What’s In a Name? St. Johns River

Over 100,000 years ago, the St. Johns River formed as Florida’s peninsula took shape. Starting as trapped ocean water, the river eventually became over 300 miles long and a vital part of life. Its freshwater flows northwards from marshes in today’s Indian River County to the Atlantic Ocean in present-day Jacksonville. Humans began to call the river home approximately 12,000 years ago. We may never know all of the names given to this body of water, but let us explore a few of them from the past 500 years:

  • Welaka

    Before European involvement in North America, the St. Johns River went by the name Welaka. Of Seminole-Creek origin, Welaka is often translated as “river of lakes.”

    An illustration of people paddling a canoe on a body of water with a large circular structure on land behind them.
    Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues captured a river-scene in his 1500s engraving of Florida. (UFDC)
  • Rio de Corientes

    Spanish seamen in the early 1500s called the river Rio de Corrientes (River of Currents).

    An illustration of the southeastern North American continent, including the island of Bimini.
    “Florida et Apalche,” printed sometime between 1597-1610, depicts “R. de Corrientes.” (UFDC)
  • Riviere de Mai

    In 1562, the French established Fort Caroline on a high bluff overlooking a river — located in today’s Timucuan Ecological & Historic Preserve. They called the body of water Riviere de Mai (River of May) because they arrived there on May 1st.

    An illustration of people constructing a triangular fort of wood logs on an island.
    Jacques Le Moyne created some of the earliest images of the St. Johns River by Europeans. (UFDC)
  • Rio de San Mateo

    In 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés marched soldiers north from present-day St. Augustine to destroy Fort Caroline. The Spanish renamed the river San Mateo after capturing the French fort on September 20th — the day before the feast day of St. Matthew.

    An illustrated map of Florida's peninsula, Cuba, and the Bahamas.
    “Planta de la Costa de la Florida,” circa 1565, features both “S mateo” and “S agustin.” (UFDC)
  • Rio de San Juan

    Later, the river took the name of Rio de San Juan (River of St. Johns). This name derived from San Juan del Puerto — a Spanish Franciscan mission on today’s Fort George Island. The Spanish founded the mission prior to 1587 as part of their efforts to convert the Timucua. The Spanish abandoned the site around 1702, but the mission’s legacy continued on through the river’s name.

    An illustrated map of East and West Florida, featuring Pensacola Bay.
    “Map of East and West Florida” by J. Gibson in 1763 depicts a “Rio de Sn. Juan.” (Florida Memory)

    St. Johns River

    Over the centuries, English speakers adopted Rio de San Juan, which then became the “St. Johns River.” Today, this name lends itself to St. Johns County and a number of organizations throughout Florida. Dive further into the St. Johns River’s more recent history and future by visiting the St. Johns River Water Management District’s website at www.sjrwmd.com.

    A color map of the St. Johns River Water Management District.
    A map of the St. Johns River Water Management District from the 1990s. (UFDC)


2 thoughts on “What’s In a Name? St. Johns River

  1. Pingback: Governor James Grant: “Commissioner Of The Mildew” – Governor's House Library

  2. Pingback: William Bartram’s Legacy – Governor's House Library

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