Bay County is located in northwestern Florida. It was named after St. Andrews Bay, when the county was created in 1913. The county seat and largest city in the county is Panama City. Its northern boundary is Washington County, FL. Its northeastern boundary is Jackson County, FL. To the east is Calhoun County, FL; to the west is Walton County, FL and the southeast, is Gulf County, FL. The Gulf of Mexico forms its southwestern boundary.
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Much of Bay County is characterized by bays, bayous, tidal creeks, tidal marshes, freshwater lakes and freshwater swamps. The Choctawhatchee River flows through the northwest corner of Bay County and then into Gulf of Mexico in Walton County. Another major stream is Econfina Creek, which flows southward from Jackson County and joins with Bayou George before entering St. Andrews Bay.
The Gulf Coastal Plain stretching from Mobile, AL to Cedar Key, FL was known as Am-Ixchel by Native Americans, when first explored by the Spaniards in the 1500s. The word was written as Amichel in Castilian and means “Place of the Moon Goddess” in Chontal Maya. This evidence along with many surviving Itza and Chontal Maya place names in Georgia and the Southern Highlands, suggests that the sea-going Chontal Maya merchants were familiar with present day northwestern Florida.
The St. Andrews Bay area was intensely inhabited by Native Americans because of the abundance of food resources. Many ethnic groups probably lived in Florida’s Gulf Coast Plain from time to time. The primary inhabitants of present day Bay County, when the Spanish explored the region in the 1600 were the Chatot and Yucci. The Chatot apparently spoke a dialect of Yama or Mobilian Trade Jargon. The name Choctawhatchee suggests that either Choctaw speaking towns once occupied the county, or else the Chatot were confused by early settlers to be Choctaws. It is not clear whether the Yucci were one and the same as the Yuchi Indians of the Southern Highlands, but they Yuchi do claim to have been the aboriginal people of the Southeast.
Although most popular literature describes the aboriginal occupants of northwest Florida as being Muskogee-Creeks, these Native peoples were immigrants, who entered Florida along with other branches of the Creeks in the 1700s and early 1800s. Because of population and territorial losses among other Creek branches, the Muskogee-Creeks came to dominate a confederacy of Native provinces in the Lower Southeast in the late 1700s. The actual Muskogee-Creeks were indigenous to the Middle Chattahoochee River Basin, but their language was eventually adopted as the diplomatic language for the Creek Confederacy.
There are many Indian mounds and shell middens in Bay County. Middens are piles of detritus that have accumulated due to long term human occupation. The mounds and middens today consist of sandy rises in the flat terrain of the bottomlands or low piles of eroded sea shells. Erosion and acidic water have tended to flatten them from their original form. The middens often contain broken
Geologists believe that Florida was once part of Africa. However, the ancient rocks that the Florida Panhandle shares with the northwest coast of Africa are buried over 10,000 feet beneath the surface. Above them are bands of sedimentary rocks created by the accumulation of sea life, sand and soils washed down from the Southern Highlands. No dinosaur fossils have been found in Florida because the region was under water until about 45 million years ago.
During the Pleistocene Epoch or Ice Age, the coast of the Florida Panhandle was as much as 100 miles south of its present location. Botanical evidence suggests that the climate was much more isothermal than today (less differences between seasons.)
The Holocene Epoch began around 10,000 years ago, as the glaciers in northern North America started to retreat. Around 8,000 years, ago the Gulf of Mexico began rising. By around 1,500 BC the shoreline was only about five feet lower in elevation than today. However, even at a five feet difference, the Florida Panhandle extended about 20 miles farther south than today. By that time, however, most of northwest Florida’s rivers and springs had formed in similar conditions to today. The shoreline stabilized around 1000 AD, but in recent decades the level of the Gulf of Mexico has begun to rise again.
Native American Cultural Periods
Archaeologists believe that humans have lived in Bay County for at least 13,000 years, perhaps much longer. During the coldest periods of the Ice Age, the Gulf Coast region would have been one of the few areas of North America that could be comfortably inhabited by homo sapiens. Evidence of the earliest humans may be buried of accumulated soils or under the sea bed as much as 100 miles out from today’s shoreline. Nevertheless, the oldest known human remains found in the Southeast (roughly 10,000 years old) was discovered in the sediment under a cenote (sink hole) in Sarasota County, FL. They included a skull still containing brain matter.
