Native Americans Started the Trail That Evolved into North Florida’s Transportation System
Following Ancient Footsteps
It began with a foot trail, a narrow path gradually worn over centuries of use as American Indian cultures settled into permanent homes and developed trade routes between neighboring tribes.
With the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s, the meandering dirt path finally took on a name, “El Camino Real.” Its exact location is mostly lost to the ages. But in spite of modern civilization’s best efforts, some traces do miraculously remain, including the faint outline of a sunken road at Mission San Luis in Tallahassee. A broken-down oxcart marks the spot.
Northwest Florida has come a long way since the early days of that road, which eventually stretched 455 miles across the state. An interstate highway, railroads, ports that unload goods from around the world, airports that cater to domestic and international passengers and cargo – all now form Northwest Florida’s transportation system. But real progress began with that age-old Indian path used by the Spanish to spread the Christian gospel and to move troops and produce.
El Camino Real was Florida’s first superhighway and was known by a variety of names, including The King’s Road, Royal Road and Mission Road. Eventually it connected a chain of 100 Franciscan missions and stretched from Pensacola, the capital of Spanish West Florida, to St. Augustine, the capital of Spanish East Florida. Its midpoint was Mission San Luis, which lies just off Tennessee Street on the west side of modern-day Tallahassee.
Today, Old St. Augustine Road tracks the old path through part of Tallahassee. Driving just east of downtown, it’s difficult to envision how the path looked when it was the major thoroughfare used by the Apalachee Indians and Spaniards.
But take a moment to imagine walking with Hernando de Soto, who in 1539 celebrated the first Christmas Mass in the New World just off the path at Anhaica, the ancestor village of San Luis. (Which is located very close to our modern-day Myers Park.) Look for the monks who walked the trail as they journeyed from one mission to another across North Florida. Listen for the creak of the oxcarts that slowly lumbered along, transporting supplies to help feed Spanish settlers.
In his book “Apalachee: The Land Between the Rivers,” author John Hann describes the three available routes used for trade between the Apalachee Indians and St. Augustine:
“The first and oldest was the overland route via the Royal Road, which was based on existing Indian trade paths. The second and most important for heavy and bulky goods was the sea route around the tip of the peninsula, a voyage of about 700 miles, which took two weeks when conditions were favorable.”
The third route was more convoluted but at times faster. It involved a voyage on the Gulf, a trip upriver and then a journey overland.
“Native canoes ferried supplies from the Wakulla River, St. Marks, or the Wacissa along the Gulf Coast to the mouth of the San Martín River (Suwannee), ascending this stream to some point in the vicinity of the confluence with the Santa Fé; then cargo continued to St. Augustine via the Royal Road on pack animals or on human backs.”
The Tallahassee area was vital to the Spanish settlers because of what its good farm and grazing land could provide.
“This was the breadbasket for St. Augustine,” says Karin Stanford, museum program supervisor at Mission San Luis, which was established in 1656. “The Red Hills was a good area for growing things, especially corn. And they sent that corn to St. Augustine. The Spanish also used this area to graze the cattle they introduced to this country.”
Produce, beef, tallow (rendered fat used for making candles and soap) and hides were sent to St. Augustine or even to Havana, Cuba, via an offshoot of the road that stretched south to the port at St. Marks. Indians carried the exports on their backs until the 1680s, when oxcarts introduced by the Spanish became a common sight along the King’s Road.
No one knows exactly how long it took to make the trek from Tallahassee to St. Augustine. However, Jack Sigler, a volunteer at Mission San Luis, did some research with a few military history friends, and the consensus was that oxen pulling fully loaded carts on tracks and muddy roads would average 1.5 miles an hour or about 12 miles a day.
“St. Augustine is a bit more than 200 miles from Mission San Luis,” Sigler says. “That would require a trip of 18 days. But if you add in a day of rest every four days (almost essential) and two days to cross the two major rivers (the Suwannee and the St. Johns), you get a total of about 24 days – or just a bit more than three and a half weeks.”
As the Spanish influence in the region grew, so did the road. By the early 1800s, El Camino Real went as far west as San Diego and then south to Mexico City. Across Florida today, U.S. Highway 90 most closely shadows the old road.
Hundreds of years after the Spanish used it for commerce, the old dirt trail became the foundation for Florida’s first federal highway. It was renamed the Bellamy Road (or sometimes referred to as the Pensacola-St. Augustine Road), a $20,000 project funded in 1823 by Congress. The orders were to follow and improve “the old Indian Trail” and the “old Spanish road.”
Work on the road improvement was begun in 1824 – five years after Florida became a territory – by a military detachment sent out from Pensacola. The instructions were clear: The road must be 25 feet wide, with tree stumps cut low enough so that a wagon floorboard could clear them.
While the U.S. Army started the job, most of the road was built under the direction of John Bellamy, a wealthy Jefferson County planter hired by the Florida territorial council. Bellamy, who used slave labor for the job, was paid $13,500 to build the eastern half, from the Ochlockonee River to the St. Johns.
In a way, the Bellamy Road contributed to Florida’s first population boom by opening the interior of the state to settlers. A portion of the original road remains in northern Alachua County, next to O’Leno State Park.
While the Bellamy Road fell out of favor during the Civil War era, the road went through a revival of sorts in the early 1900s when it became part of “The Old Spanish Trail,” an effort by Southern states who launched a public relations campaign to reinvigorate interest in and attract tourists by urging them to follow “in the footsteps of Padres and Conquistadors.” Stretching 3,000 miles from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it ran through eight states and 67 counties. The project took 15 years, cost $80,000 and opened in 1929. In Florida, remnants can still be seen near Milton and Pensacola.
But the public relations scheme was soon doomed by construction of the Interstate Highway System.
By the time Interstate 10 was finished in 1978, the “freeway of the Deep South” cut straight across the nation, giving drivers a high-speed route that stretched clear to Los Angeles. It also provided the shortest distance between Pensacola and the Atlantic Ocean, opening the way for more traffic from tourists and luring new residents inland to the rolling hills and oak forests of Northwest Florida.
“Thirty years ago, this was a peaceful, quiet, undiscovered part of Florida,” says Larry Kelley, who oversees all road projects in a 16-county area, from Jefferson County to Escambia, for the Florida Department of Transportation. “When tourists thought of Florida, they thought of South Florida. Now there is a huge effort to attract tourists, and the result is that people want to live here.”