Fall 2018. Florida. Fall 2018.

 

Barrier Islands of the Florida Gulf Coast Peninsula by Richard Davis, Jr. Pineapple Press. Covers the thirty barrier islands along Florida’s Gulf coast. Sadly many of them have been devastated by hurricane Michael.

The Biohistory of Florida by Francis William Zettler. Pineapple Press. Paper. From the Pleistocene to today – from vast prairies where elephants roamed to vast orange groves interlaced with highways.

The Springs of Florida, 3rd edition by Doug Stamm. Pineapple Press Paper. A guide to Florida’s many springs, their flora and fauna.

Florida’s Museums and Cultural Attractions, 3rd edition by Murray Laurie & Doris Bardon. Pineapple Press. Paper. Museums, country stores, one-room schoolhouses, coquina forts, churches, art galleries, and more.

Easygoing Guide to Natural Florida; Volume 2, Central Florida by Douglas Waitley. Pineapple Press, paper 2008.

Easygoing Guide to Natural Florida; Volume 2, Central Florida by Douglas Waitley. Pineapple Press, paper 2008.

Douglas Waitley has, indeed, provided us with an easy-does-it guide to Florida’s wonderful and accessible natural areas. That does not mean, however, that he is easygoing in his opinions, which are presented to us in large doses. He gets around in his car, avoids overnight camping and arduous hikes. He boards riverboats rather than paddling a canoe. He notes that cyclists are interested in speed, not terrain. Mostly traveling alone, he gets into one-on-one conversations with the solitary fishermen that he encounters. Or birdwatchers.

Next to fishermen, birdwatchers constitute the largest audience for his often contrary remarks. He talked with a woman who had been watching a hawk fishing and voiced her admiration for this aggressive bird. Waitley’s dry response to her exuberance: “What about the fish?”

The first half of the book finds him at the headwaters of the St. Johns River, where he contemplates this largely managed river and the chain of lakes which it drains. Much of the area is in the Ocala National Forest, east and south of Ocala. Several magnificent springs feed the St. Johns its waters, via the Ocklawaha River. The St. Johns is perhaps the most “historic” of Florida’s rivers. It saw action in the Civil War, participated in the cattle business, and later the cotton economy. Its fresh waters have been the cause of many a squabble over water rights.

Much of the area was logged in the early part of the last century, and the forests that Waitley admires are mostly second growth. Exotic flora and fauna are a major problem; “suburban estates” are a relatively recent exotic. But the original biodiversity of the swamps and drier areas is recovering. He admires the mix of longleaf pines, turkey oaks, and wiregrass. Lots of water birds and indigenous mammals, including the black bear, are coming back – despite the fragmentation of the forests. There is a continuing threat of wild fires, usually caused by lightening.

The St Johns acquired a tourist industry in the early twentieth century. President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corp and the Works Progress Administration acquired land and built infrastructure to facilitate that use. The pleasantly quaint structures are now serving as visitor centers

More recently the proposal for a Cross Florida Barge Canal threatened to alter the Ocklawaha and other tributaries of the St. Johns. Begun in the 1930s during the New Deal, the Canal’s construction was halted during WWII. Fortunately the Canal never happened thanks to The Florida Defenders of the Environment. But we still have the Kirkpatrick Dam, part of the Canal’s infrastructure, and hence their continuing demand that we “Set the Ocklawaha Free.”

On to the “Nature Coast,” beginning at Tampa Bay. Waitley has crossed over a peninsular “divide,” a central “highland” that results in the St. Johns and its tributaries flowing north into the Atlantic, while another set of rivers on the west side of the Florida peninsula flow into the Gulf of Mexico.

Florida’s Gulf Coast is a product of its salt marshes which dominate the mouths of its rivers, the Withlacoochee and the Suwannee. The Gulf does not provide waves, hence no sandy beaches. The Big Bend’s most prominent vegetation are the mangrove swamps. Its bays shelter several good-sized mammals: the porpoise (dolphin) and the manatee. The marshes are the winter habitat for migratory birds. This region is looked after by the Southwest Water Management District called Swiftmud.