Clovis and Folsom points, associated with Late Ice age big game hunters have been found in Northwestern Florida. During the Ice Age, herds of giant mammals roamed the river bottom lands. The mastodons, saber tooth tigers, giant sloths and other massive mammals died out about 8,000 years ago. The ethnic identity of the Clovis Culture hunters is not known. They were long presumed to be American Indians from Siberia, but recent research by anthropologists has revealed many similarities with the big game hunters of Western Europe. An ice cap on the North Atlantic Ocean may have permitted early humans to move back and forth between continents by paddling, while gaining sustenance from hunting sea mammals and fishing. The big game hunters of both continents may have been a hybrid people with mixed Mongoloid-European physiologies.
Archaic Period (8,000 BC – 1000 BC)
After the climate warmed, animals and plants typical of today soon predominated in this region. Humans adapted to the changes and gradually became more sophisticated. They adopted seasonal migratory patterns that maximized access to food resources. The coastal areas were probably avoided during hurricane season. Archaic hunters probably moved to locations along the Gulf Coast and rivers during the winter, where they could eat fish and shellfish, if game was not plentiful.
Early Woodland Period (2000 BC – 500 BC)
The earliest known pottery in the Western Hemisphere was discovered on Stallings Island in the Savannah River near Augusta, GA. The earliest examples have been radiocarbon dated to about 2,500 BC. It was rather crude, being unrefined clay tempered with Spanish Moss. By about 2000 BC or earlier, pottery making had spread to the Lower Chattahoochee-Apalachicola and Choctawhatchee River Basins. The fabrication of pottery and soapstone bowls was not practical until Native Americans began occupying permanent villages where they could be stored.
Northwestern Florida was a location of some of the earliest permanent villages in North America. A sedentary lifestyle was made possible by abundant natural food sources such as large game, fish, freshwater mussels and the cultivation of gardens. Archaeologists have labeled the Early Woodland peoples of Northwest Florida as the Deptford Culture. The Deptford Culture extended over much of northern Florida, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.
Deptford Culture villages were relatively small and dispersed. Some were permanent bases while others were seasonal hunting, fishing or gathering camps. There was probably much socialization among these villages because of the need to find spouses that were not closely related. Houses were round and built out of saplings, river cane and thatch.
The Early Woodland Period peoples of the region built numerous mounds, although few are visible today because the sandy soil of the Gulf Coastal Plain erodes quickly. Apparently, most of these mounds were primarily for burials, but may have also supported simple structures that were used for rituals or meetings. They were constructed accretionally. This means that the mounds grew in size over the generations by piling sand, soil and detritus from the village over recent burials.
Deptford Culture style pottery and artifacts were made in some parts of the Lower Southeast as late as 600 AD. This suggests to anthropologists that they were made by an aboriginal ethnic group that was gradually marginalized as Muskogean communities expanded in number and territory.
Middle Woodland Period (500 BC – 600 AD)
Archaeological evidence in the Chattahoochee River Valley suggests that the first Muskogean farmers entered northwestern Florida and western Georgia around 500 BC, after originally migrating from west-central Mexico via the Lower Mississippi. However, northwest Florida was probably already occupied by people related to the Ciboney of Cuba. Anthropologists currently believe that the Ciboney settled Cuba from Florida
It is quite likely that in 500 BC northwestern Florida contained people related to the Yuchi and Southern Siouans such as the Biloxi. There may have been other ethnic groups whose identities have been concealed by time. Agricultural technology, cultural traditions and DNA probably blended between these peoples. Modern “Creek” Indians may represent a genetic mix of several indigenous ethnic groups.
Around 500 BC, the Santa Rosa Culture began evolving in the Florida Panhandle. It is named after Santa Rosa Island in Santa Rosa County, FL. Early Santa Rosa Culture villages are characterized by permanent architecture, community spaces and evidence of trade contacts with other parts of eastern North America. In particular, archaeologists have discovered trade items associated with the Midwest, as Santa Rosa villages grew in size and sophistication.
