Fort Matanzas – Protecting St. Augustine, Florida

Fort Matanzas, Florida

Fort Matanzas, Florida

Fort Matanzas National Monument is a Spanish fortress built in 1742 to guard Matanzas Inlet, the southern mouth of the Matanzas River, which could be used as a rear entrance to the city of St. Augustine, Florida, some 15 miles to the north. At that time, coastal Florida was a major field of conflict as European nations fought for control in the New World.

Long before Europeans arrived, archaeological research tells us that at least 12,000 years ago, wandering hunter-gatherer people lived in the region following the great herds of mammoths and other large animals and gathering the wild grains, nuts and berries they found in their seasonal wanderings. No one knows what these people called themselves, but to archaeologists, they are known as Paleo-Indians.

As the large prey died out, these people began to exploit the vast water resources. Fish, shellfish, turtles, and alligators became a major part of their diet. Hollowed-out log canoes enabled them to travel the many rivers. About 2500 years ago, as the various groups of archaic people became more settled in one place, each group developed a distinct regional culture while maintaining several customs in common. The people who lived along the St. Johns River in east-central and northeast Florida were the Timucuan.

The Massacre of the French

Florida Fort Map

Florida Fort Map

The Massacre of the French Huguenots took place up at the Matanzas Inlet. The incident initiated Spanish control of Florida for 235 years and led to naming the Matanzas River (Matanzas, the Spanish word for “slaughters”).

When King Philip II of Spain learned that the Frenchman Rene de Laudonniére had established Fort Caroline in Florida, he was incensed as the colony sat on land belonging to the Spanish crown. Spanish treasure fleets sailed along the Florida coast to Spain, and Fort Caroline provided a perfect base for French attacks. Worst of all to the devoutly Catholic Philip, the settlers were Huguenots (French Protestants). Jean Ribault sailed from France in May 1565 with more than 600 soldiers and settlers to resupply Fort Caroline despite Philip’s protests.

General Pedro Menéndez de Aviles, charged with removing the French, also sailed in May, arriving at the Saint Johns River in August with some 800 people shortly after Ribault (2 on map). After a brief sea chase, the Spanish retired south to a site they had earlier reconnoitered, a Timucuan village called Seloy. The Spanish came ashore on September 8 and established and named their new village “St. Augustine” because the land had first been sighted on the Feast Day of St. Augustine, August 28.

Jean Ribault

Jean Ribault

Jean Ribault sailed on September 10 to attack and wipe out the Spanish at St. Augustine. Still, a hurricane carried his ships far to the south, wrecking them on the Florida coast between present-day Daytona Beach and Cape Canaveral.

At the same time, Menéndez led a force to attack Fort Caroline. Since most of the soldiers were absent, Menéndez could easily capture the French settlement, killing most of the men in the battle. Some of the inhabitants, including Rene de Laudonniére and the artist Jacques LeMoyne, escaped to ships and returned to France. Menéndez spared the women and children and sent them by ship to Havana.

He then learned from Timucuan Indians that white men were on the beach a few miles south of St. Augustine. He marched with 70 soldiers to where an inlet had blocked 127 of the shipwrecked Frenchmen trying to get back to Fort Caroline (5 on map).

With a captured Frenchman as a translator, Menéndez described how Fort Caroline had been captured and urged the French to surrender. Rumors to the contrary, he made no promises as to spare them. Having lost most of their food and weapons in the shipwreck, they did surrender. However, when Menéndez demanded that they give up their Protestant faith and accept Catholicism, they refused. In the end,111 Frenchmen were killed. Only sixteen were spared – a few professed to be Catholic, some impressed Breton sailors, and four artisans needed at St. Augustine.

Two weeks later, the sequence of events was repeated. More French survivors appeared at the inlet, including Jean Ribault. On October 12, Ribault and his men surrendered and met their fate, again refusing to give up their faith. This time 134 were killed. From that time, the inlet was called Matanzas — meaning “slaughters” in Spanish.

