As the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the continental United States, St. Augustine holds a unique place in American history. The city's European heritage dates from 1565, with the initial encampment by Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and his men at a large coastal Timucuan Indian village under the domain of the cacique, Seloy. What is not often considered, however, is that prior to its European legacy, Native American groups had inhabited the area since the end of the Paleo-Indian Period, ca 10,000 years ago. Since 1987, the City has discovered and investigated various aspects associated with its cultural heritage that was previously unknown. (pictured left, a re-enactor in the leaterh shop at the Colonial Spanish Quarter)
Prehistoric (precontact) Era
The earliest Native American occupants in the St. Augustine area were hunter-gatherers who depended on coastal resources (such as, oysters, various fish, alligators, and water birds), game (such as, deer and small mammals), and wild berries and seeds for survival. This subsistence strategy necessitated seasonal movement, which followed the availability of edible plants and animals, and was a way of life for more than 7,000 years.
Within this broad time frame, different periods of cultural development are recognized. The earliest is the Paleo-Indian Period (circa 13,000 to 10,000 years ago), which is commonly associated with the hunting of now extinct Pleistocene fauna. By the end of the period, however, animals that are presently in Florida were the only source of game. (pictured right, Simpson spear point, circa 10,000 years before present, found in ancient marsh deposits)
Mobile settlement and subsistence strategies continued during the subsequent Archaic Period, although by the Late Archaic (circa 4,500 to 2,500 years ago) semi-permanent villages indicative of possible winter and summer occupations are recognized in the archaeological record. Some of these sites contained architectural features known as shell-rings suggesting the possibility of ceremonial and/or ritual activities. During the Late Archaic Native Americans begin manufacturing pottery, which is referred to as Fiber-tempered Orange ware, in recognition of the vegetation used as a tempering agent for the clay.
Four Late Archaic sites have been documented within the city limits. Concentrations of coquina, moon snail, and fiber-tempered pottery are the diagnostic characteristics for this time period in St. Augustine. Small fish bones and occasional deer and turtle bone also are recovered. Evidence for repeated occupation was documented at the Radio Road Site, where a series of overlapping or intrusive trash deposits were recorded. Eventually, this cultural period transitioned into what is referred to as the St. Johns Period (circa 500 B.C. to A.D. 1565). (pictured left, volunteers drawing a profile of Late Archaic deposits)
The St. Johns Period is probably one of the best documented and studied eras of precontact Native American occupation in Northeast Florida. It represents that period when indigenous groups had become sedentary, developing a network of ceremonial centers–as distinguished by the presence of platform mounds–that were tied into a larger Southeastern regional trade and ceremonial system. Outside these dispersed mounds were villages composed of scattered residential areas that often were more than a half mile long. Although there is some evidence for the adoption of corn agriculture, especially toward the end of the St. Johns Period, populations along the coastal and riverine systems continued to engage in a primarily hunting/fishing/gathering way of life. This was the lifestyle in place when Menéndez arrived.
Numerous St. Johns Period archaeological sites have been documented within the City limits, the majority of which occur along the banks of the tidal estuaries. Archaeological investigations by the City have sampled areas within some of the larger village sites. This includes an area where soil stains associated with a square-like structure with a semi-subterranean entry were documented (pictured left, Late Pre-historic subterranean entryway, circa A.D. 1300). This locale was situated toward the center of a village dating to ca. A.D. 1200 and may have held some significance for the local population. A similar square-like structure was documented at an earlier village site on Anastasia Island, which had exotic non-local Native American ceramics. This structure was four times larger than nearby residential structures, which were circular to ovoid in plan view.
The Spanish colonization of St. Augustine forever changed the cultural complexion of the area. The blending of Indian, Spanish, and African groups during that period, when St. Augustine was the Spanish administrative center for the province of La Florida resulted in the country's first cosmopolitan community. Later, as new immigrants from Europe and the burgeoning American colonies populated the city, the cultural framework became even more diverse. All of these groups contributed to the distinct mixture of architecture and tradition found in the City today.
The city's historical era can be divided into five basic time periods: First Spanish Period (1565 to 1763); British Period (1763-1783), Second Spanish Period (1783 to 1821); American Territorial Period (1821 to 1845); and Statehood (1845 to the present). Each period is defined by dominion, which has at its genesis dynasty disruptions, territorial expansionism, and political upheavals. St. Augustine is best known for its colonial history, which lasted 256 years, and has been the catalyst of the city's tourism industry for more than 150 years. In particular is the Spanish occupation, which gives the city its Old World town plan and charm.
Numerous and provocative aspects of St. Augustine's buried historical past have been unearthed by the City, including a dismembered 17th-century donkey (below, left) near the historic coquina quarries on Anastasia Island and a nest of late 19th-century alligator eggs (below, right) in the downtown district. Many projects help us to understand how the colonial downtown district evolved from when it was first established in 1572 to the Spanish withdrawal in 1763.
The amount of information that has been obtained since the adoption of the City's Archaeological Preservation Ordinance provides an unparalleled resource for understanding and reconstructing what life was like in both the prehistoric and historical eras. Go to the Site Discoveries page to learn more about investigations that have occurred at specific sites.