In 1565 a fleet of Spanish ships led by Pedro Menéndez de Aviles established the first permanent European settlement in North America at present-day St. Augustine, Florida.

After a difficult first decade of conflict with the local Timucua Indians, the city established itself as the capital of Spanish La Florida, which in the sixteenth century extended northward to Virginia and westward to the Mississippi. The town was also the administrative center for the very widespread Spanish Franciscan mission system that extended throughout La Florida in the seventeenth century. St. Augustine was entering its fifth decade as a city when the first settlers arrived at Jamestown.

St. Augustine Map
Map titled “St. Augustine, The Capital of East Florida”

St. Augustine served as the northernmost Spanish territory between the North American English colonies and the rest of the Spanish Empire. It was a military garrison of about 300 people until the end of the seventeenth century, when it’s strategic importance increased in response to the growing British presence in the Carolinas, and the garrison was reinforced. Nevertheless, Florida was traded to the English in exchange for Cuba following the Seven Years’ War in 1763, and virtually the entire Spanish and Indian population left the colony for Cuba. The British held St. Augustine from 1764-1784, when it was once again returned to Spanish control.

In 1821 Florida became an American territory, and entered the Union as a State in 1845. Although it was a small and often struggling town on the edge of the Spanish Empire for much of it’s colonial history, St. Augustine did survive as the oldest European town in the United States. It was also one of the most colorful, occupied by Spaniards, Indians, Africans, Canary Islanders, Englishmen, Americans and mixed blood combinations throughout its history. Today it is a popular destination for heritage tourism, serving as a Living History Museum of America’s Spanish colonial past.

Archaeological research has been underway in St. Augustine since the 1930s, and the University of Florida and Florida State University have sustained an annual field school in historical archaeology there since 1968, under the direction of Hale Smith, Charles Fairbanks and Kathleen Deagan. The next University of Florida project will begin in January of 2000. It will be a collaborative archaeological and historical project between Flagler College and the University of Florida to learn more about the sixteenth century origins of the city.

Excavations have studied the entire spectrum of St. Augustines’s cultures and historical periods, including military, religious, and domestic sites ranging from the 16th through the 19th centuries. They have included the homes of Spanish elite, criollo colonists, Indians, Africans, mixed blood people, Minorcans, British colonists and nineteenth century tourists. Much of the work has been incorporated into a Living History Museum that brings St. Augustine’s past to life, and is visited by thousands of tourists each year. The work has also generated a collection of more than 1,000,000 artifacts, which are curated at the Florida Museum of Natural History.


View the St. Augustine Virtual Exhibit