Remembering Missions San Nicolas & San Carlos

by Dale Cox

The first Christmas celebrations in what became Jackson and Washington Counties were likely observed by Franciscan friars on December 25, 1674. The date marked the first time that Christian churches were active in the region for the holiday.

Spanish missionaries including Fray Rodrigo de la Barrera (or Barreda), Fray Miguel de Valverde and a third friar ventured west of the Apalachicola River into the largely unknown lands of the Florida Panhandle in September 1674. Their goal was to bring Christianity to the Chacato (or Chatot) Indians who lived in the area between the Chipola and and Choctawhatchee Rivers. [I]

The Old Spanish Trail crossed the Apalachicola River at today’s River Landing Park in Chattahoochee, Florida. Early survey maps show it as the “old road” that ended near
today’s boat ramp.

The Chacato – sometimes incorrectly confused with the Choctaw – were closely related to the Alibamo (Alabama) and Coushatta (Coosada) of the later Creek Confederacy. The word “Chipola” originated with them and despite some claims that it refers to the “sweet water” in the Chipola River, the truth is that no one really knows. The current Alabama-Coushatta tribe in Texas has no similar word. Early Spanish accounts indicate it was the name of the “great forest” or floodplain of the Chipola and not necessarily the river itself. [II]

The word “Chipola” is a Chacato word that originally referred to
the vast floodplain forests of the upper Chipola River.

Regardless, the three friars crossed the Apalachicola into the wilderness in the company of Lt. Andres Perez, the commanding officer of the fort at Mission San Luis in present-day Tallahassee; Fray Alonso del Moral, the provisional minister; and three Spanish soldiers. Following the “Old Spanish Trail” – which did not follow the route of today’s Old Spanish Trail county road which dates from the late 19th century – they passed Jackson Blue Spring and crossed over the Natural Bridge of the Chipola River at today’s Florida Caverns State Park. [III]

The cave entrance at Blue Springs (Jackson Blue Spring) near Marianna, Florida.
The original Old Spanish Trail passed by the historic spring.

The first significant village of the Chacato was found at a place called Atanchia, just a few miles west of the Chipola River. The town was at the mouth of a massive cave which Fray Barrera later recalled as the place where he “came to preach the Gospel” in 1674:

Here we spent the night in the hollow of such a beautiful and unusual rock that I can state positively that more than 200 men could be lodged most comfortably within it; inside there is a brook which gushes from the living rock. It has plenty of light and height with three apertures buttressed by stonework of unusual natural architecture. Around it are level plots of ground, groves of trees and pine woods, all of which are delightful. [IV]

A view inside one of the caves that matches the Spanish descriptions
of the one near which the Chacato town of Atanchia stood in 1674.

The village surrounding the cave was the second largest in the Chacato province, but the expedition paused there only briefly before continuing on to a larger village 3-4 leagues (around 8-12 miles) to the southwest. This town was the primary village or capital of the Chacato and the Spanish called it Achercatane in some documents and Yulcatane in others. The exact meaning is unknown but the name bears a strong resemblance to Okitiyakane, a Lower Creek town of later years. [V]

A view looking east from the top of Orange Hill near Chipley, Florida.
The Chacato capital may have been in the vicinity.

A rough church was constructed at Achercatane and dedicated as Mission San Carlos de Achercatane on June 21, 1674. Named for St. Charles Borromeo, the patron saint of learning and the arts, the mission was the first known European settlement in Northwest Florida since the ill-fated Tristan de Luna expedition of 1559. [VI]

At least one and possibly two of the missionaries remained at Mission San Carlos but the other visitors returned to Atanchia, the village by the cave, on June 22, 1674. They built a second crude church there and dedicated it as Mission San Nicolas de Tolentino. The name honored St. Nicholas of Tolentino, an Italian saint who was a healer and humanitarian, and not the better known St. Nicholas upon whom the Santa Claus story is based. [VII]

Mission San Nicolas stood near a Jackson County cave so large that
200 people could easily stay inside of it.

The three friars remained at the new missions to begin their work with the Chacato, but the military detachment and Fray Alonso del Moral returned to San Luis.

The effort to bring the Native Americans to Christianity continued until the following year, when the missions were destroyed by the Chacato as they rebelled against Spanish authority. The friars were driven out of the region west of the Apalachicola and many of the families from San Carlos and San Nicolas fled north to join the Alabama-Coushatta towns near present-day Montgomery, Alabama. Several hundred of the residents had converted to Christianity and remained in the area, eventually settling at a new Mission San Carlos near today’s Sneads, Florida. 

Jason Dehart (right) discusses Florida’s Spanish history to visitors at
the Caverns Cultural Celebration, an annual event at Florida Caverns State Park.

Before the violent end of the missions between the Chipola and the Choctawhatchee, however, Christmas was observed during the winter of 1674-1675. The holiday is one of the church’s most sacred and commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ. 

In Catholic churches – then as now – Christmas is the occasion of special masses that celebrate the coming of the Messiah into the world. Such was undoubtedly the case at Missions San Carlos de Achercatane and San Nicolas de Tolentino, with the faithful and others joining in their thanks for the birth of the Christ child.

You can learn more about the mission era by driving the Jackson County Spanish Heritage Trail. It features stops at 11 colonial sites of significance. Guidebooks are available at the historic Russ House & Visitor Center on West Lafayette Street in Marianna.

The locations of the two missions remain a matter for speculation. San Nicolas stood at a cave northwest of Marianna in what is now Jackson County, with the privately-owned Ladies Cave, historic Arch Cave and Nine Caves most closely matching the Spanish descriptions. San Carlos stood 8-12 miles to the southwest, probably in the Orange Hill, Falling Waters Hill or Holmes Valley area of Washington County.

Archaeologists and students from the University of West Florida 
examine a site near one of Jackson County’s many caves.

Archaeological research carried out several years ago by Gregg Harding and a team from the University of West Florida revealed much new information about cave-related Native American sites in Jackson County, but the missions remain to be found. 

Note: Learn more about the founding and destruction of the Chacato missions in Dale Cox’s book The History Of Jackson County, Florida: The Early Years.

[I] Certification by Andres Peres, June 23, 1674, in John H. Hann, Visitations and Revolts in Florida, 1565-1695, pp. 75-76.

[II] Juan Fernandez de Florencia, Report of August 30, 1678.

[III] Ibid.

[IV] Journal of Fray Rodrigo de la Barrera (Barreda), 1693.

[V] For accounts of these missions, please see John H. Hann, The Native American World Beyond Apalachee: West Florida and the Chattahoochee Valley (Florida Museum of Natural History: Ripley P. Bullen Series), University Presses of Florida, 2006, or Dale Cox, The History of Jackson County, Florida: The Early Years, Old Kitchen Books,  2008/

[VI] Ibid.

[VII] Ibid.