The National Parks Service's official guide to Fort Matanzas National Monument.
Fort Matanzas Handbook
Fort Matanzas National Monument lies about twenty minutes south of downtown St. Augustine on A1A Beach Blvd. Here, the National Parks Service oversees the preservation and interpretation of the nearly three-hundred year old coquina watchtower, which was the southern-most point of defense for the Spanish capital of St. Augustine. Along with the rich cultural resources at Fort Matanzas National Monument, the National Parks Service also oversee the care of nearly three-hundred acres of coastal environments like dunes, marshes, and maritime forests. Discover the story of Fort Matanzas and the surrounding land with this Historical Resource.
(Introduction was written by Cheyenne B. Koth in the fall of 2022.)
In 1565, Pedro Menendez de Aviles killed over 200 French Huguenots who had come from Fort Caroline to attack St. Augustine, giving the area its name. Matanzas is Spanish for "slaughters".
The Founding of St. Augustine
In September 1565, Pedro Menendez de Aviles established the base camp that grew into the city of St. Augustine. All because of his first encounter with the French near Fort Caroline.
St. Augustine was well located. It commanded the entrance from the ocean and was surrounded by water on three sides. The only weakness in the armor was Matanzas Inlet. If an enemy ship could cross the bar into the Matanzas River, it could sail up the Matanzas River to the San Sebastian and attack St. Augustine from the rear.
Here in 1565 Menendez killed over 200 French Huguenots who had sailed from Ft. Caroline to attack St. Augustine. "Matanzas" is the Spanish word for slaughters.
The hurricane that struck Florida's northeast coast in September 1565 bore no colorful name and gave no advance warning of its coming. But for this interference of nature, the history of this region might well have been different, for it was here in the aftermath of that storm that Spain crushed the French attempt to control Florida and began the continued occupation of this site.
Throughout the late 16th century, France was wracked by religious warfare between Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots). In the hope of uniting his countrymen against a common enemy, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, leader of the Huguenots, sent Jean Ribault, also a Huguenot, to establish bases within Spanish America in the name of the King of France.
His first attempt in 1562 at Charlesfort, on present-day Parris Island near Beaufort, South Carolina, failed in less than a year. Two years later, a second expedition under Ribault's second in command, Rene de Laudonniere, built Fort Caroline on the St. Johns River.
The Spanish, who claimed ownership of Florida going back to the explorations of Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513, were alarmed by news of the French colony. Just as repugnant to the Spaniards was the fact that almost all of these French colonists were Huguenots, for the Spanish regarded Protestants as heretics.
Fort Caroline also threatened the route of merchantmen and treasure galleons returning to Spain from the Caribbean via the Gulf Stream just off the coast of Florida. The French already had a long history of plundering Spanish ships, and in fact, Ribault was known as one of their most successful corsairs.
To remove the twin threats of French encroachment and of Protestant heresy, King Philip II of Spain dispatched Pedro Menendez de Aviles, an able seaman and devout Catholic, to rid Florida of this French menace.
Enroute, the Spanish encountered a fierce storm. Only two of the seventeen ships that left Cadiz arrived safely in Puerto Rico. He was able to obtain three more small ships, and headed north. On August 28, 1565 Menendez sighted Cape Canaveral. Coincidentally, this was the same day that five ships commanded by Jean Ribault reached Fort Caroline with reinforcements.
Menendez turned north and followed the coast looking for the French. On September 5 his small fleet arrived at the St. Johns River. Although the Spanish were outnumbered, words were exchanged, and a few shots were fired.
Menendez then sailed south to a small inlet he had noticed on the voyage north, a place where he could find refuge and make plans to comply with the King's order "to burn and hang the Lutheran French."
On September 8, he entered this inlet and founded a town near the site of a Timucuan Indian village. He named his settlement "St. Augustine" after the saint honored in the church calendar on August 28, the day on which he had first sighted Florida.
As the Spanish began building St. Augustine, the French plotted an attack. Ribault reasoned that it was best to take the initiative while he enjoyed numerical superiority. So with 500 men in five ships, he left Fort Caroline on September 11 against the advice of Laudonniere who warned about storms and the possibility of a Spanish attack on Fort Caroline.
This fear proved to be prophetic. Just as the French were about to attack St. Augustine, they were hit by a storm that drove their ships south, out of control, along the coast.
Taking advantage of the weather, Menendez marched his men north to Fort Caroline through a driving rain. They easily captured the lightly-guarded fort and killed 130 civilians and soldiers who had not accompanied Ribault. They claimed the fort for Spain and renamed it Fort San Mateo. The women and children were sent by ship to Puerto Rico. A few Frenchmen, including Laudonniere and the artist Le Moyne, had managed to board a ship and escape to France. No Spanish soldier was killed in this attack.
Meanwhile, the French ships were driven against the shore and wrecked, some near present-day Daytona Beach and others at Cape Canaveral. The survivors started north on foot toward Fort Caroline only to be stopped at an inlet south of St. Augustine.
Menendez led about 70 Spanish soldiers to the inlet and convinced the French that their only hope was to allow themselves to be taken prisoner. Never promising to spare their lives, Menendez said he would do to them whatever God directed him to do. Famished and exhausted, the French surrendered. The Spanish ferried them across the inlet in small groups and led them into the dunes where they were killed. In this first wave 111 died, and 16 were spared. Menendez reportedly told the French that he was killing them not because they were French but because they were Luteranos, the Spanish term for all Protestants.
The rest of the Frenchmen, including Jean Ribault, who had been shipwrecked at Cape Canaveral, arrived at the inlet twelve days later on October 11. The Spanish once again convinced these men to surrender, promising to ferry them across the inlet the following morning. During the night, half the French had second thoughts, and fled to the south. The next morning, those who remained were ferried across the inlet, led into the dunes and suffered the same fate as those who had come before. In this second group, 134 were killed and another 16 spared. A few weeks later, Menendez sought out those Frenchmen who had fled south. Some escaped to the Indians, but those who were captured were sent as prisoners to Havana, Cuba. Matanzas had received its name--the Spanish word for "slaughters".
