Not So Fast, Jamestown: St. Augustine Was Here First

Mar 3, 2015
Originally published on March 2, 2015 2:52 pm

Clyde and Corrita Warner came to St. Augustine on vacation from Louisville, Ky. They know their history.

"Well, I knew that this started before the Pilgrims landed and before Jamestown," says Corrita. "You know, this area was first."

St. Augustine treasures being the first — and oldest — city in the United States. So when the area around Jamestown, Va., adopted the title "America's First Region" a while back, the gloves came off.

On Saturday, residents begin a yearlong celebration to honor St. Augustine. Founded 450 years ago, it's the oldest city in the United States.

"You don't have to be much of a mathematician to know that St. Augustine was settled first," says Richard Goldman, executive director of the city's Visitors and Convention Bureau. "Jamestown was about 42, 43 years later, so for Jamestown to claim to be where the country began just doesn't settle well with history."

There's plenty of history in St. Augustine. The original Spanish fort, the Castillo de San Marcos, was built in the 17th century. Now a national monument, the castillo was built of crushed coquina seashells that the Spanish found here. Light and porous, the coquina walls proved to be compressible, absorbing cannonballs like Styrofoam might absorb BBs. That construction helped it survive for so long.

Park Ranger Mike Evans says the Spanish were roping cattle and pruning their citrus groves in St. Augustine before the British even set sail for Jamestown.

"Bless their hearts," Evans says of Virginians. "I mean, the Virginians have Robert E. Lee and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and that's fine, you know. But here — we introduced the oranges to the New World!"

Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon landed at St. Augustine and claimed La Florida for the King of Spain in 1513. According to legend, he was searching for the fountain of youth.

Now, visitors at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine can enjoy a bottle of water from a spring on the property — "Proudly sipped for over 500 years," boasts the park's website.

It's not known if Ponce de Leon actually discovered the spring, but the Fountain of Youth park does contain the 1565 landing site of Pedro Menendez de Aviles, who was sent by the Spanish to set up a colony to dissuade the French from claiming the territory. Menendez de Aviles established St. Augustine, making it the oldest continuous European settlement in the United States.

But Jamestown, and southeast Virginia, are the location of a number of significant firsts, says Paul Levengood, president of the Virginia Historical Society.

"It was the first Anglican religious ceremony, the first elected legislature in North America, the first representative democratic polity in North America," Levengood says. "At least let us lay claim to the notion of 'America's First Region.' "

No doubt, Virginia brought a lot of Europe to the table. But here in Florida — during this celebration of St. Augustine as the country's oldest city — leaders know who really came first.

Kit Keating, director of the Fountain of Youth park, finds Jamestown's claim to be the first somewhat amusing.

"I love it!" Keating says with a chuckle. "And the grandchildren that were cavorting around here when the settlement of Jamestown was founded might giggle."

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tonight in St. Augustine, Fla., residents will begin a year-long celebration to honor their hometown. It is 450 years old. That makes it the oldest city in the United States. They are very proud of that title, and as Peter Haden of member station WJCT explains, it is one they are quick to defend.

PETER HADEN, BYLINE: Clyde and Corrita Warner came to St. Augustine on vacation from Louisville, Ky. They know their history.

CORRITA WARNER: Well, I knew that this started before the Pilgrims landed and before Jamestown. You know, this area was first.

HADEN: First - St. Augustine treasures being the first, and oldest, city in the United States. So when the area around Jamestown, Va. adopted the title America's First Region a while back, the gloves came off.

RICHARD GOLDMAN: You don't have to be much of a mathematician to know that St. Augustine was settled first.

HADEN: Richard Goldman is with the St. Augustine Visitors Bureau.

GOLDMAN: Jamestown was about 42, 43 years later. So for Jamestown to claim to be where the country began, just doesn't settle well with the history.

UNIDENTIFIED TOUR GUIDE: As we pull out here, if you look to the left-hand side of the trolley, up in these trees you'll see some of those peacocks.

HADEN: There's plenty of history in St. Augustine. The original Spanish fort was built in the 17th century, the Castillo de San Marcos. It's a national monument now and built out of crushed coquina seashells that the Spanish found here. Mike Evans is a park ranger. He says the Spanish were roping cattle and pruning their citrus groves in St. Augustine before the British even set sail for Jamestown.

MIKE EVANS: Bless their hearts. I mean, the Virginians have Robert E. Lee and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and that's fine, you know? But here, we introduced the oranges to the New World.

HADEN: To put this debate to rest, I needed to trace the story of St. Augustine to its source. Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon first landed here and claimed La Florida for the king of Spain in 1513. He was on a mission.

I'm searching for the Fountain of Youth. Can you help me? Which way to the Fountain of Youth?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You will head north.

HADEN: I'm searching for the Fountain of Youth.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Right there.

UNIDENTIFIED TOUR GUIDE: Stop 23, the Fountain of Youth.

HADEN: Kit Keating is the director of the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park.

What would you say though, Kit, if I told you that there is a region in Virginia that also has adopted the moniker America's First Region?

KIT KEATING: I love it. And the grandchildren that were cavorting around here when the settlement of Jamestown was founded might giggle. (Laughter).

PAUL LEVENGOOD: Jamestown and that part of Virginia was the location of a number of significant firsts in history.

HADEN: Here making the case for the good people of Virginia, Paul Levengood, president of the Virginia Historical Society.

LEVENGOOD: It was the first Anglican religious ceremony, the first elected legislature in North America, the first representative democratic polity in North America. At least let us lay claim to the notion of America's first region.

HADEN: No doubt, Virginia brought a lot to the table. But here in Florida, during this celebration of St. Augustine as the country's oldest city, leaders know who really came first. For NPR News, I'm Peter Haden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.