Around 100 BC, the inhabitants of present day Bay County began showing increasing cultural influence from the Swift Creek Culture, which originated in Georgia. Bay County was particularly affected by this influence because it was just across the Chattahoochee River from the emerging Kolomoki ceremonial town site. The Santa Rosa-Swift Creek Culture people built permanent towns with horseshoe shaped plazas for playing ball games, near the Chattahoochee and Chipola Rivers.
Anthropologists outside the Southeast often link the Swift Creek Culture with the Hopewell Culture because of the similarity in chronology. However, the Hopewell Culture in Ohio was clearly obsessed with death and contained very few, if any, permanent villages. The architecture of the two cultural zones was very different. Santa Rosa-Swift Creek earthworks were often earthen pyramids oriented to the solar azimuth. The Santa Rosa-Swift Creek peoples became increasingly dependent on agriculture and therefore generally located their villages and towns in fertile river bottomlands.
Swift Creek Style pottery is considered some of the most beautiful ever made in North America. The Swift Creek People were also known for their finely crafted copper tools, weapons and ornaments. They built both ellipsoid shaped accretional mounds and some large pyramidal mounds for temples. The pyramidal mounds differed little in shape and function from what was being built in Mexico at the time.
Around 250 AD, the Santa Rosa-Swift Creek Culture villages in Bay County began evolving into the Weeden Island Culture. Weeden Island villages and ceremonial towns continued many Swift Creek traditions, but there were distinct changes in the pottery that seem to reflect Caribbean influences. Weeden Island sculptures created hollow human figures, while this was rarely, if ever, done by Swift Creek ceramicists.
The Swift Creek Culture collapsed in Georgia’s Coastal Plain around 600 AD. Virtually, all villages below the Fall Line suddenly disappeared, but some Swift Creek villages in the mountains continued to be occupied to as late as 1000 AD. The sudden depopulation near navigable waters suggests attacks by sea craft from the Atlantic Ocean, but to date, no evidence of specific foreign invaders have been discovered by archaeologists.
Late Woodland & Transitional Period
The Northwest Florida Weeden Island Culture villages declined in population after 600 AD, started declining around 750 AD, but were not completely abandoned to until around 900 AD. Significant declines in population seem to have coincided with the rise of a very advanced culture near Lake Okeechobee, Florida.
The period when Weeden Island Culture disappeared and the Lake Okeechobee Culture (Belle Glade III) rose, is now known to have been a time of drought in Yucatan. Most of the large Maya cities were abandoned by this time. The Long Calendar dates were no longer inscribed on stelae. This drought may have caused Maya commoners to flee northward into the Southeastern United States, where conditions were less hostile.
By 700 AD, the many permanent towns around Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida practiced all of the cultural traits, except large scale cultivation of corn that 350 years later were to appear at Cahokia, IL. The Native peoples of the Lake Okeechobee region even built large mounds and ceremonial pools in the shape of ceremonial scepters that were later used by the elite at such famous town sites as Cahokia, Moundville, AL, Ocmulgee Mounds, GA and Etowah Mounds, GA. It is quite likely that traders or raiders from Lake Okeechobee reached northwest Florida at the same time that the Weeden Island Culture was expiring. There may be a connection.
Early Hierarchal Period (900 AD – 1150 AD)
All of the cultural traits, including large scale cultivation of corn, beans and squash that were associated with the “Mississippian Culture,” appeared on the Lower Chattahoochee River and at the Ocmulgee site at Macon, GA around 900 AD. “Mississippian” style houses and mounds were not constructed at Cahokia until around 1050 AD. Therefore, the generic term “hierarchal” is a more accurate description of the cultural changes that appeared in northwest Florida around 900 AD. They obviously were introduced by peoples from the south, not the Mississippi River Basin.
The town and village sites, founded around 900 AD, in or near present day Bay County, initially had very similar pottery and architecture to that of Ocmulgee. They probably were founded by the same ethnic group. The pottery was similar to the Plain Style Redware produced by Maya commoners that is endemic around the edges of Maya cities. The architecture was almost identical to that built by the illiterate Chontal Maya along the coast of Tabasco State in Mexico. The Chontal Maya only built earthen mounds and were illiterate during the Classic Maya Period that ended around 900 AD.
