A short walk from the hustle and bustle of the tourist-centric St. George Street in St. Augustine lies a formidable structure that stands as a testament to the city’s volatile past. The Castillo de San Marcos, a 17th century Spanish fort built with seashell fragments, has stood guard along the Matanzas River for over 300 years.
Built to Last
What makes the Castillo stand out from other forts is its building material. Unlike those built from logs or bricks, the Castillo de San Marcos is comprised of compressed coquina shells and limestone.
The Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest masonry fort in the continental U.S., initially completed by the Spanish in 1695. In 1702, the British burned the city of St. Augustine. During this time, the fort housed around 1,500 Spanish soldiers and civilians who stayed safe inside. When the British blasted the fort with cannon fire, it surprised them to learn that the fort’s walls absorbed the impact of the cannon balls.
The Castillo’s walls, which range from twelve to nineteen feet thick, didn’t falter during a later attack by the British in 1740, which lasted twenty-seven days. This stone, made of tiny seashells accumulating over thousands of years along the shallow coastline, was integral to saving the Spanish colonists.
A Step into the Past
Walking on the drawbridge, over the moat, and through the sally port, gives visitors a sense they are entering a medieval structure. But the Castillo’s various rooms, filled with colonial-era furniture and daily implements, serve as a reminder of its true time period.
Battles Over a Strategic City
The British failed to take the fort during their attacks in 1702 and 1740. However, from 1763 to 1783, they took control of the Florida territory through a treaty and changed the Castillo’s name to Fort St. Mark.
Though the Spanish regained the territory through another treaty in 1783, their control over the area remained tenuous. Under U.S. control in 1825, the government changed the fort’s name again, calling it Fort Marion.
During the rest of the century, the fort served as a prison for Seminole Indians during Florida’s Second Seminole War, used by Confederate forces during the Civil War, and housed incarcerated Plains and Apache Indians who were later moved to Oklahoma.
The U.S. government officially transferred Fort Marion to the National Park Service in 1924 and proclaimed it a national monument. It didn’t see military action again until World War II, when the U.S. Coast Guard used it as a training base. In 1942, the government changed the fort’s name back to Castillo de San Marcos.
Diversity Through the Years
In 1565, when Spanish explorers reached the northeast coast of the land we now call Florida, the Saturiwa band of the Timucuan people already lived there. By 1800, they eradicated the Timucuan people through disease and warfare.
Though the genocide of the natives didn’t end the Spanish colonists’ contested control over the territory. For the next 200 years, the Spanish also skirmished with French Protestant (Huguenots) and British colonists.
By the time the U.S. Government declared the fort a national monument in the mid-1900s, the Castillo de San Marcos had seen Spanish, French, and British colonists; Timucuan, Plains, Apache, and Seminole Indians, and African slaves who labored to build the fort.
The Broader Picture
The Castillo serves as a microcosm of St. Augustine as a whole, with its unique architecture, history of varied cultural influences, and its ability to withstand the ravages of time and warfare. Much like the city itself, it stands as a reminder of our country’s violent and diverse heritage.
Know Before You Go
This historic site is open to the elements. During Florida’s wet season from May-October, temperatures can easily soar over triple digits. Bring water, a hat, sunscreen, and bug repellant. During these months, rainstorms are always a possibility. For the dry season, from November-April, temperatures can change quickly.
Location: 11 S. Castillo Drive, St. Augustine, FL 32084
Hours: Daily 9:00 a.m. – 5:15 p.m. (closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day)
Fees: Adults (16 +) $15.00, Children (15 and under) FREE; Visitors can also use their America the Beautiful Pass for entry
Duration: Approximately 2 hours
Parking: There’s a small parking lot available next to the fort for an hourly fee, as well as a public parking garage several blocks away, which charges a daily fee.
Accessibility: According to the NPS, because this site is over 300 years old, accessibility may be difficult for some. They are continually working to make improvements and are available for questions and concerns.
Pets: Pets and emotional support animals are prohibited. The park allows access to service animals only.
Restrooms: Restrooms are located near the entrance, inside the courtyard of the fort, along with a water bottle filling station.
Broaden Your Horizons
For more information about the Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine, and the Timucuan Indians, check out these sources below:
Have you visited the Castillo de San Marcos? Would you like to? Please leave your comments below. I’d love to hear what you think about this amazing historical site!