When researching historical attractions in St. Augustine, Florida, the Castillo de San Marcos, built in the 17th century, is immediately one of the first things you will find. Unfortunately Fort Matanzas, located near adjoining Anastasia Island and completed in 1742, is largely ignored. This fort, though small, is still a great St. Augustine side-trip. Remember that the only way to get to Fort Matanzas is by ferry; the structure actually sits on a patch of land known as “Rattlesnake Island.” Don’t let the name fool you; this barren strip is actually one of St. Augustine’s most beautiful places because it hasn’t been completely taken over by development as many other nearby places have.
Fort Matanzas is a Spanish fort and helped to keep pirates and other enemies at bay during the turbulent years between 1700 and 1750. The English sieges in 1702 and again in 1740 made the soldiers even more determined that, although the Castillo guarded the main city, another fort would be needed to protect the back end of St. Augustine. Thus Fort Matanzas, so named because of the French “matanzas,” (slaughters) that happened near this site, was begun.
It is important to learn every aspect of St. Augustine’s history that you can possibly can before arriving. Learning the history behind Fort Matanzas opens the door to a part of history nearly forgotten. Once you arrive on “Rattlesnake Island,” take time to read the signs that explain the function of the fort and the history of the surrounding area. You can tour the inner rooms of the fort, including the main lookout, soldiers’ quarters, cannon deck and other small but fascinating places. The sentry box may be of particular interest to small children.
The soldiers’ quarters area is especially small, but a well-appointed room where you can see what life was like in the 18th century. If you’ve visited the Castillo, you will notice that some of Fort Matanzas’s rooms are like smaller versions of the rooms in the Castillo. The officer’s quarters are still a very tight squeeze but the furniture is somewhat finer, perhaps from showing off the difference in rank. Some parts of the fort may only be accessible at certain times, so check to see what your tour will cover when you arrive. Be sure to remember the fort is not very large and there are small spaces, tight squeezes and narrow sentry boxes to navigate around. Keep on eye on younger children. Please remember to tell children not to climb or sit on walls or cannons; not only can it harm the fort itself, but could pose a danger to the children.
Fort Matanzas is important not only for its historical past but also the many creatures that call Matanzas Inlet their home. Be on the lookout for seafaring visitors and ocean birds. If nature is your thing, check out Fort Matanzas’s website at www.nps.gov/foma and find out if there will be a nature walk when you plan to visit. This activity may not be a winner if you’ve traveling with kids, unless they happen to love birdwatching or spotting exotic plants. Another great attraction offered at various times (check their page to find out what’s happening when) is a torchlight tour of Fort Matanzas. I would definitely recommend checking into this just for the sheer uniqueness of the tour.
If you visit Fort Matanzas, be sure to stop by St. Augustine’s huge 17th century fortress, El Castillo de San Marcos (The Castle of St. Mark). For a while known as Fort Marion, visitors can be glad the original Spanish name was restored because it evokes so much more romance and adventure. The courtyard, separate rooms, and gun deck with its many cannons make the Castillo a must-see for the St. Augustine traveler. The site of Fort Mose (a fortress no longer standing that once housed an African American colony) is another military site you may want to study.
Fort Matanzas (and also Castillo de San Marcos) are owned and operated by the National Park Service, so if you have questions about either site, don’t be afraid to ask. Many Park Service staff you may encounter will be able to answer queries about anything from St. Augustine’s past to where you might find the restrooms!
If you come to Fort Matanzas, take lots of pictures; even if the space of small, there is history covering every inch of the structure, from it’s beginning in the 18th century to its much later restoration.
By Lacie Schaeffer