Cedar Key is perhaps the most interesting of the Gulf’s coastal towns. This and adjoining keys lost their cedar trees, harvested to be used as railroad ties. After the adoption of creosote, cedar railroad ties were phased out. Cedar was a common ingredient in lead pencils and Cedar Key continued to be a manufacturing town. It was also a port city, being the terminus of a railroad from its wharfs to Fernandina, on the Atlantic Ocean side. The Key’s mangrove swamps are recovering nicely from a hard freeze 30 years ago.

Leaving the salt marshes and driving north and east brings the motorist into Gainesville and the nearby Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park and Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. The Devil’s Millhopper is a huge sink hole, the result of Florida being on a limestone shelf that is vulnerable to salt water intrusion and collapse, in this case centuries ago. The Prairie is the remains of a large, shallow lake. It played a role in the establishment and then demise of the region’s citrus industry.

Waitley pays relatively little attention to the Seminoles or other Native Americans, the invasion of their lands by white agriculturalists and their slave workforce. Nor does he mention East Florida and West Florida, chunks of the Spanish New World along the Gulf Coast.

I’ll take Douglas Waitley’s Easygoing Guide to Natural Florida with me when I explore the various State Parks and Preserves. The parks are a wonderful resource, and damn it, not to be swallowed up by coastal condominiums and golf courses.

Historic Pensacola by John Clune, Jr. & Margo Stringfield. 

Historic Pensacola by John Clune, Jr. & Margo Stringfield.  University Press of Florida, 2016.

Pensacola, West Florida can claim to have been initially settled in 1559. More accurately, a Spanish ship captain, Tristán de Luna, led an expedition to Pensacola Bay and a settlement he established lasted for a few years. It is the basis for Pensacola’s claim to being the oldest European settlement in North America and a rival to St. Augustine on the Atlantic side of the Florida peninsula.

The area was largely vacant; its native population had been decimated years before by European diseases that had been spread by the native population’s “first encounters” with sick crews on the Spanish galleons.

Several surprises. While we learn of the exploration of Hernando DeSoto in our grade-school textbooks, there are other Spanish explorers that did not find a mention. Also the authors, John Clune, Jr. and Margo Springfield, call attention to the sophisticated and elaborate town planning that these Spanish explorers brought with them to the New World. Pensacola was laid out in a grid pattern with room set aside for a fortified presidio and a Church.

Other than the presidio, most of the structures were wooden – and subject to destruction by fire either from natural causes or from warfare.

The town of Pensacola moved around within its Bay area. Early it was located up stream of the estuary. But when that created difficulties for sailing ships, the town was moved to the barrier island at the mouth of the Bay, Santa Rosa Island. Better for maritime communications, it was, however, vulnerable to the hurricanes which plow through the area.

The Spaniards were serious about settling Pensacola Bay. One of Luna’s expeditions had eleven ships and over 1,500 settlers. Many of these settlers were recruited from interior Mexican towns and had no experience of living on a restless bay.

From the years of these early settlements, European rivalry created New-World competition. The colonies along the Atlantic Coast were British. The French had seized control of the Mississippi Valley and New Orleans, but it continued to trade with West Florida. The Spaniards claimed Santo Domingo, the wealthiest island in the Caribbean, and the vast lands of Texas, Southwestern U.S., and Florida.

All three European colonial regimes had allied themselves with various Native American tribes, where they still survived. This meant that colonists settling on Pensacola had also to worry about Indian raiders. West Florida, including Pensacola, was a British colony from 1763 to 1781. It then returned to Spain. In 1821 the Adams-Onís Treaty ceded West Florida and hence Pensacola to the young American Republic.

Pensacola avoided the issues over taxation that beleaguered Colonial-British relations. Hence it did not play an important role in the American Revolution.

The town continued to participate in the trade along the Gulf Coast between Mobile and Pensacola. This trade was a monopoly of a chartered company. It stocked the usual luxury goods for its Pensacola customers but made its money buying and reselling deer-skins. Spain recognized the importance of the eighteenth-century “global economy.” They intended to make sure that their administration encouraged that development.

Pensacola competed with Galveston with its Tivoli House. There were gambling rooms and an extensive bar for unruly Spanish soldiers and sailors on leave.

Historic Pensacola is a handsome book, published by the University of Florida Press. Each chapter has a recipe associated with its content. It is well-illustrated and has wonderful maps.  The two authors, John Clune, Jr. and Margo Springfield, teach at the University of West Florida.

