Castillo de San Marcos

Castillo de San Marcos

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The Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida, is the oldest stone fort in the continental United States.

Originally constructed by the Spanish in the late 17th century, the stone Castillo de San Marcos replaced a previous wooden fortification. The need for a stone fort became apparent after the English buccaneer Robert Searle burnt most of the settlement in 1668. The new stone fort was constructed between 1672 and 1695.

Over the course of its history, the Castillo de San Marcos has been controlled by Spain, Britain, Spain again, the United States, the Confederate States, and finally the United States again. The fort was never taken in battle, despite being besieged on two occasions.

In addition to defending Saint Augustine it has served at various times as a prison, including during the First American Period when the famous Native American leader Osceola was a prisoner there.

The Castillo de San Marcos was declared a National Monument in 1900. The best time to visit is winter, when it's not so crowded in Saint Augustine (though not necessarily in the weeks around Christmas, when it's almost as crowded as during summer).

If you go in summer be aware that 30C is pretty much the average temperature from late May until mid-September. On the weekends they have cannon firing demonstrations several times a day.

Castillo de San Marcos - History

Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest stone fortress in the United States. Built in 1672, its name changed three times over the centuries.

Fun Facts

  • Castillo de San Marcos was built to protect the city of St. Augustine, Florida, which was part of the Spanish Empire at the time.
  • St. Augustine was founded in 1565 on the site of a previous Native American settlement, Seloy. The settlement built nine wooden forts for protection after Sir Francis Drake and his fleet of 22 ships attacked the city in 1586.
  • In 1668, English privateer Robert Searles burned the fort and the city to the ground. The governor of St. Augustine ordered a stone fortress be built, one which couldn’t be burned.
  • Castillo de San Marcos is made of coquina stone. The fort sits on the coast, outside the city.
  • In 1763, the English gained control of Florida and the fort, promptly renaming it “Fort St. Mark.”
  • In 1783, the Spanish regained control and changed the name back to Castillo de San Marcos.
  • In 1819, the United States received the fort and named it “Fort Marion.”
  • Finally in 1924, the fort was made a National Monument and its original name was restored again. After more than 250 years of military service, the fort was closed.


  1. Privateer: a privately owned, armed ship/captain hired by a government to capture enemy property, especially during war
  2. Coquina: a rock made of very old shells hardened in limeston

Questions and Answers

Question: Who built the fort?

Answer: The Spanish engineer Ignacio Daza built the fort, but native people, many of whom were slaves, did most of the work.

Historical Books

On May 28, 1668, a ship hove to and anchored off St. Augustine harbor. It was a vessel from Veracruz, bringing flour from Nueva España (México) to feed the soldiers and their families in Spanish Florida.

In the town, the drum called the garrison-120 men-to the alert. A launch went out to recognize the newcomer and put the harbor pilot aboard. As they neared the ship, the crew on the launch hailed the Spaniards lining her gunwale. To the routine questions came the usual answers: Friends from Nueva España-come aboard! Two shots from the launch told the town of the recognition, then the seamen warped her alongside the ship.

In St. Augustine, the people heard the signal shots, and rejoiced. The soldiers racked their arms in the main guardhouse on the town plaza. Tomorrow the supplies would come ashore.

As the launch pilot stepped aboard the supply ship, an alien crew swarmed out of hiding and leveled their guns at him and the others. He could do nothing but surrender.

About one o'clock that night, a corporal was out on the bay fishing when he sensed the ominous warning that shattered the serenity of the spring night: many oars were pulling across the water toward town. Desperately the fisherman paddled his little craft toward shore. The pirates, four boatloads of them, chased him hotly. They shot him twice, but he got to the fort anyway. His shouts aroused the guards.

