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Fort St. Nicholas

A Spanish fort used to guard the Southside area, and its soldiers may have looked out on a view similar to this one. The picture comes from an old postcard that dates from the early 1900s. The card shows the St. Johns River, but it isn’t the portion that was in Jacksonville at that time. However, the picture still gives an idea of how the St. Johns probably appeared before the city was founded.

A SOUTHSIDE STRONGHOLD — Gridiron warriors now battle on a field close to where a Spanish fort once stood. Over 200 years ago, a small Spanish stronghold, Fort St. Nicholas, was situated just west of the athletic field of present-day Bishop Kenny High School. (The school is located on Atlantic Boulevard in South Jacksonville.)

The Spanish built the fort sometime around 1740. It was destroyed & reconstructed at least twice. At one time, a triangular excavation enclosed a stronghold that measured about 100 feet square. Located outside of the fort were barracks & officers quarters.

THE FORT’S PURPOSE — Throughout its history, the stronghold served the Spanish authorities in various ways. These included the following: (1) the defense of the Cowford (Jacksonville) crossing; (2) the protection of settlers & missionaries from Indians; (3) the preservation of Spanish interests in Florida against the British & Americans; and (4) the prevention of smugglers from using the St. Johns River.

Other concerns also worried the Spanish. By 1800, the area had become a haven for troublemakers. These included (1) bandits, (2) ruffians, (3) criminals who had fled the United States, (4) slave catchers chasing bondsmen who had escaped from the Southern states, and (5) individuals who wanted to wrest Florida from Spain’s control. Spanish officials hoped that Fort San Nicholas would help control these undesirables.

Why was the stronghold located on the Southbank? This location offered a better view of the river to the east than a spot on the Northbank would have. During the 1790s, however, only ten soldiers occupied the fort.

A DESCRIPTION — The largest & strongest version of the fort came in about 1813. The Spanish had to rebuild the fort after Americans destroyed it. This new structure featured a square, outer wall that stood nine feet high and was made of sawed timber. The tops of the logs were sharpened into points.

The fort ran 100 feet down each side, and the moat measured 14 feet wide and seven feet deep. Inside the stockade, houses were erected for the commander, his sergeants, & others. The builders removed all of the trees within one mile of the fortification. This enabled the fort’s defenders to more easily fire at attackers.

A HAS-BEEN — Although Fort St. Nicholas was larger and stronger, it soon lost its importance. It wasn’t really needed after Florida became an American possession in 1819. Within several years, a farmer had dug out the fort’s remains & planted a field there.

All but forgotten, Fort St. Nicholas finally made headlines again in 1917. The Merrill-Stevens Shipyard was building a ship slip just west of today’s Bishop Kenney athletic field; this slip was to be used to construct ships during World War I. To their surprise, the workmen unearthed cannon balls, belt buckles, military buttons, & other items. These artifacts offered a glimpse into the time when the Spanish ruled Florida.

–written by Glenn Emery

More information on Fort St. Nicholas, from Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage, page 229-230:

The northern bank of the St. Johns River at the narrow crossing point called “Cow Ford” by the British and “Pass de San Nicolas” by the Spanish, became the site of the town of Jacksonville in 1822. The southern bank retained the Spanish designation San Nicolas. The Spanish considered building a fort on this southern shore as early as 1740, when British General James Oglethorpe of Georgia (founder of Savannah) was preparing to invade the region. Actual construction did not occur until after 1783, when the Spanish regained the territory following twenty years of British control. The King’s Road had been built during the British occupation and had become a major north-south transportation route from the St. Mary’s River to St. Augustine. Later the Spanish fortified San Nicolas adjacent to the King’s Road, making it a strategic battery for guarding the river crossing, as well as an important northerly point of defense for St. Augustine.

American adventurers, Creek Indians, bands of criminals, and French Republicans all sought to invade the newly re-established Spanish province of East Florida. In 1793, a number of Floridians rebelled against Spanish rule, declared their loyalty to the United States, and fled to Georgia. Among them was Richard Lang, for the previous five years the magistrate for the St. Johns region. Don Juan McQueen, who replaced Lang as magistrate, directed a strengthening of the fortifications at San Nicolas in 1794, anticipating an attack by the French. The following year, a band of rebels led by ex-magistrate Richard Lang attacked Fort San Nicolas and occupied it for several days before fleeing back to Georgia.

The simple triangular battery at San Nicolas was extended in 1802. A description of the fort in 1811, indicates that it had grown to over one hundred feet in length and width and had been surrounded by a log palisade and a moat. Following another invasion in 1817, however, the Spanish abandoned the fort for the final time.

In 1820, the Spanish governor rejected a petition from citizens living around the Cow Ford to form a municipality called San Nicolas. Had it been accepted, the city of Jacksonville might be named St. Nicholas today. Within a year after Florida was ceded to the United States in 1821, the name Jacksonville was given to the settlement north of the Cow Ford.

The area south of the river near the former fort has continued to be known as St. Nicholas (the Anglicized equivalent of “San Nicolas”). After the Civil War and through the late 1800’s, the area from the ferry landing (the former JEA Southside Generation Station site) to the Arlington River, including Empire Point, was referred to as “the village of St. Nicholas.” Property ownership in this sparsely populated settlement stemmed from two Spanish land grants, one to Francis Bagley and the other to Reuben Hogans.

After Bagley’s death, his grant passed on to his widow, Anna Hogans. This property consisted of three hundred acres and extended from Isaac Hendricks’ property on the west to just beyond Miller’s Creek on the east. The Bagley grant was later divided up among Anna Hogans’ five children, and it is this area, west of Miller’s Creek, which is called St. Nicholas today.

Copyright © 2017 by Jacksonville Historical Society