Florida Superlatives – The foundation of Florida’s Sunshine State lore is built on the oldest, last, first, smallest, biggest, longest, shortest, Southern-most, or just plain most. In a land in which a talking mouse, a grinning alligator, and square grouper are a reality and the fantastical is commonplace, an emphasis on the superlative seems inconsequential. Maybe Florida’s obsession with superior superlatives runs deeper than the Devil’s Mill Hopper and longer than the Seven Mile Bridge. I will try my superlative best to develop an understanding of why Florida is the Florida-est place.
The Oldest City
St. Augustine is America’s oldest city, right? The Spanish explorer and Florida’s First Governor Pedro Menendez de Aviles disembarked from his ship in St. Augustine in 1565, set up camp, and the rest is history, as they say. But what about Jean Ribault, Rene Goulaine de Laudonnaie and Fort Caroline in 1562? Or maybe Mayport, which Ribault passed on his way to the high bluff on which Fort Caroline sits? And what about Don Tristan de Luna y Arellano trotting around Pensacola in 1559? Of course all of these “earliest” settlements are European settlements. It seems as though in the race for the oldest city, Florida’s 50 or more indigenous cultures encountered by Europeans simply don’t count.
St. Augustine is the nation’s oldest continuous European settlement. Fort Caroline, unfortunately, cannot make that claim. De Laudonnaie and Ribault established their settlement at Fort Caroline and hung around for a bit, but ultimately they pulled up stakes and headed elsewhere. Pensacola, City of Five flags, you too are out of the running. Yes, indeed, La Ciudad de Cinco Banderas is the oldest settlement, but fate did not favor longevity. Tristan de Luna’s settlement was decimated by a late summer hurricane, attacked by Panzacola Indians who did not welcome the Spanish incursion. The settlement suffered from a lack of supplies lost on sunken ships. Finally, by 1561, the village of about 1000 peoples gave up and relocated. In subsequent centuries Pensacola was ruled by Spanish, French, British, United States, and Confederate governments – hence the five flags. Poor Pensacola cannot even claim the distinction of the most ‘banderas’ – Fernandia Beach claims seven.
St. Augustine, settled in 1565, and continuously occupied by various governments and peoples henceforth, qualifies as the nation’s oldest European settlement. At times the population came perilously close to extinction. In 1702 the entire town population of about 1500 sought refuge in the Castillo San Marcos as the English bombarded its walls. The think coquina walls simply absorbed the cannon shot and little damage was done. The town’s people were under siege for two months in the Castillo, but the settlement remained intact thanks to a Spanish armada from Cuba. In 1740 James Oglethorpe, who settled Savannah Georgia, attacked St. Augustine. Once again the citizens took refuge in the Castillo, and once again the settlement was spared due to the think Coquina walls.
Today St. Augustine’s longevity is brisk business. It is perhaps the understatement of understatements to say that a lot has happened in St. Augustine. Most of what happened was day-to-day living, though much of what happened was note worthy – such as Henry Flagler’s establishment of resorts, railroads, and agriculture. Some of what happened had national impact – such as Civil Rights marches, wade-ins, sit-ins, swim-ins, and pray-ins that eventually pressured President Johnson into signing the Civil Rights Act. Much of what continues to happen in St. Augustine has been manufactured for entertainment and profit. The perpetuation of St. Augustine’s legacy as the Nation’s Oldest City has turned into a self-propelling machine.
Amid the clatter of celebration over Spanish settlement, confederate secession, Gilded Age excess, and modern tourism, the significance of St. Augustine as the oldest settlement is obscured. Spanish was spoken here before English. Greeks, Minorcans, French, British, Africans, Cubans, Spanish, Native Americans, Jesuits, and many more were citizens of St. Augustine at various points. Some claim the true first Thanksgiving happened here. St. Augustine used to be a very curious international settlement.
If you manage to escape St. George street, stroll south of King street, on down beyond the Bed and Breakfasts and the National Guard Armory – and if you keep walking down into the low marshy neighborhood of Lincolnville you find an even older St. Augustine. Horse drawn carriages and mumbling trolley tours are replaced by neighbors chatting across porches, a lawn mower scuttling over twigs from a camphor tree, and you can even hear fiddler crabs snapping in the mud flats. The Lincolnville School lingers and languishes nearby. Churches seep parishioners into a humid afternoon. Wedged into a side yard of an anonymous house is the supposed last remaining slave cabin in St. Augustine. The bright yellow house of Freedom Rider Henry “Hank” Thomas sits quietly behind a plaque announcing it as a location on St. Augustine’s Accord Freedom Trail. More than thirty sites dotted throughout the neighborhood comprise the trail which recognizes and honors St. Augustine’s role in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
This is the nation’s oldest city. The city has been fraught with murder, revenge, racial strife, misogyny, and paternalism. But almost every city in the America deals with a similar history. Yet, it can be said that St. Augustine is home to the nation’s longest of long civil rights movements. To marvel at the longevity of St. Augustine on the surface is quaint and entertaining (though many of those ‘old’ buildings are “modern” recreations). If we move beyond 500 year celebrations and accolades, St. Augustine can be seen as our longest standing locus for European and international exchange. What we do with that history will speak far more to our future than carriage tours and cemetery ghosts.