Walking St. Augustine; An Illustrated Guide and Pocket History to America’s Oldest City.

Walking St. Augustine; An Illustrated Guide and Pocket History to America’s Oldest City by Elsbeth “Buff” Gordon. University of Florida Press, 2015 paper.

Just to give the reader some idea of the antiquity of the oldest city in the continental U.S., St. Augustine had been in existence for 224 years when George Washington was inaugurated as our first president in 1789. Britain had just relinquished Florida back to the Spanish in 1783. It became part of U.S. territory from 1821 to 1845 when it was granted statehood. St. Augustine played a significant role in several periods of the state’s history. Elsbeth “Buff” Gordon’s ‘time line’ is a good summary of St. Augustine history.

Most of historic St. Augustine can be comfortably walked, and Gordon provides walking itineraries. There are, however, sites that require a short car trip. The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park manages to rise above the category “tourist destination.” It has a beautiful setting. Fort Mose Historic State Park housed the first free African-American community in the U.S., established as a refuge for slaves escaping from the British colonies. Fort Matanzas, an outlying fort built as part of the defenses of Castillo de San Marcos, is a magical place, administered by the National Park Service and a short ferry ride amongst Florida’s coastal marshes.

The Castillo de San Marcos – Fort Marion ­­- was a Spanish enterprise. Its construction began in 1672, a fortification intended to defend nearby Anastasia Island against intrusions by pirates and by raiders from the British colony of Georgia. Fort Marion never had any big-time opponents and hence was never breached and never surrendered. It is a well-preserved example of a star-fort military fortification. It has a moat, but the moat was not permanently flooded because the coquina stone in its ramparts would weaken after long periods of contact with water.

The Castillo de San Marcos was eventually named after Francis Marion, a hero of the American Revolution. In the early nineteenth century it was used as a prison for Native Americans who were resisting the spread of white settlement. Perhaps its most famous inmate was Osceola, an influential Seminole chief who took part in the Second Seminole War. Osceola, by the way, was captured under a flag of truce.

Coquina is a local stone quarried in blocks on Anastasia Island. It is a sedimentary rock composed of shell fragments. When first quarried it is soft but hardens over time. It was a good material for Castillo de San Marcos because it would absorb the impact of cannon balls, rather than shattering.

Gordon points out that coquina stone is different from tabby. Tabby is a type of concrete made by burning oyster shells to create lime that is then mixed with water, sand, ash, and broken oyster shells. The technology of tabby concrete was brought from Spain and used wherever its primary ingredient, shells, was available.

Gordon is most interested in the architectural history of the town, and its citizenry. Less so its early inhabitants. Timucuan Indians were settled in the coastal areas stretching from Cumberland Island in coastal Georgia to the lake district of central Florida. Estimates of their population vary from 50,000 to 200,000. In the early Spanish period their population plummeted, from warfare and European infectious diseases.

The Timucuan are best known from the engravings of a Belgian, Theodore de Bry. Much traveled in Europe, de Bry never made it to North American and hence had no contact with the Timucuans that his engravings have immortalized. Rather he used sketches that were made from life by Jacques Le Moyne, a French artist and member of an expedition to Florida in 1564. Much about Timucuan life has been gleaned from these engravings, though it is likely that the images of their muscular, graceful bodies were a romanticized version of reality.

In addition to the early Spanish settlers, Gordon mentions the Minorcans. They were Europeans from an island in the Balearic Sea off the Mediterranean coast of Spain. They had been recruited to establish the colony of New Smyrna and were under some degree of servitude. When that colony failed they migrated to St. Augustine and were granted freedom and sanctuary. They are an example of one of the several forms of servitude in Florida prior to Civil War emancipation.

Of course the most common form of servitude was black slavery, and Gordon is a little disappointing in her account of St. Augustine’s slaves and their liberation. Most St. Augustinians who fought in the Civil War did so on the side of the Confederacy. The St. Augustine Blues, mobilized in 1860 and part of the Army of Tennessee, fought in the Battle of Vicksburg.

Judging from Walking St. Augustine, the town began a several decade-long slumber in the post-Civil War period. Its primary industry in the Gay ‘90s was tourism, and that has remained the case up to the present. Perhaps the most important phenomenon in the late nineteenth century was Henry Flagler’s creation of a series of luxury hotels for a wealthy East Coast clientele.

