The Fake History of St. Augustine

In the HBO series Assume the Position, which 
 ran in 2006 and 2007, comedian and actor 
 Robert Wuhl told us, “History is a wonderful thing, if only it were true.”

St. Augustine, as it prepares to celebrate the 450th anniversary of its founding by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés next year, has a number of truly historic structures, from the massive Spanish-built fort and the towering spires of Flagler College to its historic churches, priceless archives of the Catholic diocese and the city’s Spanish, British, Minorcan and American heritage.

“St. Augustine is an authentic historic city — but the temptation is to gussy it up, stretch the truth, to fake the buildings, all in the interest of squeezing an extra dollar out of tourists,” says David Nolan, a local historian and author of several books on St. Augustine.

Indeed, history is big business in the Oldest City.

About 8 million tourists visited St. Augustine in fiscal year 2013, spending a collective $750 million. As the birthday celebration nears, tourism development officials expect those numbers to grow.

In surveys, 31 percent of the city’s visitors listed history and culture as the most important factors in their decision to visit. But how much of this history and culture is real, and how much is fable?

Let’s peel back the cover and look at the truth of St. Augustine.

The Fountain of Youth

One of the best-known fables of Florida history is the landing of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon and his search for the mythical Fountain of Youth.

Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park sums up the tale throughout its 15-acre campus on the edge of downtown St. Augustine, and functions as a kind of one-stop for Florida history.

After paying a $12 admission fee, you reach the first structure, the Fountain of Youth Spring House. It is there, along with a life-size diorama of a conquistador, presumably Juan Ponce, and some naked Timucuan Indians (which have, weirdly, huge breasts and no nipples), that you can dip a plastic cup under a spigot and take a sip of the magical Fountain of Youth water, which in fact tastes of metal and sulfur. (State records show that it’s a privately owned water system that gets tested twice a week.) If one swig isn’t enough, the park’s gift shop will be happy to sell you a bottle.

Visitors can then stroll through a flock of peacocks to the statue of Ponce de Leon placed on a stone monument on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, conveniently located about 100 yards from the springs.

Historians agree there is little evidence that Ponce landed here or that he was looking for a fountain “that turned men into boys” and cured sexual impotence. “Once somebody has invested money based on a tall tale, they have a vested interest in continuing that, despite any historic evidence to the contrary,” Nolan says.

Historians have a hard time agreeing where on Florida’s East Coast Ponce actually landed on April 3, 1513. In addition to the one at the Fountain of Youth site, another Ponce statue, with a plaque that states the explorer landed “near this site, 1513,” sits in downtown St. Augustine near the Bridge of Lions.

Two other locations are also vying for the recognition. New statues have been erected in the last year near Guana Tolomato Matanzas Reserve and south of Cape Canaveral, each declaring it as the actual site of Ponce’s arrival.

“It is my considered opinion that we will never know exactly where Ponce landed,” says Sam Turner, director of archaeology at the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program in St. Augustine. Turner tends to believe the compass reading taken on April 2, 1513, by Ponce’s crew is a “true reading” and “does not suffer from a degree-and-a-half error.” In other words, the Guana River site.

Michael Gannon, a University of Florida history professor and a St. Augustine expert, wrote in The New History of Florida (1996), “The most recent study contends that they were at a point just south of Cape Canaveral, probably near Melbourne Beach, where they anchored in eight brazes (44 feet) of water.”

Meanwhile, University of Florida archaeologist Dr. Kathleen Deagan, who has been digging for five decades in St. Augustine, believes she has found the location of a 1565 camp built by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the bloodthirsty founder of St. Augustine. In 1565, Menendez’ troops wiped out the French stockade of Fort Caroline near present-day Jacksonville, and then later rounded up, captured and executed a hurricane-ravaged and shipwrecked French crew. The killing area, south of St. Augustine, is now called Matanzas, meaning “place of slaughter.”

