A Brief History of Boatbuilding in Our Nation's Oldest Port

The earliest watercraft in America, two prehistoric dugout canoes radiocarbon dated to around 6000 years ago, are from the submerged site of Deleon Springs in Florida, not too far from St. Augustine. It is most likely that such watercraft were built and used in the St. Augustine area even earlier by Native Americans. At the time of European contact, St. Augustine was inhabited by the maritime Mocama people, Timucuan Indians known as by the Spanish as the "Agua Salada" or Salt Water Timucua. With the colonization of Florida by the French and Spanish beginning in the 1560s came European and African boatbuilding traditions. Small watercraft would have been extremely important to the early colonial residents of St. Augustine. Vessels such as dugout canoes (canoas), chalupas and barca chatas were used to procure food and to communicate and transfer goods, people and ideas throughout the region. When rigged with sails even small boats could navigate to Havana in as little as a week's time, providing a vital link between St. Augustine and one of the most important centers of Spain's New World Empire. At the same time, this connection provided a significant degree of self-sufficiency for the remote outposts. Armed government vessels patrolled St. Augustine waters and, after the settlement of the Carolinas and Georgia in the late seventeenth century, small boats undoubtedly carried out illegal trade with English colonists to the north.

Over the ensuing centuries, English, Minorcan, Seminole, Italian, Greek and other Mediterranean settlers all brought their own boatbuilding traditions to St. Augustine. Boats continued to play an integral role in the day-to-day life of St. Augustine residents throughout the historical period. Residents of the city would have used boats to travel along the extensive river systems, to procure food by going to market and by fishing and oystering, to go to church and maintain social networks, to make recreational trips for picnics and to engage in the nascent tourism industry. Pilots used boats to guide incoming ships into port, and Lightkeepers used boats to travel to and from Anastasia Island and to make rescues at sea and salvage wrecked ships when necessary. Vernacular boatbuilding was a widespread skill that likely would have been passed down through generations.

Commercial wooden boatbuilding thrived in St. Augustine with the advent of the shrimping industry in the 1920s and over the following decades expanded exponentially with the success of commercial boatbuilding outfits such as DESCO and St. Augustine Trawlers. DESCO (Diesel Engine Sales Company), in particular, built trawlers in such prodigious quantities for the world market that their motto became "The Sun Never Sets on a DESCO Boat." Corporate building factories, such as DESCO and St. Augustine Trawlers, Inc., dominated but never fully displaced family-based builders such as the Xynides Boatyard, who continued to perform custom builds in much smaller numbers. The photograph below is of a boat under construction in the Xynides boathouse, ca. 1963 (courtesy of the Xynides family). Wooden boatbuilding in St. Augustine was finally supplanted by fiberglass trawler and recreational boat construction in the 1980s.


All text and images, unless otherwise noted, are copyright Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, Inc. We extend permission to scholars, students, and other interested members of the public to use images and to quote from text for non-commercial educational or research purposes, provided LAMP is acknowledged and credited. If there are any questions regarding the use of LAMP’s work, please inquire at LAMP@staugustinelighthouse.org. 

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