The Land of the Free
I’m embarrassed to admit that, a few days ago if you had asked me who discovered America; I would conjure up a vision of Columbus, three boats (the mina, was the second one the pinyata?, and there was one that has a flower in its name, I think). Lord forbid if the inquirer asked for a date or a place, I would probably spit out something about November (because that is Thanksgiving and didn’t Columbus eat turkey with the Indians or something like that?) and I do remember the year ended in 2, because it rhymes with Ocean Blue. I promise I graduated high school and somehow passed my American and World history classes, but I guess until this new chapter in our lives, recalling or having any understanding or appreciation of our country’s past is something I sadly let slip aside.
Today I awake in America’s oldest city, St Augustine Florida, and I feel like a school boy on a permanent field trip. Our traveling adventures across America in our RV have taken us to breathtaking mountain peaks and peaceful beaches and along with the many natural wonders and beauty that we discover, we pull into each new town with a new hunger. We feel like kids lifting up rocks to discover a family of salamanders. Somewhere along these streets, buried in the graveyards, tucked away and passed down in stories, and preserved in walls of old homes and buildings are the truths that paved the path for us to discover our 239 year old America.
So it was in 1492 when Chris Columbus discovered the Americas, and it wasn’t the continental US that we know today, but was actually some beautiful islands in the Caribbean. No turkey with pilgrims, but what he found for his Spanish king was a land filled with new spices, tasty fruits, trees for building and this treasure would eventually fill countless ships that sailed back to the homeland and funded the Spanish rule. I thought Rome was big, but who knew that between 1500 and 1640 Spain was the largest and richest empire the world has ever known.
Twenty one years later Ponce De Leon discovered the Florida Peninsula, and I say discovered lightly, as they had been sailing by it for years by now with spices and lumber from the Caribbean and had probably landed on it for a pee break at some point, but in 1513 De Leon pops a flag in the ground, does a few hail Mary’s across his chest and declares that the ground from there all the way up to Canada belongs to the King of Spain.
There would be over eight official attempts to colonize in America in the years that followed and all of them ended in mutiny, famine, death from native tribes, or disease. It was some 73 years after Columbus landed, that a young Spanish misfit, who grew up in a foster home and had a reputation for disobeying authority, would be the one that would successfully begin America’s oldest city. The French actually had already landed on the Atlantic coast the year before and built a fort in what is now known as Jacksonville, but they would all see their sad demise within weeks of Pedro Menendez de Aviles raising the Spanish flag in St. Augustine.
Perhaps it was just the right time for young Menendez to shine, or maybe it was because of the once in a lifetime incentives he would receive, but something about his attempt was different. The King of Spain pulled him out of prison and gave him a pardon, provided him with ships, cargo and the essentials to create a small colony and told him to pick his crew from other prison mates. The mission for the band of outcasts was to remove the French post, build a fort on the Florida coast that would protect their water-interstate along the newly discovered gulf stream, and also to establish a Christian mission to educate the Timucuan natives. No problem. Everyone else had failed for the last 51 years, but if he could accomplish this mighty feat, the king would revoke all the other claims and rights to La Florida and name Menendez the governor of all the land. And the mission was accomplished.
I stand at the top of in the Castillo De San Marcus and look out across the fort and into the gates of the old city and shutter at the thought of the blood shed, the hurt, the loss and try to wrap my arms around the thoughts of our crazy history. This piece of land was fought and died-for for 254 years with the Spanish flag flying above and yet has only been considered a state in America for 171 years. It’s been a part of Spain longer than the 239 years America has even been in existence. (WOW! Now that just completely blows me away. ) In the peak of Spain’s control of La Florida, more than 124 missions of God’s love peacefully spread across the land slowly converting the Timucuan Indians to Christianity. How amazing that in 1672, some 107 years after St Augustine began and just 65 years after John Smith landed in Jamestown, Indians and some descendants of the original band of misfits that discovered this ancient city, would work hand and hand to build the Castillo De San Marcus fort to defend themselves against the coming English.
Little did they know that one day the Spanish flag would come down, an English flag would rise, the missions would all be burned, the town would burn, the Spanish flag would rise again, the new US flag with only 23 stars would fly. The Castillo De San Marcus would be used as a prison for the Seminole Indians, a confederate flag would lift shortly and an American flag with 51 stars would one day soar and that one of those stars would shine for the new state of Florida.
We stroll down the tiny cobblestone streets of the old city filled with quaint shops, the succulent smells of Spanish cuisine drifting in with the ocean breeze, the sounds of every kind of music you can think of coming from the corners. History just oozing from the buildings built with crushed shells and mortar. It makes me smile when I see all five flags hanging from roof tops. We are who we are as well as who we were. I’m proud that congress decided to rename the ancient fort back to its original Castillo name after it was temporarily renamed to Fort Marion, in honor of an American Revolutionary War hero.
There is no way of getting around it. The tapestry of America and much of the world for that matter has been weaved by blood, power, greed, misunderstanding and the fight for freedoms. Today is only here because of yesterday. I dare say that there is not a single one of us that has not come from a family tree that has not suffered or hurt in some way to bring us to this new day. It’s a true privilege for me to be walking the streets of America’s oldest city, along with hundreds of other smiling faces from every race and religion…. in the land of the free.