Flagler built three huge hotels, the Ponce de Leon, the Alcazar, and the Cordova. All three are serving other functions these days, and housing tourists has been left to chain hotels and motels on the periphery of the city and to bed and breakfasts located in St. Augustine’s Victorian homes, the boarding houses of an earlier day.

Much of the housing in the old city is too expensive for those who work in its service sector; it is rapidly becoming second homes. There have been a few new commercial structures built in a traditional style with second floor loggias. St. George Street provides good examples.

Take a stroll in an interesting city and take along Walking St. Augustine.

Camp Blanding; Florida Star in Peace and War by W. Stanford Smith. Research Triangle Publishing. 1998, paper.

Camp Blanding; Florida Star in Peace and War by W. Stanford Smith. Research Triangle Publishing. 1998, paper.

Camp Blanding was one of the largest World War II training bases in the country. Its construction began in November 1939. It received its first division of the Florida National Guard in the spring of 1941, while the construction crews from the Civilian Conservation Corp were still working on the vast camp. The U.S. had not yet entered the war. But military preparedness was now an essential part of our national defense. German U-boats were menacing the east coast of Florida, and the Japanese navy would soon strike Pearl Harbor.

The earlier Florida National Guard’s Camp Foster, near Jacksonville, had been closed and land for Camp Blanding purchased near the town of Starke. Kingsley Lake was part of the terrain and proved to be useful in training for the amphibious warfare in both theaters. Stanford Smith tells us that one of the boasts of those promoting the Starke location for Camp Blanding was that it was “free of mosquitoes.”

The first two infantry divisions to be assembled and trained at Blanding – the 31st and the 43rd – arrived in the spring of 1941. The 31st was largely made up of National Guard units from Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, the 43rd from the New England States. This was the first time that most of these northerners had come up against the South’s Jim Crow and it took some adjusting. The two divisions were divided by a parade ground which they called “the Mason-Dixon Line.”

The army was still segregated in World War II. There were detachments of “coloreds” on the base but they were mostly support staff. African-Americans also became “engineers,” that is they built military roads and bridges in Africa, India, and Burma (Myanmar). Their officers were all white. All facilities at Blanding were segregated except for the hospital.

There were bad feelings between draftees and those regulars drawn mostly from the various state National Guards. The latter had had some basic training and were already introduced to the trials of camp life. Later, by the fall of 1943, Camp Blanding was mostly training “replacements,” men who would undergo basic training similar to any enlistee but then be sent abroad as replacements to fill the ranks of depleted infantry divisions. Their training lacked the camaraderie that developed when whole divisions were trained together.

As the base grew so did the surrounding towns, particularly Starke. Smith suggests a good measure of the changes in the town: the Coca-Cola bottling plant upped its capacity from 24,000 bottles a day to 112,000. There was bus service available to several towns with United Service Organizations (USO) Clubs that held dances and provided free meals for the trainees. Gainesville’s USO is still around, now functioning as a senior citizen’s center (Thelma Boltin Center). Movie theaters in surrounding towns were packed on the weekends. Movies were also shown on the base. Many entertainers gave live performances at Camp Blanding.

After some exhausting days of training, the soldiers wanted to “relax.” A “honky-tonk community” (Smith’s term), sprang up just outside the Camp’s gates on the road to Starke.

At its height as a training camp, Blanding employed 4,000 civilians.  It is difficult to ascertain the number of soldiers who received all or part of their training at Camp Blanding, but perhaps as many as 800,000 if you include all of the replacements and others who received the specialist training that went on at Blanding. Some trained for as long as two years; others for a week or two. We fielded a well-trained army.

Blanding also served as a War Department Personnel Center for soldiers returning from the European theater after the German surrender in May 1945 to be processed before they were shipped off to the Southeast Asia Theater. Fortunately for these weary warriors that mostly didn’t happen. Instead they were sent to bases closer to their homes and demobilized from those locations.

In the last years of the War, Blanding served as a Prisoner of War Camp; nearly 4,700 POWs passed through its gates. The earliest to arrive were German naval prisoners, from U-boat crews. They were an elite amongst the millions of Germans that served in Adolf Hitler’s military and generally fervent Nazis. Later came more ordinary Germans, many in their teens, conscripted into the army in the nation’s final months of agony. These two groups of German POWs did not get along. After beatings and death threats, the diehard Nazis were moved on to another camp.

