By Jennifer Uhlarik
If you’ve been to St. Augustine, Florida, I’m sure you’ve seen the huge stone fort that sits at the mouth of Matanzas Bay. If you’ve not been, let me tell you about it. The town and it’s magnificent masonry fort is a show-stopper with a long and varied history.
St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the continental United States. The town was founded in 1565 by the Spanish admiral, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, in order to give Spain a colony in the New World where its treasure fleet could defend itself and Spain’s North American territories against other European powers. But for the first one hundred years after its founding, the only defenses St. Augustine’s settlers had against these powers—and pirates or any other force coming against them—were a series of wooden forts that all met quick ends. Some forts were burned to the ground. Others fell victim to the ravages of termites. Hurricanes damaged and demolished still others.
When British pirates led by John Davis attacked St. Augustine, leaving every building looted and damaged, sixty residents dead, and seventy more taken captive, the Spanish Crown decided a more permanent fortification was needed—especially since the British were forming colonies in along the eastern seaboard within easy sailing distance of the Spanish settlement. After this attack, money, troops, and supplies were sent from Mexico and Cuba to fortify St. Augustine.
In 1671, engineer Ignacio Daza was tasked with drawing up plans for the huge fort that would become known as Castillo de San Marcos—a square masonry fort with bastions at each corner, a moat, two drawbridges, and a ravelin protecting its only entrance. Groundbreaking for the fort occurred in October of 1672. Five months later, both the governor of La Florida who was spearheading the fort’s construction, as well as the engineer, Ignacio Daza, died of illness. Before they passed, these men saw the eastern wall and the adjoining bastions constructed to half their final height(the fort stands twenty-five feet tall today with lookout towers at the corners of each bastion), but it took an additional twenty-three years to finish the construction of the Castillo, due in some part to money shortages, pirate attacks, epidemics, storms, and lack of commitment from the Spanish crown. But in 1695, the Castillo de San Marcos was completed. The total cost of the fort’s construction totaled nearly $3 million dollars (adjusted for today’s dollar value).
The fort was constructed of “coquina,” mortar, and a covering of plaster. Coquina is a naturally formed substance made when layers upon layers of tiny seashells become cemented together over long periods of time. Just off the coast of Anastasia Island, a quarry of this substance was found, so soldiers and convicts were sent to the quarry to cut “bricks” of coquina, which were transported across Mantanzas Bay to the location of the Castillo de San Marcos. At this location, Native Americans from three Florida and Georgia tribes were conscripted into working on the fort, digging foundation trenches and laying the bricks. Once the coquina was laid in place, a mortar was made of lime, sand, and water, which was used to secure the bricks in place. The entire structure was then given a plaster coating over the coquina to further fortify it.
Since no one was certain how the coquina would do under cannon fire, the fort’s outer walls were constructed especially thick—anywhere between twelve and nineteen feet, depending on the location. (The walls closest to Matanzas Bay are thicker than the inland sides). The bastions at each corner were constructed in order to deflect cannonballs launched at the fort. There is one entrance into the fort, in the center of the south wall. To reach it, one must cross two drawbridges which could be raised to keep out intruders, and a triangular ravelin was positioned between the entrance and the water to prevent cannon fire from reaching the entry.
In 1702, the British attacked and took the town of St. Augustine—but not the fort. The attackers positioned cannons within the city streets and turned fire upon the fort, pounding the seashell walls with fire. To everyone’s surprise, the cannonballs either bounced off or sunk in only slightly with no real damage to the structure. Across the years, other attacks would come from various countries and sources, and in each case, the coquina fort stood strong, repelling everything the invading armies or navies could throw at it. However, as the French and Indian War ended, power structures in North America, the Caribbean, and Cuba shifted with the stroke of a pen, and Spanish-controlled Florida became the possession of the British in 1763. Castillo de San Marcos now belonged to England, and its name changed to Fort Mark.
It’s Your Turn: I’ll continue the interesting history of Castillo de San Marcos next month, but for now, tell me what you find most interesting about the origins of this castle-like fort, which is the oldest masonry fort in the United States. Leave your name and email address to be entered in a drawing for an audiobook copy of The Cowboys collection—including four novellas by Cindy Ervin Huff, Sandra Merville Hart, Linda Yezak, and me.
Award-winning, best-selling novelist Jennifer Uhlarik has loved the western genre since she read her first Louis L’Amour novel. She penned her first western while earning a writing degree from University of Tampa. Jennifer lives near Tampa with her husband, son, and furbabies. www.jenniferuhlarik.com
COMING MARCH 1, 2022
Love’s Fortress by Jennifer Uhlarik
A Friendship From the Past Brings Closure to Dani’s Fractured Family
When Dani Sango’s art forger father passes away, Dani inherits his home. There, she finds a book of Native American drawings, which leads her to seek museum curator Brad Osgood’s help to decipher the ledger art. Why would her father have this book? Is it another forgery?
Brad Osgood longs to provide his four-year-old niece, Brynn, the safe home she desperately deserves. The last thing he needs is more drama, especially from a forger’s daughter. But when the two meet “accidentally” at St. Augustine’s 350-year-old Spanish fort, he can’t refuse the intriguing woman.
Broken Bow is among seventy-three Plains Indians transported to Florida in 1875 for incarceration at ancient Fort Marion. Sally Jo Harris and Luke Worthing dream of serving on a foreign mission field, but when the Indians reach St. Augustine, God changes their plans. However, when Sally Jo’s friendship with Broken Bow leads to false accusations, it could cost them their lives.
Can Dani discover how Broken Bow and Sally Jo’s story ends and how it impacted her father’s life?
(NOTE: This blurb does not yet match bookseller’s descriptions, but it IS the same book).