Florida Museum of Natural History

Titian Ramsay Peale

A Visit To Florida In The Early Part Of The Century - Part 1

In the year 1817 a Scientific party was formed by Mr. Wm McClure, a geologist of Philadelphia, to visit Florida while it was yet a Spanish possession. His associates were Mr. Thomas Say Entomologist, Mr George Ord, and Mr Titian R. Peale Ornithologist.

Mr Ord and Mr Peale, then quite young, left Philadelphia December 25th 1817, in the usual sailing vessel for Savannah, where they were to join Mr Mcclure and Mr Say. At Savannah Mr Geo Summers hearing of Mr Peale's arrival called upon him Immediately and guided them to all places of interest in the city and surroundings. Mr Oemler, noted for his zeal in Entomology and Botany, came to see them also.12 These gentlemen made the time pass most pleasantly, while waiting for the rest of the party. Walking with them one day, they accidentally met Mr Say who had arrived the night before in a steamboat from Charleston. He conducted them to Mr. Mcclure-all delighted to meet and eager for the trip.

While Mr McClure, the businessman of the party-having gotten it up-was engaging a vessel and laying in stores, Mr Ord and Mr Peale made good use of their time, hunting in the nighborhood, and getting many birds, which Mr. Peale preserved, and left with Mr Oemler until their return.

On leaving the city the Merchants and Planters sent them Inters to every Island along the coast of Georgia. Having learned their route, they also sent word to their friends, to offer every facility to the party. This intended kindness, proved a great anoyance, for at every place they approached, invitations were sent them to come and visit: Mr McClure invariably answered that they were on a trip that did not admit of visiting and that they were only equipped for what they had to do.

The sloop they had engaged held besides the four Scientists three sailors and Mr. McClure's servant. They landed at Great Warsaw island, and began shooting, to the great alarm of the inhabitants, who arned themselves with all possible speed, thinking they were outlawed negroes shooting their cattle.13 Mr. Peale shot here among other things, a large Baldhead Eagle. At Ossabau island, he got the large Crow-blackbird (Greakle) for the first time and was delighted with the bird-shortly after Mr Ord shot another.14

They were charmed with Blackbird island, on which they landed.15 The interior was covered with beautiful groves of live Oak, and abounded with Deer, that fed on the acorns. On its banks were immense sand hills, giving fine effect to the rich, glossy dark green foliage of the live Oak. The waters of the inlet were filled with multitudes of beautiful Medusae and other Molluscous animals, their phosphoric light giving brilliancy to the waters-and adding zest to their evenings,-which closed the days crowded with enjoyment, from their various and numerous collections.