Perhaps most interesting of the informative Appendices in Smith’s Camp Blanding are the “campaign credits” listed for each of the nine divisions that were trained there. Soldiers that trained at Camp Blanding saw military service around the globe, participants in a world at war.

After the War many of the 10,000 structures at Camp Blanding were torn down or moved to nearby towns including Gainesville. Once again these barracks housed G.I.s, now taking advantage of a free education. A number of the structures still survive tucked away in a small community just north of the Campus.

 

Blood, Bone and Marrow; A Biography of Harry Crews by Ted Geltner. University of Georgia Press, 2016.

Blood, Bone and Marrow; A Biography of Harry Crews by Ted Geltner. University of Georgia Press, 2016.

A fine biographer of Gainesville’s Harry Crews, Ted Geltner has also described the trials and tribulations of those who make their living “from their pen.” It is not an easy life, and Crews, given the other life choices he made, found parts of it very difficult.

Crews was born in rural Bacon County, Georgia, the son of a couple that scrambled to keep food on the table during the 1930s Depression.  His was a ‘dysfunctional’ family. Harry, his mother, and brother moved to Jacksonville for work during World War II. Crews had polio as a child and an almost fatal accident. While playing a favorite children’s game “Crack the Whip,” he fell into a large caldron of boiling water and was severely burned. Geltner describes this difficult childhood, though Crews’ version in his autobiography is fonder of both Bacon County and Jacksonville.

The Crews household was not an environment that valued education, but Geltner contends that Harry did. Upon graduation from high school, he joined the marines, served during the Korean War, and took advantage of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act renewed during the War to give veterans an opportunity to go to college. He entered the University of Florida, eventually coming across its creative writing program. However, because he never liked mentorship or criticism, Crews did not take to its methodologies.

Geltner has given a detailed description of Harry’s writing life: how he wove his observations of the world of Georgia and north Florida into his novels, the pile of rejection letters that he received in the early days of his professional writing career, and the tenuous relationship that Crews had with his various agents and editors.

It may have seemed to Crews that success was long in coming.  But, most authors wait much longer before they have the success that Crews had from his earliest novels, Cool Hand Luke and The Gospel Singer.

Crews had the good fortune to receive strong support from perhaps the most formidable quarter of the writing and publishing world, literary critics. These “gate keepers” were never as critical of his work as Harry often was of his own writing.

This biographer gives credit to Harry’s several wives and women friends who guided him through a life with his best friend, the bottle. Though Geltner makes it clear that Harry normally had to “dry out” before he could get any serious writing done and there were long “droughts” when writing wasn’t possible.

Moreover even though his “life style” consumed his income, Crews was fortunate to have had advances from his various publishers and then moderately good royalties. He was also fortunate in have a ‘real job’ that complemented his writing career, first at a community college in Broward County, Florida and then on the faculty of the Creative Writing Program at his alma mater, the University of Florida.

Crews took his teaching seriously; his class was popular and there was always a waiting list to get in. But he was often absent. Geltner gives Melvin New credit for creating an environment that Harry respected. As head of the English Department, New was aware of the gap between the academics and the writers.  He also appreciated the fact that as Harry’s fame grew, so did Florida’s ability to attract well-known writers to join the English faculty. However, Crews was a difficult colleague. Keeping peace amongst that faculty and finding continued support within the English Department for the program wasn’t easy.

There was a more accommodating environment for Harry – the local bars. Gainesvillians will recognize Harry’s favorites: the Rathskeller, Orange & Brew, the Windjammer, and Lillian’s. When he was in these settings, he was the ‘king of the hill,’ sure-footed, though not so sure-footed by the end of the evening.

In addition to being a novelist, Crews also tried out journalism, writing a regular column, “Grits,” in Playboy Magazine and then guest columns in Esquire. Hunter S. Thompson had fashioned a writing style, “gonzo journalism” for Harry and other writers to follow. In addition to magazine journalism Harry also dabbled with script-writing for Hollywood, the playwright’s art, and a short-lived acting career.

