450th Anniversary of St. Augustine, the Oldest City in the U.S.

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary celebrates the 450th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine, Florida – the oldest city in the United States.

This week, St. Augustine, Florida – the oldest continuously-occupied European settlement in the continental United States – celebrated the 450th anniversary of its founding.

photo of a re-enactor at the 450th anniversary celebration at St. Augustine, Florida, dressed in Spanish costume
Photo: re-enactor at the 450th anniversary celebration at St. Augustine, Florida, dressed in Spanish costume. Credit: Mary Harrell-Sesniak.

Although this tropical area in what is now the state of Florida was settled by Native Americans much earlier, “San Agustin” was founded by Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés on 8 September 1565. Many family roots can be traced there – and even if yours can’t, many of our ancestors visited the historical city, a popular tourist attraction with breathtaking beaches.

photo of Cherokee women at the 450th anniversary celebration at St. Augustine, Florida
Photo: Cherokee women at the 450th anniversary celebration at St. Augustine, Florida; they were there to give a blessing to Native Americans of all tribes who had been imprisoned there. Credit: Mary Harrell-Sesniak.

This map shows how our ancestors would have driven there a mere 100 years ago.

map of auto routes in the Southern U.S., Miami Herald newspaper article 30 August 1915
Miami Herald (Miami, Florida), 30 August 1915, page 5

Fun Facts About St. Augustine

  • Augustine is about 13 square miles in area, but home to about 13,000. That’s about 1,000 residents every square mile, not including the 5,000,000 annual visitors.
  • It was explored as early as 1513 by Ponce de Leon, but it took more than 50 years to become a settlement. His desire was to find the legendary Fountain of Youth.
  • Agustin, son of Agustin and Francisca, was born there in 1606. His is the first African American birth recorded in the continental United States.
  • Augustine today has an attraction called the Fountain of Youth, a wax museum, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, and three forts in the area (Castillo de San Marcos, Fort Matanzas and Fort Mose).
  • Fort Mose was established in 1738 as the first legally free black settlement in North America.
  • The Castillo, which has had several names in its history, has the distinction of being the oldest masonry fort in North America and is the only remaining 17th century fort.
photo of Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, St. Augustine, Florida
Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

See: https://floridamemory.com/items/show/140584

  • It hosts the narrowest street in the U.S. at only 7 feet wide (Treasury Street), and the oldest wooden schoolhouse – which was built in 1716.
  • The first Catholic Congregation in North America was established at Cathedral Basilica.
  • There are ghost stories about many of the historical sites in the area, from the lighthouse to the cemeteries. If you want to learn about them, take one of the many haunted ghost tours – or examine your photos closely. Many visitors report seeing strange people, faces and orbs in their photos!
photo of The Tower Room, oldest house in the U.S., St. Augustine, Florida
Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

See: https://floridamemory.com/items/show/158399

If you search GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for “St. Augustine Florida,” you’ll find over 138,000 references – very good resources for hunting North Florida family roots.

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Genealogy Tip:

St. Augustine’s church the Cathedral Basilica has records dating back to 1594. Some of these are early African American slave records.

photo of the Ponce de Leon building in St. Augustine, Florida
Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 10 February 1905, page 12

Does your family have roots traced back to St. Augustine, Florida? Tell us about them in the comments section.

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