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American Territory 1821

So on July 10, 1821 the ensign of Spain came down to the thunderous salute of Castillo cannon, and up went the 23-star flag of the United States of America.

Although physically imposing, the proud Castillo de San Marcos continued to serve as an impressive reminder of Spain's past glories. The arrival of the Americans brought with it dramatic changes in the role the fortress would play. Renamed Fort Marion, the Castillo that had once protected an important outpost of Imperial Spain was assigned the more mundane duties of prison, storehouse, and inevitably, tourist destination.

In fact, the early days of American administration brought with it perhaps the greatest threats ever posed to the Castillo's survival. The removal of stones from the seawall to build a wharf brought with it dire consequences - seawater gradually flooded into the moat and began to eat away at Fort Marion's foundation. In 1834, storms and associated high tides brought further deterioration - damage so severe that local residents successfully appealed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and critical repairs were made to save the fort.

In 1837, two separate incidents in which the U.S. Army violated one of the oldest customs of warfare by capturing enemies who approached under a white flag of truce, resulted in the capture of Osceola and several of his lieutenants. Osceola, in failing health, was moved to South Carolina where he died at Fort Moultrie on January 31, 1838.

In 1842, the Second Seminole War was brought to a quiet conclusion and tourists once more felt safe about traveling to the Ancient City where they could gaze upon what remained of an exotic Spanish past, a bygone era that was symbolized by the mighty fortress now known as Fort Marion. No visit to St. Augustine was complete without a stroll past the ageless battlements of the impressive guardian of the city and its harbor. As more and more Americans came to the oldest city to experience the past, to flee the chill of northern winters, or to recover from a host of maladies, the fort became the most memorable and enduring symbol of their visit to St. Augustine.

The fort's military attributes were once more put to good use in 1861 at the opening of the Civil War. As the headquarters for Confederate military operations in what remained a somewhat isolated part of America's southern frontier, a small expedition was dispatched from the fort with the task of extinguishing lighthouses along Florida's Atlantic coastline. Fort Marion's service to the Confederacy soon ended, however, in March of 1862 when a Union gunboat arrived to demand the town's surrender. In sharp contrast to the battles of long ago, the fort and the town were relinquished to the Northern invader without a shot being fired in their defense. For the remainder of the conflict, the fort served as a largely forgotten military installation occupied by rear guard Union troops who seemed content to simply enjoy the warmth of the Florida sun.

By 1875, the Castillo had returned to its role as a place of incarceration for Native Americans. This time it wasn't the Florida Seminoles who were imprisoned within the ancient coquina walls. Instead, the inmates were now from the distant Great Plains and included Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, and Kiowa. For the most part, these prisoners were men who had refused to accept the Federal government's system of reservations for controlling the once-proud tribes. Fortunately for these former warriors of the Plains, Captain Richard Pratt was their jailer. Under his direction, the prisoners not only learned English, they were allowed to sell handmade trinkets to tourists and even entertained guests at local hotels by performing authentic dances and demonstrating their archery skills. Next, Pratt developed courses for teaching job skills and professional trades to his prisoners. Inspired by the results, he went on to create the famous Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.

The upper deck of the Castillo took on a entirely new look in 1886 when it was crowded with tents erected to house the latest Native Americans made prisoner by the U.S. Army. This time, the prisoners were notorious Apaches from the Southwest whose presence in St. Augustine became a major tourist attraction – especially the three women who claimed to be wives of the infamous Geronimo. For Pratt, these prisoners also represented an ideal source of students for his Indian School.

In 1885 when millionaire Henry Flagler drew up his plans for transforming St. Augustine into an exclusive winter getaway for America's wealthiest families, he was staying just across the street from the Castillo at the San Marco Hotel. For Flagler, the Castillo represented a major selling point for his resort - its antiquity and authentic link to Spanish conquistadores, pirates, and the romantic appeal of a by-gone era were unique attributes that potential visitors found hard to resist. In typical Flagler fashion, another tourism entrepreneur eventually combined the past and the present when he created a popular golf course on the Castillo's grounds, the first golf course in Florida.

The Castillo's transition from military installation to tourist attraction was solidified after the Great Fire of 1914 swept through the town. Among the losses from the fire were the collections of the St. Augustine Historical Society. In response to a Society appeal, the U.S. War Department granted permission for the group to use the Castillo as their headquarters. Within a matter of weeks, the Society was conducting tours from the Castillo. In 1924, with the Historical Society's strong support and work, the Castillo was designated as a national landmark. In 1933, the Castillo's long military service came to an end with the passage of the Historic Sites Act. Under the terms of this legislation, the U.S. War Department transferred its responsibility for administering the Castillo to the National Park Service.

In 1942, the Park Service abandoned the name "Fort Marion" and re-instated its original name – Castillo de San Marcos-a lasting tribute to the men and women for whom the existence of the Castillo had truly meant the difference between life and death.

In this new era, the aging fort was already a relic. The strategy of St. Augustine Harbor was gone. The young United States built powerful seacoast forts from Maine to Texas but at this one-time capital of the Southeast the engineers added only a water battery in the east moat (1842-44), mounted a few new guns on the bastions, and improved the glacis.

The fort was little changed, except in name. The Americans chose to honor General Francis Marion, Revolutionary leader and son of the very colony against which San Marcos had been built, so in 1825 Castillo de San Marcos became Fort Marion. Congress restored the original name in 1942.

Heavy doors and iron bars that once protected precious stores of food and ammunition made the old fort a good prison, and the prison days soon obscured the olden times when Spain's hold upon Florida depended upon the strength of these walls and the brave hearts who manned them. For by now the echo of the Spanish tongue had faded and the scarred walls were silent, their history hidden in faraway archives.

Small wonder that such things as a "secret dungeon" had to be invented! Accidental discovery of an obsolete magazine, walled up during the modernization of 1738-1739, was garnished with a Gothic plot-a tale of young lovers sealed into a tomb by a flint-hearted father. Such fictional romancings are not worthy of the Castillo, for in the documents one reads far better stories which, if a bit less macabre, have the virtue of being true and genuinely moving accounts of human suffering and achievement.

Crossing the language barrier into Castillo history gives new insight into the age-old misunderstandings between Spaniard and Englishmen. The records tell of the people who built and defended the Castillo-and those who attacked it, too. In the archives are countless instances of unselfish zeal and loyalty, the cases of Ransom, Collins, and Carr, the crown's patriarchal protection of its Indian vassals, the unflagging work of the friars.

True, there have been some, even in early times, who could see past the blackness of the dungeon, who did not need the written word to perceive the essence of this landmark. Such a one was William Cullen Bryant. "The old fort of St. Mark," he wrote, "is a noble work, frowning over the Matanzas, and it is worth making a long journey to see."


 
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