Sometimes, my timing is just right. We were in St. Marks doing trail research, but today wasn’t a day I could join in. Instead, with our friend Peter, I dropped off Sandy at Shell Island Fish Camp and watched her and our friend Dawn catch a boat ride down the Wakulla River. They were headed to the Florida Trail on the other side of the St. Marks River, the only way to traverse the Florida Trail between St. Marks and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.
After they vanished down the trail, Peter and I decided to visit San Marcos de Apalache State Park, at the tip of the peninsula between the rivers. We were lucky: it was a Thursday. The park is open Thursday through Monday 9 to 5. I had tried to visit the park twice before, but never on a day it was open.
We arrived as Ranger Terri was just unlocking the gate. We followed her in. Once the lights were on in the museum, she played the movie for us. It’s a clever presentation. The main movie is accompanied by the ghosts of those who lived in the fort telling their stories on a second screen on the other side of the room.
After checking out the museum, we took the self-guided nature hike around the grounds. Reaching the junction of the Wakulla and St Marks Rivers, we stood on a small piece of ground with a deep history, starting in 1526. That’s when Spanish first visited. Pánfilo de Narváez, a Spanish Florida governor and explorer, stopped with his men to build ships at this peninsula. Over 150 years later, in 1679, the first Spanish structure was built: Fort San Marcos de Apalache. A wooden fort built by colonists, it would later be painted to look like stone.
The fort would be attacked and taken by the French, English, and Indian raiders, only to be retaken by the Spanish. Eventually, due to a strong British presence in Florida and ongoing threat of pirate attacks, the Spanish burned down their wooden fort and abandoned San Marcos for a long time. They didn’t return until 1718. Spanish soldiers built a sturdier wooden fort to establish a stronger defense against attackers. By 1739, they began constructing a large stone fort. The stone fort was still under construction when Spain agreed to give Florida to Britain in a 1763 treaty.
Twenty years later – as part of a series of treaties between the newly formed United States of America, France, Spain, and Great Britain – Florida was returned to Spain. With Britain removed from the region, the Spainish occupied Fort San Marcos de Apalache a third time. San Marcos was small, but continued to be an important and thriving center for Indian trade.
In the late 1790s, Spain lost the fort briefly to a British renegade named William Augustus Bowles, an “adventurer” who led a small army of American Indians, Europeans, and Africans. Bowles and his army held the fort for several weeks until a Spanish force came from Pensacola to take it back. Not ready to face an attack from Spanish cannons, Bowles and his men slipped away. During this brief occupation, the sun flag of the State of Muskogee waved over the fortress walls.
Spain lost the fort for the last time in 1818, when Andrew Jackson invaded Florida during the First Seminole War. Not long after the fort fell, political unrest in Mexico and the assertiveness of Americans led Spain to cede Florida to the United States.
In 1821, the United States government sent troops to occupy San Marcos while the government took control of its new territory. Fourteen years after Florida became a State, the United States Marines established a Federal hospital at San Marcos to serve victims of yellow fever, which plagued the Florida coastline at the time. They used limestone and flint rock from the Spanish stone fort to build the hospital, finishing it in 1858. Soon after the yellow fever epidemic, the Civil War began.
Prior to the war the nearby St Marks lighthouse was being threatened by erosion. A third light house was built further inland and the large limestone rocks from the old fort were moved and used as the foundation.
In 1861, the Confederate army occupied San Marcos, and renamed Fort Ward. The Confederates built earthwork fortifications to defend Florida from the ships of The union who blockaded the St. Marks River throughout the war. Fort Ward holds a unique footnote in history, since the Confederate troops held the fort until May 10, 1865. That made it the last coastal fort of the Confederacy to lower its flag.
For a century after the Civil War, the San Marcos de Apalache fort site was under private ownership, only accessible by boat, and overgrown and hidden by vegetation. Rumor says that some of the original stones from the fort were reused during this time, some to rebuild the St. Marks Lighthouse.
In the 1960s, the historic site became a National Historic Landmark. Florida bought the land to turn it into the San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park, including part of the marsh that once separated it from the mainland. The state built the road, the parking lot, and the museum.
Little remains of the early Spanish occupation, only the stone ruins of the third Spanish fort. A walk along the nature path takes you past the Confederate earth works. Look closely and you will see that the museum sits on top of the Marine hospital and the original fort’s stone foundation is still visible.
To remind us of the many occupiers of this little spit of land throughout the centuries, four flags greet you as you enter this historic grounds: Spanish, British, United States and the Confederate South. Inside the museum, after watching the short movie about the history of the Fort, if you look closely you will find the missing fifth flag, the sun flag of the State of Muskogee.
It’s a small museum with a few cases of artifacts and a lot of history told along the walls. If you’re a history buff, or just passing through the area, the museum and fort grounds are well worth a visit.
How to find San Marcos De Apalache Historic State Park