The U.S. Army, now some 3,500 men strong, reached St. Marks 200 years ago today and immediately demanded the surrender of the Spanish fort of San Marcos de Apalache.
This article is part of a special series that commemorates the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War. Please click here to access the full timeline of stories.
The march down from the army’s encampment of the previous night had been smooth and over better ground. The general path of the army was along an older trail that ran along today’s Old Plank Road through Leon and Wakulla Counties. Along the way, the soldiers passed near the site where the Battle of Natural Bridge would be fought 46 years later on March 6, 1865. The men also likely saw both Rhodes Springs and Newport Spring.
They came within sight of the walls of San Marcos de Apalache on the afternoon of April 6, 1818. Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson immediately sent Capt. James Gadsden to demand the surrender of the fort. Gadsden carried with him a letter from Jackson that told the Spanish commandant of the destruction Miccosukee and indicated that army officers had been warned by the governor in Pensacola that Spain’s hold on San Marcos was threatened:
…Those barbarians who escaped death have fled. From information communicated by the Governor of Pensacola to two of my captains, Gordon and Call, I was induced to believe they had fled to St. Marks for protection. The Governor stated that the Indians & Negroes had demanded of you large supplies of munitions of war, with a threat in the event of a refusal, of taking possession of your fortress. He further expressed an apprehension that from your defenceless state, They were already in possession of St. Marks – The Wife of Chenubbe, a noted chief, now a prisoner in my camp informs me that the Hostile Indians & Negroes obtained their supply of ammunition from St. Marks –To prevent the recurrence of so gross a violation of neutrality & to exclude our savage Enemies from so strong a hold as St Marks I deem it expedient to garrison that fortress with American Troops until the close of the present war. [I]
The Capt. Call mentioned in Jackson’s letter was Capt. Richard Keith Call. He later became the third (and fifth) U.S. governor of Florida.
Jackson had been acting within the limits of the orders given him by the War Department thus far during the campaign, but the demand for the surrender of a Spanish post violated those instructions. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun had told him that he could pursue warriors across into Florida and attack their towns, but the general was not to seize Spanish forts or towns without first seeking approval from Washington.
The general, however, believed that the situation was critical and that the fort and its garrison were in danger. As he was prone to do, he chose to act instead of wait:
…This measure is justifiable on that universal principal of self defence & cannot but be satisfactory, under existing circumstances to his Catholic Majesty the King of Spain – Under existing treaties between our two governments, The King of Spain is bound to preserve in peace with the Citizens of the U States not only his own subjects, but all Indian Tribes residing within his territory – When called upon to fulfil that part of the treaty with relation to a savage tribe who have long depredated with impunity the American frontier, incompetency is alledged, with an acknowledgement that the same tribe have acted in open hostility to the laws, & invaded the rights of the subjects of his Catholic Majesty – As a mutual Enemy therefore it is expected that every facility will be afforded by the Agents of the King of Spain to chastise these lawless & inhuman savages. [II]
Jackson concluded by saying that he “came not as the Enemy but as the Friend of Spain.” He promised to respect Spanish property rights and to have an officer from each side conduct an inventory of all public property in the fort. The governments of the United States and Spain, he promised, could later decide what should be done with the fort.
Jackson requested an immediate response but was frustrated in this hope by the inability of the Spanish officers to communicate with him. The surrender demand was written in English and the officer sent to carry it, Capt. Gadsden, could not speak Spanish. The King’s officers in the fort, in turn, could neither read nor speak English. It would take until the next day for a rough translation to be prepared so they could understand what the Americans wanted.
The Spanish flag, meanwhile, continued to fly over San Marcos de Apalache on the night of April 6, 1818. The U.S. Army camped across the open marsh from the fort in the western part of what is now the city of St. Marks.
The old fort had been a landmark of the Florida coast since 1679 and the site had been occupied by the Spanish even before that. Located at the confluence of the St.Marks and Wakulla Rivers, it guarded the ancient port of St. Marks and was a focal point in Spain’s communication and trade with the Miccosukee, Seminole and Muscogee (Creek) Indians.
The fort that Jackson could see across the marsh and that Gadsden had the opportunity to inspect in person had never been finished. Plans called for it to be triangular in shape and made of stone with strong bastions on each angle. Only most of the northern wall and the bastion overlooking the Wakulla River had been completed, however. Stockades and earthworks completed the temporary outline of the fort. These served their purpose, but obviously were much weaker than the massive northern wall.
San Marcos de Apalache was heavily armed with cannon but many of them were old and the carriages of others were so rotten that they would not withstand the shock of firing. The garrison was too small to service the guns or man the walls in the event of an attack. There was little doubt on either side that Jackson could take the fort if he so desired.
No answer came from the commandant of the fort that night and Jackson would not hear back until the next morning. For one more night, Spain maintained its tenuous hold on Apalachee Bay.
This series will continue. Follow these links to learn more about St. Marks and San Marcos de Apalache:
- History of San Marcos de Apalache
- Visit San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park
- City of St. Marks
- Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail
- Visit Wakulla County, Florida
[I] Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson to Capt. Francisco Caso y Luengo, April 6, 1818.