Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Fort Matanzas National Monument

Last Wednesday Tim and I traveled back in time.

Along with 20 other passengers, we boarded a pontoon boat owned by the National Park Service for a trip across Matanzas Inlet to the year 1742.  That's the year the Spaniards built Fort Matanzas to protect the southern river approach to St. Augustine fifteen miles away.

But, of course, the story of this fort, as told by our park ranger Grant,

goes back even further--almost 200 years further--to the beginning of the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine in 1565.  

At nearly the same time St. Augustine was founded, French Protestants called Huguenots landed near present-day Jacksonville, just 40 miles to the north, where they established Fort Caroline.  

Governor Pedro Menéndez de Avilés
Such an incursion into Spanish territory infuriated King Philip II who ordered the first Governor of Florida, Pedro Menéndez de Aviles, to oust the French colonists.

The French led by Jean Ribald sailed south to challenge the Spaniards, but a hurricane blew their ships into the inlet south of St. Augustine.  

Meanwhile, Menéndez attacked Fort Caroline, and because so many of its soldiers had accompanied Ribault, the fort was easily overpowered.

Menéndez and a party of his soldiers then marched to the inlet where the French ships were stranded and issued an ultimatum: either convert to Catholicism and become Spanish subjects or die.  One hundred and twenty Frenchmen surrendered but Menéndez slaughtered them anyway perhaps because there weren't enough provisions to feed them all.  The name "Matanzas" is Spanish for massacre and the inlet as well as the river that empties into it are known by that name today.

All up and down the coast, conflicts continued to rage between the colonial powers who sought supremacy over this finger of land that separates the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico. 

One hundred and seventy-five years later, in 1740, British General James Oglethorpe of Georgia initiated a 39-day blockade of St. Augustine.  He ended the siege when he realized he could not capture St. Augustine's fort, Castillo de San Marcos.  However, that siege revealed how vulnerable the city was and convinced then-Governor Manuel de Montana that a fort was necessary near Matanzas Inlet, the back door to St. Augustine. 

The British and Indian allies harassed the Spanish as construction proceeded on the fort built roughly in a square fifty 50 by 50 feet and topped by a 30-foot tower.

As the fort neared completion, Oglethorpe and his fleet of 12 ships entered Matanzas Inlet, but were repelled by the garrison of men stationed at the fort.

That was the only time in the fort's history that its cannons fired upon an enemy.

After Spain ceded Florida to the United States, the fort was no longer occupied and began to fall into ruin.  Restoration work began on the fort in the 1920s when it became a national monument.  Today the fort stands sentry over the habitats of Matanzas Wildlife Management Area.

Time travel at its best!  On location with a National Park Service ranger to give us a glimpse into the stories of this place!  Now, that was quite a boat ride!

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