The origin of the name Apalachicola is uncertain. The Apalachicola were a small tribe that lived near the confluence of the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers in an area dominated by the Muskogee and the Creeks. Depending on the source referenced, the name is a Hitchiti or Muskogee word meaning people on the other side of the water. Often the adjective “friendly” is included in the translation. Other sources say the word means allies, and yet another explanation is that Apalachicola refers to the berm or ridge created when scraping the ground for a firepit for council meetings or matters of war or peace.
In the 1600’s Spain began establishing missions among Native American inhabitants of La Florida. By 1680, when some of the first attacks on missions occurred, there were more than 50 missions between Gainesville and the Apalachicola River. Whatever pious motivations were originally intended, the Spanish Crown also used the mission system for subjugation of native populations, exploitation of forced labor, and a de facto militia with primitive arms, to help deter challenges to Spain’s colonization.
Because Spain would not allow landowners who were not Catholic, or who did business with the English Colonies, North Florida was sparsely inhabited. Despite the construction of a Spanish fort at the mouth of the Apalachicola River in 1705, by the time the British formally took over Florida in 1763, the mission system had been violently dismantled, and other than the trading posts operated by Panton Leslie & Co. there was little economic activity in the Panhandle except in Pensacola and St. Marks.
By the 1750’s there were very few European settlers, and although there was a trail from the Apalachicola River to the Spanish Fort at St. Marks, the area was largely uninhabited. The area served as a hideout for pirates who preyed on the Spanish gold shipments from Mexico. The peninsula of land bounded by the west bank of the Apalachicola River and the Apalachicola Bay on the south was known as Murder Point, and the area was given a wide berth by ships navigating the Gulf of Mexico. With English rule, that began to change.
Sometime during the latter half of the 1700’s a trading post was established at Murder Point (the area known today as the Ten Foot Hole, and the area became known as Cotton Town, later shortened to Cottonton. Over the years upriver plantations sent more and more cotton to the landing. Robert Fulton’s invention of commercially steam engines in 1809 set off a boom in Cottonton as scores of steamboats plied the river between Columbus and the mouth of the Apalachicola River. The area grew, especially after the US acquired Florida from the Spanish in 1821. On February 26, 1823 President James Monroe appointed Charles Jenkins to be the “Collector of the Customs, and Inspector of the Revenue for the district of Apalachicola.”
The town was incorporated in 1828 as West Point, then renamed in 1831 as Apalachicola. In 1832 Franklin county (named for Benjamin Franklin) was created from land carved out of Jackson County, and Apalachicola was designated as the county seat.
Many Apalachicola merchants also operated warehouses in Chattahoochee, Florida’s first town south of the Georgia border on the Apalachicola River. Apalachicola’s economic well being depended on the trade of cotton coming down the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers. Because the river wasn’t always navigable, the Chattahoochee warehouses provided backup.
The final throes of ethnic cleansing that resulted in the Second Seminole War saw the removal of most of the Creek and Seminoles from Georgia and Florida along the Trail of Tears to reservations in Oklahoma. More and more settlers made their way to the Chattahoochee River valley, where substantial plantations were established and Apalachicola became their shipping destination of choice. Interestingly, this steady development occurred despite Apalachicola’s failings as a natural port. Both river and bay are naturally shallow, so seagoing vessels would anchor up between St. George and Dog Islands, where they would dump the weights they carried for stability in preparation to receive cargos of cotton and timber which were delivered by lighters. Lighters were barges that were polled across the bay that carried goods to be loaded on the ships. The name Ballast Cove is still used today.
Year by year, the amount of cotton shipped increased. Many men became wealthy in the cotton trade, the town prospered as ships came to pick up cotton, and leave manufactured and finished goods for sale up the river.
Despite the uncertainty presented by the Forbes Purchase, Apalachicola continued to grow. Many of the inhabitants were convinced that the Forbes Purchase would never be held to be valid, others were unconcerned that they land they occupied was done so without clear title. Many folks in both groups simply believed that their land claims would be grandfathered in, regardless of the outcome of the Forbes Purchase wrangling.
When the Supreme Court validated the Forbes Purchase, and the Apalachicola Land Company was formed in 1835 a challenge to Apalachicola’s position as the third largest port on the Gulf was raised when a group of investors created the town of St. Joseph. Constructing the first railroad in Florida, the builders of St. Joseph hoped to steal Apalachicola’s thunder.
At first the town boomed, becoming one of Florida’s first resort destinations. Many wealthy families built vacation homes there, and the connecting of the port with Lake Wimico by rail, gave planters a choice for shipping their cotton. Unfortunately, St. Joseph became a victim of the three plagues of Florida: wind, flood, and fever. Hit by several hurricanes, one of which brought a such huge surge that newspapers of the day described the town being hit by a tidal wave, the town finally succumbed to a yellow fever epidemic that simply left the town decimated. By 1842 St. Joseph was a ghost town. Apalachicolans salvaged many of the homes that had been built there, and had them sectioned and transported to Apalachicola, where some of them still stand in today’s Historic District.
In 1836, the Apalachicola Land Company dredged the mouth of the river and created “Apalachicola Harbor” an area along the present day Water St. that enabled larger boats access. Also during the 1830’s the US government appropriated money to clear obstructions from the river and to dredge deeper channels leading across the bay to Dog and St. George Islands.
Apalachicola continued to grow. Census information reveals a population in 1840 of 808 free and 222 slave inhabitants. By 1850 there were 1,184 free and 377 slave living here. By 1860 the free population had swelled to 1,384 with 520 slaves.
In the day to day hustle along the docks and wharves of Apalachicola life was generally good for the merchant and professional class. Florida achieved Statehood in 1845. Apalachicola had become the sixth largest city in Florida. An emerging timber industry began to take up the slack as cotton shipments tailed off during the 1850’s due to Florida’s emerging railroads and upriver textile mills.
Few people in 1855 foresaw how commercial boom would turn to financial bust when the Union effectively blockaded Apalachicola during the Civil War.