One of the best stories that Geltner tells is Harry’s trying out for the role of the American celebrity. It turns out that Madonna and Sean Penn had added our Harry Crews to Donald Trump’s guest list for the Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks boxing match staged in July 1988 in Atlantic City, New Jersey near Trump’s hotel and casinos. Madonna had recently finished The Knockout Artist and been “blown away.” Trump showed his displeasure at her including this “unknown writer.” From Geltner’s account it was clear that the life of celebrity was not for Harry nor Harry for that celebrity world.

Most of Harry Crews’ titles are still in print. His continued reputation will, however, likely rest with his autobiographical A Childhood; The Biography of a Place, published to much acclaim in 1978. A second volume was on the way when Crews died in March 2012.

The Seminole Wars; America’s Longest Indian Conflict by John Missall & Mary Lou Missall.

The Seminole Wars; America’s Longest Indian Conflict by John Missall & Mary Lou Missall. University of Florida Press, 2016.

There were three Seminole Wars, extending from 1818 to 1858. Mary Lou Missall and John Missall, authors of this account of the warfare between Florida’s Seminoles and the U.S. government, contend that all three together constitute the longest Indian conflict in our history. They point out that what historians call the First Seminole War involved Spain’s colonial empire, including the Florida Peninsula. During the Second Seminole War (sometimes called The Florida War), Florida was now a territory of the United States. The Third Seminole War was a few skirmishes beginning in 1855. By then Florida had been a state in the American union for a decade. The admission of a southern slave state had been paired with admission of a northern free state; Florida was paired with Iowa.

The Seminole Wars were part of the broader struggle over slavery. Many that fled from slavery in South Carolina and Georgia had escaped to Florida. They had joined the Seminoles and participated in their struggle with the United States army, its navy, and the state militias which had joined in efforts to move the Indian populations in the Southeast to lands west of the Mississippi River.

The Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw tribes had earlier been settled in reservations in the Southeast. But as white settlers moved south into what would become cotton-growing lands, Indian removal to more distant reservations became essential to the South’s growing cotton economy. Their presence and accompanying insecurities discouraged white settlement. These tribes made the decision to move without a fight and were escorted west along the “trail of tears and death.” The Seminoles chose to resist.

There was a considerable sympathy for the Seminoles around the country. Their relentless warfare resembled what would later be called guerilla combat. It involved among other tactics their massacre of an occasional settler family. Retaliation involved sending detachments of the U.S. army out to hunt down and kidnap Seminole women and children. The Missalls argue that even those sympathetic to the Seminoles were, however, appalled by the cost of the war, almost a half billion in today’s dollars.

Black Seminoles suffered a cruel fate. When captured they faced being returned to their owners or being sold into an even worse slavery within the Native American economy. The Creeks regularly kidnapped black Seminoles and sold them to slave traders for resale.

Most of the largest rivers in the Southeast and the Gulf Coast of Florida ran through lands dominated by Seminole tribes, hence harder for the U.S. navy to guard.  Those harbors and estuaries provided opportunities for smugglers operating out of Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Several Seminole chiefs signed an agreement with the U.S. government in 1823 declaring a truce and granting a stipend to the chiefs, perhaps shared, perhaps not. They agreed to retreat to a track of land south of present-day Ocala. But then within a few years, they were told that they had to move again. The Seminoles were not migratory; they needed time to establish their farms and room to pursue their profitable trade in hides.

The authors have written with much sympathy for the Seminoles but believe that the move west was an inevitability. Armed resistance was useless. That was particularly true once the Seminole Wars became an issue debated in Washington and provided career-building opportunities in presidential politics: Andrew Jackson, Winfield Scott, William Henry Harrison, and Zachery Taylor boasted of their military engagements with the Seminoles. Career army officers found opportunities to build their military careers, especially when battling Seminoles was combined with serving in the Mexican War from 1846 to 1848. Also anyone who has lived through the genocides and ethnic cleansing of the twentieth century, cannot help but feel uncomfortable with the similarities to “the trail of tears and death.”

John Missall and Mary Lou Missall are generous in the credit they give to John Mahon (formerly on the faculty of the History Department, University of Florida) and his History of the Second Seminole War, 1835 to 1842. University of Florida Press, 1989. The Seminoles are still living in South Florida where they have become tourist attractions.

