Fort Marion, St. Augustine, Florida

Moat and Entrance, Fort Marion, St. Augustine, Florida
Moat and Entrance, 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 Anastatia Island, which separates the waters of the lagoon and of the Atlantic Ocean. Our interest in the quaint 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, many 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 watchtower may have a clear view of the shipping channel which leads from the city across the long bar Anastatia Island to the ocean. The fortification is a regular polygon of four equal sides and four bastions. A moat surrounds the structure, but 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 outwork. A stationary bridge leads part way across the moat and the path is then continued on into the fort by a drawbridge.


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 partially obliterated sets forth that “Don Ferdinand, the VI, being King of Spain and the Field Marshal 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 doorway one sees three dark chambers, the first of which was used as a bake-room and the two others of which were places of confinement for prisoners. Looking through the dark doorway a few steps forward to the left one gazes into the guardroom.

Walking on one comes into the open court, 103 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 and 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 watchtower. This tower, probably the most familiar remembrance of old Fort Marion, is twenty-five feet high. The distance from watchtower to sentry box (or from corner to comer) of the old fort is 317 feet.

The material of which the fort is constructed is the familiar seashell concretion used so largely in Florida and known as “coquina.” It was quarried on Anastatia Island, across Matanzas Inlet from the city, and was ferried over to the fort site in large barges. The substance 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 Spanish and French on the North American continent. In 1562 Jean Ribaut, a sturdy French mariner, sailed into the waters of Florida, explored the waters of the St. John’s River (at the mouth of which busy Jacksonville now stands) and planted a colony and a fort on the St. John’s 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 supplies and reinforcements for Fort Caroline, but paused on his passage to investigate an inlet farther south than the mouth of the St. John’s River. This inlet he called the River of Dolphins, from the abundance of such creatures at play in the waters here and on the shores of the inlet, which later generations were to know as St. Augustine harbor; he descried an 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, reconnoitered the French colony on the St. John’s River and then sailed south

Incline leading to Ramparts, Fort Marion, St. Augustine, Florida
Incline leading to Ramparts, Fort Marion, St. Augustine, Florida

several days, landing at the Indian village of Seloy. Here he decided to establish the capital of his 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 named 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 Florida, which according to the interpretation of the day included all of the present United States and British Canada, there was not room enough for two separated small French and Spanish colonies to subsist together, and for Catholic and Huguenot to be in one world 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, at Fort Caroline. The Spanish leader, it is known, has established himself at the River Dolphins. One of 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 upon 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 twenty 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 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 them to trust themselves to his mercy and then conclusively proved that there was no mercy in the heart of a Spaniard of the Inquisition by putting the whole company to death ten at a time. The spot where these two butcheries took place is known to this day as Matanzas, or the Place of the Slaughters.

Immediately now the Spaniard began to make him self 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 the 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 its ears, accompanied by great catastrophe. These were the years of the English speaking. Raleigh, Drake, Grenville, Gilbert, Frobisher were sweeping the oceans in their diminutive craft, making anxious the captains 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 chanced to be in sight of San Augustin. The procedure may now be told in the words of one of Drake’s seamen:

Wee descried on the shore a place built like a Beacon which was indeed a scaffold upon foure long mastes raised on ende. Wee might discover over against us a Fort which newly had bene built by the Spaniards; and some mile or therabout 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 batterie; 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 understood by a Frenchman, 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 fort fell into the hands of the English after a stubborn defense by its Spanish 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, the 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 1763 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 given back Cuba, which England had 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 in 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 was 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 their course through Georgia. With such additions, St. Augustine was not content 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 mismanagement. 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 1783 took place another one of those shuffles between high contracting parties by which each party thinks that he has secured 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 fort was changed from Fort St. Mark to Fort Marion in honor of General Francis Marion, of Revolutionary fame.

The Seminole War began in 1835 and continued until 184.2, 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 chieftains were captured. In 1838 General Hernandez, in command of the United States forces, sent word to Osceola that he would be protected if he should come to 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 quickly fell before Federal troops, however, 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.

Forts, History,

Hammond, John Martin. Quaint and Historic Forts of North America. J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, London. 1915.

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