For 100 years after the end of the Civil War, the San Marcos de Apalache fort site was in private ownership, accessible only by boat and overgrown by vegetation. In the 1960s, Florida bought the land to turn it into the San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park. The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, and is also a National Engineering Landmark, and a National Historic Landmark.
The many different flags flying over San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park welcome visitors to the park and demonstrate the colorful history of this site, from the Spanish explorers to the present day. The history of this National Landmark dates back to 1528 when Panfilo de Narvaez arrived in the area with 300 men; however, the first fort was not built until 1679. Andrew Jackson occupied the fort for a brief time in the early 1800s. The US Navy started building a Marine Hospital in the early 1850's to treat sailors with yellow fever. During the American Civil War, Confederates took control of the Fort and renamed it Fort Ward.
The museum at San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park houses displays, programs and artifacts to allow visitors to experience the past. Exhibits include Native American pottery and tools unearthed near the original fort site. The museum was built in the 1960s atop the foundation of the Civil War-era Marine Hospital, which was constructed from materials from the original Spanish fort. Interpretive displays explain the history of the San Marcos site. An 18 minute video recounts the days of the Spanish, English, American and Confederate forces that once occupied the area. A self-guided interpretive hiking trail is open to visitors.
At the junction of the Wakulla and St. Marks Rivers, Fort San Marcos de Apalache in western Florida was the site of three Spanish forts between 1679 and 1821. In three episodes during this period, Spain occupied the vital river junction at present-day St. Marks to protect its trade routes and its claim to Florida.
Spain first arrived when Pánfilo de Narváez, a Florida governor and explorer, and his 300 men stopped to build ships at the peninsula in 1526. To keep an active claim to Florida, the Spanish set about to build forts, and establish Catholic mission towns throughout the region. More than a century after the Narváez expedition, Spanish colonists were settling in the fertile province of the Apalachee Indians. In Apalachee territory, small Spanish outposts produced wheat to supply Spain’s larger missions in the Caribbean region. Supply ships were targets for British and French pirates along the Florida coast, so the Spanish government ordered soldiers to garrison the strategic peninsula where the Wakulla and St. Marks rivers flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.
The first Spanish structure at Fort San Marcos de Apalache was a wooden fort built in 1679. It held 45 soldiers and 400 Apalachee Indians. Spain lost the fort after an attack by English, French, and Indian raiders in 1682, but quickly recovered the site. British forces from South Carolina and their Creek allies invaded Spanish Florida in the early 18th century. The British destroyed several Spanish missions, enslaved thousands of Apalachee, and crippled the Spanish colony. During this war, the Spanish burned down their wooden fort and abandoned San Marcos.
Spain returned to San Marcos in 1718. Led by Captain José Primo de Rivera, Spanish soldiers built a sturdier wooden fort there to establish a stronger defense against attackers, and in 1739, they began constructing a large stone fort. This stone fort was still under construction when Spain agreed to give Florida to Britain in 1763. The deal was part of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the global conflict commonly known in the U.S. as the French and Indian War. However, just 20 years later, as part of a series of new treaties forged in France in 1783 between the newly independent United States, France, Spain, and Great Britain, Britain returned Florida to Spain.
With Britain finally removed from the region, Spain occupied Fort San Marcos de Apalache a third time between 1787 and 1818. San Marcos was a small garrison, but continued to be an important and thriving center for trade. It was also a target for small-scale regional struggles between the Spanish, French, British, and Native American Indian groups. Spain lost the fort briefly to British renegade William Augustus Bowles, an adventurer who led a small army of Europeans, Africans, and American Indians against British and Spanish colonists in the 1790s. Ultimately, Spain lost the fort to the United States in 1818 when Andrew Jackson invaded Florida during the First Seminole War. Soon after the fort fell, political unrest in Mexico and increasingly assertive Americans led Spain to cede Florida to the United States in the Adams–Onís Treaty of 1819.
After Spain left Florida in 1821, the U.S. government sent troops to occupy San Marcos for three years while the government took control of its new territory. Then, in 1839, the U.S. government returned to the fort. By 1859, the Marines established a hospital at San Marcos to serve victims of yellow fever. The Americans used limestone and flint rock from the Spanish stone fort to build the hospital. Soon after the yellow fever epidemic, the Civil War broke out. In 1861, Confederate soldiers occupied San Marcos, which they renamed Fort Ward. The Confederates built earthwork fortifications at Fort Ward to defend Florida from a squadron of Union soldiers, who blockaded the St. Marks River throughout the war.
For 100 years after the end of the Civil War, the San Marcos de Apalache fort site was in private ownership, accessible only by boat, and overgrown by vegetation. In the 1960s, Florida bought the land to turn it into the San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park. They filled in part of the marsh that separated it from the mainland and built a road, parking lot, museum, and public amenities for visitors. The park museum sits on top of the Marine hospital and the original stone foundation is still visible. Beyond the park infrastructure, only the stone ruins of the third Spanish fort and remnants of the Confederate earthworks are visible on the natural landscape of San Marcos.
A recreation area is available featuring picnic tables and barbecue grills. Tucker’s Point offers a scenic view at the water’s edge where the St. Marks River joins the Wakulla River and flows out into Apalache Bay. The point is an excellent spot for fishing. Species commonly caught at this unique spot where fresh and salt water come together include redfish, speckled trout, sheepshead and even largemouth bass.
page information credit: Florida State Parks, National Park Service, Wikipedia, Florida Memory Project, Florida Nature Coast
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