Indigenous History (or lack thereof) at the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument

Image of the outside of the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument's eastern wall at sunset, showing the St. Augustine harbor.
Photo credit: National Park Service

The Castillo de San Marcos, also known as Fort Marion, is located in St. Augustine, Florida, on the ancestral land of the Timicua and Surruque. The city of St. Augustine as it exists today was founded by Spanish Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565. The success of this settlement lead to Menéndez de Avilés’ position as the first Governor of La Florida. A little over a century after St. Augustine was first settled by Spanish colonists, a military fort, the Castillo de San Marcos, was built to ensure the safety of ships travelling up La Florida’s east coast in order to catch the Gulf Stream and head back to Spain.

The Castillo de San Marcos is now a National Monument administered by the National Park Service, and as such has NPS Rangers and affiliates working at the fort and doing active interpretation for visitors. I visited the fort on March 12th, and while I was impressed with some aspects of the fort’s presentation and the architectural reconstruction, I was less than pleased by many of the interpretation choices made by the NPS at this location.

I’ll start this review by saying that obviously no one can be perfect. But as a historical archaeologist and museum worker I tend to hold the heritage sites I visit to a high standard. In my opinion, heritage sites that are actively engaging with the public need to be doing their best to be on the forefront of interpretation changes and socially responsible heritage management. They are the first interaction many people have with some of the truly horrific aspects of our country’s history, and the way this history is presented deeply impacts the way visitors learn and grow from their experiences at heritage sites. Additionally, it’s no secret that the NPS has a race issue: outside studies have reported that up to three quarters of all visitors are white, and the vast majority of non-natural national monuments and parks are deeply tied to Euro-American history. Which is why the Castillo de San Marcos and its interpretation is so incredibly important.

Image of inner courtyard of the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, showing a green grass area, a cannon demonstration, and a tent where public interpretation occurs.
View of the Castillo’s inner courtyard from the ramparts.

The Castillo de San Marcos acted as a prison and internment camp for Indigenous peoples of various allegiances and tribes in the area, over a 50-year period which saw the imprisonment of both political and military prisoners, as well as women, children, and other non-combatants. I understand the difficulty in interpreting a site with close to 350 years of history, and the need to choose periods of focus. However, the way the interpreters at the Castillo de San Marcos presented the Indigenous history of the site was not only inadequate, but socially irresponsible.

The Fort has several live interpretation talks during the day, with an NPS employee dressed in 18th-century British attire, which reflects the choice to focus the majority of interpretation on the military history of the fort. The talk, which lasted about 35 minutes, began with the Spanish, went through the various colonial powers who took control of the fort and the difficult conditions these occupying forces faced, and, finally — at the very end of the discussion — mentioned the fort’s use as a prison. What this public presentation sorely lacked was any kind of nuance. The discussion was clearly targeted to the all-white audience which sat before the interpreter, despite the fact that there were a decent amount of visitors of color at the fort that day. No visitors of color sat down to listen to the interpretation, and I began to wonder if this was related to the often noted idea that many Americans of color are told, whether through implicit or explicit messages, that National Parks simply aren’t for them. I wondered if the overwhelming whiteness of the crowd listening to the interpretation was a coincidence, or a result of the visitors of color feeling that they somehow weren’t entitled to, or a target of, the history of the park. Regarding the latter, they may be correct.

Image of a man wearing historical clothing, demonstrating the making of coquina bricks.
NPS craftsmen demonstrating the creation of coquina bricks, the primary building component of the Castillo.

As I mentioned above, the employee discussed the history of the Castillo de San Marcos primarily from an European perspective. Most mentions of Indigenous Floridians were either in negative terms during the beginning of the presentation, or were solely discussing their imprisonment. There was also quite a lot of glossing over the actual circumstances of European-Indigenous interactions, including the face that the Castillo was built by Indigenous slaves who were forced into labor at nearby Missions under the Spanish system of encomienda, including, including Apalachee men from the Mission San Luis. None of this was mentioned.

The interpretation did end with discussing the Fort’s use as a prison but, again, the emphasis was on the supposed brevity of this period. The interpreter admitted he did not know the exact numbers of people held at the fort, or the tribes they belonged to — despite the fact that this information is readily available in the exhibit rooms that are dedicated to the internment period of the fort. This of course, may be a failure of the individual interpreter, but I would argue that the Park Service and the administrators of the Castillo de San Marcos have a duty to ensure that all their employees are adequately prepared to convey information that the fort provides.

