A CITY OF SUPERLATIVES
Santa Feans will gladly tell you the many superlatives that define the city. The oldest. The highest. The best. While there’s no denying the city’s altitude, the veracity of the best is up to you because when it comes to oldest, there’s some debate.
American chapel of San Miguel, by Wittick, Ben, 1845-1903
Santa Fe’s status as a Capital city of New Spain is undisputed, and it has held the title of Capital for over 400 years, making it the oldest Capital city in the United States. But is it the oldest inhabited town? No, that honor goes to St. Augustine.
Juan Ponce de Leon | Image from the British Library
The shorelines and nearby interior of Saint Augustine, Florida, were first discovered in 1513 by the ambitious Spanish explorer, Juan Ponce de Leon. The verdant coastline was named, Florida (or flowery land), after the flora seen growing in abundance. Claims of De Leon’s mad quest for the Fountain of Youth are probably exaggerated contemporary tales, however, the restless De Leon did continue onwards, travelling many intercostal waterways and mapping the coast of Florida. He did not create settlements or forts to protect the Spanish claim, as he was more intent on mapping and understanding the coast.
It was not until 1562 and later in 1564 that the French mounted two separate expeditions to explore this area of Florida. The first French fort was established north of Saint Augustine and named Fort Caroline. As a response, Spain dispatched Pedro Menendez de Aviles to establish a fort at Saint Augustine, which he did on August 28th, 1565. Following the sacking by Spanish soldiers of Fort Caroline, fears of future French colonization assured that Spain would maintain Saint Augustine as a permanent fort and settlement on America’s eastern coast. The first “registered” European child was born there in 1566. This date is 21 years before the first English settlement of Roanoke Island in Virginia, and 42 years before the establishment of Jamestown and Santa Fe.
Pedro Menendez de Aviles
Having been to Disneyworld in August, and experienced the unremitting heat and humidity, there’s no denying the fervor and devotion of Spanish colonists in settling Florida several hundred years before air conditioning.
Hernan Cortes conquered Mexico in 1519, close to the same time that Juan Ponce de Leon named and mapped Florida. However, as with Saint Augustine, much time passed before colonization began in either parts of our country, and it was not until much later in 1598 that the explorer Don Juan de Onate traveled north from Mexico into what would be named the Provinces of New Mexico. He established a small settlement on the banks of the Rio Grande River about 30 miles north of present day Santa Fe. In 1607, Don Pedro de Peralta established a second city (Santa Fe) to which he moved the capital in 1610. These facts absolutely clear up any confusion over which two cities we are discussing is the older – Saint Augustine wins hands down! But Santa Fe claims to be the oldest capital in the U.S. and that is also true and deservedly so, without argument.
We always proudly describe Santa Fe’s San Miguel Chapel as the U.S.’s oldest church, having its first walls built in 1610 by Tlaxcalan Mexicans, most assuredly slaves brought north to help the colonization of the Provinces of Nuevo Mexico. Finished in 1620 and refurbished in 1710, it still stands today as the oldest church in the US.
San Miguel Chapel
The first Spanish settlers of Saint Augustine were assuredly Catholics, it is hard to imagine any group of Spanish Catholics not building a church within the first decade of the establishment of a foreign outpost on the edge of an unexplored continent. These settlers came from a culture that had experienced the Inquisition to purge the world of non-Catholic religious believers. They would have wanted and needed a church for their souls as much as houses for their bodies. Despite a lack of archaeological evidence, we can assume that the establishment of a spiritual building was a priority in St. Augustine. Despite this, Santa Fe can definitely lay claim to oldest still standing church in the United States.
All Inn on the Alameda blog posts are written by Joe & Michael Schepps. Read more from the authors here.
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