What’s In a Name? : Castillo de San Marcos

A drawn aerial view of Castillo de San Marcos showing the basic shapes of the fort and its earthworks.
Map of the Castillo. UFDC.

The Castillo de San Marcos stands as a sentinel on the Matanzas Inlet, a symbol of the Spanish colonial history for which St. Augustine, Florida is known.  Its name then, the Castillo de San Marcos, does not surprise tourists who flock to see it, who travel from around the world, catch a glimpse of its coquina bastions, and then approach the Park Rangers to see if they can walk inside.  “It’s a Spanish fort, it has a Spanish name!”  A Spanish Queen Regent commissioned it, this is true.  Various groups of Spaniards, enslaved men, and Indigenous laborers built it over decades, this is also true.  Yet the fort was dubbed Fort Marion for approximately one hundred and twenty years.   

A color photograph from a postcard of the Castillo de San Marco's drawbridge seen from the west. A park ranger on the drawbridge looks at the moat filled with water. Mantanzas Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and Anatasia Island can be seen in the distance.
Castillo de San Marcos. UFDC.

Why the name change?  Who was Marion?  The United States acquired Florida through the Adams-Onís Treaty in 1819, but the War Department did not take control of Florida’s forts until 1821.  At this time the Castillo de San Marcos became a symbol of ever-growing strength and burgeoning nationalism.  To secure the Castillo as this symbol, in 1825 the War Department decided to rename the fort after Revolutionary hero General Francis Marion, otherwise known as the Swamp Fox, a man who hid himself and his men in swamps throughout the South to avoid detection.  While the name Marion was surely meant to inspire patriotism in the new Florida Territory, it was hardly suitable for our St. Augustine fort. 

During the American Revolution, the fort, and all of Florida, was under British control and launched attacks against General Marion.  British St. Augustinians burned effigies of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and imprisoned certain signers in the fort (which they called Fort St. Marks, an anglicized version of Castillo de San Marcos).  The War Department did not name this fort to honor a soldier of St. Augustine, it named this fort as a newly acquired American fortification and wanted to encompass it and this land into the American narrative that had begun in more northern colonies.

A black and white photograph of Castillo de San Marcos seen from the west. The moat surrounding the Castillo is filled with water. Mantanzas Bay as well as the Atlantic Ocean can be seen in the distance.
Castillo de San Marcos. UFDC.

Calling the fort, “Fort Marion,” did not mean the structure lost its exoticism to the Florida tourist.  Visitors came in droves during the nineteenth century to see a Spanish fortress and also to see American Indian prisoners incarcerated in three distinct decades.  Seminole prisoners were kept in Fort Marion in the 1830s, Plains Indians were held there the 1870s, and Apaches were imprisoned there in the 1880s.  Thus the name Fort Marion became forever tied with American expansionism and American Indian incarceration.

It was not until the 1940s that the state of Florida sought the federal government’s approval to change the name of the fort back to something that reflected the Spanish history of St. Augustine.  A bill was introduced to Congress to officially change the name back to the “Castillo de San Marcos” and the St. Augustine Record wrote that said bill, “should not cause Congressmen any headaches or heart aches…It is rooted in history, and represents also the flowering of public sentiment.”[1]  Bill HR 3937 passed the Senate in 1942, in the midst of World War II, officially reverting the name back to the Castillo de San Marcos. 

[1] “Easy Restoration Phase,” St. Augustine Record (St. Augustine, FL), February 9, 1940.

One thought on “What’s In a Name? : Castillo de San Marcos

  1. Pingback: Castillo de San Marcos – Governor's House Library

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