, Minorca, Italy, Greece, Africa, Haiti, France and the American South and Northeast – as well as the graves of soldiers from both sides of the Civil War, and even the burial place of a man important in the history of Cuba, who may one day be declared a saint, Fr. Felix Varela.  There is no place in St Augustine that is a richer distillation of our history, which is the story of lives lived in rural poverty or in town comfort, soldiers and militia and battles fought or not fought, political and personal conflicts, faith and – even holiness – all on this tiny peninsula.

The cemetery is open to the public once a month. Visit it, learn about it and feel yourself surrounded by the past of this historic city.