Column: The Spanish soldier in St. Augustine

The Spanish soldier in St. Augustine

U.S. Park Ranger Jake Harper
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument

When doing living history at the Castillo, most of us interpret Spanish soldiers.

However, many of us still ask the question: who exactly were these men, and what did they do?

Spanish soldiers in St. Augustine were a part of what Spain called “Overseas Troops” and were organized into Independent Companies.

It is important to note that the soldiers of the Independent Companies were not a part of the militia, as the militia of the New World was much different in both training and organization.

The Independent Companies were a pretty incredible bunch, and they had a lot more responsibility than your average army or marine unit.

The Independent Company of St. Augustine was responsible for the coastal defense of Florida from the Keys to the St. Mary’s River, which would be accomplished by patrolling the coastal waters in long, shallow draft boats that would have been armed with small swivel guns and maybe even small cannon.

They were also responsible for the defense of the Presidio of St. Augustine itself, and outposts along the coast and over the main road to Apalachee, which would entail mounting both offensive and defensive operations against the enemy in the vicinity of the city.

Another responsibility the soldiers of St. Augustine had was aiding in salvage and recovery efforts off the coast.

In addition to the aforementioned responsibilities of the troops, the Overseas Troops of St. Augustine were also utilized at sea as boarding parties and marine guards on local vessels that were called upon to aid in search and rescue efforts, to attack British shipping, or even to attack pirates.

The troops of St. Augustine were also cross-trained in both artillery and infantry tactics so they could serve in whatever capacity was needed.

In many ways, a soldier of the Independent Company of St. Augustine was a marine, an artillerist and an infantryman trained in skirmishing and small squad tactics, sort of a jack-of-all-trades when it came to warfare.

We know what these men did, but who were they?

Where did they come from?

Most of the soldiers in St. Augustine would have either been criollos or mestizos. A criollo was a pure-blooded Spaniard who had been born in the New World. A mestizo had mixed blood, the product of Spanish and Native American parents.

It is important to remember that by the mid-1700s, the Spanish had been in St. Augustine for almost 200 years, so most of the soldiers would have been mestizos by that point.

Some of the enlisted men of St. Augustine were undoubtedly foreigners, as there are records of all manner of Europeans living in 1st Spanish period St. Augustine, including
Germans and “English Catholics,” the Spanish phrase for the Irish.

Many of these almost literally washed ashore, having been rescued from shipwrecks along the coast.

Many of the soldiers would have been poor and a good portion of them illiterate as well (most of the soldiers who leaned more heavily towards artillery, however, would have been literate).

Due to the fact that a soldier was paid irregularly, many of them would have kept a second job in town doing any number of things.

The officers of the Independent Companies, however, were a different story.

All officers would have been peninsulares, or Spaniards who were born in Spain.

They were as high on the social ladder as one could get and occupied a level that would have been utterly unobtainable for anyone born in the New World, even if they were a criollo.

When we look at the soldiers of the Independent Companies of St. Augustine, we see a group of extraordinary men who were diverse members of compact society.

They were criollos, mestizos, and other Europeans who served in many different capacities and were highly skilled and trained troops of the New World who ultimately protected St. Augustine from foreign encroachment through the course of two major sieges and many other battles.

Photo credits: © 2011 Historic City News staff photographer

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