WAKULLA COUNTY: WHERE FAMOUS MEN EXPLORED
Along the Footprints of Romantic History
A Spanish conquistadore pioneered the progress and development of Wakulla County, 433 years ago.
This great adventurer, Ponce de Leon, discovered Florida in 1513, landing on the East Coast. In 1521 he returned, this time to the Gulf coast and landed at what authorities generally agree was near the site of the present fishing village, St. Marks.
With his expedition de Leon attempted the first such settlement ever begun in America. The Indians drove them back tot he sea, however, and Ponce de Leon himself, struck by an arrow in the heart, died on the soil of the land he was the first white man to view.
Countless other historic events transpired in Wakulla County in centuries following. Florida's second visitor, Pamphilo de Narvaez, marched from Tampa Bay into the St. Marks-Shell Point vicinity in 1523, seeking the wealthy Indian Village of Aute. He was to meet his ships in the area but they never arrived. He put his men to work building the first ships constructed in America.
The effort was successful, and from what the De Soto Commission of Florida believed was Shell Point, he sailed forth with his party.
The intrepdi explorer, Hernando de Soto, who discovered the Mississippi River, wintered the Leon-Wakulla County area in 1539-1540, and noted in reports that it was a region of abundance and natural resources.
Traders, missionaries and soldiers came and went at intervals for the next 100 years. Then in the 1630s the Spanish built Fort San Marcos, at the conjunction of the Wakulla and St. Marks rivers, and its ruins can still be seen. Efforts are being made to restor it for visitors to view. Ancient manuscripts record that a Spanish frigate from St. Augustine docked at Fort San Marcos, took on a cargo of beans, wild turkey and venison, in the first use of this spot as a port, in 1639.
Moments of romance played parts in Wakulla County's history also. A true "Pocahontas" story occurred here in the early 1800s. Andrew Jackson had been companigning against the Indians. Prophet Francis, cheif of an Indian village on the Wakulla River, captured Duncan McKrimmon, one of Jackson's soldiers, and prepared to burn him at the stake. The chief's daughter, Mallee, with tearful entreaties, persuaded her father to spare McKrimmon's life.
In 1836, to connect Tallahassee with St. Marks, a railroad, the first lasting one in Florida, and among the first half dozen in the whole U.S. was built. Before the Civil War as much as 50,000 bales of cotton a year came in, and went to northern mills through this port. The southern terminus of the railroad was Port Leon, across the river from St. Marks. It became the first county seat after Wakulla County was created from Leon County in 1843. But that same year a storm flattened Port Leon. The people moved three miles upstream to another site and named it New Port (now called Newport) as their new county seat. Here the first court house of the county was built. The town prospered, and a plank road was constructed in 1855 connecting it to another one which went into Georgie. In 1856 New Port had 1,500 inhabitants, and was Florida's sixth largest town.
The War Between the States made history in Wakulla County and the Battle of Natural Bridge. Union forces under Ge. John Newton had taken the St. Marks lightouse and prepared to march up the east bank of the river to take Newport. But Confederate Gen. Miller evactuated the town, burning everything of value destroying the birdge over the river. The next crossing was Natural Bridge, where the river suddenly runs underground for a few feet, and rises again, forming a natural bridge.
Gen. Miller deployed his forces there, awaiting the Union troops, who attacked at 4 a.m. Three times they charged. Three times they were turned back. Then the Confederates attacked. The Union forces retreated back to the coast and re-embarked on their ships. It was a joyous day for the Florida Confederates who received heroes' welcomes at Tallahassee, which was the only state capital east of the Mississippi not captured by Union troops.
After the war one Noah Posey deeded 60 lots to the county on condition the courthouse be moved to Crawfordville, which had been named after Dr. John L. Crawford, Florida sectretary of state from 1881 until 1902. (It is an oddity of political fact that successors in that position since have been only men from Wakulla County.) The courthouse was moved in 1866 to Crawfordville, where it has remained. A new courthouse, opened and dedicated in 1949, is one of Florida's finest.
Surely it can be said that the footprints of history made by famous events left lasting marks on Wakulal County.
State Library Of Florida: Ephemera Collection, Wakulla
Brochure on information about Wakulla County