Saturday, December 8, 2007

Jackson County's own St. Nicholas

It is a little known fact that the first European settlement in Jackson County was named for St. Nicholas or, as we remember him these days, Santa Claus.
The Spanish mission of San Nicolas was founded in 1674 by Franciscan missionaries who made their way west from the mission center of San Luis in present-day Tallahassee. Located at a large village of Chatot or Chacato Indians (sometimes confused with the Choctaw, even though they never lived in the area), San Nicolas consisted of a rough church, a home for the priest Fray Rodrigo de la Barreda and a storage building.
Mission San Nicolas was only occupied for about one year before a rebellion among the Chatot forced a wounded Fray Rodrigo to flee for his life. Although it is not believed that the church was ever again occupied, the site of San Nicolas remained an important landmark and camping spot for Spanish explorers over the next few decades.
The exact site of the mission has never been determined. Based on a journal kept my Fray Rodrigo, it is evident that the church stood at the mouth of a large cave somewhere west of the Chipola River. He mentions passing Calistoble (Blue) Spring and a severe swamp (the Natural Bridge of the Chipola) before arriving at the site. The cave at the mission site was described as extremely large and with a stream of water flowing inside.
The two most likely possibilities for the mission site are the now largely collapsed cave at Waddell's Mill Pond and the well-known Arch Cave about three miles northwest of Marianna. No evidence of the mission's existence has ever been found at these sites, but they are the only known caves in the area matching the priest's descriptions. Both are on private property and the owners do an admirable job of protecting the caves from damage.

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