Seminole War
The crossing of the Chipola River at Florida Caverns State Park (Seminole War 200th)

The Chipola River sinks beneath the ground at this site in Florida Caverns State Park. The natural bridge is visible at left.

The American army crossed the Chipola River in Northwest Florida 200 years ago today. Still following the Old Spanish Trail, they used the natural bridge at today’s Florida Caverns State Park, completely unaware that their enemy was watching from just a few feet away.

This article continues a series that commemorates the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War. Please click here to see the entire timeline of stories.

The march resumed early on the morning of May 12, 1818. Capt. Hugh Young, Jackson’s topographer, recalled that the late frosts had burnt the vegetation all along the route through the Florida Panhandle, killing back tender plants and even turning the leaves of the oak trees brown. The land was good, he wrote, and the timber was of oak and hickory. Six miles from Blue Springs the soldiers crossed a “thicket and a small branch” where a “path comes in on the right.” [I]

This small branch was the stream called Muddy Branch today and the path that came in from the right (or north) was one shown on the Purcell-Stuart map of 1778 as leading from the Natural Bridge of the Chipola to Ekanachatte or “Red Ground,” a Muscogee (Creek) town on the Chattahoochee River at present-day Neal’s landing. Based on the mileage estimates given by Capt. Young, the army crossed the branch within the limits of Florida Caverns State Park. He said the crossing point was only one-quarter of a mile from the natural bridge itself:

Water rises from the ground at the south end of the Natural Bridge of the Chipola River.

…The Natural Bridge is in the center of a large swamp and appears to be a deposit of earth on a raft or some similar obstruction. The passage is narrow and the creek, with a rapid current is visible both above and below. The Chapulle rises west of Fort Gaines on Chatahouchie and enters Apalachicola eight miles above Fort Gadsden. Springs, like [Blue Springs] are numerous in the neighborhood of this creek. Sometimes their streams run subterraneously and they are then seen in transparent pools at the bottom of deep sinks, but generally the larger ones unite with Chapulle above ground. [II]

Sugar Mill Branch, which sinks and rises repeatedly as it flows through the western half of the park, may have been the stream that Young described when he referred to “transparent pools at the bottom of deep sinks.” His description matches it well.

Capt. Young did not mention an unusual bluff or outcrop that rises from the floodplain swamps just east of the natural bridge. Old Indian Cave is hidden in this hill and legend holds that Muscogee (Creek), Yuchi and Seminole families sought by the army were hiding there as it marched past.

Billy Bailey of Florida Caverns State Park enters Old Indian Cave, from which Native American families watched Jackson’s army pass by.

Florida historian Caroline Mays Brevard mentioned this story in 1924. “Near the north end of the bridge,” she wrote, “is a limestone cave, a quarter of a mile in length.” This, of course, is Old Indian Cave. Called Natural Bridge Cave in earlier times, the name was changed during the development of Florida Caverns State Park. “In this cave,” she continued, “a number of Indians had taken refuge while Jackson and a division of the army marched overhead on the bridge.” [III]

The story as told by Brevard is like versions still heard among the Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole of Oklahoma and South Florida today. Several describe being shown the cave by their grandparents who told of how their ancestors hid there as Andrew Jackson passed on the nearby trail. The blue uniforms of the soldiers, they say, were visible through the trees.

Another old legend told about Jackson’s crossing involves the natural bridge itself:

…Another division of the army had arrived at the river to the north of the bridge, and was delayed in making rafts and bridges in order that the wagons and artillery might cross. Jackson waited impatiently for them to come up, and was very angry when they accounted for the delay by the difficulty in crossing the river. He had seen no river, and would not believe in the existence of one until the guides explained the matter. [IV]

Blue Hole Spring at Florida Caverns State Park.

The story is not mentioned in either Capt. Young’s memoir or any of the other firsthand accounts of the 1818 campaign but is popular in the folklore of the Seminole Wars.

Since he does not mention Blue Hole Spring in his account of the crossing, Capt. Young likely mistook it for the rise of the Chipola River. Leaving the limits of today’s park, the army continued to march west along the original Old Spanish Trail:

…Excellent land to Rockarch spring five miles with a mixed growth of oak, pine and hickory with several sinks affording abundance of excellent water. Limestone visible in one or two places – the spring is in curious rocky cavern in the middle of a thicket and surrounded by excellent land. [V]

Herrold WIllis inside Rock Arch Cave (now called Gerrard’s Cave) in Jackson County, Florida.

The Rock Arch Cave was a well-known landmark of early Jackson County. It is carefully protected on private lands today and remains unique and beautiful. It is one of the largest caves in the county and writer John Lee Williams described it in 1827 less than 10 years after Jackson’s crossing:

…It opens, to the east, an aperture under a vast limestone rock; about five feet high, and thirty feet wide. This passage descends gently, for three or four rods; the cavern then opens, to the extent of a hundred feet wide, and fifty feet high.  A deep channel, of transparent water, skirts the south side, for some distance; it then breaks off in wells, and finally disappears altogether. The course of the cave now turns north-west; it grows narrower, and resembles an arch of the gothic order. [VI]

The cave continues on and, in fact, has never been explored to its complete depth. It is generally called Gerrard’s Cave today, although the historic Arch Cave designation is also still remembered. Archaeologist Gregg Harding and a team from the University of West Florida conducted excavations at the cave’s mouth a found evidence of prehistoric Native American presence. Jackson’s passage took only one night and the dig uncovered no artifacts indicating his presence.

The army camped at Rock Arch Cave on May 12, 1818. Access to good water made the site attractive and the march from Blue Springs had been up and down hill and through swamps and thickets. The main Old Spanish Trail also broke off into several different trails here and Jackson decided to let his men rest before continuing on the next morning.

This series will continue. To learn more about Old Indian Cave and Jackson’s crossing of the Natural Bridge of the Chipola River, please enjoy this short program from Two Egg TV:

Florida Caverns State Park is at 3345 Caverns Road, Marianna, Florida. The park is open 365 days per year and offers cave tours, hiking trails, camping, picnicking, swimming in Blue Hole Spring, a visitor center and much more. A historical marker tells the story of Jackson’s crossing of the natural bridge.

Admission is $5 per vehicle ($4 if the driver is the only occupant). Please click here for more information.

This map will help you find the park:

[I] Capt. Hugh Young, “A Topographical Memoir of East and West Florida with Itineraries of General Jackson, 1818,” The Florida Historical Quarterly, Volume 13, Number 3 (January 1935): 153.

[II] Ibid., pp. 153-154.

[III] Caroline Mays Brevard & James Alexander Robertson, A History of Florida from the Treaty of 1763 to our own times,” Volume I, 1924: 54.

[IV] Ibid.

[V] Young, pp. 153-154.

[VI] John Lee Williams, A View of West Florida, 1827: 35.

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