Fort Picolata

Fort Picolata was built and garrisoned by the Spanish to guard the river crossing at the ferry landing for the road they used to carry goods to and from Mission San Luis, near today's Tallahassee. Fort Pupo was built across the St. Johns River from Picolata to protect the river crossing on that side of the river. The incoming British recognized its utility and continued to fortify and garrison it. In 1765 and 1767 Picolata was the setting for important meetings between the leading Creek and Seminole chiefs and Governor James Grant and other British colonial officials. Soon after those meetings a number of farms and plantations were created in the vicinity of Fort Picolata.

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This St. Johns River is downriver, with Bayard Point on the right and Colee Cove on the left. Fort Picolata was somewhere on the left downriver from Colee Cove, in the general vicinity of today's small settlement known as Picolata.

Plat Map of Fort Picolata

In November 1765, John Bartram and his son William attended the first Indian Congress held with British officials in East Florida. They rode from St. Augustine on rented horses on the 15th of November, a day described by John as “A lovely cool day...never was A finer day to travail.” Bartram noted that “toward St Johns ye soil...seems very sandy yet ye pines is much larger & grows thicker & ye grass is much better covering ye ground middle leg deep or more....” Father and son slept inside the fort chamber that night and woke to a “fine lovely day.” John recorded in his diary: “I had no fever last night alltho I rode hard yesterday & eat meat plentifuly haveing dined with ye governour & chief gentlemen on board ye skooner." The schooner had been sent from St. Augustine to sail up the St. Johns River loaded with gifts for the Indians. Grant distributed the gifts during the treaty conference. John Bartram wrote that the fort had walls "near two foot thick & 4 paces square within side, ye enterance of ye chamber is by A ladder on one side & A windo on each other 3 sides with convenient port holds. Ye floor is terraced; ye garret or chamber over it is allso asscended by A ladder; perpendicular wall is carried near 3 foot high on which 4 swivel guns is placed. A space is about two foot left between ye wall & roof which is pointed at top; ye lowest room is kept for thair magazine & provisions. They have allso A kitchin within ye stockade which sorounds ye main stone fort Just described. All this is within 40 yards of ye flow of St wans, which river or bay at high tide flows about A foot..."

On the 18th of November the Creek headmen met with Governor Grant and Superintendent John Stuart outside of Fort Picolata. An open pavilion of pine logs covered by pine boughs had been prepared, essentially "two poles...wraped round with blankets for ye indian chiefs to sit upon." Grant and Stuart were seated at a table which faced the Chiefs and the open end of the pavilion.

The Creek Chiefs, “about 50 in number,” gathered in the plain between the river and the fort before advancing in columns of six, with two men marching on one side carrying dressed deerskins. Two others carried "A pipe dressed with eagle feathers by which ye interpreter marched & a rattle box. Thay marched with an easy pace, sometimes danceing, singing, & shouting, & every now & then halting. But when they came within 20 paces of ye pavilian, thay halted 4 or 5 minits, then ye 2 chiefs advanced prety fast with A kind of dance to ye Governour & superintendant, which thay stroaked alternately all over thair faces & heads with thair eagle feathers sorounding thair pipes, then retired backward danceing to ye enterance of ye pavilian."

When the chiefs returned they shook hands with Grant and Stuart and took seats while the other Chiefs came forward. The deerskins were presented as gifts, "ye pipe of peace...[was] smoaked," and negotiations commenced. Stuart spoke first, reminding the Chiefs of similar negotiations held the previous spring with headmen of the western Creeks. Grant then gave "A longe & very ingenious talk...after which one of ye cuning chiefs talked in ye name of ye rest shewing thair uneasiness concerning some articles ye superintendant had formerly proposed to them."

Discussions resumed the following day at the same site. The Creeks had proposed a treaty ceding "ye lands up ye rivers as far as ye tide ran, but that gave ye english no satisfaction." On the second day, Grant and Stuart made alternate proposals. They finally agreed upon "A fine concession of above 25 mile deep, from above fort barrington cross St. marys to A point of St. Johns 60 miles above picolata, several hundred miles in length, as much or more than ye governour expected."

