Clay County’s Spanish Fort – Fort Pupa

Mary Jo McTammany
Posted 10/17/18

Since the time of the Timucua Indians in Florida a little piece of land on the west bank of the St. Johns River just south of today’s Green Cove Springs has silently witnessed the rich diversity of …

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Clay County’s Spanish Fort – Fort Pupa

Posted

Since the time of the Timucua Indians in Florida a little piece of land on the west bank of the St. Johns River just south of today’s Green Cove Springs has silently witnessed the rich diversity of people, life and cultures that mingled and clashed to become the present.

Geologic wrenching started it all by creating one of the narrowest crossings on the mighty river at just this point. Early native Timucua Indians crossed the river near this place in their annual migrations to the sea. The Spanish colonization machine immediately recognized the site’s potential.

In 1565, the Spanish established a presence at St. Augustine and for the next 100 years exploited the North Florida area with their simple but effective system of roads and missions. The Spanish alliance of government and the Catholic Church established a Florida presence to protect the convoys of treasure ships returning home from Latin American colonies and to harvest heathen converts for the church.

At the missions, Indians were forced to raise then transport supplies back to the seaside garrison. Two primitive inland trails, one north and one south converged at the crossing below Green Cove Springs where corn and livestock were ferried across the river to a landing at Picolata, then carried east into St. Augustine.

Until the 1700s, this system was effective, and the ferry crossing was a busy gathering place of settlers, priests, friendly Indians and soldiers. In 1670, the English established a settlement in Charleston, South Carolina, and suddenly the Spanish garrison in St. Augustine, impervious to attack from the sea, was seriously vulnerable to attack from the rear, overland.

Predictably, between 1701 and 1714, when Queen Anne’s War erupted between Britain and Spain, Governor James Moore of South Carolina and his troops frequently destroyed isolated missions and succeeded in an overland attack to burn the settlement at St. Augustine to the ground and lay siege to the fort.

The Spanish were forced to withdraw to the St. Johns River. To protect the rear, the idyllic bank of the river, south of Green Cove Springs became the Spanish Empire’s first line of defense in Florida. In 1716, a work crew of soldiers, peaceful Indians and Spanish soldiers led by Lieutenant Diego Pena constructed a defensive fort and protective fence and with as much pomp and circumstance as possible in a near swamp and named it Fort St. Francis de Pupa.

Two miles across the river, an identical Fort Picolata was constructed at the same time. Each fort was garrisoned by an eight-man squad to guard traders, travelers and troops crossing the river from Creek Indian attacks and alert the Castillo de San Marcos of any advancing troops.

In 1737, British settlers, at the new Oglethorpe colony in Georgia, began paying Creek Indians to attack traders, peaceful Indians and priests traveling to Fort Pupa and across the river. Spanish military engineer Antonio Arredondo recommended improvements. Within a year Fort Pupa became a three-story structure with a blockhouse 15 feet square. The palisade fence was expanded and strengthened to 7 feet high on the inside and 12 feet high on the outside. The entire structure was surrounded by a moat. Fort Picolata was also improved.

The improvements were just in time for within two years the colonial giants of Spain and Britain had found another excuse to flex their military muscle and the War of Jenkins Ear was raging.

Governor James Oglethorpe annoyed and spoiling for a fight some say because the scheme he hatched to raise silkworms failed when the silkworms died – immediately marched south headed for St. Augustine.

Fort Pupa held for two days finally surrendered after the second volley of cannon shot. But, St. Augustine was warned, and Oglethorpe went home disappointed again.

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