Defending St. Augustine
As early as 1569 a wooden watchtower with a thatched hut was built at Matanzas Inlet. Built to serve only as a lookout, it had no armament. These wooden watchtowers had to be rebuilt or replaced often in Florida's warm, wet climate.
Governor Manuel de Cendoya visited the Matanzas watchtower on August 21st, 1671, and the occasion was recorded in an affidavit which also gave a description of the watchtower. This drawing was made centuries later from the early description.
Location of the Inlet
Many scholars have debated the exact location of the slaughter of the French. Over the years, heavy storms have been known to open new inlets and close existing ones. It is well documented that an inlet called El Penon was located a few miles south of the present Matanzas Inlet at the time of the massacre. Spanish maps drawn at about this time name this southern inlet "Little Inlet", "Little Matanzas Inlet", "Ribault's Inlet", as well as "El Penon Inlet".
With nearly 250 people having been killed, it would seem that something would have been found over the years that would give clues to the exact location of the site. However, no such archaeological evidence has ever been found.
The National Park Service does have a copy of a deposition given by a man who, as a boy, played in the area. According to him, after the hurricane of 1893, the beach was washed away, exposing a large number of human bones. The writer of the deposition suggested that these were the bones of the French soldiers killed by Pedro Menendez in 1565. However, other people conjecture that these bones, if actually seen, were more likely from burial grounds of Native Americans who had lived in the area for many centuries.
Watch Towers and Surprise Attacks
St. Augustine was vulnerable to attack through its "back door." All one needed do was enter the Matanzas River at the Matanzas Inlet, sail north until reaching the San Sebastian River, surprising the city from the rear.
Realizing this, by 1569 the Spanish had built wooden watchtowers along the shore to watch for ships heading towards the city and alert the military of their presence. Such a tower was built at the Matanzas Inlet.
Construction was simple. Poles were anchored into the ground and a platform built at the top of the poles from which a sentry could scan the ocean for any ship approaching from the south. A small thatch- roofed hut was built at the base of the tower, and both tower and hut were enclosed in a palm log stockade. If a ship were sighted, a man would either run or row the fifteen miles (24 km) from Matanzas to St. Augustine to alert the garrison at the larger fort there. The watchtower was manned by perhaps 4-5 men and had no artillery.
In 1683 a band of pirates captured the Matanzas tower and made plans to capture St. Augustine. However when they advanced north they became lost, and opted for an overland approach. They were met and defeated by the Spanish at El Vergel (Fish Island), and the city was saved.
The War of Jenkin's Ear
During the colonial period, Spanish law forbade any Spanish colonial citizen from trading with merchant ships from any country except Spain. Since St. Augustine was such a remote outpost, Spanish supply ship rarely visited. The practicality of survival meant that the townspeople ignored the law and traded with anyone who would come to town with goods to trade.
In 1731, a British merchant ship, the Rebecca, captained by Robert Jenkins, is said to have pulled into the port of St. Augustine and began trading with the citizens. A Spanish officer boarded the ship and challenged the English captain, saying that he had no business here. The Spaniard then drew his sword and cut off Captain Jenkin's ear, picked up the ear, held it close to Captain Jenkin's face and told him that if his King were here, this would have been the king's ear that was cut off.
It took seven years for this story to reach England, but when this story was reported in Parliament in 1738, it so incensed the English that they declared war on Spain. However, there is more to the story. Some accounts say that none of this is true, that Captain Jenkins never came to St. Augustine. Instead, low on money, he and his ship turned to piracy to replenish their purses. In one attack on a prize, Captain Jenkins' ear was cut off by one of the sailors from the attacked ship. Jenkins could not tell this story to his superiors because piracy was a crime punished by death. So, rather than tell the truth, he made up the story about the incident in St. Augustine.
The Necessity of a Fort
The Siege of 1740 In 1733 General James Oglethorpe founded the English colony of Georgia on land claimed by Spain. Hostilities were inevitable, and the War of Jenkin's Ear gave Oglethorpe an excuse to attack St. Augustine. In May 1740 he began to move troops into Florida. After capturing the outpost forts of San Diego and Mose, he occupied the land across the bay from the Castillo de San Marcos and began to fire upon the fortress. When the bombardment caused no damage to the fort's coquina walls, he knew he would have to try a different plan--a simple plan of starving the Spanish into surrender by blockading the harbor, thus preventing the Spanish from leaving to bring in more food or supplies. He not only stationed ships to guard the St. Augustine Inlet, but he also sent a ship to blockade the Inlet at Matanzas.
Anticipating Oglethorpe's plan, the Spanish governor, Manuel de Montiano, had sent a boat through the Matanzas Inlet south to Havana requesting additional supplies. Hopefully, aid would arrive soon, for they had only enough food for three weeks. To stretch the supply, he ordered that everyone be cut down to half rations.
Six weeks later, the courier returned to St. Augustine with the message that six supply ships were at Mosquito Inlet, 68 miles (110 kilometers) further down the coast. He also told the governor that the British had withdrawn the vessel blocking the Matanzas Inlet, and the way appeared clear to bring the provisions into the city. However, a British deserter reported to the Spanish that Oglethorpe planned a night attack during the next six days of unusually high tides, for the high water was needed to cross the bar and attack the Castillo.
Six days passed, and no attack came, so Montiano sent five small, shallow-draft vessels down to Mosquito Inlet to fetch the supplies. Just as they cleared the Matanzas Inlet late that afternoon, they met two British sloops that were taking soundings. The sloops opened fire and took up the chase. The fighting continued until twilight when the British vessels returned to their squadron. Their withdrawal gave the Spanish the opening they needed. With the English patrol boat gone, they easily sailed the supplies through the "back door" to St. Augustine that very night, to the joyous relief of the inhabitants.
When Oglethorpe learned that the Spanish had received supplies, he yielded to the up-coming hurricane season and lifted the siege on July 20.
