by Dale Cox
Marianna – In June of 1693, Florida’s new Spanish governor entered what is now Jackson County on a journey of exploration that would result in the first overland crossing of Northwest Florida by Europeans. Don Laureano de Torres y Ayala was anxious to find an overland route from Mission San Luis (today’s Tallahassee) and the site of a proposed new settlement at Pensacola Bay.
The route followed by the explorers was an old Native American trail that crossed the Apalachicola River near today’s U.S. 90 bridge between Chattahoochee and Sneads. From there, the trail led northwest to Blue Spring and the Natural Bridge of the Chipola River at today’s Florida Caverns State Park.
Torres y Ayala entered the Jackson County area on June 9, 1693 and spent two days at the Spanish mission of San Carlos, located at the west end of today’s Jim Woodruff Dam. He described the mission as “a Christian village of the Chacato tribe.” The Chacato were the Native Americans living in the Jackson County area when the Spanish arrived in Florida.
Continuing his description, the governor wrote, “On the 11th I started northwest, and, after traveling five leagues, pitched camp by an excellent spring which, they told me, flows into the Apalachicola river.” A Spanish league of that day measured about three English miles and the spring, of course, was Blue Spring. Torres y Ayala’s information was good, as the spring feeds the Chipola River which does eventually flow into the Apalachicola.
The Spanish left Blue Spring, which they called Calistoble, on June 12, 1693, and continued heading northwest. “In a short distance we ran into considerable difficulty in getting both the horses and the men on foot through because of the many bogs, creeks and woods,” the governor wrote, “The horses became mired to their cinch straps and the men to their waists.”
The area where the expedition encountered such difficulty was the flood plain of the Chipola around the natural bridge at today’s Florida Caverns State Park. The governor’s description of bogs and creeks indicates the river must have been running high at the time, as the bridge and surrounding swamps often overflowed during times of high water.
The Spanish built “bridges and brush roads” and finally were able to make their way through the swamps. “When this was accomplished,” wrote Torres y Ayala, “I pitched camp in a cave, a very pleasant spot called San Nicolas, where there was formerly a Chacato village.”
San Nicolas de Tolentino was the site of a Spanish mission established about three miles northwest of Marianna by Franciscan missionaries in 1674. It consisted of a church, convent and other structures, but these were destroyed in an uprising in 1675. By the time of the governor’s visit, only the cave remained. “This cave is formed of calcareous stone and has a very large spring of water,” he wrote.
The Spanish remained camped at the San Nicolas cave, later called the “Rock Arch Cave,” for several days while an advance party cleared a road on to Holmes Creek. They left the Jackson County area on June 15, 1693, crossing Holmes Creek somewhere south of Graceville.
Torres y Ayala eventually completed his journey, becoming the first European to cross the wilderness between the Apalachicola River and Pensacola Bay. His journal survives and provides one of the earliest known descriptions of the Jackson County area.
Editor’s Note: Writer and historian Dale Cox is the author of several books on local history, including The Battle of Marianna, Florida and Two Egg, Florida. His books are available locally at Chipola River Book & Tea in downtown Marianna or online at www.exploresouthernhistory.com.