Historic City Memories: Ghost Towns

Ghost Towns of the St. Johns

” Fort Picolata ”

By Geoff Dobson

Some towns or settlements spring to life due to some local needs, fade becoming a ghost town, and then because of a new need arise from the dead spring into vibrancy, only to once again fade and die.

Such was Fort Picolata which went through the cycle of life and death three times.

Picolata is now remembered only in the name of a road from St. Augustine to State Road 13, yet it has a history going back some 300 years.

In 1600, the Spanish concluded a treaty with Native Americans which permitted the establishment of a series of missions across north Florida. To connect the missions with St. Augustine, a road was constructed leading to missions near present-day Tallahassee and the mission of San Francisco north of present Gainesville.

In the 1640’s, the great Rancho de la Chua was established on the north rim of Paines Prairie. Alachua County derives its name from the Rancho. A fort, named Fort San Francisco de Pupe was established to protect the ferry across the St. Johns River on the west bank. Fort Picolata was established on the east bank of the river. Thus, what is now known as Picolata became one of the oldest European settlements in the present-day United States.

Gradually, Spanish control of the interior of Florida faded. Racked by yellow fever, French pirate attacks and Anglo-Saxons rustlers from the British colonies to the north, Rancho de la Chua was abandoned.

In 1704, Carolinas Governor James Moore with Indian allies attacked and burned many of the Spanish missions between St. Augustine and Tallahassee. The little wooden fort fell into disrepair so that even though it continued to be garrisoned, the fort could scarcely protect travelers crossing the river from hostile Indians.

In 1740, during the War of Jenkins’s Ear, the Fort was attacked by the British and shortly thereafter burned by the Indians. In 1755, the Fort was rebuilt with coquina hauled overland from Anastasia Island.

But by 1763, the Fort fell once again into an increasing state of decrepitude. In that year, a treaty between France, Spain, and Great Britain brought an end to the Seven Years’ War (in the United States referred to as the “French and Indian Wars”.) Under that treaty, Great Britain acquired Canada and East and West Florida.

The two Floridas were in exchange for Havana; which the British had captured. All but three of the estimated 7,000 population of the two Florida were evacuated by the Spanish. The three missed the last boat which left while they were out searching for their horses.

Contrary to Spanish practice, the British entered into treaties with the Native Americans. British Governor James Grant negotiated and concluded the treaty with the Native Americans at a pavilion which was constructed at Fort Picolata. The treaty brought peace to Florida and permitted settlement in East Florida in all of the coastal areas and to the east of the St. Johns River.

With peace, there was no longer need for the Fort and it again fell into ruin. The King’s botanist, William Bartram described the fort:

“It is a square tower, thirty feet high, invested with a high wall, without bastions, about breast high, pierced with peepholes and surrounded with a deep ditch. The upper story is open on each side, with battlements supporting a cupola or roof: these battlements were formerly mounted with eight four-pounders, two on each side. The work was constructed with hewn stone, cemented with lime. The stone was cut out of the quarries on St. Anastasius Island, opposite St. Augustine; it is of a pale reddish colour, and a testaceous composition, consisting of small fragments of sea-shell and fine sand . . .”

Nevertheless, the area around Picolata became the center for various plantations established along the river. Near Picolata, as an example, William Bartram, himself, established an indigo plantation.

Further to the north New Switzerland was established by London merchants Thomas Dunnage and John Francis Rivas and Francis Phillip Fatio, originally a native of Switzerland.

On September 3, 1783, at Versailles, the Most Serene and Most Potent George the Third, by Grace of God, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, Duke of Brunswick and Lunenbourg, Arch-Treasurer and Elector of the Holy Roman Empire, concluded a treaty with Don Carlos, by the Grace of God, King of Castile, Leon, Arragon, the Two Sicilies, Jerusalem, Navarre, Granada, Toledo, Valencia, Gallicia, Majorca, Seville, Sardinia, Cordova, Corsica, Murcia, Jaen, the Algarves, Algeziras, Gibraltar, the Canary Islands, the East and West Indies, Islands and Terra Firma of the Ocean; Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, Brabank, and Milan; Count of Apsburg, Flanders, Tirol, and Barcelona, Lord of Biscay and Molina, etc.

Kings seemingly liked to claim titles to territories of which they were not possessed.