With another British attack likely, Governor Montiano ordered engineer Pedro Ruiz de Olano to start work on a strong, stone fort near the mouth of the Matanzas Inlet to keep it open as a supply route, usable as a possible escape route, and guarded to prevent the English from bringing boats through this back door to attack St. Augustine from the rear.
Attacks on Fort Matanzas
Fort Matanzas was built on a very small island in the Matanzas River just inside the inlet. Any ship wanting to sail to St. Augustine through this back way had to enter the inlet, sail in a westerly direction immediately in front of the fort, and then turn north towards the city. This made an attack on the fort very dangerous indeed. No vessel small enough to navigate the shallow inlet could mount a large cannon. All that the invaders could bring were muskets that had a range of about fifty yards and small cannons with a range about four times that. The cannons mounted on the fort had an effective range of one mile or more. Given these conditions, it was easy to see that an attack on Fort Matanzas would be futile.
Nevertheless, the persistent English tried on several occasions, but none was successful.
On July 21, 1741 two English ships, the St. Philip and a schooner (a sailing vessel with two masts), noticed a Spanish sloop in the mouth of the Matanzas Inlet and sailed to attack. A second Spanish ship, a galley or galliot (a two-masted shallow-draft vessel propelled mainly by oars) which had gone unnoticed by the English, opened fire on the English ships but scored no hit. The English escaped into the darkness of night. The next morning, the St. Philip tried again, attacking the Spanish sloop. In an attempt to get away, the Spanish sloop ran aground on a sand bar. The St. Philip began firing on the sloop, hitting it, killing two Spanish sailors and wounding two more.
The Spanish galley, making its presence felt, began firing on the St. Philip. The English ships broke off the engagement, retreating to the safety of the open seas.
On September 1, and again on December 27, 1741, two English ships were observed offshore in the vicinity of the inlet, but, for some reason, no attack was made.
In September 1742 two English long boats entered the inlet. By this time, the fort was almost complete--only the tower remained to be finished. A Spanish ship rested at anchor near the fort. The Spanish fired a cannon round at the English long boats, missing them. The English, assuming that the fort was not yet equipped to fire its cannons, were startled by the cannon fire directed at them. When they determined that the cannon that fired on them was, in fact, mounted on the fort's gun deck, and not the ship's, both long boats hastily retreated.
The next April General Oglethorpe returned with several small ships and the plan to try to land cannon and soldiers on Anastasia Island. However, "the seas ran mountain high", and landing was impossible. The little fort had done its job. The English never again attempted to attack St. Augustine.
Design of the Fort
Olano's design was for a simple structure. Its main strength would be the artillery and its strategic location. A solid base would elevate the fort's guns high above the ground, and from the tower soldiers would be able to see over the barrier island to spot ships heading toward St. Augustine. They could also fire on ships trying to blockade the inlet as well as those attempting to enter the Matanzas River.
The fort was built of coquina stone quarried at El Penon quarry south of the inlet and was covered inside and out with white lime plaster. The tower and scarp cordons were painted red, a color that was achieved by mixing Georgia clay into the white plaster. Construction was completed in the winter of 1742.
Foundations and Gundeck
Archaeological work has determined that the fort's foundation is of pine logs driven into the ground and capped with a grill work of square pine timbers upon which a footing of oyster shell was laid. On this base the masonry structure was built.
The size of the base is 49.5 feet on each side at the ground. This works out to exactly 18 Spanish varas of 33" each. The center is filled with sand and mud. The surface of the gun deck, eleven feet above the ground, is tabby, a concrete made of oyster shell lime, sand, water and a shell filler. A timber floor was built on top of this surface as a base for the cannon.
The east and west parapets of the gun deck are four feet tall with an embrasure on each side for the entrance ladder or cannon. The south parapet was only three feet high. While it afforded the soldiers great versatility in aiming and servicing the cannons, it offered them little protection. However, since the cannons' range was so much longer than any gun used by a possible attacker, protection was not critical. Five cannons once guarded the three approaching directions. Each cannon could easily reach the inlet, then only a half-mile away. The two 8-pounder cannon currently on the gun deck were cast in Spain in the 1750s and emplaced at Matanzas in 1793, during the Second Spanish Period. They were left behind when the Spanish turned Florida over to the United States in 1821. The other two 6-pounder cannon are modern replicas cast especially for the park's black powder program.
In the gun deck's southwest corner stands a garita (sentry box) with loopholes enabling a sentry to see to the south and west, outside and along the walls. Entry to the fort was by a ladder, lowered down from the embrasure in the west parapet and pulled up at night.
Just outside the door to the tower and built into the floor of the gun deck is a bottle-shaped, brick-tiled, water cistern, thirteen feet tall and ten feet in diameter. Rainwater falling on the observation deck was channeled through drain pipes into the cistern. Access to the water was by rope and bucket, although by the second Spanish period a small hand pump was added. This was the only source of fresh water there in the salt marsh.
The tower rising from the north half of the base housed the soldiers and their supplies. The en-listed men lived on the gun deck level, the officer in the apartment above.
The lower room has wooden beams and vaulting which supports the floor above. A door opens onto the gun deck. There are two windows and two loopholes in the south wall and one window in the north wall. The windows had shutters to keep out rain and the damp chill of winter winds.
On the east side of the room is a fireplace for cooking, heat, and light. A single bunk, large enough for five or six mattresses, was in the northwest corner of the room. A table and benches in front of the fireplace completed the simple furnishings. Extra clothing and tools necessary for servicing the cannons were also housed in this room.
An exterior staircase leads from the gun deck to the second floor quarters. This room has an arched ceiling running east to west. In this room was a bed and a desk for the officer, space for storing food and other supplies. A ladder leads up to the observation deck on the tower roof.
On the west side of the officer's room is the entrance hole to the cylindrical powder magazine built inside the wall and extending down to the level of the gun deck, protecting the dangerous powder from open flame and sparks. When the fort was in use, a ladder enabled the soldiers to climb down into the dark chamber to bring up powder kegs. Outside this hole, a stone wall and oak door (no longer extant) offered protection in the event of an explosion in the magazine. Food supplies were stored in the area behind the wall. This wall has been reconstructed and no longer extends to the ceiling.
