Exploring Northwest Florida
Exploring Northwest Florida
It was late in the afternoon when I arrived at San Marcos de Apalache, so I wasn’t sure I would get in to see the museum. My travels that day had included the St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge with its weathered old lighthouse, and rain had hampered my progress and picture taking. I had also gone ahead and checked into my cabin at Shell Island Fish Camp so I’d know where I was going when it got dark.
To find this historic landmark, you have to go through the tiny river town of St. Marks. The town and park are located on an arrow-shaped piece of land where the St. Marks River meets the Wakulla River before flowing down to the Apalachee Bay.
After a browse around the outside of the museum, I noticed some folks coming out, so I figured I’d better scoot in before closing time. That’s when I met the park ranger who was a wealth of information and stories about America’s second oldest European fort.
The historical significance of the area dates back to 1528 when the Spanish explorer and territorial governor Panfilo de Narvaez arrived here with a contingency of 300 men, who stayed long enough to build the first European ships built in America. Later in 1539, Hernando de Soto came through on his way to Tallahassee before heading west to Mexico.
However, the first fort wasn’t built until 1679, when Spain decided that it was a good strategic location from which to protect both their trade routes and their claim to La Florida. It is the second oldest Spanish fort in the state after Castillo de San Marcos National Monument in St. Augustine, which is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States.
Some differences of opinion with the British in 1683 caused the Spanish to burn the wooden fort to keep it out of British hands. They abandon it, but returned and built two more forts in 1718 and 1739, when the first stone fortress was constructed.
Pirate and would be country maker William Augustus Bowles captured the site in 1800 with his army of 400 Creek Indians in an attempt to form the Muskogee Nation, and Andrew Jackson stayed here briefly in 1818 during the first Seminole War. Later the fort was held by the Confederacy who established an artillery magazine and a hospital and renamed it Fort Ward.
You’ll find this history and more in the museum through a timeline, wall murals based on archaeological finds, and an informative video. Artifacts unearthed at the site are also on display and include tools and pottery.
San Marcos de Apalache became a Florida state park in 1964, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. The museum was built in the 1960s over the foundation of the Civil War era Marine Hospital, which itself was built using materials from the old Spanish fort. There’s also a small cemetery that is the last resting place of 19 soldiers from the Andrew Jackson era.
In addition to the museum, there is a nature trail leading to several points of interest and visitors can take a self-guided tour of the various archaeological sites. Rangers are happy to conduct guided tours with at least two weeks’ prior notice.
Tucker’s Point is where the Wakulla River and the St. Mark’s River meet and flow southward toward Apalachee Bay. It’s where the original Spanish fort was located and is a great spot for fishing, birding, wildlife viewing, and just watching the boats go by.
San Marcos de Apalache is one of several Florida state parks in the area that include Bald Point State Park, Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park, Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, and Ochlockonee River State Park. Also nearby is the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge where the St. Marks Lighthouse is located.
148 Old Fort Road
St. Marks, Florida 32355
Hours of Operation:
The site is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Thursday through Monday, Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.
San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park is located in St. Marks on Old Fort Road. Take State Road 363 through downtown St. Marks to Riverside Drive. Turn right and follow Riverside Drive to Old Fort Road, then follow the signs to the fort.
There is no entrance fee to enter the park. Museum admission is $2.00 per person; children 5 and younger are free.