Florida archaeologists generically label all of the hierarchal towns in northwestern Florida as the Fort Walton Culture, after a mound at Fort Walton Beach, FL. Their labeling of this culture is primarily based on pottery, since most Muskogean provinces in the Southeast cultivated corns, bean and squash on a large scale, built mounds and evidenced hierarchal societies.
Architectural historians, however, have identified four distinct cultural zones where there were extensive contrasts in architecture and town planning. These were the Pensacola-Perdido Bay Area, the Choctawhatchee River Basin, the Chattahoochee-Apalachicola River Basin and the Red Clay Hills-Fort Walton Region. These four zones, interestingly enough, correspond to four separate ethnic groups who were present when the Spanish first explored the region.
Along the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola River System there were three cultural phases in which architecture and cultural traditions were significantly different. The populations of these three phases, or at least their elites, may have been different ethnic groups. This basin was occupied by the Apalachicola when the Spanish arrived on the scene.
In the Choctawhatchee River Basin, eastward to the west bank Chipola River in Jackson County, the mounds are smaller and similar to those found concurrently on the coast of Georgia. Apparently, the lands between the Choctawhatchee and Chipola rivers composed a frontier between two branches of the Muskogeans.
Middle Hierarchal Period (1150 AD – 1300 AD)
At the same time that Arawak village sites first appeared in northeastern Florida, Ocmulgee and many Muskogean mound sites in northeastern Florida were abandoned. By 1200 AD several town sites on the lower Chattahoochee River were temporarily abandoned, while others began evolving cultural traits more like those of northwestern Alabama, or even later proto-Creek towns. In the mid-1700s there were still some Arawak towns in central Alabama. In 1901, a Taino (Puerto Rican Arawak) stella was found near Atlanta, GA at a hilltop shrine overlooking the Chattahoochee River, Obviously, the Arawaks initially penetrated deep into traditional Muskogean territory, and probably caused the collapse of some provinces.
The ethnic identity of the Native people, occupying the Choctawhatchee River Basin during this era is not clear. The Chatot were possibly an original band of the Pensacola, who developed their own identity over the centuries.
Late Hierarchal Period (1300 AD – 1539)
There was another wave of burned temples and/or town abandonments in the Chattahoochee Basin in the period between 1250 AD and 1300s AD. These seem linked to a war between indigenous Muskogeans and those migrating eastward from the Mississippi Basin. Much of the central Mississippi Basin was abandoned during this era. After 1300 AD, few, if any, pentagonal mounds were initiated. Mounds built thereafter tended to be rounded on the edges to the point that many had oval footprints.
The architectural evidence suggests that during the Late Hierarchal Period ethnic groups were located in the same regions, when encountered by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. These were the Pensacola around Pensacola and Perdido Bays; the Chatot, along the Choctawhatchee River to the Chipola River; the Apalachicola along the Lower Chattahoochee and Apalachicola and Flint Rivers; and the Apalachee in the Red Clay Hills region southward to Fort Walton Beach.
Spanish exploration and missions (1539 AD – 1705 AD)
The Kingdom of Spain claimed all of the Chattahoochee and Choctaw River Basins, including Bay County, from 1513 until 1745. This claim was based on Narvaez Expedition (1538,) the Hernando de Soto Expedition (1539,), the Tristan de Luna Expedition, the Juan Pardo Expedition (1567,) and a surveying expedition authorized by Governor Don Benito Ruiz de Salazar Vallecilla of the Province of La Florida around 1647. The surveying and gold prospecting expedition followed the Chattahoochee River to its source at Unicoi Gap. The Governor then established a trading post in the vicinity of the Chattahoochee headwaters.
In 1675 the Spanish established four missions among the Chatot. They were probably located in present day Bay and Jackson Counties, although some sources locate them in Apalachee territory, fifty miles to the east. Some Apalachicola villages eventually accepted visits by missionaries, but the ethnic group as whole stayed extremely hostile to the Spanish.
End of Spanish occupation 1705 – 1763
Once the Chatot were officially Spanish allies, they became subject to repeated slave raids by the Cherokee and Creek allies of the English. After two invasions by British troops, combined with Native Allies of Great Britain, wiped out the Apalachee and Timucua mission system, most of the Chatot fled to Mobile. After the French lost Louisiana in 1763, most of those Chatot in Mobile moved to Texas. After that point, they disappear from historical records.