The officer's quarters also has a window in the north wall. It and three loopholes in the south wall allow for ventilation, light and firing of muskets at attackers. Sitting at his desk or lying in bed, the officer probably appreciated the sea breeze which cooled the summer day and kept down the gnats and mosquitoes.
Design of the Fort — Continued
The ladder in the center of the officer's quarters leads through the ceiling to the observation deck 35 feet (11 meters) above the level of the river. From here a soldier could see any ship passing by and have ample time to warn St. Augustine. At one time a cover or roof over this hatchway kept out the cold and rain. To the north, the waterway leads to St. Augustine fifteen miles away.
With the completion of the little watchtower fort at Matanzas, St. Augustine was now safe from attack from the south. Moreover, St. Augustine had a secure escape route, should one ever be required.
Military Life at Fort Matanzas
The First Spanish Period (1742-1763)
Supposedly, the fort was designed to accommodate six guns and fifty men, although no more than five cannon were ever emplaced. Usually, only an officer, four privates of the infantry and two gunners manned the fort. Soldiers were assigned to the fort as a part of their regular rotation among the outposts and missions near St. Augustine. The tour of duty at Fort Matanzas was one month.
Soldiers assigned to the fort rowed or sailed small boats from St. Augustine, bringing all the supplies they would need for the month. Days were spent in cannon drills to maintain their skills at a high level, making necessary repairs to the building, maintaining equipment, foraging for firewood, and fishing. Lookouts continuously watched the ocean for approaching ships.
Since St. Augustine was the only town on Florida's east coast at that time, any shipwreck survivors who made it to shore would walk to St. Augustine for help. Fort Matanzas was the first Spanish presence encountered by those walking from the south. The soldiers of Matanzas helped many shipwreck victims.
If a soldier became sick while serving at the fort, he was taken to St. Augustine by boat for treatment. This was an all-day journey for those assigned. Because the fort is situated in a salt marsh, the water supply depended entirely on rain that drained off the flat roof into the cistern. During periods of drought, however, it was necessary for soldiers to row a mile south to Pellicer Creek, continue up as far as water depth would allow, and then walk with barrels and casks a mile or two up to where the water became fresh enough to drink. By the Second Spanish period there were plantations in the area where the men could go for well water.
It was an isolated outpost. No road passed near Matanzas, so visitors were few. How did the soldiers wile away any free time they might have had? Gambling, it is known, was a favorite pastime. When they were in St. Augustine, the men played dice and card games in taverns, so it is reasonable to expect that they played them at Fort Matanzas as well. Perhaps one of the men had a guitar or flute to play while others sang or danced.
Nevertheless, thirty days at the outpost of Matanzas was probably lonely, quiet duty in spite of its importance in the defense of St. Augustine.
Military Life at Fort Matanzas — Continued
The British Period (1763-1783)
The First Treaty of Paris, signed on February 10, 1763 ending the Seven Year War, gave all of Florida to the British. The Spanish packed up all their possessions, including the Fort Matanzas cannons, and headed for Cuba, leaving only their real property to the British. When the British took over the little fort, two six-pounders (cannons that fired a six-pound iron ball) were all they had to mount on the fort. The supply ship, Industry, on its first run to St. Augustine, went down in a storm near the St. Augustine Inlet, and all supplies were lost. Archaeologists have been able to recover some of these cannon.
The English staffed Fort Matanzas with one sergeant, six or eight privates from the Ninth Regiment, and one private from the Royal Artillery. As the political situation changed, the number of soldiers stationed at the fort increased, and more cannons were added. At least two eighteen-pounders were placed at the fort in 1783.
The political situation in St. Augustine was difficult at best for the British. The War for American Independence was raging to the north and the Spanish, under General Bernardo de Galvez, were attempting to recapture Florida through military actions in the panhandle. The British wanted out of Florida but did not leave because St. Augustine was one of the only safe havens where British loyalists could find sanctuary during those times.
Life for those in the English garrison at Fort Matanzas probably differed little from the Spanish. Days were spent in training, repair, and foraging for food as the officer attempted to keep his men occupied with useful tasks.
After capturing Pensacola from the British in 1781, it was thought that the Spanish might make plans to capture St. Augustine and regain control of Florida by trying the same plan the British had tried--coming up the Matanzas River and attacking from the rear. However such plans were never executed.
On September 3, 1783, the Second Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution and returned Florida to the Spanish. This time it was the English who packed up and left.
The Second Spanish Period (1783-1821)
The Spanish officially returned to Florida on July 12, 1784. They found Fort Matanzas to be in good condition. The British had added earth-filled wood framed parapets on the east, south, and west walls with three embrasures on each side. These parapets were subsequently taken down, returning the fort to its original design. This was done as much to rid the fort of rotting timber as to change the style. During the earlier part of this period, life at Fort Matanzas was much the same as it had been during the First Spanish Period.
One of the new duties of the garrison was to protect the nearby coquina quarry at El Penon, from being used for any purpose other than the repair of military structures.
On several occasions, people were seen taking stones, and were made to return them.
Also, just south of the Matanzas Inlet, was a large midden of oyster shells. Oyster shell was burnt to make lime, so these shells, an accumulation of centuries of Native American's meals, were coveted by the local masons. The mound was so large that it was easily seen by passing ships and was used as a marker for Matanzas Inlet. The governor declared the midden too valuable as a sentinel to be used by masons for lime. He assigned responsibility of guarding the midden to the commander of Fort Matanzas. On several occasions, particularity at night, barges were seen leaving the midden, filled with shell. They were stopped and turned back.
As the fort aged, it began to pose serious maintenance problems. In 1796, the first major problem was reported. The east side foundation, facing the Matanzas River, was eroding. Also, tabby floors had to be repaired and wooden stairs replaced. The cistern pump had broken, and it, too, had to be replaced.
In October 1801, heavy rains flooded the fort. Water trapped on the roof poured through a hole next to the chimney and turned both rooms into "lagoons". Water also got into the gun powder magazine and ruined some of the powder. A new roof was installed.