The First Spanish Period (1565-1763)

Wooden Watchtower on the Matanzas Inlet

Wooden Watchtower on the Matanzas Inlet

As early as 1569, the Spanish recognized the vulnerability of the Matanzas Inlet and built a wooden watchtower and a thatched hut to house six soldiers who took turns scanning the horizon. If a ship was sighted, a runner or small boat set out to warn St. Augustine. Watching and warning were the tower’s tasks, for it lacked any armament.

At least twice, the watchtower kept pirates from coming in this “backdoor.” In 1683 English outlaws captured the watchtower, but word made it to St. Augustine, and ships and soldiers came and drove them off. In 1686, French pirates attempted to come into the inlet, but again the news was sent to St. Augustine, and these pirates, too, were repulsed.

In Florida’s warm, wet climate, these wooden watchtowers often had to be rebuilt or replaced. No sign of any of the towers remains, but, archaeological evidence suggests that they may have been on Anastasia Island in the vicinity of the park’s visitor center.

The British Threat

After the French, the British became the main threat. Beginning with Sir Francis Drake’s raid on St. Augustine in 1586, during which he burned the town, England repeatedly harassed the Spanish colony. The English established Charles Towne (Charleston) in the Carolina Colony in 1670. The English colony of Georgia was founded in 1733 by General James Oglethorpe. Both of these colonies were on land claimed by Spain. Hostilities were inevitable, and the British leaders were looking for an excuse for attacking St. Augustine. Wars in Europe gave them the excuse to carry the hostilities to the new world. Whoever controlled Florida controlled the rich shipping lanes coming from the Spanish Caribbean. The British had unsuccessfully laid siege to St. Augustine twice in – 1702 and 1740, the second siege leaving St. Augustine in ashes.

Florida Governor Montiano knew the British would be back and would likely attempt to come through the unguarded inlet at Matanzas. Therefore, he immediately ordered a fort to be built to guard these southern approaches — Fort Matanzas.

Work started on the fortress tower in the fall of 1740 when Coquina stone was quarried at El Piñon, a small inlet south of Matanzas. Construction was difficult, for long piles had to be driven into the marsh to support rising stonework. Repeatedly, the British and their Indian allies tried to stop construction. On July 21, 1741, the British moved in to attack the Spanish. Two British ships, the sloop St. Philip and a schooner (a sailing vessel with two or more masts), sighted a Spanish sloop anchored inside the inlet of Matanzas. A Spanish galliot (a shallow-draft vessel propelled mainly by oars), which had gone unnoticed by the British, opened fire from long range but scored no hits. Darkness and fog soon halted the British attack.

The next day the British again attacked. At 10 o’clock in the morning the St. Philip, now clear of the fog, moved in on the Spanish sloop. The sloop attempted to move away but ran aground on one of the many sandbars in the area. The British seized the opportunity and opened fire on the stranded ship. Several shots found their mark – two Spanish crewmen were killed, and two were wounded. The Spanish galleon again saved the day by opening fire on the British ships, preventing them from taking further action. The St. Philip and her accompanying sloop were forced to retreat to the open sea. If the British had defeated the galleon, they would have destroyed the Fort Matanzas construction.

In September 1742, Oglethorpe tried again. By this time, Fort Matanzas was completed and fired its cannon. The British retreated without firing a shot. The following April, Oglethorpe returned. However, heavy surf kept him from approaching the inlet or landing men and arms on the beach. Neither side fired a shot.

In 1751 Manuel de Montiano was awarded the governorship of Panama, a very wealthy colony compared to St. Augustine and Florida. He died there in 1758.

The British Period (1763-1784)

British Sloop

British Sloop

Ironically, after all the fighting in Georgia and Florida, all it took was a signature on a piece of paper in Europe to take Florida away from Spain. During the Seven Years War (French and Indian War), the British had captured Spanish Cuba and the Philippines. To get these valuable colonies back, Spain was forced to give up Florida. Signed on February 10, 1763, the First Treaty of Paris gave all of Florida to the British.

