Juan de Solis’s 1764 map of St. Augustine.

In December 2017, Michael Francis, a historian and chair of Florida Studies at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, made an incredible discovery tucked away in the records of colonial St. Augustine in Spain’s General Archive of the Indies. While poring through 17th century accountings of gunpowder expenditures at the Castillo de San Marcos on his last day of research, he found that the city hosted parades and salutes to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in 1600 and 1601. In fact, this may be the first record of a St. Patrick’s Day parade anywhere in the world.

According to Francis, the Spanish garrison often expended gunpowder for salutes to help ships navigate the Matanzas Inlet and during public celebrations. Such celebrations included Easter and the feast days of saints popular in the city, including the town’s namesake St. Augustine of Hippo (August 28) and Santa Barbara (December 4). Unusually, in 1600 and 1601, gunpowder was fired to celebrate the feast day of San Patricio, or St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.

The General Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain, where Michael Francis found the documents. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

The impetus for the celebration was probably Father Ricardo Artur or Arturo, in English Richard Arthur, an Irish Catholic priest who served as parish priest of St. Augustine from 1597 until about 1604. Francis writes that little is known of Artur, except that before he entered the priesthood, he was a soldier whose military career took him to Malta, Italy and Flanders. After he was ordained, he was appointed chaplain of the Castillo de San Juan in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 1597, when he was in his early 60s, he was transferred to St. Augustine.

Artur wasn’t the only Irish resident of St. Augustine at the time. Darby Glavin, known to the Spanish as David Glavid or Davi Glavi, was a sailor impressed and forced to serve the British Royal Navy before he escaped to Puerto Rico in 1586. In June 1587, he moved to St. Augustine where he served as a merchant and soldier. St. Augustine was a diverse city at this time, with a population comprising Timucua and Spanish as well as free and enslaved Africans, Portuguese, Flemings and other Europeans including a French physician and a German trumpeter.

The records for 1600 only mention the expenditure of gunpowder for St. Patrick’s Day; they don’t mention a parade, but the firing of cannons indicates some kind of celebration. In 1601, the records show that residents gathered for a procession through the streets in addition to the cannon salutes. Probably thanks to Padre Ricardo, San Patricio became a popularly venerated saint in St. Augustine and was dubbed the protector of the town’s cornfields.

St. Patrick’s Day parade in St. Augustine in 2019. Courtesy of Visit St. Augustine.

Artur disappears from the historical record after 1604. Given his age, it seems likely he retired or died. After this time, there are no further references to St. Patrick or parades in his honor in St. Augustine for centuries. In 1762, New York held its first St. Patrick’s Day parade, inspiring many others. The day has grown as a major celebration for members of the Irish diaspora ever since. In the 20th century, St. Patricks Day celebrations returned to St. Augustine and have become one of the city’s most popular annual events.

“It is difficult not to contemplate the fact that the first recorded St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the United States did not occur in Boston or New York,” Francis wrote in a post for PBS.org after his discovery. “Rather, those who first gathered to venerate St. Patrick and process through city streets included a blend of Spaniards, Africans, Native Americans, Portuguese, a French surgeon, a German fifer, and at least two Irishmen, who marched together in honor of the Irish saint.”

Article by Bill Delaney. Originally published March 17, 2021. Contact Bill at wdelaney@moderncities.com.