In July 1808, the fort commander reported that a hole had developed in the floor of the officer's quarters next to the chimney. Whenever a fire was burning below, smoke filled the officer's quarters causing both a health hazard and the danger of a spark finding its way to the powder magazine. This repair was also made.
In 1818, it was reported that a roof crack diverted rainwater away from the scupper. Also the downspout was broken to such an extent that what little water did come through the scupper spread out over the gun deck instead of being channeled into the cistern. But by then there was insufficient money available for repairs.
The deterioration of the fort continued to a point where it was no longer safe for a soldier to sleep inside. Most likely they slept in tents outside adjacent to the fort. Then, on September 28, 1820, a lightning strike rendered the fort totally useless.
The proud white fort that had defended the back door to St. Augustine for so many years was reduced to worthlessness, not by an enemy's cannon balls but by the ravages of time and nature.
However, Spanish soldiers continued to be stationed at the site until the last days of Spain's rule over Florida. Records show that soldiers were present on July 5, 1821, five days before the transfer of Fort Matanzas and all of Florida to the United States. All that remained at the fort were two eight-pounder cannons made in Spain and mounted on the fort in 1793. They remain to this day.
U.S. War Department (1821-1933)
Spain deeded Florida to the United States in 1821, ending over three hundred years of Spanish rule. Florida now became a territory of the United States with Andrew Jackson as its first governor. Fort Matanzas became the property of the War Department.
Military personnel later sent to Florida to evaluate their possessions determined that Fort Matanzas had only historical value. It was obsolete and in bad repair. The exterior surfaces were overrun with vegetation, its walls had cracked, and its undermined foundation caused the south side to lean precariously. The sentry box, the wooden drain pipe, the stairways, windows and doors, the hatch cover and the chimney were all gone. It was a mere ghost of what it once had been. And, since there were no funds available to restore it as an historic structure, it was left to the ravages and whims of nature.
Fortune smiled on Fort Matanzas on July 18, 1916, when $1025 was granted by Congress for the repair of the historical structure. In August 1924, the War Department employed a local man, Eugene Johnson, of Summer Haven, to purchase, deliver and spread 3,750 barrels of oyster shells around the base of the fort. He was to be paid twelve cents per barrel. In the first week he delivered and spread 240 barrels, bringing them in his rowboat. He then hired a powerboat and increased his production to 150 barrels a day. By mid-October he had delivered 3,825 barrels for which he was paid $450, the original contract amount.
On October 15, 1924, using the power granted in the Antiquities Act, President Calvin Coolidge named five sites, including Fort Matanzas and the Castillo de San Marcos, as national monuments. On August 19, 1927, he issued another order, assigning all the lands around the fort, not included in the national monument to the Department of Agriculture, as a bird refuge.
The National Park Service
(1933 to present)
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt transferred Fort Matanzas, along with the Castillo de San Marcos, to the control of the National Park Service. For eighteen years prior to that, the two St. Augustine forts were cared for under a contract between the War Department and the St. Augustine Historical Society and Institute of Science. The first park superintendent was hired for twelve dollars a year.
Under the National Park Service, the preservation of the forts was assured.
Not only was additional restoration work done in the 1930s, but also land was acquired on Anastasia Island and a combined visitor center and caretaker's cottage was built. The journey back to its original splendor had begun and continues to this day, with more planned for tomorrow.
More Recent Events at the Inlet
In the early 1900s the Army Corps of Engineers dug the channel for the Intracoastal Waterway west of the fort. As a result, the little island that once was the home of Fort Matanzas was joined with other small islands in the marsh and now is part of a much larger island known as Rattlesnake Island.
During the 1920's, in the period known as Prohibition, the Matanzas inlet was used by bootleggers to transport illegal liquor to U.S. cities. The liquor was brought from the Caribbean in large ships which would meet a fleet of smaller boats in the Matanzas inlet area. These smaller boats would bring the contraband into St. Augustine by way of the Matanzas River where it was transferred into waiting automobiles to be driven to northern cities for sale and consumption. The famous gangster Al Capone is said to have been involved in this smuggling operation.
One of the unique things about both Fort Matanzas and the Castillo de San Marcos is their construction material-- coquina.
Thousands of years ago the tiny coquina clam, donax variabilis lived in the shallow waters of coastal Florida. These are the small pink, lavender, yellow, or white shells one can still see along the beach today. As the resident clam died, the shells accumulated on the bottom in layers for thousands of years, forming deposits several feet thick.
During the last ice age, sea levels dropped, exposing these shell layers to the air. Rain water percolating through dead vegetation and soil picked up carbon dioxide and became acidic.
As this weak acid soaked downward, it dissolved some of the calcium in the shells, producing calcium carbonate, which solidified in lower layers much like flowstone and stalactites are formed in caves. This material "glued" the shell fragments together into a porous type of limestone we now call coquina, Spanish for "tiny shell".
When it became necessary to build a stronger fort to protect St. Augustine, the military engineers chose to use coquina from a large deposit on Anastasia Island near the present-day Anastasia State Recreation Area.
Inevitably, the British attacked, but a strange thing happened. Instead of shattering under cannon fire, the soft coquina stone merely compressed and absorbed the shock of the hit! The cannon balls just bounced off or stuck in a few inches!
One cannot but wonder what would have happened if the Spanish had not had coquina. Very likely, the British would have prevailed. Our history might have been quite different but for this little clam known as donax and for coquina stone. One might almost call it the rock that saved St. Augustine!
After the Castillo was built, wealthy citizens, began to use coquina for their homes. Some of these, like the Oldest House, can still be seen today. The St. Francis Barracks and the Cathedral in downtown St. Augustine are also made of coquina. One of the last large buildings to be built of coquina is the St. Augustine Visitor Information Center, built in the early 1940s. The Fort Matanzas Visitor Center is also coquina.
250 years of building used up most of the quality stone. However, coquina boulders can still be seen on the beach at Washington Oaks State Park a few miles south of Fort Matanzas National Monument.