At the main guardhouse, a quarter mile from the fort, the sentries heard the shouting and the gunfire. Then the pirates were upon them, a hundred strong. The handful of guards, being both out-numbered and practical, ran for the fort. Governor Francisco de la Guerra rushed out of his house and, with the pirates pounding at his heels, joined the guard in the race for the fort. Behind its rotten wooden walls with 33 men, somehow he beat off several assaults. But in the darkness the firefly glow of the matchcord that each arquebusier carried was an inviting target for the enemy.

In the confused dark, the pirates seemed everywhere. They destroyed the weapons in the guardhouse and went on to the government house. Shouting, cursing, they scattered through the narrow streets and seized or shot frightened, half-naked, bewildered people who erupted out of the houses.

Sergeant Major Nicolás Ponce de León, the officer responsible for defending the town, was at home, a sick man, greasy with unction of mercury and weak from the "sweatings" prescribed for him. On hearing the din, he roused himself and rushed to the guardhouse, only to find the pirates had been there first. He turned to the urgent task of shepherding his 70 unarmed soldiers and the others, men, women, and children, to the woods. This he did, leaving the pirates in complete possession of the town.

By daybreak the little force at the fort had lost five men, but they claimed 11 pirates killed and 19 wounded. Ponce came from the woods and reinforced the fort with his weaponless men. Also with the daylight, two vessels joined the Veracruz ship. One was St. Augustine's own frigate, taken by the raiders near Habana. In her, the pirates had been able to move in Spanish waters without detection. The other was the pirates' own craft. All three sailed into the bay, passed the cannon fire of the fort, and anchored just out of range.

Early sketch of the fort in St. Augustine. Possibly from 1593 according to A Descriptive List of Maps by Lowery.

Although their attacks on the fort had failed, the pirates systematically sacked the town. No structure was neglected, from humble thatched dwelling to royal storehouse, hospital, and church. True, the things carried off were but worth a few thousands pesos (pieces-of-eight), for the town was very poor. The booty went aboard the pirate vessel and the ship from Veracruz.

That afternoon, the governor sent out a sortie from the fort, but the leaders were wounded and the party retired. After 20 hours ashore, however, the pirates were ready to leave anyway, and their last boat soon pulled away. Behind them, they left a grief-wracked people 60 of the little community were dead.

But with the tears came prayers of thanksgiving, for the pirates did not hoist anchor until they had ransomed their prisoners-about 70 men, women, and children for water, meat and firewood. At the last minute they refused to let the Indians go, claiming that the governor of Jamaica told them to keep all Indians, blacks and mulattoes as slaves, even if they were Spanish freemen. Finally on June 5 the raiders headed out to sea, well enough amused as once again they passed the thunder of the useless guns in the old wooden fort.



As it has proven to be the case in other stories found on, participating in adultery often ends badly.

In the month of July, 1784, when this mighty fortress was given back to the Spanish from the English, a new commander, Colonel Garcia Marti and his pretty young wife, Dolores arrived to start their new life here. It wasn’t long until Colonel Marti’s young, handsome, charming assistant, Captain Abela was introduced to the outgoing, friendly Dolores.

Colonel Garcia Marti was a very busy commander, with a dour, humorless personality, somewhat older than Dolores, and perhaps neglected Dolores a bit. It was probably an arranged marriage. While Dolores made lots of friends with people in the town of Saint Augustine, she also wanted a closer relationship with a man unfortunately it wasn’t her husband. She and Captain Abela fell in love and began a love affair that would cost them dearly.

Dolores wore a strong perfume, that she put on liberally. One day, when Captain Abela was giving his report to Colonel Marti, the good colonel couldn’t help but notice the strong aroma of Dolores’ perfume, all over the front of Captain Abela’s uniform. Uh Oh! In the darkness of night, when most of the soldiers had gone back to town to spend the night, both Dolores and Captain Abela disappeared from sight. Only about 30 soldiers remained on duty at the fort.

After several days, the soldiers were wondering where their beloved Captain Abela was, as he didn’t show up for the daily call. Colonel Marti told the soldiers that Captain Abela was sent on a special mission to Cuba.