 

 

 

The Biohistory of Alachua County, Florida by Francis William Zettler. Pineapple Press, 2015 paper.

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.

How to Read a Florida Gulf Coast Beach

How to Read a Florida Gulf Coast Beach; A Guide to Shadow Dunes, Ghost Forests, and Other Telltale Clues from an Ever-Changing Coast by Tonya Clayton. University of North Carolina Press, 2012, paper.

Florida’s beaches vary in structure but, nevertheless, have a common set of characteristics. They can be “read” if you know what you are looking for. Tonya Clayton has made this easier. She describes the beaches lining the Gulf of Mexico but not our more famous Atlantic Coast beaches. There are few beaches in Florida’s Big Bend country. The Cedar Keys, in the middle of the Big Bend, are an exception. Seahorse Key, one of them, is known for is towering, ancient sand dune, the tallest in Florida. The panhandle has wonderful quartz sand beaches, as does the Florida peninsula from Tampa Bay south almost to the Florida Everglades.

Our sand is mostly foreign to peninsular Florida. It is the result of the erosion of the Appalachian Mountains. Rivers brought sediments to the Gulf Coast and waves, tides, and wind contributed to the drift of sand along the coast from north to south. Clayton corrects the oft heard expression, “river of sand.” Rather the beaches are the result of a slow process of sand shifting over short distances, over long periods of time.

Clayton proceeds to name and explain the various forces that have shaped the coast over the millennia. But first, she describes the structure of a Florida Gulf Coast beach. There is a near-shore zone, an over-wash zone, a back beach with its dunes and intervening swales, and commonly a lagoon behind the dunes. The shoreline is always on the make, and you can observe this by the several ridges where there is a slight change in the dip of the beach. Clayton reminds us that beach formation needs room. That is a partial explanation for the absence of beaches along the Big Bend.

Throughout the book there is much talk of threats to our shores, and certainly estuaries are threatened. Estuaries are formed at the mouth of a river where its supple of fresh water mingles with tidal seawater. That mingling has produced a flora and fauna unique to estuaries, and that environment can be easily disturbed.

Sea levels are rising. But that has been so for the last five millennia.

Sea grasses and other flora anchor the shore line, and reduce the movement of sand. We much admire sea oats and applaud conservation efforts. When this normally hardy plant life dies off from various causes, the sand begins to shift around and the beach structure crumbles.

Florida, fortunately, is not prone to tsunamis. But we do have wave surges during hurricanes and tropical storms. Joined with a high tide, they can be devastating. Hurricane Ivan in 2004 caused a storm surge that was ninety-one feet above sea level. It deposited three feet of sediment along twenty-five miles of coast.

Signs of an advancing (moving seaward) shoreline? They include coastal ridges parallel to the shoreline which attest to abundant incoming sand. Sign of a retreating (moving landward) shoreline. Ghost forests: trees dead and dying, drowned in salt water.

The small bluffs measuring from a few inches to a foot, carved into the sand are familiar to beachgoers. Scarps a sure sign that the winds and the sea are in the process of claiming more land.

Looking closely at the wrack line reveals exuberant life amidst piles of debris just behind the wash zone. It often marks the latest high tide line. Sargassum (gulfweed) and various species of algae harbor a universe of flies, beetles, and beach hoppers. They attract shore birds pecking through the wrack. And sadly, they anchor human junk: cigarette butts and filters are the most common, lots of plastic cups, food containers, and beverage bottles. It takes fifty years for a foam cup to disintegrate.

Occasionally there is an outcropping of coquina rock. In the absence of better building stone, coquina was used in earlier centuries as a building material on the east coast, though less commonly on the Gulf side of the peninsula.

“Beach remodeling;” there is a lot of it going on. Coastal engineering includes armoring beaches with sea walls, bulkheads, and retaining walls. Beaches are ‘nourished’ by bringing in sand from distant sources or often by dredging just off shore.

Clayton reminds us that there are both beneficial and dire effects of these efforts to protect the beach from the weather – and man’s folly. One common complaint about beach nourishment is that the new sand doesn’t match the color and texture of the old. It is true that sand comes in various hues and can vary in composition, particularly in its shell content.

Grab your hat, sun screen, insect repellent, drinking water, a towel, and let’s head for the beach.

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