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Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Castillo de San Marcos NM

Location: St. Johns County, eastern part of St. Augustine; address: 1 Castillo Drive, St. Augustine, Fla. 32084.

The well-preserved Castillo de San Marcos, constructed by the Spaniards in the years 1672-96, commemorates primarily the Anglo-Spanish struggle for the present Southeastern United States during the 17th and 18th centuries, a topic outside the scope of this volume. For most of the 19th century, however, the post was known as Fort Marion, a U.S. Army base and military prison where Seminoles and Indians from the Southwest were incarcerated and where Lt. Richard H. Pratt conducted an educational program for some of them that resulted in his founding the Carlisle Indian School, Pa.

In 1821, when the United States officially acquired Florida from Spain, it occupied the castillo and designated it as the Post of St. Augustine, renamed 4 years later as Fort Marion. It was a logistical base during the Second Seminole War (1835-43), fought because of the tribe's opposition to relocation west of the Mississippi. During the war, some of the captured chiefs and their followers were imprisoned at the fort.

Later in the century the post again served as a prison for Indians, this time for those from the West. At the end of the Red River War (1874-75), the Government transported more than 70 tribal leaders—mainly Kiowas, Comanches, and Southern Cheyennes, but including two Arapahos, and one Caddo—from Fort Sill, Okla., to Fort Marion for indefinite imprisonment. The antagonism of frontiersmen toward the Indians dictated against holding a civil trial in the West; and the U.S. Attorney General contended that, as wards of the Government, they could not be tried before a military court in peacetime.

Fort Marion
Fort Marion about the time of the Civil War. (National Archives)

Lieutenant Pratt, a cavalry officer, escorted the prisoners and supervised them after their arrival at Fort Marion in the spring of 1875. Several incidents had marred the train trip to Florida. Throngs of curious onlookers gathered at every major depot along the way to jeer at the captives. A Cheyenne chief escaped through a train window; in the process of recapturing him, a soldier shot and killed him. Another Cheyenne tried but failed to commit suicide on board the train, but managed to starve himself to death after reaching Florida.

At first the Indians were shackled and confined in the casemates of Fort Marion, though several times a day soldiers conducted them to the roof for air and exercise. Within a few months, however, Pratt ordered the shackles removed and allowed the prisoners to build a huge shed for quarters on one of the terrepleins. Dressing them in military uniforms, he conducted daily drills. As time went on, he allowed his charges considerable freedom of egress from the fort and welcomed visitors. For employment, they polished "sea bean" shells, which they sold to curio dealers and others along with handcrafted items. The prisoners also found jobs in nearby orange groves and packinghouses, and occasionally worked in the local sawmill and railroad depot.

The most significant aspect of prison life was Pratt's educational experiment. Convinced that the Indians should be assimilated into American society, Pratt provided the younger ones with academic instruction. When they learned to read and write English, he began to contact various vocational schools, hoping to secure their acceptance for training under Government sponsorship. The only response came from Hampton Institute, Va., a black school. By early 1878, when the War Department released the prisoners, Pratt had arranged for the education of 17 at the institute and five others by private citizens. The rest returned to Indian Territory. The next year Pratt, enthused over his educational program, established the Carlisle Indian School.

Lt. Richard H. Pratt's wards at Fort Marion received military training. Here is a group of Indian guards, who replaced the Army guards. (National Park Service)

Fort Marion played a prison-type role once again in 1886-87. In 1886 some 500 Chiricahuas and Warm Springs Apaches, who had been terrorizing the Southwest, arrived from Arizona. Not rigidly confined but quartered in a tent city atop the wide fort walls, they suffered from extremely crowded conditions. Removed from their natural habitat, they began dying in alarming numbers. In 1887, largely because of the pleas of the Indian Rights Association and Generals Crook and Howard, the Army moved the Indians to a 2,100-acre reservation at Mount Vernon Barracks, Ala. In 1888, they were joined by Geronimo, Natchez, and 26 other tribal leaders who had been imprisoned for 2 years at Fort Pickens, Fla., where their wives and families had joined them from Fort Marion in 1887. In 1894 all of them were again relocated, to Fort Sill, Okla.

Included in Castillo de San Marcos National Monument are the castillo-fort, surrounded by moat and outworks, and a gate that was once part of the wall around the city of St. Augustine. Each evening from December 1 through Labor Day a sound and light program telling the history of the castillo is presented. Fort Marion's role is interpreted as part of the park's overall program.

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Last Updated: 19-Aug-2005