Francis Zettler’s Biohistory of Alachua County, Florida is a slender volume but with some surprises for us locals. ‘In the beginning’ the Florida platform was part of the African Tectonic Plate. A good chunk of it broke off from Africa, meandered around the globe, and eventually became attached to the North American Plate.
The present land surface of our state is only a portion of the much larger Florida platform which extends an additional 125 miles west of the present coastline and is covered by the Gulf of Mexico. The cycles of global warming and cooling that alter ocean depths have added and subtracted dry land from peninsular Florida. The sand for those wide beaches on the Gulf side came from the eroding Appalachian Mountains, washed down by the rivers that drained those mountains and deposited in their estuaries.
Having attached Florida to the North American Landmass, Zettler reminds us that most of our flora and fauna migrated over Beringia, a land bridge that linked North America to Asia over the Bering Strait. Perhaps the first immigrants from Asia were grasses. Maize (We call it corn.), wheat, rice, oats, barley, rye, and sugar cane are grasses that have been domesticated. These grasses supported grass-eating animals. And human hunter-gatherers followed close behind.
The author maintains that we lost most of our large mammals to these early hunters, although that is controversial. So we never had any ancestral domestic beast of burden once our American horse and camel shrank and disappeared. The American buffalo was hunted but never domesticated. This absence of beasts of burden had an obvious impact on mobility but also hunting and warfare. Much has been written about the changes caused by the introduction of the European horse to the Western Hemisphere by the Spanish.
These original Floridians should be grateful to Spain for reintroducing the horse and for other reasons. This is not an age which thinks kindly about Christian missionary activity in the New World, but the string of missions established in northeast and Panhandle Florida moderated the impact of European contact with the Native Americans, the Timucua and Apalachee. The Church provided some protection against the forced labor introduced by European settlers. They were less successful in moderating the harm done by European diseases that wiped out a large portion of the Native American populations of our state.
As these Native American populations shrank, Africans were imported to work the plantations in Alachua County. (Alachua County was once a much larger territory, extending along the Gulf as far south as Sanibel Island.) Various crops have come and gone. The cotton boll weevil decimated the cotton crop in the late nineteenth century. We grew citrus for a while but Alachua County was too close to the frost line. Naval stores were important in the first part of the last century, but there was always a conflict between the exploitation of our pine forests to obtain the naval stores and the harvesting of those pines for lumber and pulpwood. The former was mostly the work of black labor, the latter by white migratory workers.
The opening up of the County had been limited by its accessibility. There were several Indian trails that connected frontier Florida to South Georgia. But the first real road was the Bellamy Road authorized by the federal government in 1824. It was wide enough to allow two wagons to pass and ran for 445 miles between St. Augustine and Pensacola passing through “greater” Alachua County. There were various establishments and struggling settlements along the Road to serve the needs of the traveler, often to disappear without a trace.
Transportation remained primitive until the opening of the Cedar Key to Fernandina railroad in 1861. It ran through Gainesville, then the County seat. The town was soon to become the location for the Florida Agricultural College, a land-grant institution moved from Lake City, Florida. The College eventually absorbed other smaller institutions of higher learning, including the East Florida Seminary moved from Ocala.
Moses Levy (Levy County) is one of the more interesting individuals mentioned by Zettler. He was born in 1782 in Morocco the son of Sephardic Jews whose families had been expelled from Spain the same year as a Spaniard named Columbus “sailed the ocean blue.” The family ended up in the West Indies.
Levy bought a large track of land in Florida where he hoped to found a settlement of Orthodox Jews recruited from Europe and the West Indies. It was intended to be a utopian community with some proto-Zionist leanings. With that in mind, he helped establish the town of Micanopy, Florida. Doesn’t sound like a Jewish name; Levy thought well enough of the Native Americans to name the town after a local chief.
What a charming introduction to our local history from this former University of Florida faculty member. And published by Pineapple Press in Sarasota.