Thursday, February 2, 2012

Searching for Mission San Nicolas - Jackson County, Florida

Historic Rock Cave - Site of Mission San Nicolas?
My previous post on the site of Mission San Carlos at Sneads (see Mission San Carlos)generated a lot of email and interest, so I thought you might enjoy learning about another likely Spanish mission site in Jackson County.

Of the three Spanish settlements thought to have been located in Jackson County, Mission San Nicolas was the oldest. Located in the secondary town of the Chacato Indians, San Nicolas was established by Franciscan friars in 1674, more than 336 years ago. It was the location of the first Christian church and the first known European home between Pensacola Bay and the Apalachicola River.

Trace of the real "Old Spanish Trail"
The Chacato were one of the most enigmatic tribes in Florida history. Also called the Chatot or Chacto and often incorrectly confused with the Choctaw tribe, they arrived in western Jackson County late in the Mississippian era (A.D. 900 - A.D. 1500). During the prehistoric era their settlement was concentrated around the Waddell Mill Pond site, a fortified village and mound group between Marianna and Campbellton. By the 1600s, however, they had abandoned that site and dispersed to three large and a number of smaller villages scattered through western Jackson County and eastern Washington County.

The largest of their towns was located somewhere in the vicinity of Falling Waters State Park in northeastern Washington County, although the site has not been located to date. The secondary town was west of the Natural Bridge of the Chipola River on the old trail leading from Blue Spring across the Natural Bridge to a forks between today's towns of Cottondale and Campbellton. The third largest Chacato town was near Campbellton.

Historic Rock Cave Entrance
When they were first encountered by the Spanish, the Chacato were extremely warlike. In 1639, when the Governor of Florida negotiated a peace treaty between them and the Apalachee and other tribes living in the Big Bend region, he noted the accomplishment was extraordinary because the Chacato had "never had peace" with any other tribe. It would take another 35 years, however, before the Spanish finally ventured to send missionaries west to the Chacato province.

The first mission, San Nicolas, was established at the secondary Chacato town in 1674 by an expedition that included soldiers, missionaries and Christian Apalachee Indians. Fray Rodrigo de la Barreda became the village friar and was left there alone to live among the Indians when the men making up the main expedition returned to Mission San Luis at what is now Tallahassee.

Historic Rock Cave
The mission, according to Barreda and other Spanish writers, was located at a cave so large it could hold 200 people. Inside the cave, he wrote, was a spring of water that flowed from "the living rock." The friar's home was located on the bluff above the cave while the church was located nearby. Surrounding this small group of structures was the Chacato village itself.

Mission San Nicolas was temporarily successful and an estimated 100 of the village's inhabitants converted to Christianity. The success, however, did not last. Less than one year after the mission was established, a portion of the Chacato rose in revolt against the Franciscans. One of their chiefs was outraged because a friar, probably Barreda, had told him that to be a good Christian he must give up his multiple wives and live only with the first woman he had married.

Fray Rodrigo de la Barreda was wounded in the head by a blow from a stone axe but managed to escape to safety at Mission Santa Cruz de Sabacola in what is now Seminole County, Georgia. Mission San Nicolas was destroyed.

The exact site of Mission San Nicolas has never been identified, but there is a strong probability that it was located at the historic Arch Cave northwest of Marianna. Of all the caves along the route of the old trail followed by the Spanish, it is the only one that closely matches the descriptions given by the Spanish writers. Not only is it large enough to hold a large number of people, it holds a natural spring that flows from one of the walls. The cave is protected and is on private property. The photographs seen here were taken with the permission of the owner.

To learn more about the early Spanish settlements of Jackson County, please consider my book: The History Of Jackson County, Florida: The Early Years. ($19.95)

It is also available as an instant download for your Amazon Kindle reading device or free Kindle software: The History of Jackson County, Florida: The Early Years. ($9.95)

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