OLDEST CITY: History lessons incomplete without Spanish story

For the Dec. 24 edition of this column, I wrote about ”Secrets of Spanish La Florida,” a documentary about St. Augustine and colonial Florida that was set to air a few days later on PBS. In the column, I wrote that “for me, the importance of the film is that it presents St. Augustine as a place where families lived, worshiped, endured attacks, not just a settlement whose story stops soon after the founding.” It is difficult to spread the story of our city when in most histories of early America, these St. Augustinians do not exist.


Many first learn U.S. history in elementary school. I’ve looked at several textbooks over the years for school students as well as college-level books. I am using “textbooks” generically here, to include online and digital presentations, paper copies and any other medium. My interest here is the content. If pupils don’t even hear about St Augustine or the ongoing Spanish presence in early America, the residents in colonial Florida and St. Augustine don’t exist. Colonial St. Augustine is seldom discussed as an established town, but rather receives gratuitous inclusion, often as a nod to multiculturalism.

College survey histories of the colonial period as well as history textbooks used in high school or middle school reduce the Spanish presence in the continent to an extension of the early conquistadors’ adventures. The presence of the Spanish appears as a transitory activity in the southeastern region, with colorful mention of ill-fated explorers followed by a sentence or two noting the founding of St. Augustine and the colony of Florida in 1565. In fact, St. Augustine is usually mentioned in the context of exploration and conquest, but not permanent settlement. It is a part of both.

Published in 1997, “A History of the United States” — with a stated time focus of 1492 to 1765 — limits the discussion of the Spanish to the earliest years and reduces Spanish presence to the “wonder of the conquistadors.” “Limits of Liberty: American History, 1607-1992” says that “apart from leaving a fort at St. Augustine, Florida and a number of missions in the southwest, Spain turned her back on America north of the Rio Grande in the late sixteenth century though without relinquishing her claims there.” Yet by the early 1600s, St. Augustine’s social and civic assets included a fort, church, hospital, a central market, a small seminary and about 120 houses and some shops. These assets were located within a street grid that officials had laid out according to formal royal ordinances.

Beyond the city missionary, friars taught Indian children to read and write as well as indoctrinating them into Roman Catholic catechism. La Florida’s missions emanated from the Franciscans’ headquarters in St. Augustine northward along the Georgia coast. Yet while the map, “Spanish Explorers/Spanish Settlements,” in the eighth-grade text book, “The American Nation,” purports to depict “Missions, 1565-1776,” it shows no missions that lay east of the Mississippi River. The missions of Florida and the 26,000 Native American mission villagers of Spanish Florida, as counted in 1675, are left out of U.S. history for middle-school students, many of whom may never encounter this topic again.

College level texts by Eric Foner and by George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi, published as recently as five years ago, barely include St. Augustine and the Spanish.

This is not a pout because of lack of recognition of my own research interests. And, yes, I well realize that the government of the United States is based on British norms, ideas and practices.

The exclusion of our town makes for an incomplete story of the attempts by European nations to establish outposts and then cities in North America. A dismissive or absent treatment of the Spanish presence diminishes the complexity of long-ago decisions. Missing is the position taken by England’s King James I about the placement of Jamestown. Not wishing to rile Spain, James admonished to keep well away from the Spanish in Florida. Apparently, Virginia was far enough away. But why would the location of Jamestown matter if there were no Spanish as (not) presented in these texts?

Developments in the English settlements thus seem to take place in a splendid isolation rather than in the international environment which was indeed the colonial reality. The colonial experience is thus less filled out than it should be and so is our understanding of our past.

Susan R. Parker holds a doctorate in colonial history.