The maritime heritage of Florida’s Historic Coast dates back 6,000 years. The first houses at St. Augustine were in a Timucuan village named Seloy. In the 16th century, European explorers brought to these peaceful people, a culture clash waged over religious freedom and control of lucrative shipping lanes. In 1513, an expedition led by Juan Ponce De Leon noted a northernmost measurement of 30′ 8″ latitude (Ponte Vedra Beach) before turning south, landing, and claiming the “La Florida” for Spain.
The Gulf Stream runs through the Straits of Florida and continues up the eastern seaboard turning west, just off the coast of St. Augustine, toward European ports. Spanish colonies in South and Central American took advantage of these shipping routes to convoys hauling naval stores, gold and silver, and foodstuffs home.
In 1562 French Huguenot, explorer, Admiral Jean Ribault, and his second in command, nobleman and merchant mariner Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere established two French colonies, one at Charlesfort SC and another, Fort Caroline near present-day Jacksonville, FL. The Huguenots sought religious freedom, but they ran out of provisions and discontent followed. In December 1564, sixty soldiers from Fort Caroline stole two barks (ships) and went to take food from the Spanish. This turned into pillaging in Cuba and Hispaniola and roused Spanish anger.
In mid-August 1565, Ribault arrived at Fort Carolina with supplies, colonists, soldiers, and artillery. However, Adelantado of Florida, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés arrived with his fleet before Ribault could unload. After some harsh words and brief gunfire, the Spanish withdrew to the south. Menéndez made land behind sand bar and founded, St. Augustine, FL. Ribault quickly followed Menéndez. With ships much too large, to enter the shallow port, he instead blocked the inlet and demanded the Spanish surrender. Cruel fate determined what happened next. A violent hurricane swept in and blew the French vessels out to sea, wrecking them near Cape Canaveral and destroying Renault’s flagship Trinite. Menéndez capitalized on the tempest. He marched 30 miles through the storm, entered Fort Caroline, and put 130 settlers to death. Of the four, French ships still in the harbor, two were sunk, and two escaped, later departing with around 100 survivors including Laudonnière. The determined Menéndez next marched south, where he slaughtered two more groups of shipwreck survivors, including Ribault, near Matanzas Inlet, giving that inlet a name that means “massacre.” With these threats removed, St. Augustine stayed in Spanish hands for another 200 years, and the ancient city has remained inextricably linked to the sea ever since.
The Spanish built a series of wooden watchtowers as lookouts. From atop these towers, men watched the sea and warned of approaching vessels. A canoe kept nearby, helped the sentries reach and warn the town. The first and most northern of these 16th-century islands, Spanish watchtowers would become the St. Augustine Lighthouse, the earliest, permanent aid-to-navigation in the Continental United States of America.
You can learn more about our stories of the sea below and by reading our history blog! Your visit and enjoyment of our stories make a difference.
Hands-on Museum exhibits
K12 & Home Schools
- Scout and Other Groups
Research & Archaeology
- Training & Education
- Project Archive
- Maritime Archaeology Field School
Collections & Conservation
Maritime Arts & Culture
U. S. Coast Guard
U.S. Lighthouse Service