Friends of Dolores began to wonder what happened to her. So, Colonel Marti held a large dinner party, inviting all their friends from town. He told them, with great concern, that Dolores had become ill from the weather in St. Augustine, and was sent to live with her Aunt in Mexico, who would nurse her back to health. Dolores would then be sent back to Spain to live, where it was more agreeable with her constitution. Funny, but she didn’t look sick to them, the last time they had seen her. Questions and theories circulated about what really had happened, but Colonel Marti’s story wasn’t directly challenged.

It wasn’t until 1833, fifty years later when Castillo de San Marcos was under American control, that the truth was inadvertently uncovered by a curious American officer, Lieutenant Tuttle. He was studying the architecture of this place, and was puzzled when he found a hollow sound in one of the walls of the dungeon area. When he removed the first brick, a rush of air, smelling like a strong perfume flowed swiftly into the room. After taking down the wall, he found the hidden room, and two skeleton remains of two former prisoners, chained to the wall. It is thought that Captain Marti had Dolores and Captain Abela chained and entombed here to end their lives. Probably at least some of the guards on duty were in cahoots with the Colonel, and this dastardly deed of revenge went undiscovered. Leave it to an American soldier to find out the truth!


A sense of duty, purpose and bonding experienced in the military, has long been a strong cause of men who have died while serving to still continue on, not letting death get in the way with their duties!


Entities of former prisoners of various institutions and forts, often hang around the place where they died, not able to let go of this world, because of unsolved issues, or emotional upset.


Construction began on the Castillo de San Marcos in 1672 and lasted 23 years, until 1695. Many Spanish forts preceded the Castillo, however, this one made of coquina was impenetrable to enemy attack and was fire resistant.

The fort came under fire for the first time in 1702. British forces, led by General Moore, burned the city but could not penetrate the Castillo's walls. Subsequent attacks in 1728 and 1740 yielded similar results, and the British were never able to take the city of St. Augustine by force.

In 1763 however, Florida became a British colony with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, thus beginning a 20-year period of English rule. The Castillo was used as a military prison during the Revolutionary War, and at one time it held three signers of the Declaration of Independence within its walls.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, Florida was returned to Spain in 1784 until Florida became a United States Territory in 1821. The Americans called the Castillo Fort Marion, honoring the revolutionary patriot from the Carolinas, General Frances Marion. The U.S. Government used Fort Marion as a prison for Native Americans in the late 1800s. Natives from both Florida and the Great Plains were held at the fort during this time.

The fort was officially taken off the active list of fortifications in 1900 and it was preserved and recognized as a National Monument in 1924. Congress renamed the fort in 1942, reverting to the Spanish name, the Castillo de San Marcos. At over 315 years old, the fort is a lasting landmark of seventeenth-century St. Augustine.

The Castillo de San Marcos is open daily from 8:45am to 5pm, except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Crowds are thinnest from mid-September through late November, while peak season is June through Labor Day—especially during summer and holidays. Note that summer is also a very hot time to visit, even in the morning spring and fall offer milder temperatures.

The narrowest street in the United States is in St. Augustine: Treasury Street, measuring 7 feet wide. It was built to be wide enough for two men to transport chests of gold to ships docked at the waterfront, reducing the likelihood that they would be robbed by carriages passing by.

Fort Matanzas in St Augustine, Florida

Fort Matanzas in St Augustine, FL was built in 1720 to guard the southern approaches of the Matanzas inlet. You can take a ferry boat to the fort where volunteers in authentic costume reenact daily routines at the fort and explain how life was for the soldiers that lived there.

Standing guard at Fort Matanzas. Located approximately 15 miles south of St. Augustine, this small fortification was vital in protecting the inlet of Matanzas and the city of St. Augustine.

The Castillo de San Marcos

An aerial view of the Castillo de San Marcos.

