When A Hurricane Hit America’s Oldest City, It Unearthed An Eerie Piece Of U.S. History

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Archaeologist Carl Halbirt doesn’t have high hopes for his dig beneath a St. Augustine, Florida, wine shop. But he starts to shovel anyway, knowing that he is, probably, in America’s oldest city. Suddenly, his efforts are rewarded after moving just a bit of earth. Then, the tip of his spade hits something – and it’s a chilling sight.

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Now, Halbirt had the opportunity to dig partly because of the devastation caused by Hurricane Matthew, which struck Florida in 2016. You see, much of St. Augustine’s downtown area flooded. And the floor of the wine shop, belonging to David White, was badly damaged. So he decided to renovate his property – but not before giving archaeologists the chance to look beneath.

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There was much to find in St. Augustine, too. Because the city stands as the United States’ longest continuously inhabited settlement to be established by European colonizers. And that’s why Halbirt couldn’t turn down the unlikely dig – and why the wine shop yielded a shocking remnant from around 500 years ago.

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Explorer Juan Ponce de León left his native Spain in search of what could arguably be the world’s greatest treasure: the Fountain of Youth. And he set off in the early 16th century, although the tale of the Fountain had been told as early as the fifth century BC. Some believed that, wherever it was, this water source would help them revive their youthful looks.

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But Ponce de León never found the Fountain of Youth on his mission in 1513. What he found instead was a land that he called La Florida. He likely discovered the state’s east coast first, sailing along it all the way to the Florida Keys. Then, the explorer entered the Gulf of Mexico.

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Interestingly, the expedition thought it had found an island, but it was actually the panhandle of land leading into the whole of the North American continent. So Ponce de León claimed his piece for Spain. Then in 1564, the French staked their claim to Fort Caroline, about 35 miles north of modern-day St. Augustine.

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But it was the Spanish – under the tutelage of conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés – who founded St. Augustine in 1565. And he did so in defense of the lands discovered by Ponce de León, upon which the French had begun to encroach. First, Menéndez de Avilés destroyed their colony, and then he established the city. In doing so, the Spanish colonized Florida and would run it for around 200 years.

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Now, Menéndez de Avilés chose the name St. Augustine in honor of the third century saint who was also the bishop of Hippo. For it was on St. Augustine’s feast day that the explorer spotted the coast of Florida himself, so he gave the city the same moniker. And, from there, it became a vital outpost for the Spanish who explored and settled on the other side of the Atlantic.

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Furthermore, the date of St. Augustine’s founding is significant. You see, Menéndez de Avilés established the city in 1565, a whopping 42 years before the English formed their first settlement at Jamestown in the then-colony of Virginia. What’s more, only 55 years after St. Augustine appeared on the map, the Pilgrims arrived at Massachusetts’ Plymouth Rock.

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That timeline could potentially make St. Augustine America’s oldest city, as well as the country’s oldest inhabited European settlement. It certainly made for a lengthy, sometimes violent history for St. Augustine, as it was established during a time when multiple countries battled for territory across the North American continent.

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Once Menéndez de Avilés established St. Augustine, the colonizers got to work, building the communal structures they’d need to make Florida their home. And one such structure included a church, which they called Nuestra Señora de la Remedios. This place of worship wouldn’t stand for long, though – thanks to Britain’s Sir Francis Drake, who received the green light to attack from the Queen of England.

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That’s right, and Drake set his sights on St. Augustine because of the brutal way Menéndez de Avilés had pushed the French out the area. Yes, the privateer wanted to redeem them, as they were Protestants, too. So, during his raid on the Floridian colony in 1586, it made sense that he burnt down the church belonging to Catholic settlers.

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Indeed, Drake and his troops destroyed the entire St. Augustine colony, not just its church. They burnt down all of its buildings, ruined crop fields and carted away anything valuable. To add to that, the English razed the Spanish fort, San Juan, taking all of the artillery stored there for themselves.

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But this invasion is just one chapter in St. Augustine’s long history. The city has seen buildings burn, hurricanes blow, invaders take over – and resilient residents rebuild it all, time and time again. And all of these layers have given today’s archaeologists a wealth of remnants to excavate.

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One structure that remained mysterious to archaeologists was Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios, the church burnt to the ground by Drake. After he destroyed it, the Spanish rebuilt it, only to have a hurricane destroy it in 1599. Post-storm, they constructed yet another place of worship, but the British set fire to that one in 1702.

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Although experts knew about Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios, the exact location of the church eluded them for years. They even had maps dating back to 1586 and 1593, both of which depicted the structure. However, it wouldn’t be until the 1960s when they got their first real clue as to its location in modern-day St. Augustine.

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In that decade, archaeologists found Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios’ churchyard. They could tell that they had found this part of the building, as they unearthed the graves of one-time St. Augustine residents who had been buried there. Still, they had yet to find any evidence of the church itself, somewhat surprising considering the building’s seemingly sprawling size.

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You see, the 1593 map showed the dimensions of Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios. And it likely measured in at 37 feet in width and 60 to 70 feet in length. The building had a thatched roof, as well as a belfry, from which a quartet of bells dangled. All of this, though, wasn’t found in the 1960s’ dig.

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But 40 years later the experts finally found something – and they did so by complete accident. At that time, St. Augustine’s officials decided to get rid of a stretch of parking on what the St.Augustine Record described as “probably one of the nation’s oldest streets.” Specifically, this was around Aviles Street, right near its intersection with King Street.

