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Fort San Marcos de Apalache
St. Marks, Florida
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 this river junction at present-day St. Marks to protect its trade routes and its claim to Florida. Fort San Marcos de Apalache today is a National Historic Landmark and public State park, where visitors can see the remains of the Spanish forts as well as Civil War-era Confederate earthworks.
Spain first arrived at the future site of San Marcos when Pánfilo de Narváez, a Florida governor and explorer, and his 300 men stopped to build ships at the peninsula in 1526. Florida did not have the gold or silver mines of other Spanish colonies, however, so Spain did not invest resources in the colony until France and England threatened Spanish dominance in the Caribbean. To keep their claim to Florida, the Spanish built forts and Catholic mission towns throughout the region where they allied with American Indian nations, whose populations had been ravaged already by warfare and disease after initial contact with Europeans.
More than a century after the Narváez expedition, Spanish colonists returned to settle and occupy 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. Spanish colonizers built this fort in 1679, and it held 45 Spanish 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. However, the British threat and pirate attacks forced Spain to consolidate its presence in Florida. 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. This 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. Twenty years later, as part of a series of 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 Indian trade. It was also a target for small-scale regional struggles between the Spanish, French, British, and 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 United States government sent troops to occupy San Marcos for three years while the government took control of its new territory. In 1839, the U.S. government returned to the fort. In 1859, 14 years after Florida became a State, United States Marines established a Federal 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, finishing it in 1858. Soon after the yellow fever epidemic, the Civil War broke out between the United States and the southern Confederacy. 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, the historic site became a National Historic Landmark, and Florida bought the land to turn it into the San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park. The State filled in part of the marsh that separated it from the mainland and built a road, Canal Street, as well as a parking lot, museum, and public amenities for park visitors. Beyond the museum, the park has walking paths, a picnic area, and a spot for fishing. The park museum sits on top of the Marine hospital and the original stone foundation is still visible. In honor of the peninsula’s many occupiers throughout the centuries since Spanish colonization, six different flags greet visitors to San Marcos. 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.