The Spanish people of St. Augustine packed up all their possessions, including the forts’ cannons, and moved to Cuba. On its first run to St. Augustine bearing cannon destined for Fort Matanzas, the British supply ship, Industry sank near the St. Augustine Inlet, and all supplies were lost. Archeologists working from the St. Augustine Lighthouse have discovered this wreck and have recovered some of the cannon and other artifacts.

The English staffed Fort Matanzas with one sergeant, six or eight privates of infantry, and one private from the Royal Artillery. As the political climate changed as the American colonies moved towards revolution, more cannons were added, with two 18-pounders placed at the fort in 1763.

Life for the English soldiers at Fort Matanzas probably differed little from their Spanish counterparts. Days were spent in drills, repairing the fort and equipment, and foraging for food as the officer attempted to keep his men occupied with useful tasks.

Britain and Spain During the American Revolution

Fort Matanzas, Florida

Fort Matanzas, Florida

The British had divided Florida into East and West Florida, so, along with Nova Scotia, Great Britain had sixteen American colonies. While the War for American Independence was raging to the north, the Spanish, under General Bernardo de Gálvez, the governor of Louisiana, was attempting to harass the British on their western frontier.

Gálvez captured Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Natchez, Mississippi; and Mobile, Alabama, all in British West Florida. After losing Pensacola to the Spanish, the British were afraid that the Spanish might make plans to capture St. Augustine by trying the same plan the British had tried– coming up the Matanzas River and attacking from the rear. However, such plans were never executed.

On September 3, 1783, the Second Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution and returned Florida to the Spanish. However, this time, most of the population, who owned businesses and plantations, did not leave. With so many British remaining in Florida, and very few Spanish returning, the character of this Spanish colony changed, leading to the eventual takeover by the United States.

The Second Spanish Period (1784-1821)

In return for Spain’s help during the American Revolution, Florida was transferred back to Spain by the Treaties of Versailles, part of the Peace of Paris, in 1783. Just like when the whole Spanish population moved to Cuba when the British took control, this time most of the British departed for British colonies in the Caribbean in spite of Governor Zespedes’ promise of equal treatment.

Governor Zespedes knew Florida needed more people, regardless of nationality, to survive. He offered large land grants, a ten-year tax-free occupancy, and a cash bonus to any family who would come to start a farm. He even offered to pay each pioneer 1.5 cents a day for feed supplies. Despite these generous offers, it was necessary by 1786 to drop the restrictions on non-Catholic settlers. Equally significant, the Spanish Government agreed to allow the migration of slaveholders into Florida for the first time.

One of the slaveholders who took advantage of the land grant offer was Zephaniah Kingsley. Along with his wife, Anna Madgigine Jai, herself an ex-slave from Africa, owned and managed Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island.

This influx of different people, including Americans, made the Second Spanish period much more cosmopolitan than the First Spanish Period had been. It also brought about the Patriot’s Rebellion (1811-1812) in which American “patriots” living in Spanish Florida, clandestinely supported by Georgians and unofficially recognized by the U.S. government, attempted to rise up and seize Florida for the United States. With the promise of 200 acres of Florida land as an incentive, dozens of Georgia farmers marched to attack St. Augustine. They destroyed Spanish plantations and left only after a British fleet intervened. The U.S. government immediately declared no knowledge of the plan.

Still, Spain’s days in Florida were numbered. By 1800 Spain’s fortune and power were waning. Her once-mighty empire was crumbling. There was little money to maintain the Castillo and even less for the outpost fort at Matanzas. Erosion and rainwater took their toll. FortMatanzas was already in poor condition by 1821 when Florida was ceded to the United States through the Adams-Onís Treaty which turned Florida over to the U.S. in exchange for canceling out a $5 million debt, reimbursement for runaway slaves who had found refuge in Florida.

