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NEWS | Sept. 17, 2010

Florida celebrates 445th anniversary of 'First Muster'

By Master Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa, Florida National Guard

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla., - Almost five centuries ago, a tiny band of Citizen-Soldiers stood on a rainy shoreline in what is now northeast Florida. They rallied together to defend their homes from attacks in the fledgling Spanish settlement of St. Augustine.

Although they probably didn't realize it that day in 1565, they were laying down the roots of what would become Florida's militia.

Today, the Florida National Guard and the Florida Department of Military Affairs celebrated the 445th anniversary of an event some historians recognize as the first known muster of Citizen-Soldiers - in what would later evolve into - the continental United States.

More than 100 Soldiers, Airmen, and civilians gathered here at the historic St. Francis Barracks to recognize the 445th anniversary and learn from historical re-enactors about the weapons and clothing used by those first militia soldiers.

The seven re-enactors from the Florida Living History educational group not only dressed the part of early-Florida militiamen, but showed off a small arsenal of replica 16th century weapons including crossbows, swords, halberds and primitive firearms.

"This is the first recorded militia muster in what is now the (continental) United States - Sept. 16, 1565," said Mark Schmitt, the Florida Living History president, who was dressed in a typical costume of an early Spanish settler. "They were tasked with defending the settlement here in St. Augustine, and defending the people and property. So that was the start of the first militia."

Air Force Maj. Gen. Emmett Titshaw, the adjutant general of Florida, whose own command philosophy titled "Linking Our Heritage to Our Horizons" reflects the importance of history in the National Guard, addressed the celebrants and urged them to be "true to our history and our heritage."

"It is extremely important to know where we came from, and who we are," he said. "Today we have an opportunity to celebrate 445 years of our rich history ... Let me just simply say 'Happy Birthday to us.'"

He noted that this event was the beginning of a five-year program to educate people about Florida National Guard history, culminating in 2015 with the 450th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine.

According to the Florida National Guard State Historian's Office, the "first muster" took place on Sept. 16, 1565 when Pedro Menendez de Aviles gathered around him the soldiers of his small Spanish army, as well as the civilian settlers that had accompanied him to the newly established presidio town of St. Augustine. He was about to march north to the French settlement of Fort Caroline near the mouth of the St. Johns River, with the purpose of driving out the "usurpers of Spanish land."

Because his plan called for the use of the majority of his regular soldiers, Menendez drew upon Spanish laws governing the militia, or milicia, in an imperial province. As both the civil governor and commander-in-chief of the military establishment he had the authority to call all free male settlers in the presidio province to active service. That first muster in St. Augustine consisted of about 50 men.

The exact location of that first muster is unknown, but local historians and archeologists believe it lies a few miles north of the present site of the Florida National Guard headquarters.

In the earliest tradition of the Citizen-Soldier, the musters of the late 1500s and early 1600s were not much more than simple gatherings of able-bodied men in the town square. It wasn't until 1671 that volunteer militia units were organized in St. Augustine.

Greg Moore, a Florida National Guard historian, said that while the English militia tradition in the Massachusetts Bay Colony is credited with giving the modern National Guard its earliest organized regiments, it is a fact of history that the Spanish first brought the European tradition - men available for short terms of military service in time of war or domestic turmoil - to the New World ... first in Cuba and Puerto Rico, then to the continent at St. Augustine.

"Today we can take great pride in tracing our roots to the men who mustered under Pedro Menendez de Aviles in St. Augustine on Sept. 16, 1565," he said.

The event also coincided with the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month in Florida, which Gov. Charlie Crist described in a statement as "a special time to recognize the contributions of Hispanic-Americans and their impact on our state's past, present and future."

The governor noted that Hispanic culture and history have "enriched our communities, economy and way of life" since the founding of Florida by Spanish explorers in the mid-16th century.