The signing was then concluded and the governor and the headmen "smoked in ye pipe of friendship. ye indian chiefs according to thair dignity each [were given] A fine silver medal, some as big as ye palm of my hand, others bigger than A dollar, hung in a fine silk ribon two yards long, which ye governour hung about each chiefs neck while ye drums beat & ye guns fired from ye fort & vesail. Then ye governour &...[John Stuart, the King's superintendent of Indian Affairs in the South], otherwise called ye beloved man, shaked hands with them all." The Picolata Congress concluded November 19th, as presents of guns, kettles and blankets were distributed to the Creek headmen.

John and William Bartram stayed in the area for several days, exploring the vegetation and soils along the river. On the 21st, John wrote briefly in his diary: "killed A monstrous rattlesnake. PM. return'd from a jaunt in a Canoe." Many years later, William would remember this incident in more vivid detail. While walking in a swamp near the fort, John warned his son to "observe the rattle snake before and just at my feet, I stopped and saw the monster formed in a high spiral coil, not half his length from my feet, another step forward would have put my life in his power, as I must have touched if not stumbled over him; the fright and perturbation of my spirits at once excited resentment, at that time I was entirely insensible to gratitude or mercy; I instantly cut off a little sapling and soon dispatched him: this serpent was about six feet in length, and as thick as an ordinary mans leg. The recounter deterred us from proceeding on our researches for that day. So I cut off a long tough withe or vine, which fastening round the neck of the slain serpent I dragged him after me, his scaly body sounding over the ground, and entered the camp with him in triumph, was soon surrounded by the amazed multitude, both Indians and my countrymen. The adventure soon reached the ears of the commander, who sent an officer to request that, if the snake had not bit himself, he might have him served up for his dinner; I readily delivered up the body of the snake to the cooks, and being that day invited to dine at the governor's table, saw the snake served up in several dishes: governor Grant being fond of the flesh of the rattle snake; I tasted of it but could not swallow it. I however, was sorry after killing the serpent when cooly recollecting every circumstance, he certainly had it in his power to kill me almost instantly, and I make no doubt but that he was conscious of it. I promised myself that I would never again be accessary to the death of a rattle snake, which promise I have invariably kept to."

When William Bartram returned to East Florida and the St. Johns River in 1774 he described Fort Picolata as "very ancient, and was built by the Spaniards. It is a square tower thirty feet high, invested with a high wall, without bastions, about breast high, pierced with loop holes and surrounded with a deep ditch. The upper story is open on each side, with battlements, supporting a cupola or roof: these battlements were formerly mounted with eight four pounders, two on each side.

"The works are constructed with heavy stone, cemented with lime. The stone was cut out of quarries, on St. Anastasia Island, opposite St. Augustine: it is of a pale reddish brick colour, and a testacious composition, consisting of small fragments of sea'shells and fine sand. It is well adapted to the constructing of fortifications. It lies in horizontal masses in the quarry, and constitutes the foundation of that island. The castle at St. Augustine, and most of the buldings of the town, are of this stone."

Bibliographic Information

A Note On Sources

John Bartram's words are from Francis Harper, editor, “Diary of a Journey through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, 1765-66,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, new series, 33, Philadelphia, 1942. William Bartram’s account of the encounter with the rattlesnake is from Francis Harper, editor, The Travels of William Bartram; Naturalist’s Edition (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 170-1. His 1774 observations of Fort Picolata are page 52. He wrote that Fort Picolata had been deserted and abandoned when he returned, but in a letter written in 1774 to his patron in England, Dr. John Fothergill, William described the fortress as "newly repaired." Cecile-Marie Sastre, "Picolata on the St. Johns: A Preliminary Study," El Escribano: The St. Augustine Journal of History (Vol. 32, 1995), 25-64, should be consulted on Fort Picolata. Also of value are Thomas P. Slaughter, The Natures of John and William Bartram (New York: Random House, 1997), and Edmund and Dorothy Smith Berkeley, The Correspondence of John Bartram, 1734-1777 (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1992).