Maritime Research and the Oldest Port

Someone told me this week that Gloucester, MA was America’s Oldest Seaport. Good for them, congratulations.
St. Augustine, FL is the “Nation’s Oldest Port” and those things are quite different. What we mean when we say Nation’s Oldest Port is that we are the oldest continually occupied European (A Port is a European concept) economic and defensive sea-hub in the Continental US, or put another way in any of the 50 states in the United States today. We date from 1565. And we remain linked to the sea. Puerto Rico, a US territory, has an even older, continually-occupied town and port. But no where in any of the 50 states that make up our nation, is there a continually occupied port city older than St. Augustine.
We see maritime history as about the “America’s” and transatlantic ocean voyages and about Atlantic World history, and not simply about one Nation’s history, but we recognize that our particular port’s significance lies in the fact that we are the oldest port in what is now considered one of the 50 official states in our Nation.
We are not claiming to be the first landing site for European’s, or to be the first port in the 13 original American Colonies, though by the time St. Augustine was the Capital of East Florida, a British Colony during the American Revolution (Perhaps the 14 or 15th in the New World) the Spanish had been here for hundreds of years. We have documents dating the King of Spain mentioning a port here in St. Augustine as early as the 17th century. So does that small city in MA. But again, by that time we had already been here, and had an aid to navigation, a Spanish watchtower that later became a lighthouse, for the better part of a century.
We also want to congratulation the City of St. Augustine on it’s First American Birthday Celebration, set to culminate in 2015. We believe and celebrate the fact that Europeans did not discover America, only explored it and settled it. Native peoples were already here, and the first American’s in Florida that lived a life “of the sea” certainly deserve to be heralded. We believe the City’s chosen name does that beautifully, while still contributing to the public’s understanding of the way Spain contributed to the multi-cultural history of what we call the United States of America.
We are pleased to see the City pick up and run with the “nation’s oldest port” concept, but we caution that we are not “America’s oldest seaport” those things are quite different. The America’s have many older ports, and the original American English colonies have a unique place in all our hearts. No, we are more accurately our nation’s oldest port, and our nation is a place that celebrates a rich multi-cultural history, a theme first studied by our Nation’s Oldest Port Heritage Area group in preparation for a hoped for designation by congress so that our community can control and cooperate on stewardship of a host of cultural and natural resources.
That point brings me to the study of a little known group, the black mariners who came to St. Augustine and Ft. Mose in small boats as runaway slaves. Later African American mariners gathered oysters in the Victorian era and held beach oyster roasts for Visitors from Henry Flagler’s grand hotels. A small African American girl was killed here at St. Augustine Lighthouse during the construction of our 1876 tower, and yet the history of these people that built our maritime infrastructure is little understood. We hope to tell that tale in cooperation with Freedom Road, who are also working on the City’s Birthday Celebration.
According to Dr. Sam Turner of the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, writing in a report on the Dredging of Salt Run for the Army Corp on Engineers, Florida itself was discovered and founded in part due to Slavery in the Bahamas. After Columbus’s famous voyages, Spain sailed from Island to Island looking for natives to become slaves. A hurricane blew one of these vessels off course and a “vast undiscovered land was seen” that in turn, led to the officially sanctioned voyage of Juan Ponce De Leon in 1513, and La Florida was born.
What do you think about these distinctions and ideas? Do they matter? Why? What does maritime history tell us about ourselves?
Kathy