Standing sentry over St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest city, is the formidable Castillo de San Marcos. Positioned strategically on Matanzas Bay, the fort was built by the Spanish to protect the town and is the most often visited historic site in St. Augustine. Still standing after more than 300 years, obviously the fort has done its job of protecting the citizens of St. Augustine, allowing the city to grow and thrive to present day.

The Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest masonry fort in the continental U.S. After 9 wooden forts designed to protect St. Augustine were burned by invaders, the Spanish militia took on the monumental task of constructing a stone fort that would protect the city and its treasury from pirates, the British and other attackers. The Castillo is made from coquina, a locally sourced stone-like compound made of shell and limestone. The use of coquina as the building material for both the Castillo de San Marcos and the nearby Fort Matanzas created fortresses that were nearly indestructible. Construction of the Castillo began in 1672 and took 23 years to complete. This stronger fortress was never taken in battle. The Castillo played a pivotal role in protecting Spanish St. Augustine from the 1700s to the late 1800s.

In 1924, the Castillo, or Fort Marion as it was known at the time, was declared a national monument by President Calvin Coolidge. He signed a proclamation that also designated Fort Matanzas a national monument.

Hours: Daily from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

Legends of America

Castillo de San Marcos Outer Wall, photo by Kathy Weiser Alexander, 2017.

The oldest existing permanent seacoast fortification in the continental United States, Castillo de San Marcos, in St. Augustine, Florida was built between 1672 – 1756.

After nine wooden forts failed to adequately protect Saint Augustine and the Florida coast, the Spanish Crown authorized the construction of a stone star-shaped fort, surrounding moat, and earthworks. The northernmost outpost of the Spanish Caribbean, its focus was to protect the shipping routes along the Florida coast and defend the Spanish territories from British aggressors, with whom they were fighting for regional supremacy during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Though the Spanish founded St. Augustine in 1565, it would be another hundred years before they began building the Castillo de San Marcos. The earlier wooden forts did not last long. Some of them burned down, some were washed away by storms, and some just rotted from neglect.

However, two events took place around the mid-1600s that made the Spanish realize that it was time to build a stronger fort to defend their town and their colony of La Florida.

The first event was in 1668 when the pirate Robert Searles attacked St. Augustine. Unlike Sir Francis Drake, who had attacked and burned St. Augustine to the ground a hundred years earlier, Searles did not burn the town or destroy the wooden fort. However, the Spanish feared he might return with more men and turn into a pirate camp to attack Spanish treasure ships. They needed more protection.

The second event was the founding of South Carolina by the English in 1670. The English had settled Jamestown, Virginia 42 years after the Spanish founded St. Augustine, followed by the Pilgrim’s settlement at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. But, these colonies were too far away to be a threat. Even the establishment of Maryland and New York over the next decades did not much affect the Spanish. However, that changed in 1670 with the establishment of South Carolina. The English were now much too close for comfort and the Spanish Crown sent money to St. Augustine for the building of a stone fortress.

The star-shaped design of the fort originated in Italy in the 15th century. Of the major architectural variations, the “bastion system,” named for the projecting diamond or angle shaped formations added onto the fort walls, was the most commonly and effectively used. Skilled workmen and masons were recruited in Cuba. These men gathered a force of workers from Cuban convicts as well as nearby Timucua, Guale, and Apalachee Indians to build the fort. On October 2, 1672, ground was broken for the building of the fortress and the work began. Instead of wood, this new fort was built of coquina, a kind of stone that had been found near the coast on Anastasia Island. This limestone formed over thousands of years from the shells of the tiny coquina clam cemented together through time and nature into a solid, but soft, stone.

Some workers used pickaxes and crowbars to hack the shell rock out of the ground. Others gathered oyster shells from the many Indian shell middens in the area. These shells were burned into lime. When mixed with sand and water, this lime became the mortar used to cement separate coquina blocks together.

