Along the Florida Panhandle from St. Marks in the east to Santa Rosa Island near the Alabama border, the Gulf Coast is dotted with islands and bays named after Catholic saints. With the exceptions of Dog Island and Alligator Point, the Forgotten Coast follows the same rule, with St. Joseph Bay, Cape San Blas, St. Vincent Island, St. George Island, St. James, St. Theresa and St. Marks.

Given the numerous saints’ names, it is easy to picture Spanish explorers sailing along the Gulf Coast, naming islands and bays based on the calendar of Catholic feast days. One problem with this idea is that early maps by Spanish cartographers rarely name landmarks along the Gulf, and most barrier islands went unnamed until 1700. So who really named St. George Island, and when did they name it?

The age of exploration

In 1519, the governor of Jamaica, Francisco Garay, sent Alonso Alvarez de Pineda on an expedition to claim the land as far as Texas. Pineda discovered Florida was a peninsula, and from his ship logs, the first map of the Gulf was drawn. Pineda was killed in Texas, but his map survived. However, the only feature Pineda named was Espiritu Santo, possibly the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Few local names derived from the early, disastrous expeditions by Pánfilo de Narváez (1528), Hernando de Soto (1539-1544) and Tristan de Luna (1559), and even then, it took over 50 years to place the names on European maps. The first modern name to be placed on a map of the Panhandle was the Bay of St. Joseph, noted on a chart from 1584 by Geronimo Chavez. (See map). The map did not name the peninsula that shelters the bay, but Sanson’s map of 1654 called it Escondido, or hidden cape (now Cape San Blas). His map shows a Rio Grande that may depict the Apalachicola River, and a few unnamed islands in the area.

No more detail was added until the Spanish missions reached Apalache Province between 1633 and 1656. Several modern names in Franklin County, including Apalachicola, originated with the Spanish missions in north Florida, followed by military expeditions launched from St. Marks to counteract French explorers who settled by Mobile Bay.

Franciscan friars and the Spanish missions

In 1565, King Phillip II of Spain instructed Pedro Menendez to drive the French out of Fort Caroline on the St. Johns River, convert the Indians to Christianity, and develop an economy that could support the Spanish treasury. After founding St. Augustine, Menendez sent friars overland to the high, fertile land that extended through modern Tallahassee and the Flint River. By 1633, the friars had established mission towns among the Timucua and Apalachee people.

In 1656, Mission San Luis was established in what is now Tallahassee, and the mission complex quickly became the capital of west Florida. Unlike other tribes, Apalachee men and women were excellent agriculturists. Traditional crops of maize, beans, and squash were augmented by wheat, barley, peas, tobacco, watermelons and domestic animals brought by the Spanish.

A landing on the river now called San Marcos de Apalache (or St. Marks) served as a port, and a spur of the king’s road linked it to Mission San Luis. Supply ships from Havana and St. Augustine brought iron tools, plowshares, firearms, gunpowder, ceramics, and jugs of olive oil and wine. The mission farms and ranches exported cow and deer hides, tallow, lard, cured meat, maize, wheat, and beans back to Havana and St. Augustine.

Although the neighboring Apalachicola people refused to convert to Christianity and remained hostile to the Spanish friars, a mission was set up briefly on the Flint River at the end of the king’s road. It is very likely the friars, soldiers and sailors explored west to the Apalachicola River, learned place names, and corresponded with authorities. Around 1680, political events stimulated a new phase of exploration and naming that literally put St. George Island on the map.

The French and English threats

In 1670, British colonists founded Charleston, South Carolina, and Indian traders from the colony reached the Apalachicola River by 1685, threatening the mission settlements. Also, French cavalier Robert La Salle founded a colony in Texas in 1684, and the French claimed the Gulf Coast as far as Mobile, Alabama.

Alarmed, the Spanish initiated several expeditions by land and sea to locate the French and drive them out. In 1686, Spanish ships left Havana in search of the French, and one of their first stops was the port at St. Marks. The pilot, Enriquez Barroto, was a highly regarded cartographer who kept extensive records of the journey, no doubt including information provided by the friars and soldiers in Apalache province.

By 1690, Barroto had piloted three expeditions that spanned the coast from St. Marks to Veracruz. He furnished his logs to a fellow pilot named Juan Bisente in Havana, and in 1696, Bisente drafted the first detailed map of the Gulf Coast that names St. George Island. (See map)

Although Bisente’s map was carefully guarded, a French ship intercepted the Spanish vessel taking it to Spain, and the map wound up in the hands of royal French cartographers. They quickly engraved and printed the information on new maps of the Gulf of Mexico, and by 1703, St. George Island and the Apalachicola River began appearing on some European maps, such as the De L’Isle map of 1703. The island east of St. George was called St. Catalina (or Catherine) for a number of years, but was changed to Ysla de Perros (Dog Island) before Spain transferred Florida to Britain.

Responding to the French threat, the Spanish sent expeditions from Mission San Luis and St. Marks to explore Pensacola Bay in 1693, and established a fortified town there in 1698. However, the Spanish could not defend Apalache province against hostile Indians, British and French. Attacks weakened the missions in 1702, and then Governor James Moore of Charleston led a raid in 1704 that destroyed the missions. The Apalache, who had numbered over 30,000 when the friars arrived, died or dispersed. The few survivors assimilated into other cultures and the Apalache identify vanished.

Maps from Slowley to Swift

When the British acquired Florida from Spain in 1763, some maps still called Cape San Blas “Cabo Escondido,” and called the entire island chain either St. George’s Islands or Dog Island. Over the next 60 years, maps of the barrier islands became much more detailed.

A good example is the navigator’s map of the barrier islands made by Robert Slowley in 1767. (See map) Slowley’s map shows the triangular shape of what is now called St. Vincent Island. Modern St. George Island is divided in two, with Little St. George separate from St. George Island, just as described by the hapless Pierre Viaud, who was shipwrecked on Dog Island (Ile aux Chiens in French) in 1766 (see May 24, 2017 Times “Saga of a shipwreck” ). An Indian rescued Viaud and three companions by canoeing to what is now called St. George Island. Three survivors were eventually rescued by a British navy patrol from St. Marks.

Although it may be true Spanish friars named St. Vincent Island, in 1810 the Spanish cartographer of West Florida, Vincent Pintado, called it St. Dionisio. Pintado changed the name to St. Vincent in 1815, and the first American maps kept his nomenclature, as shown on an 1829 map prepared by Lt. W. H. Swift

And so the barrier islands and rivers of Franklin County got their names over 300 years in a process that began with early explorers, but primarily took place during the Spanish mission period from 1656 to 1704. Even then, the names had to be accepted when ownership changed to British occupation of 1763 to 1783, back to the Spanish from 1783 to 1819, and finally be retained on American maps. Incidentally, a copy of the Slowley map was purchased by Apalachicola resident Bill Spohrer, and is displayed at the Raney House.