The Territorial Period (1821-1845)

Only three Spanish soldiers were in residence at Fort Matanzas when the United States took possession in 1821. The interior was in ruins, and the gun platform’s east wall and its foundation had cracked. The U.S. Army sent an inspector who reported that the tower was obsolete and had only historical value. Although owned by the War Department, Fort Matanzas was never occupied by the United States Army.

These early years as part of the United States were years of conflict for Florida. For years Indian groups who had been pushed off their land in Georgia and Alabama by white settlers had found refuge in Spanish Florida. These Indians, primarily the Creek, along with escaped African slaves, became known as Cimmarones or wild ones, the probable origin of the word Seminole. However, once Florida became a territory of the United States, these Indians were no longer safe. The U.S. Army raided their settlements, and the Seminoles and whites engaged in a series of long, expensive wars ending with 4000 – 5000 Seminole Indians being shipped to reservations in Oklahoma and the tattered remnants of a proud people finally finding some refuge in the wilds of the Everglades.

The Civil War Years

Florida was granted statehood in 1845 as the 27th state. At the beginning of the Civil War, Florida was the third state to vote for Secession, which she did on January 10, 1861. Confederate troops immediately took Fort Marion (Castillo de San Marcos) from the lone Union sergeant caretaker who asked for a receipt and travel money out of town. Believing the war would soon be over and would never come this far south, the Confederates removed most of the cannon from FortMarion and sent them to more strategic forts.

In March 1862, the Union Navy arrived off the coast of St. Augustine. With no guns for defense, Fort Marion was abandoned, and the Union forces took over. The St. Augustine area remained in Federal hands for the remainder of the war. With the St. Johns River heavily patrolled, Confederate blockade runners attempted to use the Matanzas Inlet during the War. Still, the Union army stationed a barge in the river near the fort ruins, and attempts to pass were unsuccessful.

However, this activity had little effect on the old tower, and soon the area was abandoned once more. Over time, the tower began to deteriorate even further. It was a quaint ruin overgrown with vegetation in 1872 when artist Harry Fenn sketched the fort for the book Picturesque America.

During the late 19th century, St. Augustine became the destination of America’s rich and famous. In 1885, railroad tycoon and former Standard Oil partner Henry Morrison Flagler moved Florida’s resorts to a new level with his 540-room grand Ponce de León Hotel in St. Augustine. The first of three Flagler hotels in the city, the Ponce de León (now the main building of Flagler College), combined exotic Spanish Renaissance and Moorish architectural features with innovative poured concrete construction.

Whisked south in their private cars on Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad, notables such as the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Morgans made St. Augustine their winter home, expanding the old colonial city westward on King Street and north on San Marco. Many of the buildings downtown reflect this golden era. The Villa Zorayda, an exotic Moorish Revival style residence with courtyards and towers built in 1883 on King Street, is from this glittering time period as is the Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church (1880), and Castle Warden (1879), now Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum.


These wealthy visitors came down the river on excursions to the Matanzas ruins. They also visited Fort Marion in town, which, although still an active military fort until 1899, was also falling into disrepair. They believed these historic structures must be saved, and they spoke with their friends and congress members. In 1916 Congress granted $1025 to repair these structures, the first time that the federal government had granted money for historic preservation.

Fort Matanzas National Monument was designated a United States National Monument on October 15, 1924. The monument consists of the old Spanish fort and about 100 acres of salt marsh and barrier islands along the Matanzas River. It is operated by the National Park Service in conjunction with the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in St. Augustine.

Contact Information:

Fort Matanzas National Monument
8635 A1A South
St. Augustine, Florida 32080

Fort Matanzas Interior

Fort Matanzas Interior

Compiled by Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2021.

Also See:

Castillo De San Marcos – Spanish Stronghold

Florida – The Sunshine State

Spanish Explorers

St. Augustine – Oldest U.S. City

St. Augustine, Florida Photo Gallery

Source: National Park Service