More than four centuries later, the St. Johns County School District named a high school after Menéndez.

The Slave Market

The plaza right in the middle of downtown St. Augustine has gone by several names: the Public Market, the Plaza de la Constitución, the Slave Market. Today it contains monuments to the Spanish constitution of 1812, as well as to the American war dead of the Civil War, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

But it has a much darker past. Though the city’s fathers long tried to deny it, humans were bought and sold here.

The Oldest Whatever

“I have learned over the years to be very suspicious every time I heard the words ‘first,’ ‘only’ or ‘oldest’ here,” Nolan says. “They tend to be influenced not by history, but [by] an eye toward profit in the tourist market.”

A century ago, he says, three houses competed to be the oldest in town. Then, the St. Augustine Historical Society acquired all three, closed down two and, in 1918, proclaimed the third the winner. “Since 1918 [the Historical Society] has run the surviving one as a tourist attraction, telling different stories over the generations as to its age and history.”

In 1921, writer Charles Bingham Reynolds wrote a piece for Mr. Foster’s Travel Magazine on the “Fakes of St. Augustine,” complaining about the alleged age of the oldest house on Francis Street. Back then, the Society claimed Franciscan monks built the home out of coquina in 1565, the year of St. Augustine’s founding. There are three fairly major problems with this story: Franciscan monks did not arrive there for many years, coquina wasn’t used as a building material until 1580 and the original city was north of its current location.

Reynolds’ story set off a firestorm in St. Augustine. The Historical Society refused to dignify his “alleged slanderous article” and claimed that it was “the belief of the St. Augustine Historical Society members that the dates and data it sets forth are right and correct, cannot be disproved, and are as near the facts as true lovers of history can establish from meager historical records as priceless traditions handed down from father to son.”

Reynolds, whose papers are held at the University of Florida in Gainesville, wrote that St. Augustine’s “extensive and flourishing system of faking has been developed to coax the coin from the winter tourist.”

The current oldest house, the González-Alvarez structure, is the oldest Spanish colonial dwelling in Florida. The site has been occupied since the 1600s, and the present building dates back to the early 1700s, according to the St. Augustine Historical Society.

‘Historic’ Buildings

The city’s most well-known historic district is situated along St. George Street. T-shirts, pirate hats, jewelry, art, ice cream, souvenirs and ghost tours are sold in buildings frequented by tourists.

As Nolan puts it, “Ghosts and pirates run amok, facts take a back seat.”

Many “historic” buildings lining St. George Street were not constructed several centuries ago, as the casual visitor is led to believe, but 50 years ago to celebrate the city’s 400th anniversary. City records, in fact, show that only four of the 31 structures built in the historic area are truly old. Most of the others were constructed in 1965 on 18th-century foundations.

Nonetheless, small plaques affixed to the fronts of the buildings give the name of the original owner, the year it existed, and then the words “recognized as a restored colonial structure by the city of St. Augustine.”

Robin Moore, St. Johns County’s historic resources coordinator, says the county uses the guidelines set up by the National Register of Historical Places as a framework to assess its old buildings: These buildings must be 50 years old or older, be associated with important people or the site of a historical event, or have yielded or are likely to yield archaeological information.

In 2008, UF developed a strategic plan to restore the St. Augustine historic properties at the request of the Florida Legislature. Since then, UF has taken over management of about 50 historic properties and is working to redevelop them as they once appeared. In 2010, using $65,000 of state funding, the university completed a partial restoration of 13 historic buildings, followed by another 13 in 2011, 10 in 2012 and three in 2013.

Many of these restored buildings are now tourist hubs — souvenir and T-shirt shops, restaurants, cafés and the like — which, in their own ways, embody the city’s two schools of thought on its own historicity: One school, Nolan says, “sees the Ancient City as having the responsibility for preserving history and being a history teacher-at-large to the state, nation and world. The other feels that their primary goal was to strip money from tourists as they stopped briefly in town on their way to Disney World.”