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Francisco Vasquez de Coronado

Were there really seven cities of gold?

The Amazing Castillo de San Marcos



A Little Country Rivalry Goes a Long Way
September 30, 2000


What's so great about land, anyway?
All right you guys. I want you to think for a minute about land. Picture "land" in your head. Boring, right? Just trees and grass, bushes and dirt, sand, valleys and mountains. But what if I asked you to tell me what you can DO with land? You might say grow crops in the soil, cut down trees for building, raise animals in the valleys, collect minerals from the ground and set up houses and shops in the open spaces. Now we're getting somewhere!

All that stuff is pretty important to our day-to-day lives. Land gives us life's essential elements -- food, shelter and water. Land is valuable! Land has resources! Land means money! And land is why people have moved around since the beginning of time. People want more fields to farm, more mines for minerals, more places for homes, more acres to raise animals and more space to relax and have fun. (In fact, when your history teacher asks you what's the reason behind most wars, alliances, explorations and expansions, say land. Try it!)

Now think about a time before the United States of America existed, around the 16th century. The land, of course, was here, but it was inhabited solely by Native Americans who lived in many tribes, spoke many languages and created many different traditions across the continent. At same exact time, the small continent of Europe was crowded! People were jam-packed together in dirty cities. Many were very, very poor. Most didn't have any land to call their own.

So after Christopher Columbus and his sailors ran into the Americas on their way to the Indies, a new option presented itself to the crafty but crowded Europeans. They decided to send people across the Atlantic Ocean, to live on these lands with more space and riches galore in the untapped resources. Ah, land!

Thus begins the story of European colonization in the Americas. And while many European countries wanted their piece of this "New World," the Spanish were the first to create permanent cities in what would later become the United States. Before the British ever attempted a colony on Roanoke Island or at Jamestown, and while France was putting simple Fort Caroline on the southeastern coast, Spain established the cities of St. Augustine and Santa Fe to claim to the land and resources that would assure them money, status and historical infamy.

Diligent trekkers that we are, four of us decided to travel to these first cities to understand Spain's important chapter in our history. Neda and I explored St. Augustine (in what's now Florida), while Stephanie and Daphne traveled to Santa Fe (now part of New Mexico).

Neda and I found the people of St. Augustine to be very proud of their Spanish heritage, and quick to remind visitors of their status as "the oldest permanent European settlement in the continental United States." Stores here constantly refer to their past, with names like "Old City Coffee" and "Ancient City Real Estate." Visitors can tour the "oldest pharmacy," the "oldest school," and the "oldest house" in the United States.

Becky finds no sign of the British enemy near the Castillo de San Marcos
Although this was the political, military and religious capital of Spain's province of Florida for 235 years, the town's "principal value ... was as a military base for the protection of Spain's colonial trade and commerce." Since every good military base needs a fortress, the Castillo de San Marcos was finished in 1695. This huge, hollow, square fort with diamond-shaped bastions at each corner stands intact today at the edge of Matanzas Bay. It has stood guard over St. Augustine's lands under Spanish, English, Spanish (again) and American flags.

Neda and I marveled at the thick coquina (sedimentary rock) walls that absorbed cannon fire instead of crumbling beneath it. A moat surrounding the fort was kept dry unless the occupants were under attack - in that case the soldiers could easily open flood gates to fill the moat with water. From storage rooms to water wells to a small chapel, the fort was built to protect the citizens of St. Augustine any time the city came under siege. (Look for more information on Spanish/English battles over St. Augustine in our upcoming Ft. Mose dispatch.) The Castillo is a testament to the importance of land - just think of how much time and energy Spain put into protecting this colony in the "New World."

Shortly after St. Augustine came into being, Spain established a colony in Santa Fe, leaving their mark on that land for generations to come. Francisco Vasquez de Coronado traveled up through Mexico to what we know today as the U.S. southwest, looking for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. Along the way, religious missionaries traveling with him tried to convert Native Americans to Christianity. The results are seen throughout New Mexico today: many Native Americans remain Catholics to this day. Catholic churches and icons are everywhere in Santa Fe, especially the Virgen de Guadalupe, who has become a symbol of the rights of Mexico's poor and native people.

Contemporary Santa Fe provided Daphne and Steph with the most interesting blend of cultures they had seen yet! The Spanish/Mexican and Native American cultures dominate Anglo culture here: even European Americans live in adobe houses near Spanish-style cathedrals and eat green chili for breakfast!

Neda in front of St. Augustine's ancient gate
Both St. Augustine and Santa Fe have become cities of the United States. Their lands and the resources they offer now benefit the people of the United States, rather than the Spanish. Yet as our treks through these cities show, the effects of colonizing a land can easily outlast the time a nation spends there. The Spanish heritage is alive and well in places like New Mexico and Florida, and has practically become a part of the land itself.

Thanks to the National Park Service for providing the quoted material in parts of this dispatch.


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - How do you voodoo? The truth beyond the Hollywood myth
Kevin - The Huguenot History Rap
Daphne - The low-down on New Orleans culture
Nick - Don a headdress made of turkey feathers and return to the 1600's
Hero? Villian? The Team Gets MAD about Columbus!