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And removing the parking lot opened up a new dig site for St. Augustine’s team of city archaeologists. As they sifted through the exposed area, they finally found it – evidence of Nuesta Señora de Los Remedios. Specifically, they discovered the church’s rear wall, as well as the builder’s trench, dug out to set the structure’s foundation.

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Interestingly, the archaeologists found very little evidence of original debris at the site before the 19th century. Even so, St. Augustine residents had long considered the ground above Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios’ to be sacred. Whether they knew exactly why, was unclear. But as the church’s location was lost with time, so was the moratorium on disturbing the earth there.

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Sadly after the 2010 discovery, archaeologists had to shut down their operation temporarily. They had stumbled upon an important relic of the past, of course. But it just so happened to be in the middle of St. Augustine, and traffic around the dig had to get back to normal.

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At the very least, city archaeologist Carl Halbirt hoped to pay homage to the age-old church below with a plaque erected at street level. As he explained to the St.Augustine Record, “That way they have an idea of what was here and they’ll know more about the area.”

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For the archaeologists, though, this was just the beginning of their search for all the remnants of Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios. For they believed that the church’s footprint extended much further beyond what they had found. In fact, it would take some seven years – and a natural disaster – for them to validate that theory.

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You see, in late 2016 category-five Hurricane Matthew became the first of its magnitude to roll through the Atlantic Ocean since Hurricane Felix churned the same waters in 2007. And the storm proved catastrophic to Haiti in particular, although it greatly damaged parts of the southeastern United States, too. Luckily, the storm never made landfall in the states, but it did move parallel to Florida.

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Crucially, in St. Augustine, the hurricane caused flooding that submerged parts of the city’s downtown area. Among the buildings and businesses damaged, by either the winds or flooding, was David White’s wine shop. And, when it came time to clean up in the storm’s aftermath, he decided to renovate his store entirely.

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Luckily for the city’s archaeologists, White didn’t tear the wine shop down without a thought for St. Augustine’s lengthy history. Instead, he contacted Halbirt, the city archaeologist who had helped to pinpoint Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios’ rear wall in 2010. Yes, White offered him the chance to dig beneath the store before construction began.

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Much like St. Augustine, the building that housed White’s wine shop itself had a long history. You see, the joists upon which it had been constructed came from 1888. The setup had successfully preserved the soil beneath it, too, meaning it could contain remnants from the city’s earliest history.

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So Halbirt took up White’s offer, but according to Smithsonian the archaeologist didn’t expect to find much beneath the modern-day retailer. In any case, he grabbed a shovel and began to carve into the earth. After moving a few shovels-full of dirt, the archaeologist struck something – and it wasn’t a piece of the city’s original church.

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Instead, Halbirt unexpectedly uncovered human remains beneath the wine shop. First, he and a team of archaeologists revealed a fully intact adult skeleton. But they also found the skull of another adult closeby. And, eventually, they were able to discern a few details about these two people.

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Yes, one set of remains beneath the wine shop had belonged to a young European woman who was white. The other had been a man of African descent. And those weren’t the only people buried in the area, either. For you see, as archaeologists moved outside of the wine shop’s basement, they found more skeletons.

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Indeed, the researchers unearthed a leg bone and yet another skull from two respective graves. Then came more skeletons – this time, the remains of children who once lived in St. Augustine. In fact, a bioarchaeologist analyzed them and theorized that all of the little ones had been less than seven years old at the time of their interment.

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All of these bodies emerged from a relatively small stretch of land – a 6-by-12-foot patch in St. Augustine. The same area also contained chunks of pottery, which helped experts to date the burials to a time between 1572 and 1586. This meant the man, woman and children had died just years after the city’s foundation.

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Of course, the archaeologists had only scratched the surface of what this portion of downtown St. Augustine had to offer them. They believed that they were likely to find even more skeletons in the same area. And they linked the seemingly crowded burial ground to Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios.

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Halbirt, for one, thought that all of the bodies had been buried beneath the floor of the ancient Catholic church. This was custom at the time, according to Ellsbeth “Buff” Gordon, who spoke to FirstCoast News in 2017. She said, “The mission churches across Florida buried everybody in the church floor. It was consecrated ground, of course.”

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And Halbirt reiterated to NBC 2 that the site wasn’t just any site of worship, either. He said, “It’s the oldest parish church that has been documented in the United States.” As such, digging up its remnants was not just a regular day on the job. The archaeologist said, “It’s a unique opportunity, and I think of it as once in a lifetime.”

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Furthermore, it wasn’t just the discovery of what could be Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios’ floor that excited Halbirt. The skeletons they found were special, too. He explained to FirstCoast News, “What you’re dealing with is people who made St. Augustine what it is.” In reality, this meant that they may have discovered some of the United States’ earliest colonists. For that reason, he said he was “in total awe.”

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Therefore, Halbirt promised that this would spur him and his colleagues to take care as they continued excavating the remnants of St. Augustine’s earliest history. He said, “You want to treat everything with respect and we are.” Part of that respect involved the archaeologists leaving at least some of the remains where they were found.

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Yes, the two skeletons uncovered beneath White’s wine shop – the European woman and African man – were left in place. However, the team did decide to move the bones found outside of the shop, based on impending city plans. For you see, a water line would eventually run through the same area, thus disturbing their burial ground.

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So, experts decided to move the bones found in the construction zone to a Catholic cemetery, a modern-day alternative to the parish church that once stood and sheltered them. Meanwhile, archaeologists continue to uncover remnants of the St. Augustine colony, shipwrecks in the surrounding seas, and other pieces of history from what might be America’s oldest ever city.

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