British monarchs did not give up the title “King of France” until 1801 with the formation of the United Kingdom. Britain is, however, still in possession of a small portion of France, the Channel Islands.

Spanish kings continued to use the title “King of Jerusalem” until 1931. (The Austro-Hungarian Emperors continued to claim the same title until 1918 when they were divested of all titles.)

The treaty between Britain and Spain was one of a series of treaties entered into at the same time which were intended to end a series of wars fought on all continents except Antarctica and Australia. With the new treaty, Britain obtained the Bahamas and retained Gibraltar.

For residents of East and West Florida, the treaty was a disaster. The two Floridas were returned to Spain. It has been estimated that some 17,000 residents of East Florida fled or were evacuated, 10,000 to the Bahamas and the remainder elsewhere. At the conclusion of the evacuation, only 450 whites and 200 blacks remained.

The majority of the whites that remained were Minorcans from Dr. Andrew Turnbull’s plantation. Prior to the British capture of Minorca from Spain, they had been Spanish subjects and embraced the Roman Catholic religion. Among others who stayed was Francis Phillip Fatio who bought out his partners.

The evacuation used, in addition to regular freighters, small schooners. Two hundred-sixty St. Augustinians discovered themselves in the cold of Nova Scotia. Some ultimately were able to make their way to the Bahamas. Even with new Spanish immigrants, the population of East Florida fell to a little over three thousand. And St. Augustine descended from being in the midst of a population boom as a result of a war fought further to the north, to become a backwater of an increasingly decrepit Spanish Empire.

Many large plantations in East Florida, such as Rollestown on the St. Johns River, were abandoned, becoming ghost towns. Because of its strategic location, one small community, Fort Picolata, located on the St. Johns north of Rollestown continued. Nevertheless, the area fell into abandonment with increasing Indian attacks.

By the time of American acquisition of Florida in 1819, the writ of the Spanish king in East Florida fell to the area around St. Augustine, Fernandina, and Fort San Nicholas on the present day Southside of Jacksonville. Fort San Nicolas was situated just west of the athletic field of present-day Bishop Kenny High School. The Fort had been destroyed in 1813 by the Americans, but had been reconstructed.

The Americans negotiated a treaty with the Indians guaranteeing them a reservation in central Florida centered near present day Ocala. There is an old adage amongst cowboys, “You can always trust the government. Ask any Indian.”

In 1824, Congress authorized the construction of a road from Fort Picolata to Tallahassee. Thus, with the completion of the road in 1826 by John Bellamy, Fort Picolata again took on a renewed strategic importance.

By 1835, having broken the various treaties with the Cherokee, the Creeks, and the other southeastern tribes, President Jackson turned his attention to the Seminoles and planned to exile them to present day Oklahoma. Years later when the Nez Perce were exiled to Oklahoma, they referred to it as Eeikish Pah, the “Hot Place.” Eeikish Pah can have two meanings: the literal meaning relating to summer temperatures or one of religious significance, i. e. Purgatory.

With the outbreak of the Second Seminole War, Fort Picolata became an important military post.. In the effort to subdue the Indians, it was for a time the headquarters of General Winfield Scott. Because ships had great difficulty crossing the bar at St. Augustine, the fort became a principal supply point for Fort King at present-day Ocala and for St. Augustine itself.

Thus, the Picolata had a blockhouse, military barracks, wharves, the military hospital, and stables. Among those stationed there for a time, was William T. Sherman, whose name in parts of Georgia is not remembered with warm feelings.

Nearby at Colee Cove was the residence of John Lee Williams with whom Sherman boarded. Williams was one of the commissioners appointed to locate the site of the territorial capital and was an early documenter of the history of Florida. In 1837, his house was burned by the Indians and he and his pregnant wife had to take refuge in the military barracks at the Fort. Williams’ daughter, Sarah Williams later recalled as a small girl picking berries on the site of the old plantation and finding the remains of soldiers killed by the Indians.

Prior to the Civil War, the St. Johns Railway was constructed from Tocoi to New Augustine west of the San Sebastian Railway. In 1862, Union gunboats destroyed the wharf. The railroad was finally rebuilt in the early 1870’s. With the reopening of the railroad, Picolata lost its importance as a shipping point and gradually faded from existence. The site of the Fort has now been lost.

Next week: Tocoi.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 32 years, is a western and Florida history writer. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

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