Traveling through Time on the St. Johns River

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The glassy St. Johns hold its secrets

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?

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Bartram Inn Postcard

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.

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A kayaker’s view

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.

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1873 Steamer Routes (Florida Memory)
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Palatka News timetables (Chronicling America)
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Palmetto Leaves

In her 1872 work Palmetto Leaves, Harriet Beecher Stowe writes

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.

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A Bartram moment on the St. Johns

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.

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Welaka Spring with QR code
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Satsuma Spring Run
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Satsuma Spring vent

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.

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Remembering times from the recent past
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Remains of the Shell Harbor Restaurant

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.

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Treasures from the St. Johns

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.

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Bartram mural in Palatka

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.

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Tourists on a steamer

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.

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Palatka is the city of murals

 

Bartram Adventure Tour postcard
To learn about the Bartram Adventure Tour, watch the video.

Cruisin’ Down Florida’s Grand Highway (St. Johns, Part 2)

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Courtesy of Matheson History Museum

In the late 1800s, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) followed a seasonal migration pattern now familiar to all Floridians—snowbirds landing in Florida to bask in our balmy winters. Today people cruise down I-95 and I-75 in RVs. In Stowe’s time, they cruised down the St. Johns in steamships.

Stowe wintered in Mandarin, Florida in a house overlooking the St. Johns River, a river she came to love. Her book Palmetto Leaves describes her life and community in Florida and offers advice for other northerners heading south. In particular, she reminisces about sailing and boating on the St. Johns River. In the St. Johns lower basin, near Mandarin, the river is slow and wide, almost a mile wide at some points. Preparing for a day of boating, she describes her view as

…five good miles of molten silver in the shape of the St. Johns River, outspread this morning in all its quivering sheen, glancing, dimpling and sparkling, dotted with sailboats, and occasionally ploughed by steamboats gliding like white swans back and forth across the distance.

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View from Black Knight Boat ramp

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The St. Johns River was Florida’s “grand river highway,” and travel by steamship was more comfortable and safer than travel overland. Florida’s dense scrub landscape made land-based travel extremely difficult, so boats and rivers were a lifeline to Florida settlers, traders, and tourists.

Steamships helped open the market for Florida tourism. In Palmetto Leaves, Stowe wrote that the

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.

Passengers from the north could enjoy Florida’s warm winters and reach locations such as Sanford, Silver Springs, and Palatka by ship.

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1873 Steamer Routes (Florida Memory)
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Palatka News timetables (Chronicling America)

By the mid-1800s, steamships plied the route between Jacksonville and Sanford, carrying goods, people, and agricultural products.  Boats that took passengers on the Ocklawaha and the Silver River required the smaller, more maneuverable sternwheeler, as in the Okahumkee below. Passengers heading northward transferred to larger ocean-going side-wheel paddleboats in Jacksonville.

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City of Jacksonville Sidewheeler (Photo credit: St. Johns River Ship Co.)

Stowe describes her overnight cruise upriver—south—to Enterprise. This grand round, or tour, up the St. Johns River to Enterprise, across to St. Augustine, and back, she wrote, marks the “accomplished Floridian sight-seer.

Turning our boat homeward, we sailed in clear morning light back through the charming scenery which we had slept through the night before. It is the most wild, dream-like, enchanting sail conceivable. The river sometimes narrows so that the boat brushes under overhanging branches, and then widens into beautiful lakes dotted with wooded islands. [Palmetto Leaves]

Only the “constant and pertinacious firing kept up by that class of men who think that the chief end of man is to shoot something” detracted from her trip.

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Log of the Okahumkee

The city of Enterprise on Lake Monroe was the southern terminus of the navigable section of the St. Johns River. Even today, most navigational charts stop at Sanford. In Stowe’s day, visitors to Sanford could stay in the elegant Hotel Sanford, built in 1886.

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Hotel Sanford (Florida Memory)

Henry Shelton Sanford (1823-1891) established the city of Sanford in the 1870s. He imported thousands of citrus trees to develop the citrus industry and established Sanford as a commercial and tourism hub of central Florida.

Today, most visitors arrive in Florida by car, plane, and occasionally, train, and the big rat dominates the tourism scene. Beecher’s slow trip up and down the St. Johns might not offer the excitement of Disney’s Splash Mountain, but traveling Florida’s waterways gives us a glimpse into the past, when rivers were our highways. Today, the Barbara-Lee, a stern wheel paddleboat, takes visitors for a slow cruise along the river, revealing birds and other wildlife. Others enjoy the St. Johns on pontoon boats, kayaks, and sailboats, seeing aspects of Florida only visible from water. These trips remind us that we have—and still do—rely on our rivers for commerce, transportation, and recreation. The St. Johns River is still the River of Life.

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Visit the River of Dreams at the Matheson History Museum, 513 E University Avenue, Gainesville, FL 32601   Phone: (352) 378-2280

Hours:  11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., Tuesday – Saturday

The Matheson will offer related programming from now through June, ranging from talks at the museum to paddling tours guided by Lars Anderson at Adventure Outpost. Visit the Matheson’s events page for details.

This exhibition emerged from the research of Dr. Whitney Sanford, Florence Turcotte, and students in the UF Religion Department, and was made possible by the generous support of Visit Gainesville; the State of Florida, Division of Cultural Affairs; and the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere at the University of Florida.

Thank you to our partners the Special & Area Studies Collections of the George A. Smathers Libraries at UF, UF Religion Department, and the UF Museum Studies Program, as well as the UF Florida Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper Project, the Laboratory of Southeastern Archeology, Department of Anthropology at UF and the National Park Service, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.

Curator: Briley Rasmussen

Associate Curators: Alexis Schuman and Lauren O’Neill

Guest curators: A. Whitney Sanford, Florence Turcotte

Assisted by:  Peggy Macdonald, Sarah ‘Moxy’ Mocyzgemba, Amanda M. Nichols, Brian K. Szymborski 

Exhibition Photographer: Anne Ledbetter

Mural Artists: Gillian Fazio and Laura North

Graphic Designer: Brianna Ostrowski

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