Slowly the walls rose. Since no one had ever built a fort out of coquina before, they had no idea how strong it would be. At least they knew it would not burn or get eaten by termites, but how long would a fort made out of seashells hold up under cannon fire? No one knew, so they built the walls 12 feet thick with the walls facing the harbor 19 feet thick!

Given its light and porous nature, coquina would seem to be a poor choice of building material for a fort. However, the Spanish had few other options it was the only stone available on the northeast coast of La Florida. However, coquina’s porosity turned out to have an unexpected benefit. Because of its conglomerate mixture coquina contains millions of microscopic air pockets making it compressible.

In August 1695, the Castillo de San Marcos, including curtain walls, bastions, living quarters, a moat, ravelin, and seawall were completed.

Only seven years after the new fort was finished, James Moore and his British forces from South Carolina attacked St. Augustine in 1702. Moore captured the town and set his cannon up among the houses to fire at the fortress. For 50 days, the British besieged the fort, but, a strange thing happened. Instead of shattering, the coquina stone absorbed the shock of the hit! The cannonball just bounced off or stuck in a few inches. The shell rock worked! A cannonball fired at more solid material, such as granite or brick would shatter the wall into flying shards, but cannonballs fired at the walls of the Castillo burrowed their way into the rock and stuck there, much like a bee bee would if fired into Styrofoam. So the thick coquina walls absorbed or deflected projectiles rather than yielding to them, providing a surprisingly long-lived fortress.

Castillo San Marcos Courtyard, photo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, 2017.

The English burned the town before they left, but the Castilllo emerged unscathed, thereby making it a symbolic link between the old Augustine of 1565 and the new city that rose from the ashes. To strengthen the defenses, The Spanish erected new earthwork lines on the north and west sides of St. Augustine, thus making it a walled city.

In 1738, the Spanish Governor Manual de Montiano at St. Augustine granted freedom to runaway British slaves and encouraged slaves to escape for sanctuary in Florida. If the fugitives converted to Catholicism and swore allegiance to the king of Spain, they were given freedom, arms, and supplies. As more and more slaves took advantage of the offer, the first legally recognized free community of ex-slaves was established. Known as Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, or Fort Mose, it was located north of St. Augustine to serve as another defense.

In 1740, the Matanzas Inlet was still unfortified when General James Oglethorpe’s British troops from Fort Frederica in Georgia attacked St Augustine. Again the Castillo was besieged and Matanzas Inlet blockaded. But, the Spanish did not waver during the 27-day British bombardment. The attack also taught the Spanish the strategic value of the Matanzas Inlet and the need for a strong outpost there. Consequently, in 1742, they completed the Fort Matanzas coquina tower to block any Southern approach to St. Augustine.

From 1756-52, Fort Mose was rebuilt in masonry and earthworks were extended to complete a northern-most defense.

Castillo de San Marcos Soldier Quarters. Photo by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, 2017. Click for prints & products.

In 1763, as an outcome of the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War), Spain ceded Florida to Great Britain in return for La Habana, Cuba. The British garrisoned Matanzas and strengthened the Castillo, holding the two forts through the American Revolution. The Treaty of Paris of 1763, which ended the war, returned Florida to Spain.

Spain held Florida once again until 1821 when serious Spanish-American tensions led to its cession to the United States. The Americans renamed the Castillo Fort Marion in 1825 and during the Seminole War of 1835-42, it was used it to house Indian prisoners. Confederate troops occupied it briefly during the Civil War and Indians captured in western military campaigns were held there later on. It was last used during the Spanish-American War as a military prison.

In 1924, Fort Marion and Fort Matanzas are proclaimed as national monuments. In 1942, the original name — Castillo de San Marcos is restored. Today, it is administered by the National Park Service. It is located at 1 Castillo Drive in downtown St. Augustine.

Photo by Dave Alexander. Click for prints & products.

Castillo de San Marcos National Monument
1 South Castillo Drive
St. Augustine, Florida 32084