Peace with the local Indians allowed St. Augustine
to slowly develop into a small and prosperous town. However, in
1586, England and Spain were at war and the English corsair Sir
Francis Drake was likely to attack on his way home. St. Augustine
was fired upon on June 6. The English fleet was huge, forcing
Governor Marquez and his people to flee. Immediately, Indians
looted the town. When the English arrived, they took what the
Indians left behind, and it is said the killing of an English
soldier by the Spanish rearguard prompted Drake to issue his
dreadful orders- "burn the town!"
As soon as Drake and his fleet set sail, Governor
Marquez summoned help from Cuba. News of the disaster led to
increased support in Spain for the struggling colony. St. Augustine
was given the status of a “presidio” – a city
that served as an official military fortress of the Spanish Empire.
Soon after the residents of the abandoned Santa Elena arrived, the
town of St. Augustine fulfilled one of its major roles –
serving as a haven for the treasure fleets on their way home to
Spain. Several ships loaded with treasure were wrecked on the
Florida coast and the sailors were able to survive thanks to the
food provided by the Indians.
When they weren’t converting Indians,
rebuilding after storms or burying plague victims, St.
Augustine’s residents were busy carrying out their duties to
the Spanish crown. Its soldiers escorted missionaries and its
sailors traveled frequently aboard ships sailing between St.
Augustine and Havana. The town’s garrison was responsible for
rescuing shipwrecked Spanish sailors and recovering the treasure
and cannons aboard the ships run aground by storms or pirates. With
a reputation as a savage wilderness, recruitment for the garrison
sometimes took place in Spanish prisons. The viceroy was
responsible for sending the annual "subsidy" or payment to the St.
Augustine garrison, but in 1586, Sir Francis Drake helped himself
to the town's finances. In 1627, the entire treasure fleet was
captured by the Dutch corsair Piet Heyn. The subsidy for La Florida
and all the presidios in the Caribbean were lost. When funds were
short, the capital of La Florida was short-changed on its annual
paycheck. As a result, supplies from Havana and New Spain were
essential for the town's survival.
It wasn’t long after Drake’s
devastating raid that the residents of St. Augustine learned that
other Englishmen had arrived in La Florida and this time they
weren’t just conducting a raid, they were building a town. In
1607, the English returned and christened their new Virginia colony
“Jamestown," after the inhabitants of their first settlement
Roanoke (in present-day North Carolina) mysteriously
In 1609 and 1611, scouting parties from St.
Augustine revealed reports regarding the English intrusion into La
Florida. During the mid-1600’s, roving bands of previously
unknown Indian tribes, forced southward by the expanding English
colony, began raiding Florida and murdering missionaries. St.
Augustine’s pleas to strengthen the town’s garrison and
fortifications went unanswered. In 1665, King Charles II of England
announced that a new province named Carolina was to be created
south of Virginia. The fact that the boundaries of Carolina
included St. Augustine left no doubt about the ambitious extent of
the English plans.
The English privateer Robert Searles captured a
Spanish ship headed for Cuba from Florida. He heard from a French
doctor onboard that a large amount of silver was being stored in
St. Augustine. Searles sailed back up the coast of Florida in May
of 1668. Waiting for nightfall, he brought the ship into St.
Augustine’s harbor where its residents anticipated the
arrival of this "supply ship" the next morning. After midnight,
they went on a rampage through the town. The pirates helped
themselves to the salvaged silver and ruthlessly murdered sixty
residents of the town, including children. They ransomed off
hostages and selected those Searles judged to be not of "pure
Spanish blood" to be sold into slavery elsewhere in the Caribbean.
The Searles Raid awakened the Spanish monarchy to the serious
threat of the English colonies. In 1669, Queen Mariana ordered the
Viceroy of Mexico to pay for the construction of a massive stone
fortress to be as fortified as the most important cities of the