Jackson Blue Spring: A Landmark of Florida History
Jackson Blue Spring is a beautiful first magnitude spring. Noted for its crystal clear water and spectacular underwater caves, it is in the Florida panhandle near the historic city of Marianna and is the focal point of Jackson County’s Blue Springs Recreational Area.
The Northwest Florida Water Management District estimates the flow of the spring at 76 million gallons of water a day. It joins with five smaller springs to feed Merritt’s Mill Pond, a major outdoor attraction and water resource.
The head spring has been a key landmark in Northwest Florida for thousands of years. Archaeological research indicates that the spring was well-known in prehistoric times. Early Native American hunters frequented the forests and prairies around Jackson Blue Spring long before the arrival of European and African residents in the region. The spring was a campsite on an important American Indian trail that led from the Natural Bridge of the Chipola River at today’s Florida Caverns State Park to the Apalachicola River at present-day Chattahoochee, Florida.
Prehistoric hunters of the Archaic and later Woodland and Mississippian eras frequented the spring and archaeologists found evidence of their presence there for almost as long as humans have lived in Florida. When Spanish explorers penetrated the region during the 1600s, the spring was in a wilderness barrier that separated the towns of the Apalache and Apalachicoli who lived east of the Apalachicola River from those of the Chacato or Chatot who lived west of the Chipola.
The Chacato engaged in continuing warfare with other chiefdoms, a fact that caused one Spanish official to note that they “never had peace” with anyone.
Franciscan missionaries tried to change this and the Chacato finally agreed to allow missions in their towns. An expedition set out from Mission San Luis at present-day Tallahassee in June 1674 to bring to the Chipola River valley. Led by Fray Alonso del Moral, the provincial minister, and Lieutenant Andrew Peres of the San Luis garrison, the Spanish party included three Franciscan priests and three soldiers.
They followed the Old Spanish Trail west across what is now Gadsden County and crossed the Apalachicola River. Continuing west, they reached the stunning spring, which they called Calistoble or Calutoble. This is apparently a Chacato word and its meaning has been lost.
Fray Rodrigo de la Barreda was one of the friars attached to the expedition. He returned to the area several times during his Florida service and left a beautiful description of Jackson Blue Spring in one of his journals:
…The spring is entirely surrounded by woods, with many walnut, evergreen oak, laurel, common oak, sassafras and some pine trees; around it are numerous huge rocks and habitable caves frequented by the Indians on their hunting trips for bear, deer and buffalo, of which there is an abundance.
Barreda’s description of buffalo in Northwest Florida is remarkable. The legendary American Bison once ranged across much of Florida, but over-hunting and loss of range led to their extermination.
The Spanish visited the spring often, mentioning it in journals and reports of expeditions that passed through in 1674, 1676, 1686 and 1693. When the British assumed control of Florida in 1763, one of their earliest reports of road conditions in Northwest Florida mentioned the trail that passed by Jackson Blue Spring.
The Colonial history of Northwest Florida is the focus of the Jackson County Spanish Heritage Trail. Interpretive panels for two of its stops are found at the spring. Please click here for more information.
Jackson Blue Spring played a role in the First Seminole War and the army of Major General Andrew Jackson visited in 1818. The future President and his troops spent the night there while on their way to attack the Spanish city of Pensacola.
Jackson reached the spring, then called “Big Spring,” on the evening of May 10, 1818. Major Hugh Young, the topographer for the army of 1,092 men, described it as being “forty yards in diameter and of a considerable depth with a rock bottom and clear rapid current.” Many of the soldiers on the march returned over the next few years to become Jackson County’s first American settlers.
William Pyles staked a claim on the land at Jackson Blue Spring, despite an earlier Spanish claim to the same property. He built a home there before 1821 while Florida was still part of Spain and eventually sold his property to Major William Robinson. The latter person arrived from Georgia and established a 3,100 acre cotton plantation on the rich lands surrounding the spring.
Robinson built his plantation home on the hill overlooking the head spring and even devised a unique system of buckets and pulleys to bring fresh water up from the spring. His presence there caused local settlers to call the place “Robinson’s Big Spring.” It held the name for a several years.
John Milton acquired the lands of the Robinson plantation in 1845-1847. He and Major Robinson were related by marriage and when the latter person died, Milton rolled Jackson Blue Spring into his more than 6,000 acre Sylvania Plantation. He also began calling it Blue Springs.
John Milton was a Democrat in a time when the now-defunct Whig Party controlled politics in the Florida Panhandle. He practiced law in Marianna with his son, William Henry Milton, while also operating the massive plantation. An ardent secessionist, John Milton became Governor of Florida in 1860. The state was still part of the United States in 1860, but under the laws of that day, Milton did not take office until the fall of 1861. By then Florida had seceded from the Union and the War Between the States (or Civil War) was underway. Sylvania was a place of refuge for the governor, his family and friends. He even took in refugee slaves from as far away as South Carolina.
A series of important roads intersected near the spring, giving it strategic importance. The Confederate army established a permanent encampment there, using the buildings of the old Robinson plantation for barracks, stables, storehouses, etc. Capt. Robert Chisolm’s cavalry company from the Alabama State Militia rode from there to fight at the Battle of Marianna on September 27, 1864.
Jackson Blue Spring returned to its role as a place of peace after the end of the war. Preserved by its various owners, it was a popular place for picnics and old-fashioned Baptisms. The cold clear water and beautiful surroundings made it an ideal recreational spot. It is now the main feature of Blue Springs Recreational Area, a park operated by Jackson County. Open during the summer, the spring is a popular place for swimming, picnicking and other outdoor activities.
The park is a year-round destination for scuba enthusiasts. The magnificent but often dangerous underwater caves draw divers from around the world.
Blue Springs is also a major destination for scuba divers. The magnificent but often dangerous underwater caves draw divers from around the world. Cave diving there is limited to those with the proper experience and permits. To learn more, please click here to visit the Cave Adventurers. The firm holds a year-round concession to help divers interested explore the spring and teaches diving lessons on site.
To reach Jackson Blue Spring from downtown Marianna, follow US 90 East for 1.4 miles and then turn left (north) on State Highway 71. Follow Highway 71 for 1.1 miles and turn right on Blue Springs Road (County Road 164). The entrance to the park will be 3.3 miles ahead on your right. (See the map at the bottom of this page).
Other points of interest in the Marianna area include the city’s many historic homes, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the scene of the Battle of Marianna, historic and haunted Bellamy Bridge, the “haunted” and beautiful Russ House, Florida Caverns State Park and the unique little community of Two Egg, Florida.
Jackson County is also home to more than 60 natural springs as well as the beautiful Chipola River, a state paddling trail.
To learn more about Jackson Blue Spring, please enjoy this short video from our friends at Two Egg TV:
Learn more about the history of Jackson Blue Spring, Marianna and Jackson County in these books by author and historian Dale Cox: