History of Fort Marion, St. Augustine, Florida

Transcribed from:  Quaint and Historic Forts of North America
Author:  John Martin Hammond
Published in 1915 by the J. B. Lippencott Company of Philadelphia and London

Fort Marion
St. Augustine-Florida

The ancient city of St. Augustine, the oldest place of European settlement on the North-American Continent, is on the east coast of Florida at the mouth of the St Augustine River and at the northern end of a long lagoon formed by Anastasia Island, which separates the water if  the lagoon and of the Atlantic Ocean. Our interest in the spot may be concentrated in Fort Marion, a Spanish bravo which has fought the city’s battles for more than three hundred and fifty years.  Probably the most picturesque of fortifications in the United States, Fort Marion annually receives thousands of visitors, drawn from the leisured throng who have made St. Augustine the winter social capital of the American nation.


Fort Marion is situated at the northern end of St. Augustine, where its lonely watch-tower may have a clear view of the shipping channel which leads from the city across the long bar Anastasia Island to the ocean.  The fortification is a regular polygon of four equal sides and four bastions.  A moat surrounds the structure, but for the moat has been dry for many years. The entrance is to the south, and is protected by a barbacan, or less technically, an arrow-shaped out-work.  A stationary bridge leads part way across the moat and the path is then continued on into the fort by a draw-bridge.


Over the entrance is an escutcheon bearing the Arms of Spain with gorgeous coloring, which has been much dimmed by the hot sun of Florida. A legend, now partly obliterated sets forth that “Don Ferdinand, the VI, being  King of Spain and the Field Marshall Don Alonzo Fernando Hereda, being Governor and Captain General of this place, San Augustin of Florida and its province, this fort was finished in the year 1756.  The works were directed by the Captain Engineer Don Pedro de Brozas y Garay.”


Passing through the entrance to the fort one finds one’s self in a dark passage, on the right and left of which are low doorways, that on the right being the nearer.  Glancing through the right door-way one sees three dark chambers, the first of which was used as a bake-room and the two other of which were places of confinement for prisoners.  Looking through the dark door-way a few steps forward to the left one gazes into the guard-room.


Walking on one comes into the open court, 108 feet by 109 feet; immediately to the right is the foot of the inclined plane which leads to the upper walls. To the left is the well. On all sides of the court are entrances to casemates.  Directly across from the entrance is the ancient chapel, which heard masses sung while the English colonies were just being started.  The altar and niches still remain over the door of this place of worship is a tablet set in the wall by French astronomers, who here once observed the transit of Venus.


Passing up the inclined plane to which allusion has already been made one finds one’s self on the ramparts of the fort.  A charming view is to be obtained on all sides, but particularly looking out to sea. At each angle of the fort was a sentry-box and that at the northeast corner was also a watch tower.  This tower, probably the most familiar remembrance of old Fort Marion, is twenty-five feet high. The distance from watch-tower to sentry-box  (or from corner to corner) of the old fort is 817 feet.


The material of which the fort is constructed is the familiar sea-shell concretion used so largely used in Florida and known as “coquina”.  It was quarried on Anastasia Island across from Matanazas Inlet from the city and was ferried over to the fort site in large barges.  The sub-stance is softer when first dug than when it has been exposed to the air and light for a season, sharing this property with concrete, to which it is analogous in other ways, so the walls of the fort are more solid today than when they were built.


The history of Fort Marion takes one back to early bickering between the Spanish and the French on the North American continent.  In 1562 Jean Ribaut, a sturdy French mariner, sailed into the water is Florida, explored the waters of the St. Johns River (at the mouth of which busy Jacksonville now stands) and planted a colony and a fort on the St. Johns with the name of Fort Caroline.  The river he called the River of May, in remembrance of the month in which he first set eyes upon it.  In 1564, Laudonierre, a second Frenchman came with reinforcements for Fort Caroline, but paused on his passage to investigate an inlet farther south than the mouth of the St. John’s River.  The inlet he called the River of Dolphins, from the abundance of such creatures at play in the waters and on the shores of the inlet, to which later generations were to know as St. Augustine Harbor; he descried and Indian village known as Seloy.


The jealous King of Spain heard of the French settlement in Florida and was displeased.  He sent an expedition under Juan Menendez de Aviles to colonize the country with Spaniards and to exterminate the French, who added to the misfortune of not being Spaniards the mistake of not being Catholics. Menendez sailed into Florida waters in September 1565, reconnoitred the French Colony on the St. John’s River and then sailed south several days, landing at the Indian Village of Seloy.  Here he decided to establish the capital of is domain. The large barn like dwelling of the Indian chief was made into a fort. This was the original of Fort Marion of today.  Then on September 8, 1565, Menendez took formal possession of the territory, and names his fort San Juan de Pinos.