The Hogeloge and Tongora Bands of Yuchi People were originally located in the Upper Tennessee River Valley and Cumberland Plateau. In the late 1600s, Rickohocken Indians from Virginia and Kentucky were pressed southward into northeastern Tennessee by European settlers and Iroquois raids. After the Rickohockens became the core of the Cherokee Alliance in the early 1700s, Cherokee expansion forced the Yuchi’s to either join the alliance or move southward after the Yamasee War (1715-1717.) Many Yuchi moved down into the Florida Panhandle and especially along the Choctawhatchee River. Repeated conflicts with the Choctaw forced them to move northward to be among Creek Confederacy towns, but they returned to the region in the early 1800s. Most Yuchi eventually ended up in Texas or Mexico, where they disappeared from historical records.
After 1705 the emerging Muskogee Confederacy increasingly controlled the hinterlands of the Florida Panhandle to the point that the Spanish garrison was isolated in Pensacola. Creek bands hunted and settled there. At the close of the Yamasee War in 1717, many Muskogean towns in eastern Georgia relocated to the Lower Chattahoochee River or what is now southwestern Alabama. By necessity, the isolated Spanish community and their new Muskogean neighbors developed better relations. The Spanish no longer tried to forcibly convert the Muskogeans to Catholicism.
After the American Revolution
The Florida Panhandle reverted to Spanish ownership in the treaty ending the American Revolution. Spain had been an ally of United States. Strangely, France got almost nothing but the “last laugh” for its enormous contribution to the American Patriot’s victory. By this time, northwestern Florida was solidly under the occupation of the now-powerful Creek Confederacy. During the late 1700s, the Creeks even built a navy to patrol the coast of the Florida Panhandle. It was based in Creek towns along the Lower Chattahoochee-Apalachicola River.
As the Creek Confederacy lost more and more land in Georgia, many Creek towns moved down into Florida. They were predominantly Itsati-speaking towns, not Muskogees. The Creek Confederacy towns that had entered earlier in the 1700s also were predominantly Itsati or Yuchi speakers. This linguistic difference set the stage for the schism that created separate Muskogee-Creek and Seminole tribes.
The majority of people in the Florida today, who call themselves Muskogee-Creeks, can be descended from numerous North American tribes. These include Eastern Creeks who spoke Itsati; Lower Creeks who originally spoke Apalachicola; or Yuchi, who spoke an entirely different language. Also, in the late 1700s and early 1800s hundreds of Carolina Native Americans relocated to northwestern Florida. Some were Muskogeans, while others were Siouan or Algonquin. These immigrants often had assimilated European culture and had some European heritage. They married other races and became associated with those races; joined the Creek Confederacy; or else became labeled as Seminoles, even though they may not have had Muskogean ancestry.
Spain ruled West Florida (which included Alabama below the 31st Parallel) until 1821. Several Creek towns and many mixed blood Creek families moved in this virtually uninhabited region after 1793, when the Creek Confederacy ceded all of its lands in eastern Georgia. Northwestern Florida was soon viewed as traditional Creek territory by white Americans, even though their presence was relative recent.
During the second Spanish colonial period, it was quite common for the Creeks, Carolina Indians, Europeans and Africans to be neighbors. There was much intermarriage between ethnic groups. Most of the Natives did not have direct political ties with the Creek Confederacy, but also did not practice semi-traditional lifestyles like the Seminoles. However, they were often labeled Seminoles.
When the War of 1812 broke out, British agents working out of the Spanish town of Pensacola tried to persuade the Native Peoples of Florida and southern Alabama to become allies of Great Britain against the United States. The Bay County Indians had no incentive to become belligerents. Their lifestyles differed little from those of white settlers, and most were part European anyway.
Eventually, the combination of British offers for support, along with the persuasive speeches of the Shawnee leader, Tecumseh, influenced a minority of Creek towns to rebel against the national government of the Creek Confederacy. Most of the insurgents were Upper Creeks from the hill country of northern Alabama. Initial battles were between these so-called Red Sticks and the pro-American majority of the Creek Confederacy. However, after the killing of virtually all the white and Indian inhabitants of Fort Mims, Alabama, the war spread to become one between the Red Sticks and the United States. The last phase of this bloody war occurred in the Choctawhatchee Basin.
