Rivers were once America’s highways, carrying people from place to place. But rivers also let us journey through time, revealing the stories and histories of those who have gone before. Looking out over a glassy St. Johns River, I wonder what stories the river holds. People have lived and worked on the St. Johns River for millennia, including Paleo-Indians, European colonists, and Cracker homesteaders. The St. Johns reveals their stories to archaeologists and historians through artifacts and written records. What can we learn about these layers of history, from the recent past to pre-historic times, by being on the river?
I came to Palatka to join the inaugural Bartram Adventure Tour. In the late 1700s, William Bartram, Quaker, naturalist, and adventuer, sailed the north-flowing St. Johns River and described the people, flora, and fauna he encountered. Bartram Inn owner Linda Crider created this tour so that Bartram enthusiasts and adventurers could visit sites that naturalist William Bartram (1739-1823) described in his Travels of William Bartram. The Bartram Trail in Putnam County guides adventurers to these sites on foot, bike, and boat. Reading Bartram’s words is one thing, but seeing these sites from the seat of a kayak brings these stories to life.
On the water, I can almost imagine a time when the river was Florida’s main highway. Today, the Memorial Bridge in Palatka spans the St. Johns, and Highways 17 and 19 parallel the eastern and western banks. But this network of roads and bridges did not exist for Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Bartram, or the Native American populations who preceded them.
St. John’s is the grand water-highway through some of the most beautiful portions of Florida; and tourists, safely seated at ease on the decks of steamers, can penetrate into the mysteries and wonders of unbroken tropical forests.
The key phrase is “the mysteries and wonders of unbroken tropical forests.” Florida’s dense scrub landscape made land travel difficult and dangerous. Imagine the snakes, gators, and spiders under foot. Until industrialist Henry Flagler (1830-1913) developed the Florida East Coast Railway in the early years of the twentieth century, the St. Johns River remained Florida’s “grand water-highway” for good reason.
On an overcast day, Bartram enthusiast Dean Campbell met us in Welaka for a six-mile paddle. We visited several springs, including Welaka Springs and Satsuma Springs. Today we cool off in these springs, but once they were sources of life.
Just beyond Welaka, we paddled past the remains of the Shell Harbor Restaurant which figured in Dean’s own family history. After church, his family used to eat Sunday dinner there followed by an afternoon cruising the river on their boat. The restaurant is now in disrepair, like many fish camps along the St. Johns.
Boats, docks, and homes in varying stages of disrepair hint at the recent past, but the river itself holds evidence of the distant past. The day prior, diver and archaeologist Mike Stallings displayed some of his finds, including a mastodon tooth. Mike and others have found pottery from the St. Johns culture, a native American culture along the river dating from 500 BCE until the arrival of Europeans. The St. Johns River near Palatka is fossil-rich because the river level has varied over thousands of years, from 400 feet above sea level to 40 feet below.
This was not a wilderness paddle—homes, fish camps, and marinas lined the shores, illustrating that even today, many people rely on the St. Johns River for their sustenance and livelihood. The day before, Sam Carr had commented that Bartram didn’t forge any new trails. In fact, William Bartram traveled along a river that was home to multiple populations, including settlers, plantation owners, and Native Americans. Bartram wrote extensively of his encounters with the different native populations he met. The west side of the St. Johns River, known as the “Indian shore,” was less populated than the east side, where British colonists and plantation owners had settled. Bartram, however, rarely wrote about the plantations lining the shore, and he certainly encountered European settlers. He mentions Stokes Landing (Spaulding Lower Store) and Rollestown (Site 7), but his Travels portray a landscape unsettled by Europeans.
In Palmetto Leaves, Harriet Beecher Stowe offers advice for northerners heading south for the winter, but her words betray a concern about the sheer numbers of snowbirds arriving in Florida. Dean thought that William Bartram held similar concerns. Painting the landscape as harsh and unforgiving slowed the migration of newcomers. Remember that only the relatively recent development of air conditioning made Florida’s climate bearable to all but the toughest. As Florida’s population surpasses 21 million, the sea level continues to rise, and development runs unchecked, Stowe and Bartram’s concerns are prescient.
Paddling the St. Johns River is an opportunity to be immersed in history—literally, if you capsize, which I do not recommend. The St. Johns River holds the stories of generations of people who have lived before us. Following Bartram’s trail helps us imagine their lives in Florida’s many pasts.