A cluster of stars shimmers over the inlet, casting a rigid glare behind the pirate ship sitting stagnant in the deep water. The soaring watchtowers of the Castillo play tricks on my mind as their shadows entangle and blur into misshapen figures and unrecognizable faces of the past emitted on the stark contours of its coquina-stoned walls.
The Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest extant 17th century fort and the oldest masonry fort in the United States. With its fortified coquina walls, it stands nobly along the western shore of Matanzas Bay. Designed by Spanish engineer, Ignacio Daza, construction of the Castillo began in 1672 and was completed in 1695. Resting on 20+ acres, this “bastion system” of fortification has a particular star-shaped pattern of defense developed in Italy in the 15th century.
The Castillo is one of only two forts in the world built out of a semi-rare form of limestone called coquina. The other fort is Fort Matanzas National Monument, 14 miles south of the Castillo in St. Augustine. Coquina is light and porous in nature, seemingly an inferior choice for a defensive wall, but the Spanish had limited options in old La Florida. Coquina turned out to have an unexpected benefit though; a granite or brick wall fractured and crumbled with cannonball fire, but a cannonball fired at the coquina wall was buried in the structure, thus fortifying the wall even more.
Castillo de San Marcos has changed hands peacefully 6 times among 4 different governments: Spain 1695–1763 and 1783–1821, Great Britain 1763–1783, and the United States of America 1821–present (during 1861–1865, under control of the Confederacy). Under US control, it was used as a military prison and incarcerated members of the Native American tribes including the Seminole and their great war chief, Osceola, and members of western tribes, including Geronimo's band of Chiricahua Apache.
The Castillo de San Marcos has only been twice besieged in its centuries old history. In the fall of 1702, just seven years after its completion, Governor James Moore and his pompous English forces launched the first major attack on the Castillo de San Marcos. St. Augustine fortified its defenses over the next 30+ years following the massive attack, but the city was in another kind of peril. In desperate need of supplies by 1740, British Governor James Oglethorpe dared to exploit the city’s weaknesses and attacked the Castillo in June of the same year. The siege lasted nearly a month, but the durable coquina walls held their ground.
Black powder (gunpowder) and cannons came to fruition in the 16th century, dominating the battlefields of both Europe and the New World. While its origins are unclear, the earliest records indicate its origins are in 9th century China. Chinese alchemists were looking for a “life elixir” and came across sodium and potassium nitrate, the key ingredients of gunpowder. For over 100 years, this early interpretation of gunpowder was used solely for entertainment in the creation of early fireworks and magic tricks. It is the first explosive chemical propellant in history.
Cannons appeared in Europe at the beginning of the 12th century, but formulating gunpowder into high enough quality for combat is credited to the Turks. Early cannons, or “gonnes”, were colossal, cumbersome behemoths, as dangerous to the user as the intended target, gravely formidable and frightening, ensuring their long-standing place on the battlefield. Chemistry and metal casting improved considerably in the Middle Ages, and better cannons were realized. Bronze and iron were used to make the cannons throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, although each had their advantages and disadvantages:
Spanish bronze artillery of the time was quite unique and beautiful, true art in its own right. Some had very basic, geometric designs, while others were ornately detailed and elegantly intricate. Today, all the bronze artillery at the Castillo de San Marcos has a rich, green patina; when they were first made, they were bright and shiny like a new penny. Most have several key features in common, including:
The Embalmed Souvenir: Dr. Frederick Weedon was a prominent physician assigned to the care of ailing Seminole leader Osceola during the Second Seminole War. Osceola evaded capture by the military until he was tricked into custody under the guise of a white flag. He was transported to the Castillo among 200 other Seminoles where he contracted malaria, was treated by Weedon, and then transported to Fort Moultrie in South Carolina where he later died.
Osceola was a celebrity by this time, and a multitude of artists and citizens frequented Fort Moultrie to see this urban curiosity. Dr. Weedon and his family spent a great deal of time with and grew very close to Osceola. After the the great leader’s death, the Dr. decided that the best way to pay homage to their respected and admired friendship was to keep Osceola’s head as an embalmed souvenir.
The great chieftain may still haunt the grounds of the Castillo de San Marcos. Shadows, moving figures, chills, and conversational sounds have all been known to transfix those who dare enter the gates of this infamous fort. Will you encounter Osceola’s headless corpse on your journey behind the coquina walls of the oldest masonry fortress in the United States?
