Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Andrew Jackson and the Natural Bridge - Part One

The Natural Bridge of the Chipola River, seen here, is one of the most significant historic sites in Jackson County.
Now part of Florida Caverns State Park, the bridge is a place where the Chipola River sinks underground for a short distance before rising again and continuing down to eventually merge with the Apalachicola.
In 1818, the army of General Andrew Jackson crossed the bridge on its way to attack the Spanish city of Pensacola. The march provided many of Jackson's men with their first view of the area they would soon return to settle. It also provided Jackson County with one of its most fascinating legends, the story of Andrew Jackson and the Natural Bridge.
The following is excerpted from my new book, The History of Jackson County, Florida: Volume One. Signed copies of the book can be purchased in Marianna at Chipola River Book and Tea (on the same block as the Gazebo restaurant, across from the Battle of Marianna monument). It can also be ordered online by clicking here. I post additional parts of this story over coming days:
Excerpt from Chapter Two: Andrew Jackson and the Natural Bridge
A fascinating legend about the First Seminole War can still be heard at Florida Caverns State Park near Marianna. The story revolves around Andrew Jackson’s march through Northwest Florida during the spring of 1818 and his crossing of the Chipola River at the natural bridge in the park.
According to the oft-recited legend, Jackson’s army was moving forward in two columns. One column, led by the general himself and guided by the chief John Blunt, crossed the river at the natural bridge. The second column, moving by a route more to the north, was forced to halt the river and build rafts so the men and artillery could get across. Jackson’s column reached the planned rendezvous point west of the river and the general, known for his temper, supposedly became irate when the second column failed to appear on schedule.
When the bedraggled men finally trudged into camp, it is said that Jackson berated their officers, demanding to know the reason for the delay. His temper supposedly soared even higher when they explained the reason for their lateness, as he had seen no river. The legend holds that it was not until John Blunt explained the phenomenon of the natural bridge that Jackson could be placated.
It is a fascinating little story and one of the few that survive about Andrew Jackson in the county that today bears his name. Mrs. Janie Smith Rhyne, a Jackson County writer and historian of the 20th century, even memorialized the event in poem:

“About first candle-light he spied
His draggled cavalcade
Emerging from the northward swamp –
No sooner seen than sprayed

With oaths as hot as shrapnel shells.
They pled, ‘We built a raft
To cross the river;’ Jackson yapped
‘No river there, you’re daft!’

‘I crossed no stream.’ ‘Then come;’ they led
Him to Chipola’s bank.
He saw, and spat another oath;
Then all his mind seemed blank.”

There is some basis of truth behind the legend. Andrew Jackson did cross the Natural Bridge of the Chipola during the First Seminole War. It was part of his only visit to the county that would later be named in his honor.

Leaving Fort Scott on March 11, 1818, Jackson invaded Spanish Florida with an army of around 3,000 men. The size of this force grew as he advanced due to the arrival of two regiments of Tennessee militia and Colonel William McIntosh’s 900 U.S. Creek Auxiliaries. Pushing down the east side of the Apalachicola River through what are now Gadsden and Liberty Counties, Jackson paused briefly at Alum Bluff just north of Bristol when his men sighted supply boats coming up the river. The army was on the verge of starvation when the vessels hove into sight.

Replenished with provisions, the men continued down the east bank until they arrived at Prospect Bluff where the “Negro Fort” had stood until its destruction two years earlier. The ruins of the fort could still be seen and the site was scattered with debris including rusted muskets that, when cleaned, would still fire.
Here Jackson ordered his engineer, Lieutenant James Gadsden, to design and construct a new fort that could serve as a base for his operations in Florida. Gadsden used the surviving water battery of the destroyed fort to construct a new work that stood immediately on the face of the bluff overlooking the river. Pleased with the lieutenant’s efforts, the general named the new post Fort Gadsden in his honor.
(More coming in future posts...)

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