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Discovering St. Augustine

America's Oldest European City

By Laura Harbold | HUMANITIES, November/December 2005 | Volume 26, Number 6

While learning about Spanish colonialism in Florida, middle school students can investigate the eerie tale of a ghost named Catalina.

According to legend, Catalina was a Spanish colonist living in St. Augustine, Florida, during the French and Indian War. When the fighting ended, Spain ceded control of Florida to England, forcing Catalina and her family to flee to Cuba. In 1783, the Paris Peace Treaty ended the American Revolution and restored Florida to Spain. Catalina sailed back to St. Augustine, but died shortly after her return. Today, Catalina is one of St. Augustine's most famous ghosts, rumored to linger at the site of her beloved home.

At a summer workshop for teachers called "Between Columbus and Jamestown: Spanish St. Augustine," social studies teacher Mary Jackson created a lesson plan that capitalizes on the fascination of Catalina's story. Students are asked to write an imagined account of Catalina's daily life as a Spanish colonist in Cuba, or to examine a ghost legend from another period in St. Augustine's four-hundred-and-forty-year history.

Jackson's lesson plan is among dozens developed at the St. Augustine teachers' workshop, which aims to enhance curricula. Hosted by the Florida Humanities Council, the seminar was attended by four hundred teachers in 2004 and 2005. During week-long sessions, scholars specializing in St. Augustine's history and archaeology addressed participants and led walking tours of the city's historic quarter.

James Cusick, workshop facilitator and curator of the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History at the University of Florida, says Spanish rule is often marginalized in American history curricula. "The foundations of our political institutions and the ideas in our constitution all come out of the tradition that was established in the English colonies," Cusick explains, "whereas Florida represents another colonial world."

Spanish colonial St. Augustine was the earliest permanent European settlement in America, predating Plymouth and Jamestown. Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés came ashore on August 28, 1565, the Feast Day of Saint Augustine. Eight hundred soldiers and Spanish colonists joined Menéndez at the new village. For almost two hundred years, St. Augustine withstood sieges from British colonists in Georgia and the Carolinas. Spanish possession of the city was interrupted only once, during the twenty-year British occupation after the French and Indian War.

In the early nineteenth century, the Napoleonic Wars in Europe diverted Spain from its colonial interests, allowing the United States to make a bid for possession of Florida. Under the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1821, Florida became a U.S. territory, and Spain retained its holdings west of Louisiana. In 1845, Florida became the twenty-seventh state.

"If you're looking at the development of the South, and you leave out what's happening in Florida, then you're missing most of the picture," Cusick says. Conflict caused by differing colonial policies between Spanish Florida and neighboring colonies defined life in the southern tier of the United States, he says.

Colonial St. Augustine's opposition to slavery in British settlements is one of the most popular subjects for teachers attending the workshop, Cusick says. In 1738, a haven for runaway slaves from Georgia and the Carolinas was established at St. Augustine's Fort Mose. More than one hundred men reached the fort, forming a free black militia that fought alongside the Spanish in skirmishes with Georgia and the Carolinas.

St. Augustine also has a long history with Native Americans. Early Spanish colonists traded and mingled among the Timucuan tribe, attempting to convert its members to Catholicism. But when Florida became a U.S. territory, relations with native populations grew violent. In the 1830s, many Seminoles were imprisoned at the Castillo de San Marcos for resisting Andrew Jackson's order to vacate lands east of the Mississippi.

Developing curricula on Florida's interaction with Native Americans will help students understand "what was here before the United States, before 1776," Cusick explains. "That not only includes an emphasis on Spanish societies, but also on indigenous people." St. Augustine's long and vibrant history makes it a useful tool for teachers of all grade levels and a variety of subjects, Cusick says. Most teachers who attended the workshop teach history, social studies, and language arts. Science teachers participated as well, creating projects that explore St. Augustine's coastal environment.

The seminar was also popular with Spanish teachers looking for historical vocabulary and early Hispanic culture. "In addition to Spain and Latin America, there's a strong Spanish cultural element in the southern part of the United States that goes pretty far back in time," Cusick says.

Many lesson plans developed by workshop participants are posted on a Web site called Spanish Colonial St. Augustine: A Resource for Teachers ( "The primary goal of the resource site has been to give teachers free access to things that they can reproduce very cheaply, that aren't going to be a burden on classroom budgets," says Cusick, who helps maintain the site at the University of Florida's Digital Library Center.

The online lesson plans are organized by grade level and arranged according to state or national curriculum standards. The site provides readings on the history and culture of St. Augustine, maps, photographs, and

Cusick hopes the site will make it simple for teachers nationwide to bring the study of Spanish colonialism into the classroom. "You can't just draw a line south of Georgia and say 'OK, American history stops here,'" he says.

About the Author

 Laura Harbold, a junior at Dickinson College, was an intern at NEH.

Funding Information

The Florida Humanities Council received a $259,149 grant from NEH to host "Between Columbus and Jamestown: Spanish St. Augustine" in summer 2005. The workshop was a Landmarks of American History project in 2004.