Sunday, August 21, 2016

Historic Coastal Florida Forts

Along the coast of northeast Florida lie three forts that make up part of America's rich history, yet a part that is little told or understood.

The History
Following Ponce de Leon's discovery of Florida in 1513, Spain claimed it as its own and it became a crucial link for ferrying gold and other treasure plundered from the Caribbean islands, along with trade goods, back to Spain from the New World.

At the same time, Britain and France were also vying for control of the New World because of the promise of vast riches and resources.  In 1564, then, France established Fort Caroline just north of what is now Jacksonville.  Viewing this as a clear and present danger to their territory, Spain attempted attack on the French but failed, retreating a few miles south to what is now St. Augustine.  The French, in turn, attempted a counter-attack, but severe weather at sea blew them several miles south and shipwrecked them.  Spain, seizing the opportunity, attacked the nearly defenseless Fort Caroline, wiping the remaining soldiers out.

Following their decisive victory over the French, Spain began establishing forts over the next two centuries all along the eastern coast of Florida from Jacksonville down to the Keys to protect its transit route.

Two of those forts protect the approaches to St. Augustine, the oldest enduring city in America.  Castillo de San Marcos sits right on the bay at the north edge of the city's historic district.  Constructed in the shape of a four-pointed star, it was made out of an innovative and easily-fabricated material called coquina -- a kind of cement comprised of sand and seashells.  Coquina was revolutionary in that it absorbed cannon blasts rather than crumbling, making it difficult to penetrate by attacking ships.

The Large Courtyard of the Castillo
The Spanish used Castillo de San Marcos as a large base not only for protection of St. Augustine itself but also as a major supply and logistics base supporting the rest of the forts down the coast along Spain's trade and treasure route.  An imposing structure, Castillo de San Marcos guarded the entrance to Matanzas Bay and the approach to St Augustine from invaders wishing to interdict treasure ships.  Its four-pointed design allowed it to set up a brutal, overlapping crossfire from adjacent corners to destroy any ships within range. 

As Spain increased its presence and control in the region, other European powers, including Britain, continued to challenge them.  Britain discovered that while St. Augustine itself was heavily guarded, a back channel existed 14 miles south at Matanzas Inlet that led straight to the back door of the city and out of range of Castillo de San Marcos's guns.  After narrowly escaping a prolonged British siege of the city in 1740, Spain began construction on a second fort at Matanzas Inlet -- Fort Matanzas.  Like Castillo de San Marcos, it was also constructed of the resilient coquina.

With the fort under construction, Britain tried once again to navigate up Matanzas Inlet to reach St. Augustine, but the fort's guns were already in place and several cannon blasts forced the British ship to turn around.  That encounter was the last challenge to Spanish sovereignty in the area.

Seeing the Forts
Even in the height of summer, it is quite easy to see all three forts in the space of two days, and I highly recommend seeing them as a group to best grasp the interconnected story behind them.

The Fort Caroline National Memorial is located within the larger Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve on St. John's Bay northeast of Jacksonville. While much is known about what happened here, little is known of the actual fort itself.  Even so, the scarce information available was used to partially reconstruct a replica.  Consequently, there is little to see at this site, but the opportunity to visualize the beginning of this oft-untold story makes the trip worth it.  In addition, there is a boat dock on site from which you might get a glimpse of dolphins swimming by.

A sign describing many of the mysteries surrounding the fort and the French colony here.
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument has a self-guided tour that takes about an hour, give or take.  Exhibits in the many rooms tell the fort's story through both Spanish and, later, British control.  On display are the original main doors to the fort, tools used to prep the cannons for firing, sleeping quarters for British troops stationed there, and the chapel.  The view of Matanzas Bay from the top is quite impressive.  From there, it is easy to visualize sentries keeping watch for approaching attackers and readying the devastating cannon cross-fire against them.

Recreation of Sleeping Quarters During British Occupation
The Imposing View from the Top
Lookout Tower Facing the Entrance to the Bay
The Fort Matanzas National Monument Visitor Center sits in a beautiful grove of massive Live Oaks on the edge of Matanzas Inlet.  We ate a picnic lunch there and climbed along the massive low-slung branches. 

Getting to Fort Matanzas itself requires a free boat ride just to the other side of the inlet a few hundred yards away.  As you can see from the picture above (and below), the fort is small (understandably so since it was only needed to prevent enemy ships from traversing the channel).  The ranger provides a short history and orientation on the boat ride and then you're free to explore the fort and grounds for about 30 minutes before the boat returns, which is plenty of time.  Like at Castillo de San Marcos, it is easy to imagine from the top how cannons perched there would be a strong deterrent to ships trying to navigate the narrow waterway.  While on top, we also spied some marine life:  A very large manatee and a crab the size of a dinner plate!

Manatee Swimming Along the Rocks
Our family enjoyed seeing these three forts and all agreed that seeing them in quick succession helped to paint a more complete canvas of the oft-forgotten history of Spanish colonization in the New World.  Indeed this grouping of parks is a representation of what I love about the historical subset of the NPS sites -- telling a more complete history of this nation and the people and stories that shaped it into the world we know today.

No comments:

Post a Comment