Image: Cuna Street, St. Augustine, Fla.
Oscar Sosa  /  AP
Tourists walk past The Cuna Street Toy Shop, right, and Knock on Wood, two historic buildings on Cuna Street in the historic section of St. Augustine, Fla. The two shops are housed in two of dozens of historic buildings the University of Florida will be maintaining for the City of St. Augustine, Fla. The maintenance and upkeep of the building has become too expensive for the nation's oldest city.
updated 7/31/2007 1:48:23 PM ET 2007-07-31T17:48:23

This city almost erected a billboard outside Jamestown, Va., to congratulate it on its 400th birthday — and remind everyone St. Augustine passed that milestone four decades ago.

It would have said, "Happy birthday to our younger brother," former Mayor George Gardner said.

Jamestown got a lot of attention this past spring celebrating the anniversary of its founding on May 14, 1607, making it the oldest English settlement in the nation. Queen Elizabeth paid a visit, and so did President Bush.

But St. Augustine is the nation's oldest city, and its 442nd birthday celebration is scheduled for Aug. 28-Sept. 1, including historical re-enactments, entertainment, and yes, a Thanksgiving feast. But this one will commemorate a feast held in September of 1565 by the Spaniards and native Timucuan Indians, when the menu likely included wild turkey, venison and salted pork stew.

Historians and officials here can't help but wonder what all the Jamestown brouhaha is about. Their city was founded Sept. 8, 1565, by Spaniard Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his expedition of 500 soldiers, 200 sailors and 100 farmers and craftsmen. Some brought their wives and children. They, not the Pilgrims, celebrated the first Thanksgiving in the New World. The first schools, hospitals and banks in what is now the United States were built here.

Not that many Americans know about it.

"We speak English and we're reared in ... English historical traditions, which have tended to depreciate what the Spanish have contributed to history," said Bill Adams, the city's director of Historic Preservation and Heritage Tourism. Historians have tended "write the Spanish out of their history books or diminish their contributions. So Americans have inherited that."

Adams says St. Augustine is also to blame for why it gets no respect compared to Jamestown and Plymouth, Mass., where the Pilgrims settled in 1620.

"It hasn't advertised itself very well. It hasn't gotten any press," Adams said.

But, he said, St. Augustine's contribution to American history should be celebrated and believes it will get more notice with the growing Hispanic population of this country and the upcoming 450th anniversary in 2015. The king and queen of Spain, who visited in 2001, will be invited back.

"I don't know how long it will take before the Spanish people realize that St. Augustine is their Williamsburg or their Plymouth or their Jamestown," Adams said. "St. Augustine is not only the birthplace of European culture and settlement in the United States, but of Spanish culture" in North America.

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William Kelso, director of archaeology at Historic Jamestowne, who helped discover the missing fort in Virginia, said he understands the importance of St. Augustine. He attended the city's 400th birthday celebration in 1965.

"St. Augustine is an untold story, almost like Jamestown," Kelso said. "All the colonies have something to add to the creation story of modern America."

Although there are similarities between St. Augustine, Plymouth and Jamestown, there are several differences, including a big one that separates St. Augustine.

"We are a living city," Gardner said, while Jamestown and Plymouth are reconstructions. "This is the oldest town plan in the United States. It still exists. It is still intact. "There are 36 buildings dating back to colonial times and 40 that were reconstructed for the city's 400th birthday.

Although Jamestown was Virginia's capital from its founding until 1699, it had ceased to exist in the mid-1700s. It was settled for economic reasons; religion led to Plymouth's founding. Spain established St. Augustine for military reasons.

"They didn't come here to settle Florida. They didn't come here to mine its riches. They didn't come here to colonize. They came here to set up a military base that would prevent their enemies from establishing a position from which they could menace the treasure ships of Spain off the coast," Adams said.

In those early years, St. Augustine's settlers had to defend against French and British attacks, sometimes hostile Indians, mosquitoes, disease, pirates and hurricanes.

"Perseverance against tremendous odds accounted for the city's survival," Gardner said.

To protect St. Augustine, the Spanish built the Castillo de San Marcos, an imposing fort constructed of the stone coquina between 1672 and 1696.

In 1738, the Spanish established Fort Mose, an outpost about two miles north of the Castillo. It was the first free-black community in what is now the United States.

About 100 men, women and children lived in the settlement. Most had been enslaved by the British and were given their freedom if they could escape and make their way to the Spanish territory. As a condition, they had to serve in the militia and convert to Roman Catholicism, said Derek Hankerson, a filmmaker and member of the Fort Mose board of directors.

St. Augustine can also lay claim to the first European birth in the New World — Martin de Arguelles, born in 1566 or 1567. That beats the birth of Virginia Dare in North Carolina in 1587 and the first Pilgrim birth of Peregrine White on board the Mayflower in Cape Cod Harbor in 1620, said David Nolan, a writer and historian in St. Augustine.

"In fact, in 1577 — a decade before Virginia Dare — Pedro Menendez Marques wrote that were 'forty-four women, sixty-two children, and 11 pregnant women' in St. Augustine," Nolan said.

On July 1, the University of Florida assumed management of 31 historic buildings in St. Augustine. The buildings have become too costly for local government to maintain and repair and the rent from shops and restaurants occupying the spaces is not enough to pay for upkeep. The university is assessing what is needed to restore and maintain them.

"I think it's an incredible opportunity for the whole university," said Roy Graham, director of the university's College of Design, Construction and Planning, who was the resident architect at colonial Williamsburg in Virginia before coming to Florida.

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