Of the Sixteenth Century quarrels of Frenchman and Spaniard, of Huguenot and catholic, there is not space in this chapter to tell.  Suffice it to say that even in so broad a land as florid, which according to the interpretation of today included all of the present United States and British Canada, there was not room enough for the two separated small French and Spanish colonies to subsist together was beyond all reason. So the next step in the history of our fort is the expedition of Menendez against the French and the perpetration by him of one of the most horrid massacres that has ever stained the New World.


Let us picture a blinding night in September 1565, a Fort Caroline. The Spanish leader, it is known, has established himself at the River of Dolphins.  One if the equinoctial tempests to which Florida is subject was raging. The French in their dismantled little post have deemed no enemy hardy enough to venture out in such elemental fury.  Laudonierre himself has dismissed the weary sentinels from the wall, secure in the thought that Nature, herself, is his protection.  He does not know the tenacity of the Spaniard. Menendez, setting out from his new stronghold with a few hundred men and struggling on against the storm, is even now within striking distance of the doomed French retreat.  A sudden rush upon the sleeping garrison and the Spaniards are within the fort.  No mercy is shown. One hundred and thirty men are killed with little resistance.  One old carpenter escaped to the woods during the melee, but surrendered himself to the Spaniards the next  morning with pleas for mercy.  He was butchered with his prayers on his lips.


Menendez returned to St. Augustine and in a few days heard that some of the French ships which had fled in disorder during the rout at the fort had landed their crews about 20 miles south of St. Augustine.  He immediately set out for the spot with one hundred and fifty men. The hapless French without food and without shelter surrendered themselves to Menendez.  All of them, (over a hundred in number) with the exception of twelve Breton sailors, who had been kidnapped, and four ships’ caulkers who might be useful to the Spaniards were put to the knife in cold blood.  Again word came to Menendez that that castaway Frenchmen were south of St. Augustine.  It was the remainder of the French squadron under Ribaut – more than three hundred and fifty in number.  Menendez repeated his tactics with this company as well.  He allowed the to trust themselves to his mercy and then conclusively proves that there was no mercy in the heart of a Spaniard of the Inquistion by putting the whole company to death ten at a time.  The spot where these to butcheries took place is known to this day as Matanzas, or the place of the Slaughters.


Immediately now the Spaniard began to make himself more secure in Florida. His stronghold at St. Augustine was amplified and Fort Caroline, the luckless French fort was rebuilt and renamed San Mateo.  In 1568 the French under de Gorgues descended upon the Spanish at San Mateo and put the whole Garrison to sword.  San Augustin was not attacked, however and for two hundred years held the Spanish flag supreme in this part of the New World.


For twenty years after its foundation Menendez’s little fort of San Juan De Pinos saw no military service, though it was made strong and formidable.  Then the clash of arms came to his ears accompanied by great catastrophe.  Those were the years of the English sea-kings.  Raleigh, Drake, Grenville, Gilbert, Frobisher were sweeping the oceans in the diminutive craft, making anxious the captain of many a Spanish galleon.  In September 1585, Drake sailed on a freebooting voyage from the harbor of Plymouth, England, with more than an ordinarily large number of men and ships, and in May 1586, this little armada chances to be in sight if San Augustin.  The procedure may now be told in the words of one of Drakes seamen:

    Wee  descried on  the  shore  a  place  built  like  a   Beacon
Which was indeede a scaffold upon foure long mastes raised on
endee  .  .  .   Wee   might  discover  against   us  a  Fort  which
had  bene  built  by  the  Spainards;  and  some  mile  or  there-
about  above  the Fort  was a  little  Towne  or  Village  without
walls,  built of  wooden  houses as the Plot doeth plainely shew.
Wee forthwith prepared to have ordnance for the batteriee; and
one  peece was a  little before the  enemie  planted, and the first
shot  being  made  by  the  Lieutenant  generall  himself  at  their
ensigne strake  through  the Ensigne, as  wee afterwards under-
stood  by a  Frechman, which  came unto  us  from  them.  One
shot  more  was then made which  strake the foote  of  the Fort
wall which was all massive timber of great trees like Mastes.


