Florida Museum of Natural History
Florida Museum of Natural History Historical Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History
This site was funded in part by a Special Category Grant from the Florida Department of State Historic Preservation Grants in Aid Program, with assistance from the Florida Historical Commission.
Artist's depiction of Menendez Fort and Camp.
Aerial view of the Fountain of Youth Park (campsite) center and Nombre de Dios (fort site) top right.
Overview of the Fountain of Youth excavations during Spring 2000.
Conjectural reconstruction of Seloy-Menendez Fort, after drawing by Albert Manucy
Feature 73: A large Menendez era trash pit.
16th century barrel well excavated at the Fountain of Youth site.
Archaeological base map of Fountain of Youth Park site, showing locations of major excavation features.
Excavation at the Menendez Fort site at the Nombre de Dios mission.
Excavation at Nombre de Dios with the Fountain of Youth Park site in the background.
Satelite image of the Fountain of Youth Park site, digitally enhanced.
Jake Bailey, a field school student, is mapping post stains.

Menendez Fort and Camp - Page 2

Original Site of St. Augustine 1565-1566

In 1565, more than fifty years before the English landed at Jamestown, Pedro Menendez de Aviles established the first successful European colony in the United States at St. Augustine, Florida. Archaeologists and historians have been searching for the site of that first settlement since early in the 20th century, but their efforts were hampered by the fact that four centuries of continuous human occupation and development have dramatically altered St. Augustine's landscape. These changes also severely compromised the archaeological record of the earliest stage of European settlement. Tantalizing clues and occasional random finds raised archaeological hopes over the years, but it was not until the past decade that we were able to fit those clues to more recently discovered pieces of historical and geographical information, and more recent advances in remote sensing technology. This made it possible to recognize and identify what we now think are Menendez period sites, on the grounds of what are today the Nombre de Dios Mission-La Leche Shrine and the Fountain of Youth Park. The archaeological discoveries of the past five years are the most recent chapters in a long tradition of distinguished historical and archaeological scholarship into Florida's colonial past, forged by Verne Chatelaine, John Griffin, Albert Manucy, Eugene Lyon, Michael Gannon, Luis Arana and others. It was that tradition as much as anything else that led to the discoveries at the Fountain of Youth Park in 1986 and the La Leche Shrine in 1993.

What Were We Looking For?

When Menendez arrived in Florida in 1565 with more than 800 people (including 26 women), he hastily built a camp-type settlement at or near the village of the Timucuan Indian chief, Seloy. According the Spanish accounts, the Indians gave Menendez very large house of a cassique, which is on the river bank . This was undoubtedly a council house. The soldiers fortified Seloy's council house by digging a trench around it, and throwing up a breastwork of earth and faggots (fascines) inside. The munitions were stored inside this structure, and it served as the first fort in the first permanent European colony in North America. What little we know about Timucuan council houses suggests that they were probably (although not necessarily) circular or oval and very large, capable of holding several hundred people.

The campsite, according to recent information discovered in Spanish archives by Eugene Lyon, was located north of the fort closeby, but apart. Several hundred people lived in this camp-village, which was occupied for less than a year. There is little doubt that the Indians of Seloy tired of the Spaniards quickly, and they attacked and partially burned the fort-longhouse on April 19, 1566, just seven months after Menendez's arrival. The storeroom, munitions storage and "half the fort" were destroyed, and the Spaniards decided to relocate their fort and settlement across the Matanzas Bay to Anastasia Island, putting the inlet's waters between them and the Indian town. Before they left, however, they established a blockhouse or lookout at Seloy, where several Spanish soldiers were stationed until after 1572.

The new fort on Anastasia Island was to be a substantial, European-style triangular fort, with three cavaliers, a high wooden gun platform and an encircling trench. The town of St. Augustine grew up around it, but by 1572 the fort had eroded into the inlet, there was a soldier's mutiny, and St. Augustine was once again moved back across the Bay, this time to the area it still occupies today. The second site of St. Augustine on Anastasia Island has never been found.

