Pop quiz: what was the first European language spoken in what is now the United States? You’d be forgiven for guessing English, since most of us learn all about the Jamestown and Plymouth Colonies in school, and little about any other early settlers—but the answer is Spanish. Aside from Native Americans, the Spanish were the first to settle what is now the United States. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we recently spoke to Barbara Golden, communications manager for the St. Augustine Visitors Bureau, to find out a bit more about the origins of U.S. Hispanic history. Read part I of our conversation with Ms. Golden below, which focuses on U.S. Spanish history, and stay tuned for part II on visiting St. Augustine, coming out this Thursday. And if you want to brush up on your U.S. Hispanic history, read this piece on the 6 part PBS documentary Latino Americans.
HipLatina: First of all, how would you describe St. Augustine’s significance in U.S. Hispanic History?
Barbara Golden: It’s very interesting. The city was founded on sept 8th,1565, Pedro de Aviles, and his 600 men, women, and children came ashore and established the first Spanish colony in the U.S.
HL: What was his goal at that time? Was it to settle permanently?
BG: Yes, he brought with him artisans in order to establish a permanent colony, and they actually had a formal mass and feast of Thanksgiving with native americans (Timucua indians) on Sept. 8th, 1565.
For 200 years, all of Florida was a Spanish colony. Until the signing of The Treaty of Paris in 1783 Florida became the 13th colony. At that time, the Spaniards who were here left quickly and went to Cuba. We spent 20 years as a British colony before reverting to a Spanish colony—but the people who had moved to Cuba stayed there, for the most part, and a whole new group came over from Spain. St. Augustine would have been a northern outpost for exploring expeditions to South America. Then when the Spanish returned, the British fled to the Bahamas—so that is largely why the Caribbean has such a Spanish influence and the Bahamas a British influence.
HL: Wow, so what happened next?
BG: Well, Florida was finally signed over as a U.S. Territory in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and eventually was made a state in 1856. But I want to mention something else—Spanish Florida, prior to becoming a state, was a safe haven for black slaves escaped from the Carolinas and Georgia. The Spanish didn’t have slavery in the same way that the British did—theirs was more indentured servitude, and it wasn’t based on the color of your skin.
Many escaped slaves were living among the Seminole and Timucua Indians and were protecting the city on the Northern end. These escaped, and then freed, slaves later created a fort on the northern edge of the city as a part of their freedom.
HL: St. Augustine has had so many fascinating chapters! How old is the city?
BG: Just last year we celebrated the 450th Birthday of St. Augustine, in Sept., 2015. And what’s also interesting is that as of the early 1800s, St. Augustine became the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the continental United States.
HL: What are some of the important sites in St. Augustine for visitors interested in Hispanic culture and heritage?
BG: Here’s my list:
- Castillo de San Marcos (National Monument, park service)
- Fort Matanzas (smaller fort built by the Spanish in 18th century, protecting the waterway from the South)
- Fountain of Youth archeological park. Site of first Spanish settlement, when the Spaniards lived amongst the Native Americans. Great living history monument with cannons, watch tower, blacksmith shops, old mission church. This is the site where the converted catholic Native burial ground.
- Colonial quarter. 2 acres inside the city—300 years of Colonial Spanish and British history. What the town was like, Spanish restaurant with historic flavors. On the half hour there is an adventure tour.
- Spanish Bakery with Sausalito Cottage. Food is similar to what you would have had in Colonial Spanish food.
Check back on Thursday for part II of our chat.