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OUT OF THE PAST: Exploring Old Spanish Trail facts, fictions

By Robert Hurst | Bay County Historical Society | Special to The News Herald
Paraner's Trail in Oleno State Park, Columbia County, reveals the size and bad conditions that a traveler might face on the Old Spanish Trail.

For a long time, I had wondered whether there ever was a Spanish Trail that connected Florida’s St. Augustine with California or Mexico, or even Spain’s other Florida provincial capital of Pensacola.

The Old Spanish Trail held my interest, but I felt it was too large of a project to tackle. That was until, in my investigations of local pioneer trails, I discovered a 1778 “Map of the Road from Pensacola in West Florida to St. Augustine in East Florida."

Then, in 2013, celebrations ensued for the 500th anniversary of the Spanish discovery of Florida. Among the happenings was an increase in the interest of the old road. I looked at this 8½- foot-wide map that by now I possessed, realized it to be the only definitive map in existence of the trail, and set my sights on actually mapping and discovering what might remain of this trail that was almost 500 years old.

I learned some fascinating facts and fictions about the trail. First, let us dispense with the fictions. The road did not go to California, nor Mexico, nor was it U.S. 90, though it was branded by that title in the 1920s.

In Florida, it did not go through Milton, though they have a road named Old Spanish Road, nor through Crestview, though they once had a festival by that name (possibly to be revived).

Though the early Florida Spaniards called the road “El Camino Real,” the Royal Road, there was not much “royalty” about it. Actually the Spaniards were quite liberal with their use of the word. It seems that most of their roads were El Camino Reals if they belonged to the Crown.

The Spanish Trail was a muddy dirt track that might allow travel by a horse, but not anything wider. Rivers and their marshes ran mostly north to south in North Florida. The old trail ran east to west, which meant the route had to cross almost all rivers unless it went so far north that it was able to go around their headwaters.

This segment of I.G. Searcy’s 1829 map of Florida shows the Jackson Trail (a later name for the Spanish Trail) terminating at Florida (Floridatown), a very exaggerated Escambia River mouth, and the recently completed Military Road across the bay and east of Pensacola.

Those conditions also held true for in and around the provincial capital, where the road began: St. Augustine. The town was built on a natural fortified landscape: rivers, creeks and marshes to the west and a bay and ocean to the east. As was the case for the rest of North Florida, only from the north was land travel relatively passable.

The trouble is that while St. Augustine was well defended, those natural conditions made it difficult to travel beyond the city limits. Fray Ruiz, living in St. Augustine in 1600, complained that it “was impossible to walk even a quarter of a league without coming into contact with swamps and sloughs…with the result that we are marooned.”

The belief that the end of the trail was in Pensacola is more fiction than fact as well. It actually ended in what is currently Floridatown on the north side of Escambia Bay. Again, it was marshes and rivers that impeded travel. The Escambia River delta with its marshes and as many as seven fingers emptying into its bay made further travel by land to Pensacola virtually impossible. The last 15 miles of such a journey had to be done by boat.

Figuratively, the end of the trail was due to its laborious, circuitous 465-mile journey. After the United States of America took possession of Florida, more direct routes were made.

First came the Federal or Military Road, then the Postal Road in the 1800s, and finally U.S. 90 and I-10 in the 1900s. Even though the trail gradually ceased to be used, small segments survive as hiking trails and minor roads, and the mystique of the Old Spanish Road will survive in the minds of Floridians for ages to come.

For interesting historic exhibits and stories of Bay County’s history, visit the History Museum of Bay County at 133 Harrison Ave. in Panama City. Hours are 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Robert Hurst is the author of the new book, "The Spanish Road, Travels along Florida’s Royal Road, El Camino Real." For more information, visit FloridasSpanishTrail.com.

BOOK SIGNING

Authors: Robert Hurst ("The Spanish Road"), Willie Spears ("Who was Hawk Massalina?"), Nancy Hudson ("George West: His Path in History"), and Kenny Redd ("Odyssey of the Enchanter")

When: 1-3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 21

Where: History Class Brewing Co., 6 E. Fourth St., Panama City