St. Marks River, the Early Years

by Frank Howard
January 22, 1993

The first European contact with the residents of the St. Marks River area was certainly not favorable for either group. What else could one expect when the locals saw enemy Indians being led into their area by strangely dressed metal-covered beings riding astride "great deer." This was the 1528 expedition of Panfilo de Narvaez, newly appointed Governor of West Florida, traveling with orders to conquer and govern West Florida (which then stretched to Texas). But these some 250 survivors of this expedition were not happy tourists as they arrived at an Apalachee village. After traveling overland from Tampa Bay, this group was in dire need of food and relief from illnesses.

Original Painting of boat built by Narvaez crew

The first European boats were built by Narvaez and his crew in 1528.

This miserable group of men, although sometimes busy raiding Indian villages to steal corn, gave the St. Marks River area title to several "firsts" for the new world; the first ship building, the first iron forge, and the first burial of foreign royalty. Yes, traveling with Narvaez was a Don Pedro, heir to the throne of Tezcuco, brother to that king. He was killed as he helped scout the mouth of the river. The five small ships, or "barges" that were built there sailed out into Apalachee Bay carrying some 50 men each. Of this number only four survivors reached Mexico after some eight years of travel as they were sometimes helped and other times enslaved by various Indians along the way.

Hernando DeSoto failed in his attempt to have one of those survivors sail with him on his 1539 expedition here to re-establish the Governorship. DeSoto gave the area another first when he had his fleet sail from Tampa Bay to a bay he had marked by placing flags atop high trees. Thus came the first ships to anchor off the St. Marks River and the beginning of its use as a port. An Indian road was found to exist between the river and the DeSoto camp in Anhayca (Tallahassee) in such good condition that troops found no hindrance marching back and forth between the two camps.

Spanish letters document St. Marks as a port with regular packet ship service to the ports of Havana and St. Augustine as early as 1639. At that time the part of the river below the confluence was called the Apalachee River. Also the fort was probably only a lookout post near the present light house. The surprise visits and raids by English, French, and occasional pirate ships in the river led to the construction of, at first, a stone watchtower (some 2-3 miles down river from the present fort) and then, a wooden fort (1677). Later, the wooden fort was attacked and burned by pirates. Because of the wars happening around 1700 the fort (and port) area was deserted, except for a brief period when the Spanish returned to build the stone fort (1718). Most of the Spanish and many of the now Hispanized Indians withdrew in 1763 when Florida was ceded to England.

The English, as they took over that year, probably found a few occupants near the fort in the two religious houses (Jesuit and Franciscan) and little else except ruins of Spanish and Indian houses. Strangely, the fort also kept a small garrison of Spanish soldiers. The English who moved in at this time had to leave when Spain regained Florida in 1783. After some fifty years of war and confusion few people lived anywhere in the area.

To add to the confusion there came a self-proclaimed King of Florida, William Bowles, who laid siege to the fort and, after raking it with cannon fire from his ship anchored down river, captured it. Although the Spanish soon retook the fort, Bowles later escaped from prison and continued to be a problem for the Spanish until he died (1803).

The most famous event on the river was the incursion of Andrew Jackson into Spanish Florida in 1818 as he moved some 3000 men down the St. Marks river destroying all towns along its banks. This included two villages between Natural Bridge and the fort. Jackson's occupation of the Spanish fort lasted only long enough to execute some men including two Englishmen who were charged with murder and inciting Indians to war. The fort was then turned back over to the Spanish commander. Although Jackson was later (1821) the first governor of the Territory of Florida, it is surprising to find that he left, leaving the post to others after only 3 months, and never returned to Florida.

The meeting of the Capital Commission (1823) at St. Marks to determine a site for the new Territorial Capital also marks the beginnings of our time. In this beginning there had to be the Indian treaties and land surveys that were required before the land could be sold ($1.25 per acre!) to the settlers ready to come into the area. An area with a well known port such as St. Marks certainly gave this territory priority as the ancestors of many present Wakulla Countians such as the Hamlins and the Rakers quickly moved onto large tracts of land.

A rapid succession of towns flourished on the rapidly growing cotton industry in the area of Tallahassee and to the north. Wagon trains brought the stuff to ships at Rock Haven (1826) Magnolia (1827), Port St. Marks,, and Port Leon (1837). Port St. Marks became the town of St. Marks when it moved a few hundred yards upstream to its present location in 1833. It is interesting to note the town of Magnolia was established by the Hamlin brothers at a point where their ship could go no further upstream! The river supported such traffic that a 24 mile long railroad was built in 1836 to help haul shipping (some 30-40,000 bales of cotton shipped out per year!) back and forth. (1843) It is difficult to picture the number of tall masts (and smokestacks of those early steam engines) that must have shown above the river and the Spanish Hole anchorage during these times.

But it was all short-lived as a hurricane (and its tidal wave, in 1843) destroyed whatever an earlier yellow fever outbreak had left. (This is the same year that Tallahassee had a great fire which wiped out many businesses in the downtown area. Tallahassee had a population of about 1600 at the time.) While on the river only St. Marks was rebuilt, a new port was established that same year further up river called, appropriately enough, Newport. When the lower portion of Leon County was cut off (also in 1843) to become Wakulla County the courthouse, and county seat, was in a town with the 5th highest population in the state of Florida; Newport. As this area struggled to recover from these disasters, the booming shipping business was diminishing as other new railroads appeared such that by the outbreak of the Civil War the river had little traffic.

Although the port's closure by blockade in 1861 caused what shipping there was to halt, by 1865 business began to pick up. Of course we all know that was only after an invasion by some (temporarily) foreigners as Federal troops penetrated as far as Natural Bridge before being repulsed! By 1872 the two towns remaining on the river were reduced to fewer than 100 residents between them and those great tracts of land had now been cut up to become the farms of our grandparents.

It is not too difficult to walk around the ruins of old Fort San Marcos de Apalache and peer out over a peaceful river dotted with our neighbors as they ply it back and forth for pleasure or work. It is more difficult to visualize 465 years of history that includes the stay of the first two appointed Governors of West Florida, cannon fire, pirates, sunken ships, Indian wars, Friars, executions, invasion forces, and a place that twice served as a temporary seat of government. The real difficulty is to imagine what will be visualized by one looking back in another 100 years at what our generation has left to add to this history.

more articles by F. Howard
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