And so in the charming, inconsequential fashion of the times, the narrative goes on, carrying the battle with it.  The forth fell into the hands of the English after a stubborn defence by its Spaniard occupants and was destroyed.  The village was sacked and burned.  Drake then sailed on his way. 


The fort was rebuilt and stood secure until 1665, when San Augustin was sacked by buccaneers under Captain John Davis and it shared the destruction of the town.  Then a substantial structure, Fort Marion of today, was begun. Work was continued for successive generations, until in 1756 the stronghold was declared finished.  The new structure was christened San Marco.


During these years the fort was not without service,  however.  In 1702 and again in 1740 San Augustin was attacked by English forces from the English Colonies to the north, and Fort San Marco, even while not complete, bore the brunt of these attacks.  The second expedition against San Augustin was under the leadership of Governor Oglethorpe, of Georgia, and arose to the dignity of a siege of the city.  For weeks the English forces lay beyond the city walls and were then driven off by reinforcements brought from Cuba.


With the construction of Fort San Marco the erection of city walls was undertaken too.  The walls of old San Augustin ran from Fort San Marco around the city and were constructed of “coquina”.  Only the so-called “City Gate” remains of these walls today.


In 1766 the warrior which had withstood armed assault fell to the attack of diplomacy, for it was in this year that England made its trade with Spain whereby Spain was back Cuba, which England has wrested by force of arms from that country, and England was given Florida.  The flag of Castile and of Aragon was hauled down from the wall of the old fort and the British lion was raised in its place.  Fort San Marco became on British hands, Fort St. Mark.


During the American revolution Florida was the only one of the fourteen British Colonies which remained loyal to the Mother Country.  The fervor of the northern coasts found no kindred spark in old St. Augustine. The town became a haven for Tories.  She opened her gates and an oddly-assorted throng came flocking in.  There the Tory Colonel Thomas Browne, of Georgia, tar and feathers still sticking to his skin from his experience with the Liberty Boys of Savannah.  There was Rory McIntosh, always attended by Scotch pipers, who paraded the narrow streets breathing out fire and slaughter against the colonies.  The Scopholites, so-called from Scophol, their leader, marched down 600 strong, from the back country of North Carolina, burning and killing in heir course through Georgia .  With such additions, St Augustine was not contents with passive loyalty and became a centre for military operations against the southern colonies.  Many a council did the rooms of Fort St. Mark witness,  which had as its result death and privation to the rebellious Americans. 


Two expeditions were attempted by the colonists against Fort St. Mark.  The first under General Charles Lee fell short because of mismanagements. The second advanced as far as the St. John’s River.  Consternation in St. Augustine reigned supreme;  slaves were impressed to help strengthen the fortifications;  citizens ran hither and thither with their valuables.  But the Americans were menaced by fever at the St John’s and faced the prospect of a midsummer encampment in Florida, so they turned about and went north.  Fort St. Mark was not to leave English hands by force.


In 1788 took place another of those shuffles between high contracting parties by which each party thinks that he secure the better of the bargain.  England traded Florida to Spain for Jamaica.  Spain traded Jamaica to England for Florida.  In 1821 Spain ceded Florida to the United States, and in 1825 the name of the forth was changed from Fort St. Mark to Fort Marion in honor of General Francis Marion of Revolutionary fame.


The Seminole war began in 1835 nd continued until 1842, costing the United States two thousand lives, and forty million dollars.  Fort Marion was the centre of the military operations of this conflict and it was the scene of the disgraceful episode of treachery by which Osceola and other Indian chieftans were captured.  In 1838 General Hernandez, in command of the Untied States forces, sent word to Osceola that he would be protected if he should walk into Fort Marion for talk of peace. With seventy of his followers the Indian came to the conference and was placed in irons.  The prisoner was taken to Fort Moultrie, in Charleston harbor, where from much brooding and confinement he died.  The same tactics were repeated in another sitting with Coacoochee, the remaining great leader of the Seminoles, and the Seminole war was ended.  Coacoochee was confined in Fort Marion, where his cell is pointed out to visitors. His fate became that of an exile, for with his people he was transported to a western reservation.


During the Civil War Fort Marion had a brief flurry of excitement when the fort was seized by Southern Sympathizers in 1861.  It fell quickly before Federal troops, ho9wever, and had no further active part in that war.


The old fort is still government property, but its days of activity are long since past.  That it will be maintained for many years as a reminder of the past is, however, well assured.


 File transcribed and contributed for the FLGenWeb Project, Inc.
by Laverne Tornow 
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