Native Americans Near St. Augustine
Archaeological surveys at Fort Matanzas have shown that the area had been used by Native Americans for several thousand years before the Spanish arrived as evidenced by pieces of Orange Period pottery made c2000-500 years BC. Occupation was most likely seasonal hunting camps rather than permanent villages.
The Indians in north Florida were called Timucua by the French and Spanish. It is not known what they called themselves. Although they shared a common language, their cultures varied widely depending on where they lived and the resources available. For example, the Timucua who lived inland depended much more on agriculture, and those along the coast on hunting and fishing.
Politically, the Timucua were never united. Alliances rose and fell among the various villages. At the time of European contact in north Florida, Saturiwa was a powerful chief among the coastal Timucua, east and north of the St. Johns River.
A village might have had 50 to 300 individuals living in circular palm-thatched huts. Each village also had a large circular council house big enough to seat the entire village. It was here that meetings and ceremonies were held. Timucua society was divided into several clans traced matrilineally through the mother's side of the family.
As a people, Timucuans tended to be tall and well-built. Men wore their long hair tied in topknots. Women wore their hair long down their backs. Members of both sexes wore necklaces, bracelets, anklets, and earrings of shells and beads. Those of higher rank were often tattooed.
One of the ceremonies that was practiced by several Indian groups throughout Florida, was the Black Drink Ceremony. A highly caffinated tea was made from the roasted leaves of the yaupon holly (ilex vomitoria). This tea was drunk to produce sweating and vomiting for purification before going out on an important hunt or into battle.
The Timucua chief (or cacique), Seloy, offered Pedro Menendez the use of his tribe's council house until the Spanish could get their own houses built. There is good evidence that Seloy's village was near the present-day Fountain of Youth Park. Menendez later fortified the council house by building a stockade fence and moat around it.
Through the years, Spanish priests built missions and spread the word of Christianity to the Timucua and to the Apalachee Indians to the west. These mission villages also provided much needed food (corn) for the people of St. Augustine and labor for the building of the Castillo de San Marcos.
In 1600 there were at least 13,000 Timucua in Florida. By 1700, due to disease and war, there were only a few hundred left. In 1763, when the Spanish gave up Florida to the British, only a handful of Timucua remained, and they all moved to Cuba with the rest of the Spanish population.
A good place to learn about Timucuan and Apalachee life, as well as about Spanish missions, is at San Luis Mission State Historical Site which is under the administration of the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee, Florida. Archaeological research has helped reconstruct the Chief's House, the Council House, and the Mission Church.
Nature at Fort Matanzas National Monument
Although originally created to preserve the historic Spanish fort, in recent years, Fort Matanzas National Monument has become important in preserving the natural coastal habitat as well. Today the 300 acres of the national monument provide a haven for plants and animals and offer visitors opportunities for viewing a variety of wildlife.
Three species of sea turtles nest on the ocean beach each summer. The most common is the loggerhead, a threatened species. The endangered green and leatherback turtles also occasionally nest on the park's beach. Mating takes place in the ocean, and the adult female will then crawl onto the beach to lay 60-140 eggs. Nesting takes place from May through August, and incubation is approximately 60 days. The female is easily disturbed and may abandon its nesting when lights or other activities occur too close.
Fort Matanzas National Monument protects one of the three known populations of the endangered Anastasia Island beach mouse. This tiny buff or tan-colored mammal lives in the dry dunes among sea oats and other grasses which provide its diet of seeds.
More than 125 species of birds can be seen at different times throughout the year at the park. Among these is the endangered least tern, which can be seen diving head first into the water to catch fish. These small shore birds are white with gray wings and have a black cap and band across the eyes. This bird prefers to nest on open, shelly or course sand directly on the ground where the speckled eggs and chicks blend in perfectly.
Also found are several species of egrets and herons, pelicans, ospreys, bald eagles, and the wood stork. This large white bird with black wing tips and a dark bald head is North America's only member of the stork family and is federally listed as endangered.
The eastern indigo snake is one of many snakes and lizards found at Fort Matanzas National Monument. Reaching over 6' (190 cm), this smooth, shiny blue-black snake is the largest non-poisonous snake in North America and is also on the endangered list.
The gopher tortoise, a medium-sized land turtle with a broad head and short tail, is listed as a species of special concern in Florida, and as more of its scrub habitat is destroyed, it may soon be listed as threatened. This tortoise uses its large claws to burrow into a sandy bank. The burrows can be as long as 30 feet (9.3 meters) and provide shelter for several other animals including the eastern indigo snake. They forage in the dunes and lightly wooded areas of the park for grasses, succulents, and fruiting plants.
The more densely wooded areas and salt marshes of the park provide shelter for opossum, raccoon, several species of owls, and perhaps even foxes and bobcat. Whitetail deer are occasionally seen from the fort.
The Matanzas River is home to Atlantic bottlenose dolphin which are frequently seen from the visitor center dock. Endangered West Indian manatees are also occasional visitors to the waterway.
Fort Matanzas National Monument is a diverse habitat. Come and enjoy the natural beauty of the area while learning about the early European history of Florida.
Remember that everything in the park is protected. Do not remove plants, animals, coquina, or other items from the park.
All along much of the Atlantic coast of North America stretch barrier islands, long, narrow strips of sand built up over time by ocean currents, waves, and wind. Anastasia Island and Rattlesnake Island, where Fort Matanzas is located, are both barrier islands.
Facing the ocean are sand dunes covered by hardy plants such as sea oats, railroad vine, and beach sunflower. The deep roots of sea oats and other grasses help hold the dunes in place. This is why people should not pick these plants.
Just behind the dunes is an area of coastal scrub consisting of other salt-tolerant plants such as scrub live oak, wax myrtle, sabal palm, and saw palmetto.