In our search for the original Menendez fort and campsite, we were looking in archaeological terms for unequivocal evidence of mid-sixteenth century town occupation north of the present day Castillo de San Marcos, in the vicinity of a sizeable Timucua town. . There should have been a very large Indian structure at the south end, or to the south of the settlement, that was fortified with European style ditches and earth embankments A Spanish blockhouse structure should also have been there, or very nearby.

The site of Menendez' first settlement on the grounds of the Fountain of Youth Park had actually been found in the 1950's, but went unrecognized until 1986. John Goggin excavated there in the 1950's , assuming it was a Timucua Indian town associated with the Franciscan Nombre de Dios mission of 1572. Kathleen Deagan, with the Florida State University field school, returned to the site in 1976, planning to study the historic-period, sixteenth century Timucua occupation.. We found considerably more European materials than we had expected, and excavations at the Fountain of Youth Park in 1985 finally provided irrefutable evidence of Menendez-era Spanish occupation: a Spanish barrel well, rectangular stains from house footings put together with nails, such early Spanish artifacts as early style olive jar, Columbia Plain majolica and chevron beads; several sixteenth century uniform buttons and a large number of lead musket balls and shot.

We returned to the site in 1987, 1992, and 1994, each time learning more about the Spanish settlement, but finding nothing we could definitely say was a fort, or an Indian council house. So we looked southward at the insistence of the then graduate student Ed Chaney, and did a small excavation a short distance (about 100 meters) away from the Fountain of Youth Park on the property of the Catholic Church's shrine of Nuestra Senora de la Leche.

Local tradition has long held that the first landing and first Mass took place there, and there is, in fact, a reconstructed rustic altar on the site to commemorate it. Excavating only one 3 meter by 1.5 meter unit, Chaney found a deep, moat-like pit filled with 16th-century materials. We were excited and intrigued, but as usual, ran out of time and money before we could finish investigating the feature.

We were not able to return to the site at the La Leche shrine until 1993 when a three-week excavation uncovered what was clearly a moat, and established that it was filled with only 16th-century material. With this evidence, we were able to secure funding from the Florida Bureau of Historical Resources Grants-in-Aid program, the National Geographic Society and the University of Florida to return for more extensive work in 1994 and again in 1997.

The work at the Shrine concentrated on learning more about the moat found in 1993, to determine whether or not it was the original Seloy fort of Menendez.. We followed the moat feature, which ran inland from the water (east to west) in a straight line for 30 meters, where it abruptly ended at what seems to be a wooden wall! The wall was perpendicular to the moat, and extended both north and south of the western end of the ditch, considerably confusing our understanding of the structure the moat was defending.

The moat unfortunately lies in a nineteenth and twentieth century cemetery, and the numerous marked and unmarked graves have disturbed or removed much of the critical archaeological evidence. Dredging and filling activities in the 1930s and 1940s probably largely destroyed the eastern side of the moat, paralleling the waterfront. The ditch was nevertheless our best candidate so far for the first Menendez fort. It was in approximately the right location, and the artifacts indicate that it could have been occupied at the right time.

To the south of the moat, near the water's edge, we found a remarkable archeological feature that has played an important role in our interpretations of the site. This was a pit kiln for reducing lime from oyster shell - a deep bowl-shaped pit, some 5 meters across and 1.5 meters deep. Layers of shell and fuel wood were placed in it and allowed to burn for several days to reduce the shells to quicklime. Curiously, however, no lime or such lime based elements as mortar, plaster or tabby, were found at the site outside of the kiln itself.

