American forces seized the fort of San Marcos de Apalache 200 years ago today, bringing Spain into the First Seminole War.
This article is part of a special series that commemorates the 200th anniversary of the conflict. Please click here to access the series timeline.
Sunrise found the U.S. Army still staring across the marshes at the stone north wall of San Marcos de Apalache, the Spanish outpost that American officers called Fort St. Marks. William Hambly could soon be seen making his way along the trail that led from the fort through the marshes to the higher ground where Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson waited at his headquarters tent.
Hambly had translated Jackson’s surrender demand for the Spanish commandant and now bore the reply:
Being made to understand altho with difficulty the contents of the letter with which your Excellency honored me yesterday evening, which was delivered me by your Aid De Camp James Gadsden, I manifest to you the satisfaction the result of your expedition against Mickasuckey has given me, which could not be expected otherwise from the superior tallents, and active disposition of your Excellency, to which must be attributed the success, on which I return you my congratulations. [I]
Niceties now aside, Capt. Francisco Caso y Luengo told Jackson that he had not provided ammunition to the warriors fighting the United States. The wife of Chenubby, the war chief of Fowltown, had been captured during the operations around Miccosukee. She told Jackson that the fighters were receiving munitions from the Spanish fort. Caso y Luengo challenged these claims:
…[Hambly] can inform you of my often advising them to avoid their present destruction. This being now complete, and no motive remaining to fear an insult to this fort from these barbarians & negroes I beg of your Excellency leave to state to you what difficulties I should involve myself with my Government if I were to conform with what your Excellency proposes to Garrison this post with United States troops without first receiving orders to that effect which I shall immediately solicit as soon as an opportunity offers which I cannot doubt one moment would be refused as I know with what zeal she would wish to comply with the stipulated treaty with the United States. until such time I hope your Excellency will desist from your intention, and be firmly persuaded of the good fellowship & harmony which will reign between this garrison & whatever troops you may think proper to leave in this vicinity, who may assest me in the defence of this Fort, or any unforeseen event. [II]
The reply was not satisfactory to Jackson and he immediately ordered Brevet Maj. David E. Twiggs to storm the fort with 200 men from the 7th U.S. Infantry. The soldiers advanced so quickly that the Spanish defenders were unable to fire a single cannon or even to close their gates:
The Spaniards seemed very much alarmed at this movement of the army. They made a feeble attempt to command their cannon but were forced away by the regulars; not a gun was fired. I suppose there were not exceeding sixty of seventy men in the fort but with this number they could have made a strong resistance. The fort is situated in the fork of two small rivers, so we could only approach in one direction. [III]
Lt. John Banks of the Georgia militia – who witnessed the attack and wrote the above account – also witnessed the dramatic moments that followed:
It is built of lime and shells, very strong, with upwards of 50 pieces of cannon mounted. Immediately after it was taken and our flag hoisted, a vessel sailed up to the fort which had left us at Fort Gadsden. This vessel had passed out of the mouth of Apalachicola bay and sailed around the coast waiting our movements. While passing ’round, the commander managed to decoy some Indians, who made to the vessel under the impression that it was a British sloop. [IV]
The ship was the Lt. Commander Isaac McKeever’s Thomas Shields and the chiefs mentioned by Lt. Banks were the Prophet Josiah Francis (Hillis Hadjo) and the Atasi war chief Homathlemico. (Please see Capture of the Prophet Francis). They remained in irons on the 7th, but were examined by officers of Jackson’s command who hoped to obtain intelligence from them. Whether either prisoner said anything meaningful regarding the plans of their forces is not known.
Brevet Maj. Twiggs, meanwhile, found another unexpected prize inside the fort. The Bahamian trader Alexander Arbuthnot had been trapped there by the sudden arrival of Jackson’s army. He was seized on allegations of having instigated the war and was locked away in the stone bombproof until arrangements could be made for his trial.
The Spanish garrison was not imprisoned or otherwise treated as prisoners. Jackson arranged with McKeever for the naval vessels to carry them to Pensacola. The American flag now flew over Fort St. Marks – as the Americans called it – but the general had no immediate desire to further antagonize Spain or its forces. As he had promised, a proper inventory was taken of the arms and supplies within the walls and private property was respected.
Gen. Jackson did not spend the night of April 7th in the crowded fort but instead returned to his tent in the western part of what is now the city of St. Marks. The encampment for his army was undoubtedly large and probably spread along much of the waterfront of today’s community.
This series will continue.
The historic fortress of San Marcos de Apalache (Fort St. Marks) is now a Florida state park and can be visited Thursday-Monday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is no charge to walk the grounds but the worthwhile museum requires a $2 fee. Charming old St. Marks also offers a number of other historic sites, including the southern entrance of the Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail, the historic old city cemetery and the downtown intersection with its quaint Old Florida stores and dining establishments.
This map will assist you in finding the fort and exploring old St. Marks, Florida:
If you are interested in learning more about the First Seminole War and experiencing the sights and sounds of the conflict, be sure to visit the Scott 1817 Seminole War Battle event on November 30-December 2 at Chattahoochee, Florida. Click this short video for more information:
[I] Capt. Francisco Caso y Luengo to Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, March 6, 1818.
[III] Lt. John Banks, Diary of John Banks, 1936.