Castillo de San Marcos: The Only Remaining 17th Century Fort in the U.S.

Lisa Fritscher February 21, 2011 No Comments

Castillo de San Marcos St. Augustine Entrance

Entering the fort grounds

Located on the edge of the historic district in St. Augustine, Florida, Castillo de San Marcos was built by the Spanish at the end of the 17th century. Dad and I visited in May 2010 as part of our visit to St. Augustine.

History of the Fort

Castillo de San Marcos Fort Florida

The fort is hauntingly beautiful

St. Augustine is the oldest permanently occupied city in the United States, founded by the Spanish in 1565. Spain immediately saw the need for defense, and constructed a series of wooden forts. But two events occurred 100 years later that spurred the need for a more permanent defensive structure. In 1668, St. Augustine was attacked by an English pirate. In 1670, English settlers established Charles Town (modern-day Charleston) in South Carolina.

Construction on Castillo de San Marcos began in 1672 and lasted 23 years. The fort was built from coquina, a soft but strong stone made from compressed shells that is prevalent in the area. The softness of the stone allows cannonballs to bounce off rather than penetrate the fort’s walls.

Military Battles

Castillo de San Marcos Gun Deck Soldier

See the solidier on the gun deck?

Queen Anne’s War was largely a fight between England and France for control of North America. As Spain was allied with France and had interests in the area, it quickly became involved. The war began in 1702 and in early November of that year, English forces sailed from Charles Town to St. Augustine.

The Siege of St. Augustine lasted two months. All 1,200 residents and 300 soldiers remained safely ensconced in the fort as the English forces pounded the walls with cannon fire. As expected, the soft coquina walls absorbed the impact and little damage occurred. Spanish reinforcements arrived from Cuba at the end of December. Finding themselves surrounded, the English burned their ships and retreated overland, burning the city on their way out.

In 1738, the fort was strengthened and interior spaces were redesigned. Castillo de San Marcos’ next battle was part of the War of Jenkins Ear, named for an English captain whose ear was cut off by a Spanish officer. In 1740, General James Oglethorpe of England led seven ships to St. Augustine.

As before, the city’s residents and soldiers took shelter in the fort while the English forces uselessly bounced cannonballs off its walls. This Siege of St. Augustine lasted 27 days, while Oglethorpe choked the Matanzas River and the city’s supply routes in an attempt to starve the city. The English were forced to retreat when their own supplies ran low, but to avoid future blockades, the Spanish decided to build an additional fort at the Matanzas River. Fort Matanzas was completed in 1742.

Castillo de San Marcos Changes Hands

Castillo de San Marcos Housing

Housing was primitive at best

The Treaty of Paris in 1763 gave control of Spanish Florida to the British, who made some changes to the fort and renamed it Fort Mark. It was used as a prison during the American Revolution. In 1783, the new Treaty of Paris gave control back to the Spanish, who brought back the original name and made some improvements. But the Second Spanish Period ended quickly and, in 1819, Spain ceded the Florida Territory to the United States.

The United States changed the fort’s name to Fort Marion and used it primarily as a prison during the Second Seminole War. When Florida seceded from the Union in 1861, the Confederacy took the fort without a fight. It returned to Union hands in 1862, also without a struggle, and became a military prison for the rest of its operations.

The fort housed mostly Native American prisoners from 1875 through 1887, where it became a model for Native American educational programs. During the Spanish American War, the fort housed more than 200 deserters. But in 1900, after 205 years under five different flags, the fort ceased operations.

Castillo de San Marcos Today

Castillo de San Marcos Museum

The museum displays are fascinating

The fort became a National Monument in 1924 and came under the auspices of the National Park Service in 1933. The National Park Service changed its name back to the original Castillo de San Marcos. Today it operates as a tourist attraction.

Visiting the Fort

Castillo de San Marcos Gun Deck View

The view from the gun deck is worth the climb

Although many of the St. Augustine trolley tours and carriage rides offer a stop near the fort, we decided to take our van. There is a huge metered parking lot just outside the fort which, as of 2011, costs 50 cents per hour. A few free disabled spots are available. You can park here for a maximum of two hours, so if you need all-day parking, consider the garage at the Visitor Center one block away.

Dad has a Golden Access pass from the National Park Service, which provides free admission for the pass holder and up to three adults. Regular fort admission is $6 per adult, valid for seven consecutive days. Children aged 15 and under are free, and must be accompanied by an adult.

We picked up a free self-guided walking tour brochure at the ticket booth and took our time exploring the fort. Several rooms house artifacts and exhibits that explain some of the important battles that took place. A 25-minute video on the fort’s history plays every hour throughout the day.

Castillo de San Marcos Reenactors

Keep an eye out for reenactors in period costumes

Both park rangers and reenactors in period costumes are on hand to provide further information and perform historical interpretations. Historic weapons demonstrations take place on a semi-regular basis. Programs are not always well-advertised, so ask about anything that might take place during your visit.

The grounds are wheelchair-accessible, but access to the gun decks is via steep stairs. Keep a close eye on your children, as the fort was not built to modern standards. Uneven surfaces and dark passageways could be dangerous for those who are not paying attention. It takes approximately two hours to see the fort in depth, or about an hour to make a brief walk through each room.

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Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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