The coastal forest or hammock, is located in the interior of the island. (It is thought that the word "hammock" comes from an Indian word for "shady place.") One of the primary plants of the hammock is the live oak tree (Quercus virginiana), which can be seen growing in the park's picnic area and along the nature trail. The Fort Matanzas nature trail winds through a coastal hammock. Look for the remnants of old dunes now covered by shade-loving plants like the live oak, sweet bay, eastern red cedar and shrubs like wax myrtle, yaupon holly and paw paw.
On the back side of the barrier island is the salt marsh, a low, wet area flooded twice a day by the tides. The primary plants are spartina grass, sea ox-eye daisy, and glasswort. This is the home of many types of crabs, oysters, and clams and serves as a "nursery" for the young of many types of fish.
Besides providing habitat for wildlife, the barrier islands are important in another way. They protect the mainland from the direct force of storms and hurricanes.
The sloping beaches and sandy dunes absorb the energy of the waves like a coquina fort absorbs the shock of a cannonball hit. The sand gives and shifts, the energy is dispersed, and the mainland receives less of the storm's force.
The thick vegetation of the scrub and hammock breaks the force of the wind, thus further protecting the mainland from the storm. The marshes act like sponges and absorb rising flood water.
At one time, a thick hammock ran the whole length of Anastasia Island. Where are all the trees now? As more people move to the coast, as more marshes are filled in, as more trees are cut down, as people make roads and paths through the dunes, how well will the barrier islands be able to protect the animals which call them home. How well will the barrier islands be able to protect the mainland from the next big storm?
The Changing Landscape of Matanzas
Barrier Islands move. After all, they are made of sand and are shaped by wind and waves. Currents move along the east coast of Florida from the north to the south. These currents gradually wear away the north end of the islands and deposit the sand at the south end, where the tidal current moving out through the inlet, between two barrier islands, stops the flow of the longshore current. Storms, especially hurricanes and nor'easters, pound the shoreline, sometimes making new inlets or over-washing the island. Tidal currents often form hooks and sandbars at inlets where there are no jetties or seawalls.
This is what has happened at the Matanzas Inlet, the only "natural" inlet left on the east coast of Florida. The inlet is not dredged or marked. There are no groins or jetties, and the sand comes and goes as nature wills. Every year the hook on the inside of the inlet grows a little, and the island creeps south.
We know by comparing charts from the present time with those from the mid-1700s that over the past two and a half centuries, Anastasia Island has "migrated" south, moving the inlet about 1/2 mile (650 meters) south of where it was when Fort Matanzas was built in 1740-1742. Standing on the gun deck of Fort Matanzas, a soldier would be looking directly out into the ocean. (See drawings below)
It's a part of nature for these islands to move. Often, however, people try to control the movement of barrier islands by building jetties at inlets or piers or groins vertical to the shore. These might catch the sand drifting down from the north, but then the shoreline south of the jetty is starved for sand and begins to wash away. This is what is happening at the north end of Anastasia Island and what happened at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina making it necessary to move the lighthouse as the ocean washed closer.
The exploration of the New World and the eventual founding of St. Augustine grew out of the Renaissance, the "re-awakening" of interest in art, music, literature, science, exploration, and learning of all kind. When the Turks captured Constantinople, a center for knowledge, the learned men there fled west to Italy. The invention of the printing press made the written word more readily available, and ideas spread throughout Europe. One of these ideas was Protestantism, a major cause in the clash between the French and Spanish in Florida.
1453: Ottoman Turks capture Constantinople
1454: Gutenberg perfects printing with moveable type
1469: Marriage of Ferdinand & Isabella, uniting Spain
1480: Spanish Inquisition begins
1485: Henry VII defeats Richard III ending War of the Roses in England
1492: Spain pushes Moors out of Granada after 800 years and expels Jews from Spain 1503: Da Vinci paints "Mona Lisa" 1509: Henry VIII becomes king of England; African slave trade with the New World begins
1517: Martin Luther nails his 95 Theses to church door, launching Protestant Reformation Coffee introduced into Europe
1519: Magellan begins round-the-world voyage
1558: Elizabeth I becomes Queen of England
1570: Spanish introduce potato to Europe
1572: St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in France--Hundreds of Huguenots killed by Catholics
1588: The defeat of the Spanish Armada by Sir Francis Drake
1590: Shakespeare writes his first play
1611: King James Bible written
1633: Galileo is forced to renounce theories of Copernicus.
1649: King Charles I of England is beheaded; Oliver Cromwell becomes "Lord Protector"
1661: Louis XIV builds Versailles
1666: The Great Fire of London
1685: Johann Sebastian Bach born
1701-1714: War of Spanish Succession
1756-1763: Seven Years War (French and Indian War in North America)
1789: French Revolution begins
1808: Napoleon invades Spain
While art and science were flourishing in Europe, explorers from Spain and other European countries were seeking wealth and land in the New World.
