Early in the 1930s, a gardener discovered a skull while planting an orange tree at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine. The find precipitated in-depth fieldwork by archaeologists during the ’70s and ’80s’, yielding discoveries that raised the possibility of the site being America’s ephemeral first colony, founded by explorer Pedro Menendez in 1565.
“After finding the kind of artifacts that would have been with Spaniards, we thought, could this be the Menendez settlement?” said Kathleen Deagan, retired distinguished curator of historical archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “We knew very little about the colony and had nothing on which to build a hypothesis. It was like having a giant, thousand-piece puzzle, with lots of pieces missing, and not knowing what the picture should look like.”
Researchers determined in 1992 that the site was, in fact, the Menendez settlement. Though the original colony lasted only nine months, 20 seasons of archaeological fieldwork since 1976 have unearthed more than 97,000 artifacts left behind by the Spanish, valued at nearly $3.5 million and recently donated by the Fraser family to the Florida Museum of Natural History. Now researchers will begin excavating the colony’s fortifications to better understand its defenses, Deagan said.
“These artifacts are the only evidence we have as to how people lived in the colony and what objects they used,” Deagan said. “The documents from the period only briefly describe the settlers’ time at the site. There is nothing there about their lives and how people coped with being in a new, strange place. Now that we know more about their lives within the colony, we want to understand how they defended it.”
The reality of life in the colony was that of a very grim existence. When Menendez set sail from Spain, he left with seven ships and 1,500 people. By the time he reached the Caribbean, only three ships remained. One of his ships, full of supplies, was captured by the French and later shipwrecked.
“The colonists built a settlement, collected and cooked food, and defended the colony without supplies from Spain,” Deagan said. “It’s amazing that they were able to build anything. It was a very difficult time in their lives and not at all what they had expected.”
After mutiny and in the midst of increasing attacks by Native Americans, Menendez decided to move the colony to Anastasia Island after nine months, Deagan said.
“Even though the colonists lived on Anastasia Island for seven years, no trace of that settlement has ever been found,” Deagan said. “It’s a very turbulent story. So, we have been amazed to find the amount of materials we have.”
The Frasers own and operate the park where the first colony site is located. In February, the family visited the museum’s historical archaeology collections at Dickinson Hall on the University of Florida campus to observe how the donated artifacts are being pieced together and studied to understand where the materials originated and how they were made. Park manager John Fraser said his family donated the artifacts to ensure they would be preserved and made available to students and researchers.
“If we kept the artifacts at the park, they would become ornaments stored away in a drawer,” Fraser said. “At the museum, they can be viewed and studied by researchers and students who, through their work, can bring the first colony to life.”
The property is one of the places in St. Augustine where the historical context has remained intact and uncompromised—making it a prime location for archaeological work, said Florida Museum of Natural History Director Douglas Jones.
“Many historical sites in the area are gone now or compromised due to development,” Jones said. “Once a site is disturbed, it has really lost its context and that is what is important to archaeologists. This makes the Fraser family’s gift that much more significant from a research standpoint.”
The artifacts and accompanying research allowed the museum to develop the recently opened “First Colony: Our Spanish Origins” traveling exhibit on display at Government House in St. Augustine. The Florida Museum will display the exhibit at UF in Fall 2015.
“The story of the first colony is fascinating because it is the story of how people with different languages, cultures, and religions, who looked so unfamiliar to one another, lived together for nearly a year,” Fraser said. “It’s an inspiring story for today’s world. Having that history preserved was important to my father and important to my grandfather, and we are going to facilitate research being done here as long as we can.”
The artifacts include pottery sherds, glass beads and an olive jar that was reconstructed at the Florida Museum. The Frasers donated the collection to UF in December 2014.
Some of the pieces, including an amulet typically worn by infants to ward off evil spirits and an ornamental silver piece most likely made by a Native American with silver salvaged from a Spanish shipwreck, are rare and tell the story of a diverse society where Spaniards, Africans and Native Americans interacted nearly 450 years ago, Deagan said.
“In American history we have been very blind to the diverse and early Spanish presence,” she said. “This research is important because it facilitates bringing Spanish colonial history into the mainstream of American history. The Spanish were at the roots of American colonization and surely affected the British strategies to colonize after that. I think it is time for the United States to accept this story.”
Thought by its previous owners to be the landing site of Ponce de Leon, the property was purchased in 1927 by Walter Fraser in an effort to preserve the history of St. Augustine in the midst of heavy development, Fraser said. He purchased the site from the estate of Luella Day “Diamond Lil” McConnell, a doctor who claimed the park held the legendary Fountain of Youth.
“At that time, the park was just a spring with a sign over it that read: Fountain of Youth,” Fraser said. “The real story remained to be discovered.”
Deagan added: “Since Pedro Menendez, there’s never been any development on this site. The notion of the Fountain of Youth is what’s drawn people there, and it’s remarkable because that is what led to the saving of the first settlement site. Tourism saved this site instead of destroying it, which is not the usual story we hear.”
As part of his vision to preserve St. Augustine’s history, Walter Fraser had the foresight to purchase 65 acres of land, including wetlands that have to this day never been touched archaeologically, Fraser said. Later while the Great Depression ravaged the country during the 1930s, Walter Fraser brought revenue to the park by planting an orange grove. It was during this venture that a gardener struck a skull with his shovel.
“My grandfather contacted the local authorities and they told him that it was not a job for them, but for a museum,” Fraser said. “The Smithsonian referred him to the University of Florida.”
Archaeologists from the Smithsonian Institution and UF uncovered Native American burials about 165 meters southwest of the Menendez settlement area. However, besides some archaeological work done by UF during the ’50s, the Great Depression, WWII and Walter Fraser’s death delayed further research.
“Then in the ’70s, one day my father came out of this slumber, if you will, and said, ‘We’ve got to finish it. We’ve got to finish what we started,’ ” Fraser said. “If you knew my father, you knew he always wanted to know who was in charge. In his quest to find the person who would be in charge of continuing the excavations at the park, he found Kathy Deagan.”
Fraser continued: “What I’m doing now is making sure the family legacy is complete and we can close the book on this chapter of America’s history.”
Future work at the site will aim to discover more about what occurred outside of the colony, Deagan said. Researchers have identified a large Native American town and America’s first Franciscan mission on the property.
“We hope that eventually more work will be done in those areas,” Deagan said. “But until at least 2015, we will be focusing on Menendez and his colony.”
Asked why the colony has consistently drawn her attention for nearly 40 years, Deagan replied: “After a while, it became almost a personal quest because every year we find another piece to the puzzle.”
• Learn more about the Historical Archaeology at the Florida Museum.