First Seminole War and later Creek Wars
After the catastrophic defeat of the Red Sticks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, surviving insurgents fled southward. A Red Stick Chief named Holmes led his town to the Choctawhatchee Basin. His town was accused of continued raids on white settlements. General Andrew Jackson also accused the Spanish of intentionally supplying him munitions to continue the Red Stick War. In 1814, Major Uriah Blue led a regiment into the future Bay County to destroy the main town of Chief Holmes Red Stick Band.
Intermittent raids by paramilitary units among Creeks, Seminoles and whites continued along the Florida, Georgia-Alabama War after the official end of the Red Stick War in 1814. Like most Itsati (Hitchiti-Creeks) towns, the Miccosukee did not consider themselves to be Muskogee-Creeks.
Itsati towns continued to occupy some areas of southwest Georgia. In 1816 fighting broke out between the Miccosukee’s of southwest Georgia and American troops. The cause of this war was the Treaty of Indian Springs in 1825. Without authority of the Creek National Council, a small group of minor Muskogee in Georgia gave away virtually all of Creek sovereign lands in Georgia, including the sacred site of Ocmulgee Old Fields. Most Itsati towns had been consistent American allies. This further strengthened their position of not being bound by treaties with the Creek Confederacy.
Fort Scott was established on the Lower Chattahoochee River to guard the border with Florida. When Americans started farming Miccosukee lands east of the Flint River, their leaders ordered them to leave. A Miccosukee town was located 15 miles east of the fort. The refusal of the garrison’s commander to comply resulted in escalating guerilla warfare. The U.S. Army sent 250 men to attack Fowltown, the Miccosukee village. They were beaten off the first day, but succeeded in burning the settlement on the second day. The next week, the Itsati attacked a riverboat bringing supplies to Fort Scott, killing most of the crew and passengers.
An army under Andrew Jackson invaded Florida in 1818 and attacked Native American and African settle across the northern tier of the Spanish territory. A considerable portion of the fighting was in Bay County. Peaceful farmsteads of Creeks, Itsati, Yuchi and Carolina families were attacked by paramilitary bands from Georgia. This provoked them to join the hostile Itsati and Creek towns. Much of the fighting in what was to become Bay County was conducted by small bands in skirmishes. Chief Bay was probably killed in 1818 during this guerilla warfare.
This first Muskogean-American war is called the First Seminole War. However, the majority of Native American belligerents did not consider themselves “Creeks” or Seminoles. The large American army quickly crushed Native resistance. Survivors fled southward. They became allied with Muskogean towns that had been living in Florida for many decades. At the same time, the United States government labeled all Muskogeans in Florida as being “Seminoles” regardless if they were Muskogees or Itsati’s.
There were two more Creek Wars and two more Seminole Wars. The Creek wars were relatively short events and of limited geographical scale. The later Seminole Wars involved fighting over much of the Florida Peninsula, but very little combat, if any, took place in Bay County.
The ultimate result of the six Muskogean wars in Florida was that many peaceful Native Americans were forced out of the Florida Panhandle. While there was originally much tolerance and intermarriage between the races within Florida, the bad feelings of these wars caused the new white majority to abuse and disfranchise Native Americans and Free Blacks. Historians believe that most Native American families, who left Bay County in the 1820s, 1830s and 1840s, either went to the new Republic of Texas or Louisiana. The mixed-bloods easily mixed in with its multi-ethnic population.
Descendents of Bay County’s early 19th century Native American settlers remain in the region. As stated earlier, the majority of people with Native American ancestry in the county probably have considerable Siouan and Yuchi heritage, addition to European or African. On physical appearance most have the larger noses and ears typical of Siouans, who are stereotypical Native Americans. Ethnic Creeks have small, straight noses, deep set eyes, prominent cheek bones and almost no ear lobes, like the Highland Mayas. Non-Muskogeans who are not familiar with Creek history, often assume that ethnically “full-blood” Creeks are tall Indonesians. However, the Creek Confederacy allowed peoples of all races to join, so anyone who has ancestors, who was a member of a Creek tribal town IS Creek, regardless of DNA.