Lieutenant Tuttle had an interest in the architecture and layout of the Castillo now that it was under American rule, and began heavily researching the hidden areas of the great fort. One day, to his complete surprise, the Lieutenant heard a hollow sound coming from one of the walls in the dungeon area. He removed one brick and a swift, damp waft of perfumed air sank into the room like a swampy breeze. He removed another brick…and another...until the light of his lantern illuminated two delicate sets of skeletal remains chained to the wall.
It was fifty years since the strange disappearance of sweet Dolores Marti and Captain Manuel Abela. Could it have been the remnants of these two star-crossed lovers who endured a tragedy so great, they are now together for eternity? The vengeful truth uncovered by this curious American officer went undiscovered for nearly half a century.
In July of 1784, during the Second Spanish occupation of St. Augustine, an intimidating officer by the name of Colonel Garcia Marti and his beautiful young wife, Dolores, arrived in the ancient city to start a new life. The Colonel was assigned a handsome, charming assistant named Captain Manuel Abela. Outgoing and friendly Dolores welcomed the Captain with open arms.
The Colonel was a humorless and morose man, much more mature than budding Dolores. As a very respected and engaged commander, the Colonel had his hands full with the Castillo and its soldier occupants. With her husband neglectful of Dolores’ needs both emotionally and physically, her unhappiness in their arranged marriage became quite evident, and Dolores sought her affection elsewhere and found it in the dapper Captain.
One day, the lovesick Captain Abela reported for his daily rendezvous with Colonel Marti. While shaking Abela’s hand, the Colonel took a deep breath and his eyes narrowed in recognition. A distinct and familiar perfume floated through the air, a fragrance he knew well, a fragrance that his wife wore on their wedding day and every day since. It was in that moment the Colonel knew what was going on behind his back and began planning his dastardly revenge. He whispered to himself “thou shalt not commit adultery!”
In the black of night, with only a handful of soldiers left at the Castillo, both Dolores and Captain Abela suddenly disappeared. When questioned about Dolores’ hasty absence by her friends, the Colonel explained that she had abruptly become ill and was taken in by her Aunt until she recovered, and then would return to Spain to reside with her family. When the soldiers questioned the whereabouts of their admired Captain Abela, they were told he was called to a special command in Cuba. The curious thing is, Dolores never looked ill to her friends, and the honorable Captain revered his soldiers...but the Colonel was never again questioned or challenged.
Whether it’s the strong odor of Dolores’ enchanting perfume, the bright lights and ethereal voices flitting by the hollow dungeon room, the sound of soldiers’ boots flanking the halls, full apparitions of uniformed officers, being shoved by an unseen presence, soldiers guarding the exterior of the fort with their ghostly lanterns, disembodied footsteps running amok in the courtyard, the sound of a firing squad where an executed pirate once stood, or the embalmed souvenir that Dr. Weedon took for himself - the dismembered head of great Chief Osceola - you are sure to encounter a fair share of spirits at Castillo de San Marcos. Join us on one of our walking ghost tours and learn more about these supernatural occurrences and the stories that created them.
For as long as Castillo de San Marcos has been around there have been tales of people seeing the ghosts of soldiers haunting the Fort. People who are on tour have seen apparitions of men suddenly disappear right in front of them.
One of the more common ghost soliders seen is that of a man who walks the wall of Castillo de San Marcos. Many people have reported seeing a shadow figure pacing back and forth on the wall. It shouldn't be terribly surprising that this ghost is often seen, as you don't need to be inside of the Fort to catch a glimpse of him.
Back in 2018, our CEO and GM were visiting St. Augustine. They decided to walk over to the Fort to take some photographs at night. They both saw a shadow figure, who they both thought was a real person, walking underneath the drawbridge on which you enter the Fort. They described this ghostly figure as average height and build - and walking quickly underneath the bridge. They waited for the person to reappear so they could continue taking photos without people in them. When the person failed to emerge they walked over - to find that nobody was there. They both described this as one of the most clear shadow people that they've ever seen. Was this a ghost of a solider or someone else? We have no way of knowing.
An imposing Fort, located on the waterway, Castillo de San Marcos is hard to miss when visiting St. Augustine. We highly recommend taking a tour of the Fort during the daytime.
At night, our St. Augustine Ghost Tours make a stop at Castillo de San Marcos. We cannot go inside the Fort on our Ghost Tours (nobody can), but the chances are good you won't need to enter the Fort to have a paranormal experience!