1492: Columbus' first voyage to America
1497: Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), an Italian hired by England, lands in North America
1513: Juan Ponce de Leon explores Florida
1519: Cortes conquers Mexico
1521: Ponce de Leon fatally wounded in Florida
1532: Pizarro explores Peru
1534: Jacques Cartier explores the St. Lawrence River for France
1539: DeSoto begins four-year exploration of North America
1543: The survivors of the DeSoto Expedition arrive in Mexico after wandering for 2000 miles
1562: Jean Ribault explores coast of Florida and founds Charlesfort on present-day Parris Island, SC
1564: Laudonniere establishes Fort Caroline on the St. Johns River, on land claimed by Spain
1565: Pedro Menendez founds St. Augustine; French attempt to attack, but are blown off course and wrecked; French massacred
1569: First wooden watchtower built at Matanzas Inlet
1582: Spanish settle Santa Fe (New Mexico)
1585: Raleigh's unsuccessful colony at Roanoke (present-day NC)
1586: Drake sacks and burns St. Augustine
1607: Jamestown Virginia founded by English
1608: Quebec founded by French
1614: Dutch establish Nieuw Amsterdam colony (later New York)
1619: First African slaves arrive in North America
1620: Plimouth Plantation founded by Pilgrims in Massachusetts
1622: The Spanish treasure ship Atocha sinks in a hurricane 25 miles off present-day Key West
1668: English pirate Robert Searles sacks St. Augustine
1670: Charles Town (SC) founded by British
1672: Construction begins on Castillo de San Marcos
1686: Pirates capture Matanzas Watchtower
1692: Salem Massachusetts witch panic and trials
1695: Castillo construction completed
1702: Gov. Moore of Charles Town attacks St. Augustine
1704: Cubo Line built as inner defense line in St. Augustine
1715: Entire Spanish treasure fleet for that year sunk off southern Florida coast in a hurricane
1732: George Washington born in Virginia
1733: James Oglethorpe establishes Savannah
1738: Spanish grant freedom to slaves who escape to Florida; they establish Fort Mose
1740: Oglethorpe attacks St. Augustine
1740-1742: Fort Matanzas built
1741-1743: Oglethorpe makes several attempts against Fort Matanzas
1742: Battle of Bloody Marsh--Spanish repulsed by British at Frederica on St. Simon's Island, Georgia
1754-1763: French and Indian War
1764: Florida becomes English colony by treaty (First Treaty of Paris) 1769: Minorcans arrive at New Smyrna Plantation
1776: American colonies declare independence from England
1779: Spain enters war in support of the American colonies
1783: American Revolution ends; Spain regains Florida (Second Treaty of Paris)
1809: Abraham Lincoln born
1812: Fort Matanzas fires warning shot at US ship during Patriots' War
1815: Battle of New Orleans--last battle of War of
1812 1818: Andrew Jackson illegally invades Florida and seizes fort at San Marcos de Apalache, south of present-day Tallahassee
1819: Simon Bolivar secures independence of Columbia from Spain
1821: Florida becomes a US territory; Fort Matanzas taken out of service
1822: Brazil gains independence from Portugal
1823: Monroe Doctrine
1825: Castillo renamed Fort Marion for Francis Marion, Rev. War hero
1837: Osceola is imprisoned at Fort Marion (the Castillo) during Second >Seminole War
1845: Florida admitted to the Union as the 27th state
1861-1865: Civil War; St. Augustine in Union hands from March
1862 1874: St. Augustine Lighthouse completed
1886: Apaches imprisoned at Ft. Marion
1888: Henry Flagler opens the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine
1899: Spanish-American War
1911: Florida East Coast Canal (Intracoastal Waterway), west of Fort Matanzas, is dredged
1912: Flagler's Florida East Coast Railroad reaches Key West
1927: Bridge of Lions completed
1942: Congress returns the name "Castillo de San Marcos" to Fort Marion
Later Events and Restoration at Fort Matanzas
By the late 1700s, Fort Matanzas needed repairs. A little work was done, but Spain knew her days in Florida were numbered. Soon this gallant little fort would sit lonely and deserted for nearly 100 years, significant only as a curiosity.
1797: Pump on the cistern is replaced; new entry ladder built
1801-1810: New terraplein floor poured, interior walls plastered, second floor which had caved in, near chimney, was partially repaired
1811-1819: Cracks appear on tower parapet; foundations undermined by water; Recommended that garrison sleep in tents, not in fort
1821: Spain turns Fort Matanzas over to the United States
1853: Lt. Henry W. Benham examines Fort Matanzas and makes drawings; declares Fort Matanzas obsolete
1872: Henry Fenn visits Fort Matanzas and makes sketches for the book Picturesque America
1916: US Congress allots $1025 for the stabilization of Fort Matanzas
1924: President Coolidge names the Castillo de San Marcos and Fort Matanzas as National Monuments
1929: The sentry box (garita) is re-built
1935: Docks are built on Anastasia and Rattlesnake Islands; Water erodes the SE corner of the fort, revealing wood foundations
1936: The Castillo and Fort Matanzas are transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service
1938: Tower vault reconstructed and tie rods replaced
1940: Retaining wall built to south and east of fort
1956: Dock on Rattlesnake Island is rebuilt; miscellaneous masonry repairs done.
1968: Original 8-pounder cannons placed on replica carriages and installed at Fort Matanzas
1972: Regular ferry service begins 1978: Iron rods removed and replaced by rods made of rust-resistant stainless steel
1996: Furnishings placed in rooms
1999: Two replica 6-pounder cannon installed; Chimney reconstructed
2001: New dock built on Anastasia Island side
Most of these books are usually available at the Castillo de San Marcos and Fort Matanzas bookstores.
Bennett, Charles E. Laudonniere and Fort Caroline. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1975
Gannon, Michael. Florida: A Short History. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1993
Landers, Jane. Fort Mose: Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose: A Free Black Town in Spanish Colonial Florida. St. Augustine: The St. Augustine Historical Society, 1992
Lyon, Eugene. The Enterprise of Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, reprint 1983
Manucy, Albert. Artillery Through the Ages. Washington DC: Division of Publications, National Park Service, Dept. of the Interior, 1985
McGrath, John T. The French in Early Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000
Milanich, Jerald T. The Timucua. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Co., 1996.
Castillo de San Marcos Park Handbook Series. Washington DC: Division of Publications, National Park Service, Dept. of the Interior, 1993
Waterbury, Jean Parker, ed. "Defenses and Defenders at St. Augustine," (A Collection of Writings by Luis Rafael Arana, El Escribano Vol 36) St. Augustine: St. Augustine Historical Society, 1999
Waterbury, Jean Parker, ed. The Oldest City. St. Augustine: St. Augustine Historical Society, 1983
Bibliographic Citations for this Historical Resource
APA: National Park Service. (2012). Fort Matanzas National Monument Park Handbook. National Park Serivce, U.S. Department of the Interior and Historic Print & Map Company. Accessed via VisitStAugustine.com.
MLA: National Park Service. Fort Matanzas National Monument Park Handbook. National Park Serivce, U.S. Department of the Interior and Historic Print & Map Company. (2012). Accessed via VisitStAugustine.com.
Chicago: National Park Service. 2012. Fort Matanzas National Monument Park Handbook. National Park Serivce, U.S. Department of the Interior and Historic Print & Map Company. Accessed via VisitStAugustine.com.