It was not until after the archeological discovery of the limekiln that historian Eugene Lyon made his own archival discovery on the same topic. He located a document in the papers of Menendez de Aviles family that described how the soldiers at the Seloy blockhouse were complaining to the authorities that they were being made to burn lime, as well as guard the outpost (perhaps an early manifestation of it's not in my job description ). This discovery raised the possibility that the limekiln and moat at the Nombre de Dios site were actually related to the blockhouse left at the original Seloy townsite in 1566 when the Spaniards abandoned their first settlement (at the Fountain of Youth Park) of in favor of Anastasia Island. If that were the case (and it has not been unequivocally established that it in fact is,) we were left with a campsite occupied from 1565-1566, and a blockhouse erected in 1566 or so. Where was the fort?

At about the same time that Eugene Lyon was learning these new and evocative details about the Menendez forts and towns, Al Woods of the Florida Museum of Natural History undertook the analysis of some NASA-generated satellite imagery of the Fountain of Youth Park as a project in his remote sensing class. The images, shown in the accompanying photo, revealed the presence of several stains describing an arc, extending around the base of a roughly circular shell midden at the south end of the Fountain of Youth Park site. The stains in these images represent soil areas that hold different amounts of moisture and heat than the soil in surrounding areas, and tell us that a disturbance of some kind is under the ground at that location. They were just south of the area in which most of the Menendez-era Spanish deposits had been excavated. Could these be related to the missing Seloy fort?

In January of 2000, we returned once again to the Fountain of Youth park with the University of Florida field school, both to investigate that possibility and to expose more of the Spanish campsite. At least two of the anomalies marked locations where large posts had been placed into the ground and then removed or had rotted. Excavation showed that the area in which the anomalies were located marked a cultural boundary of sorts during the Menendez era - in the low ground to the north of the anomalies we found mostly Spanish deposits with plentiful Spanish artifacts. To the south, we found shell midden deposits covering a natural rise, with evidence for aboriginal occupation (postmolds, Indian pottery, lithics), but very little evidence of Spanish presence. A few sherds of early style Olive Jar, however, indicated that the southern Indian area, was occupied during the Menendez period. Our preliminary assessment of this is that there were very segregated areas of Spanish and Indian occupation in the Seloy town.

The Spanish occupation is, in fact, sandwiched between two predominantly Timucua living areas (the one to the south, just discussed, and the other to the north). So far we have found that the Spanish remains are concentrated in an area of about 55 meters south to north by more than 60 meters east to west. There was no evidence for a pre-Spanish Timucua occupation in this area, which is also the lowest and wettest part of the site. Perhaps it was the only unoccupied part of the town when the Spaniards arrived, either because it was low-lying and swampy , or because it was a central plaza or open space within the Timucua town (today it floods regularly during high tides, and field crew members have been known to catch fish in the excavation units after a weekend rain). More excavation will be needed to answer that question.

Some of the most interesting features uncovered in the recent excavations are extremely large posts, that seem to have been dug out and removed during the Spanish occupation. Three of these have been found, positioned from 6 to 7 meters apart in a row. They were set very deeply in the ground , extending below the water table (about 1.5 meters from the sixteenth century surface). The posts seem to have been supports for a substantial structure, or a substantial wall. Such a wall would have extended north to south, some 12 meters west of the barrel well, and we do not yet know how far it extended in any direction. It is possible that these posts may be related to the Seloy council-house-fort, although more excavation will be needed to confirm or deny this.

One of these posts - closest to the Indian sector of the site - had been used as a trash pit by the Spaniards after the post was removed. The trash pit contained pottery and glassware, food refuse, glass beads, spikes, pieces of wooden boards, lead shot and a carved wooden figa amulet. The figa is a clenched fist symbol with Muslim origins, used widely in Spain as protection against the evil eye. It is though to be especially protective for infants, and most Spanish babies had at least one figa attached to their clothing. Perhaps this figa was used by an infant at the Menendez campsite.

As usual, archaeology has raised more new questions than it has answered old. While we are confident that Menendez' first settlement was on the grounds of the Fountain of Youth Park, we still have two candidates for the Seloy fort - one clearly a military feature at the Mission of Nombre de Dios and the other a possible remnant of a large structure. Plans are underway for continuing excavations at both sites in January of 2001.