San Marcos de Apalache: A Peaceful Spot with a Turbulent History

This park doesn’t look like much from outside: In fact, you could walk right past it without ever realizing the fascinating, turbulent, globe-sweeping history it contains. But step inside San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park in St. Marks, and you’re swept up in a story that begins in 1528. That’s when Panfilo de Narvaez arrived, followed by Hernando de Soto in 1539. For schoolkids who have to memorize these names and dates, standing in the spot where they trekked means that history suddenly leaps out of the textbook and into reality. Don’t miss the highly creative presentation in the park’s theater, where recorded, reality-show-style first-person confessionals by costumed actors playing the fort’s residents are interspersed with a film about its history. The dynamic presentation will keep kids interested long after they would ordinarily start shifting in their seats and looking for the exits.

The presentation covers the history of the fort, which began when the Spanish presence in present-day St. Marks was formalized in 1679, only to be burned by pirates, rebuilt, upgraded to stone, then lost to England in 1763. But the fort’s wild story was just getting started: Spain took the fort back in 1787, until a wild card British officer, William Bowles, led a band of Native Americans in a successful takeover. The fact that Bowles’ reign lasted only 5 weeks doesn’t diminish the jaw-dropping chutzpah of his rebellion.

The fort would be taken by then-General Andrew Jackson, then returned to Spain, and in 1821, with Florida part of the United States, came under the control of the United States government for the first time. It became a yellow fever hospital, but its days of conflict were far from over: Confederate troops would capture the fort in the Civil War, and earthworks and a powder magazine from those days can still be seen on the grounds. The bastion walls and moat from the Spanish period are still visible, and a military cemetery remains, as well. The visitors’ center is of modern construction, but well worth a visit for the aforementioned presentation and the cache of artifacts inside.

The fort also offers hiking and picnicking at the confluence of the St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers.

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