I need to point out something that has obviously forgotten as a very important part of our history.
If you visit the Florida State Parks web page for Fort St. Marks, or San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park, it will mention in one sentence on the brochure and the website, that, "Andrew Jackson occupied the fort for a brief period in the 1800s."
Such a statement is not acceptable, and would make the late Mark Boyd, former historian for the state park system, roll in his grave. A very important part of the history of the park is overlooked in the brochure and park information. You will only find it mentioned inside the museum if you ever make it there.
That statement, is the same as saying that Florida had a brief succession during the 1860s without even mentioning the Civil War, War of Succession, or War Between the States, whatever you want to call it. Saying that Jackson briefly occupied the site is downplaying the First Seminole War and the importance of St. Marks in our history. In my opinion, this is inexcusable.
General Andrew Jackson inspecting the soldiers in the First Seminole War (Florida Archives/Florida Memory Project)
What actual physical sites can we visit that remain from the First Seminole War? There are three: Fort St. Marks, Fort Gadsden, and Fort Barrancas in Pensacola.
What you see at Fort Barrancas is Third System fortifications built after the U.S. acquired Florida, and there is really nothing to see from the earlier period except the white washed Spanish arches in the middle. It is a First Seminole War site, but there is nothing to show from 1818.
Fort Gadsden is very remote. Getting there has to be the loneliest drive in the state. It is in the middle of the large Apalachicola National Forest. You can see the earthworks of the fort, a small interpretive kiosk, there is a picnic pavilion, and a very scary pit toilet. It is so far remote that it is forgotten by God.
Fort Gadsden used to be a state park, and was leased by the forest to the state park system for one dollar a year for 99 years. But always the underdog, this was apparently not worth the state retaining as a state park, and they gave it over to the national forest.
So the only First Seminole War site where you can see the history and is easily accessible with some good restaurants nearby, is Fort St. Marks, or San Marcos de Apalachee Historic State Park. So overlooked is the First Seminole War significance, that the Spanish name for the site is used. But what happened here in 1818 is the most significant event that ever happened at this lonely outpost.
Corner of the storehouse building at old Fort St. Marks.
Here is what I will add about the history that is missing from the web site and state park brochure.
This was more than just briefly occupied by Jackson. This was an international incident. What happened in here in 1818 is the reason why Florida became a United States Territory three years later and changed the international boarders in North America through the subsequent Adams-Onis treaty. The incident was hotly debated in congress, and almost started a war with two other countries. Jackson had the American Army occupy a fort inside another country by the use of force for about a year. The First Seminole War was Jackson settling scores and taking care of unfinished business after the Battle of New Orleans. Although his reputation was not high among congress for what he did, it only made him more popular among the public who elected him president 10 years later.
Jackson’s pretense for invading Spanish Florida in 1818 was to punish renegade Indians attacking white settlers in southwest Georgia, and stop the Spanish from providing guns and arms to the Indians. Jackson’s evidence of Indian attacks, Spanish support, and British incitement of the Indians has dubious evidence of what actually happened. We can certainly agree that there was violence, but there is no clear evidence that it was orchestrated by the Spanish or British. Jackson’s evidence presented at the trials of Arbuthnot and Ambrister seem fabricated. But it was certainly a volatile time and place where lawlessness was common and opportunist aplenty.
One of the real reasons that Jackson invaded Florida was because he wanted unrestricted access for the Apalachicola river traffic and economy of the south. He had financial interest and business with one of those cotton plantations up river. Spanish insistence of imposing taxes and international border crossings on Florida was unacceptable to Jackson. Control the river traffic in Spanish Florida meant control of the economy of Alabama (Mississippi territory) and Georgia. Jackson did not want taxes enforced at border crossings which would impact the southern cotton economy. The Spanish also wanted to determine what could travel up and down the river thru Spanish Florida into the U.S., and did not allow gunpowder and arms to travel past their port to supply the American forts.
So the very first thing that Jackson did during the First Seminole War, in March 1818, was to construct Fort Gadsden on the remains of the former Negro Fort that he had ordered blown up almost two years prior. Once this was done, the river traffic along the Apalachicola River was pretty much secure. This is the only high ground on the lower end of the river, until 50 or 60 miles up. The American flag was secured at Fort Gadsden starting in March 1818, and never given up afterwards. Fort Gadsden was never surrendered to the Spanish after the First Seminole War ended, and the fort was finally abandoned in 1824 when Florida was a U.S. territory. It was American occupation on Spanish territory and control of the river commerce for three years before it was officially ceded over to the U.S.
Next objective of Jackson was to seize Fort St. Marks where the Spanish were alleged to providing arms and ammunition to Indians, and to incite them to attack the Americans. Jackson took the fort at the protest of the Spanish captain who was even allowing the fort to be used as a hospital for the sick American soldiers before Jackson seized it.
Fort St. Marks would remain in American control for about a year. Records show the Americans issued Army post returns from Fort St. Marks until February 1819, which was when the Adams-Onis Treaty was signed for Spain to cede Florida over to the U.S. Then the Americans gave the fort back to the Spanish for a brief period—two years—until it became the U.S. territory of Florida. And one of the first letters written by the first U.S. Florida territorial governor, Andrew Jackson, was to remove the Spanish garrison from the fort and have them transported to Pensacola where they could catch the next boat to Cuba.
Also at the fort was where Jackson held a trial and executed two British citizens; we know at Ambrister and Arbuthnot. This was a mock trail and execution of foreign citizens who were denied their legal rights. It created an international incident, and almost sparked a war with the British Empire and Spain. But after a year without any punishment of Jackson for his actions, and the unwillingness of the countries to wage war after the recent Napoleonic conflicts and the War of 1812, nothing became of it.
Trial of Ambrister at Fort St. Marks. (Florida Archives/Florida Memory Project)
Then it must not be forgotten, that Fort St. Marks was the site of incidents involving Josiah Francis and his daughter Milly Francis. Early in the campaign, one of Jackson’s soldiers got lost in the woods and captured by Creek / Seminole Warriors. Milly Francis was a young 15-year-old woman who witnessed preparation for the young soldier to be executed by the warriors, and pleaded to her father for his release. Her father was Red Stick leader and rumored to be a very powerful maker of medicine, Josiah Francis, who refused to get involved. So Milly intervened, and the soldier’s life was spared. He was turned over the Spanish at Fort St. Marks. Milly was awarded a congressional medal for her bravery about 30 years later, and was the first woman in U.S. history to be awarded a congressional medal. Unfortunately she died shortly before it arrived with a pension check; in destitute poverty in Indian territory.
Despite Milly having saved the life of the soldier, about a month later her father, Josiah Francis, was captured and hanged by Jackson at Fort St. Marks. Francis was buried there, in a place that is now lost to the ages.
The Capture of Josiah Francis. (Florida Archives/Florida Memory Project)
And a month after that, Jackson executed Ambrister and Arbuthnot at St. Marks. Milly was now a refugee at St. Marks, and personally knew these two men from her father’s dealings with them. There is even a story of Francis trying to marry his daughter Milly to Armbrister, but the young officer declined the offer.
There is a plaque commemorating Milly Francis in the entrance of San Marcos/Fort St. Marks. It is ironic that she is remembered there, and her father who was hanged by Jackson at nearly the same spot has nothing to commemorate him.
Also check out the new book on Milly Francis by Dale Cox: http://www.exploresouthernhistory.com/dalecox.html
So if you check out the website or brochure of Fort St. Marks, or San Marcos de Apalache, then I have just given you some supplemental information not included there.