According to archaeologist Dr. Nancy White, Spanish era pottery has been found in shell mounds around East Bay, but the only known Spanish fort in the area was San José on the St. Joseph Peninsula. Our Chasing Shadows question this week: Did the Spanish build a fort at the mouth of the Apalachicola River around 1700, as shown on several old maps? If you know the answer, contact the Times at 653-8894 or James Hargrove at email@example.com.
The story of how places around Apalachicola Bay were named and mapped has two eras. Before surveyors arrived with modern instruments, the locations and shapes of islands, rivers and bays were barely recognizable on maps of the coast; afterwards, the coastline looks familiar and modern names are assigned, albeit in Spanish or French. The first part of the story took place from 1685-1763 when French explorers were challenging the Spanish for control over the Gulf of Mexico. Two of these men are the shipwrecked French priest Pierre Charlevoix, and the French royal cartographer, Guillaume Delisle (see portraits).
Father Le Maire and Delisle’s great maps
From 1639 to 1698, San Marcos de Apalache (St. Marks) was the only port on the Gulf of Mexico. Then in 1698, the Spanish sent governor Andrés de Arriola to found Pensacola in order to defend against French incursions down the Mississippi River. The French responded in 1700 by sending Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, who established Fort Louis in Mobile Bay just 50 miles from the Spanish. As a result of the conflict, two French priests arrived who both spoke with Spanish residents and learned information that led to names for Dog Island and St. Vincent’s Island in Apalachicola Bay.
In 1703, the royal French cartographer, Guillaume Delisle (or, fittingly, De L’Isle) named St. George Island on a published map. He had obtained the information from a Spanish pilot in Havana named Juan Bisente, whose 1696 map showing “San Jorge” had been intercepted by the French navy. Delisle’s 1703 map had errors; it showed the Apalachicola River entering St. Joseph Bay west of the true location, and St. George was a squared-off blob offshore (see 1703 map).
When Delisle reissued his map in 1718, it showed the Apalachicola River correctly, but renamed the barrier islands. Originally called St. George and St. Catherine Islands in 1703, they became Isles aux Chiens, or Islands of Dogs. The reason for the change was subtle espionage carried out by a French priest named Father François Le Maire, who had sailed to Mobile Bay in 1706 from a diocese in Paris, France. As chaplain at French Fort Louis, Le Maire became disenchanted with trying to convert Indians to Christianity while military officers were having liaisons with Indian women, and took up the study of geography.
When two Catholic priests in Spanish Pensacola died, Father Le Maire was transferred to the garrison there. He quickly learned Spanish and befriended the military governor, Gregario de Salinas Verona, who apparently granted unrestricted access to secret Spanish manuscript maps. Le Maire began copying maps and updating them with memoirs that described the Gulf Coast from Texas to St. Marks, Florida.
Father Le Maire sent a hand-drawn map of the Gulf of Mexico and several memoirs to Delisle in 1716. Le Maire also helped edit Delisle’s update, and must have explained that the Spanish residents referred to Dog Islands, not St. George’s. Although still not based on a true survey, the geographical features of the great 1718 map more closely resemble the actual land forms, and other European map-makers relied on Delisle’s “mother map” for the next 50 years (see 1718 map).
It is unlikely that Father Le Maire ever visited St. George Island, but a second French priest found his way there after a shipwreck and made several observations that relate to names on our maps.
The shipwreck of Father Charlevoix
In 1720, the Duc d’Orleans commissioned another priest, Father Pierre Charlevoix, to investigate rumors that there was a passage across North America to the Pacific Ocean. The priest sailed to Quebec and began making his way south in 1721, eventually traveling by canoe and pirogue down the Mississippi River. Charlevoix observed that there was no passage to the Western Sea, unless possibly the Missouri River reached it.
Father Charlevoix reached the Gulf of Mexico in 1722 and booked passage from Biloxi back to France on a ship called the Adour. After the Adour foundered on a reef near the Florida Keys on April 14, 1722, the survivors headed north along the Florida peninsula in a small sailboat called a shallop. At that time, the area was frequented by pirates, and the native people usually killed anyone who came ashore.
The survivors decided to take a chance with the Spanish at St. Marks, and rowed the shallop into Apalachee Bay flying a white flag of truce. Fortunately, the governor merely asked the group to lock up their weapons, and then welcomed them to the fort. He told them that the next Spanish settlement was on the St. Joseph Peninsula (see 1703 map), and provided two Spanish guides to direct them past the oyster bars and small islands that dot the area. Charlevoix’s journal explains:
“On the morrow the twenty-sixth, a contrary wind kept us till evening in an island indifferently well wooded, ten or twelve leagues long, and where we killed as many larks and wood-cocks as we could desire: we also saw a great number of rattle-snakes. Our guides called it the Island of Dogs and from the first part of it we came to, they reckoned ten leagues to St. Mark and fifteen to St. Joseph; but they were certainly deceived with respect to this last article, there being at least twenty, and these very long.”
A league is a distance of 2.5 miles, and the only island in the area that is over 25 miles long is the modern St. George Island. Until at least 1764, maps either named the entire chain of barrier islands St. George’s Islands or the Islands of Dogs. Father Charlevoix also noted that even though the map-makers labeled the port St. Marie de Apalache (see 1718 map), the local people all called it St. Marks. He did not say whether Dog Island had been named for feral Indian dogs or abandoned sailors called sea-dogs.
St. Vincent Island
Because the entire barrier island chain was called either St. George’s or Dog Islands for most of the 18th century, the cartographers of the time did not name St. Vincent Island separately. However, besides giving a clue about who named Dog Island, Father Charlevoix also gives a hint about another saint’s name that was applied to St. Vincent until about 1815.
On the 27th at 11 at night, we struck upon a bank of oisters (sic), which were about the size of the crown of my hat, and we were about an hour in getting clear of it. We went to pass the rest of the night in a country house belonging to a captain of the garrison of Fort St. Joseph, called Dioniz.
Father Charlevoix called the captain “Don Dioniz,” and the home he described was probably on St. Vincent Island, which he said was still seven leagues (17 miles) from Fort San José on the tip of the St. Joseph Peninsula. It is probably no coincidence that some Spanish maps called the island “Ysla San Dionisio” until it was named San Vicente (St. Vincent) in 1815. The day after leaving the captain, the shipwreck survivors reached Fort San José (St. Joseph). Although the fort was abandoned a few years later, it was rediscovered in St. Joseph State Park, and the site has been excavated by Dr. Nancy White and a team from the University of South Florida.
After 250 years of exploration and occupation, the Spanish turned Florida over to the British in 1763. There were still no accurate charts of Apalachicola Bay or St. George Sound, and many areas lacked consistent names. The final mapping and naming would require modern survey equipment brought by British, Spanish and American officers, and would take place from then until about 1830. The rest of the story, beginning with the arrival of surveyor George Gauld, will be told in a forthcoming article.
Father Charlevoix wrote a journal describing his 1722 shipwreck and trip to Dog Island that is available online; see p. 317 in archive.org/details/journalofvoyaget02char