Image of NPS exhibit profile on Osceola, showing the Seminole military leader standing with a rifle.
Of the dozen or so individuals profiled in the Castillo’s interior exhibits, Osceola is the only Indigenous person who has more than a sentence dedicated to him.

There were several other issues with the way the Castillo de San Marcos is interpreted, ranging from the conspicuous absence of African, African-Spanish, and African-American history discussion at the fort, to a general lack of context and proper explanation when discussing the differences between the Spanish, British and American colonial projects in Florida. A particularly egregious description was located in one of the exhibit rooms, the former chapel area, where Captain Richard Pratt was highlighted. Pratt was a US Army general who is, among other things, credited with coining the incredibly racist phrase “Kill the Indian… save the man” in an 1892 speech. This is the man that the NPS describes as:

“An advocate for American Indian education and civil rights…”

Discussions about the legacy of Pratt’s actions aside, this is an incredibly disingenuous way to describe the man who founded the Carlisle Indian School, the flagship institution of the racist, psychologically damaging, and physically abusive Indian Boarding School movement. Richard Oakes, Wamsutta (Frank James), Suzan Shown Harjo, Clyde Bellecourt, Mary Brave Bird, Sacheen Littlefeather, and hundreds of other activists involved in the American Indian Movement, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and related organizations can be truthfully described as “advocate(s) for American Indian education and civil rights”. Richard Pratt cannot.

Even with all of these critiques and disappointments, I do believe the Castillo de San Marcos is an important heritage site that the public absolutely needs to be interacting with. I honestly do hope that the sign I saw towards the end of my visit which mentioned funds recently approved for “planned improvements to existing exhibits” is an indication that the NPS is working towards rectifying some of the interpretation issues currently present at this National Monument. There is much room for improvement, and more focus on the complex social, imperial, economic, and institutional systems that contributed to the Castillo de San Marcos’ construction– and its role in the forced relocation and internment of hundreds of Indigenous men, women and children– would be beneficial not only to visitors, but to the National Park Service. A major way to ensure that Americans of color feel that they are just as much entitled as their white counterparts to the many hundreds of national parks, monuments, and associated historic sites is to make sure their stories are responsibly told through these heritage sites. The NPS interpreter at the Castillo de San Marcos ended his presentation with the statement that “It is our job to try and tell everyone’s story.”

I challenge the National Park Service to do a better job.


Palmer, Jason B.
2002 Forgotten Sacrifice: Native American Involvement in the Construction of the Castillo de San Marcos. The Florida Historical Quarterly. 80(4): 437-454.

Baszile, Jennifer
2009 Apalachee testimony in Florida: a view of slavery from the Spanish archives in “Indian Slavery in Colonial America”. Alan Gallay, editor. University of Nebraska Press.

Fonseca, Felicia and Beatriz Costa-Lima
2016 “National Park Service hopes to convince minorities that this land is their land, too” in PBS News Hour. August 24, 2016.

Golash-Boza, Tanya, Safiya Noble, Vilna Bashi Treitler and Zulema Valdez
2015 “Why America’s national parks are so white” in Al-Jazeera America: Opinion. July 23, 2015.

Nelson, Glenn
2016 “Why has the National Park Service gotten whiter?” in High Country News. August 22, 2016.

National Park Service
n.d Castillo de San Marcos: National Monument Florida. “America Begins Here”.

n.d Castillo de San Marcos: National Monument Florida. “Plains Indians”.

Mission San Luis de Apalachee –

Spanish Encomienda System

Fort Marion Life Masks

Steinberg, Avi
2017 “Their spirits were trapped in those masks” Topic Magazine. Issue No. 6: Gifted.

Further reading on Spanish La Florida:

Beck Jr., Robin A., Christopher B. Rodning and David G. Moore
2010 “Limiting resistance: Juan Pardo and the shrinking of Spanish La Florida, 1566-68” in Enduring Conquests: Rethinking the Archaeology of Resistance to Spanish Colonialism in the Americas. Matthew Liebmann and Melissa S. Murphy, editors. School for Advanced Research Press. April, 2011.

Deagan, Kathleen
2010 “Native American resistance to Spanish presence in Hispaniola and La Florida, c. 1492-1650” in Enduring Conquests.

General reading regarding the archaeology of Indigenous Americans:

Colwell, Chip
2017 “Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture”. University of Chicago Press, 2017.

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