They landed on the north end of Cumberland island and went into the interior to hunt Deer.1o As they were sailing around the island they got aground, and the people sent a pilot to them (though they had one on board) and insisted on their coming on shore. Finding their vessel fast in the sand, at nearly high tide, and knowing that as the waters receded the vessel would be on her beam ends so that they could not stand upright on deck they accepted the invitation. They were taken first to Mrs. St Simons's, by whom they were hospitably entertained, and were thence to visit Mr & Mrs Shaw at the celebrated Mansion built by Gen Greene of Revolutionary fame-a perfect castle in dimensions-but most singular in effect, being built of concrete made of oyster shells put into a box of the intended thickness of the walls, with plaster poured in and let stand until hard.17 The house was thus gradually made, forming a most substantial dwelling. The walls being very thick, took a long while to make, especially with the slow slave labour, and getting impatient, they used it without plastering the interior as was the custom. The effect was, of course, incongruous-almost ludicrous. Sitting in the vast Hall in which they dined-on elegant imported furniture, at a most sumptuous table, they saw, when they looked up oyster shells sticking out of the walls in every direction, in strange contrast to the elegant hospitality below. The garden and grounds seemed quite a paradise with hedges formed of Lemon, groves of Orange trees, roses and other flowers in full bloom, though it was January. From the top of the house they had a view of Amelia island, the Sea and the Mainland at the same time, forming a magnificent view, Mr Shaw was a most courteous host. With the usual southern habit, a negro was assigned to each one immediately on their arrival.18 Mrs. Shaw daughter of Gen. Greene, was a lady of great intelligence and cultivation, well fitted to dispense the refined hospitalities of her luxurious and most beautiful home. Mr Peale saw here a painting of Sully's, a copy S die likeness of Gen. Greene by his father, Chas. W. Peale who was the only one who painted the General from life.19 Their vessel being in readiness next day, they took leave of Mr. Shaw ad family-having enjoyed their improvised visit to the utmost. Passing in front of Fernandina, they saw at anchor the United States Squadron consisting of the John Adams, Saranac, Prometheus and other smaller vessels, and reached St Mary's in the afternoon. Mr McClure and Say went ashore, Mr Ord and Mr Peale preferred remaining on board, Though it rained all the ant day the Lieut-Governor of East Florida came on board in the morning and offered any service in his power. Continued rains detained the party at St Marys, but on the third of February they sailed for Fernandina-which they found half deserted ad the inhabitants of the other half almost in a state of starvation. None of the houses were more than two stories high. They visited the grave yard, if it might be called one, just out of the suburbs of the town. According to Spanish custom every grave had its cross at the head (This is not peculiar to Spaniards)-if it were but a stick split; another placed in its crosswise and both lashed together with an old suspender. There seemed to have been great mortality-helped no doubt by "Patriot" knives. For the attention of the Fillibusters of that day having been turned wards Florida, they had taken possession of Amelia island, under the name of Patriots--which they professed to be, and threatening to release the country from Spanish rule, had gone even to the gates of St Augustine, not more than six months before. At that time, tracks of Deer were found within half a mile of the town.

One of the many Medusae lying on the shore was to be two feet in diameter, and on entering St John's river numbers of Porpoises were seen. The next day the party thirty miles up the river seeing among various other birds, Fishing Pelicans and Whooping Cranes.20 They anchored opposite the plantation of a Mr Richards on the west side of the river where they got a little Egret (Snowy Heron.)21 They up the river to Cowford, delivered their letters-and soon finding it a miserable place, of but a few huts and the half of them without roofs or inhabitants. Reporting the vessel, they sled along the river, found the clay bluff well timbered with Pine, Live Oak, Bay Laurel (Magnolia Grandiflora) and various otheer trees. Along the banks were a few plantations, many of them deserted or burned. They landed on one that belonged to Mr Craig of Savannah and saw here the finest grove of Oranges they had yet met with-upwards of five hundred trees, many of them almost breaking with thier load of fruit. The river was tout four miles wide and the water quite fresh. The next day having a fair wind that blew almost a gale they reached for Picolata, which they found in ruins. They hunted all day without seeing anyone, until near night when two countrymen came along; hearing the guns they came to see who fired them. From them they learned that, that was the nearest point to St Augustine-whither it was determined to go next day to report themselves and present their Pasport-one of these men having been engaged as guide.

Mr McClure who was the author of the first work on Geology in the United States22 - wishing to visit Florida to study its formation, had doubted whether he would be allowed to go on account of constant inroads from the north and on applying to the Spanish Consul in Philadelphia for a passport was told that he had no authority, but would write to Spain about it: The answer was a royal pasport for Mr McClure and party.23 Armed with this, he organized his small expedition-but now shrank from presenting it, on account of the twenty three miles it was necessary to go, through a country entirely unprovided with accommodations of any kind. The rest of the gentlemen however undertook to do it, starting immediately after breakfast, Mr McClure remaining in the sloop.

They passed through Pine barrens and Swamps, frequently up to their middle in water, the whole twenty three miles, and saw no vestige of habitation nor a single inhabitant. They arrived at the gates of the city about sundown and were obliged to enter in this soiled condition to the Governor's house, which consisted of two stories, the first containing the offices and the Guardhouse, into which they were shown.-In the second were the private apartments of the Governor who chanced to be entertaining two British Officers that day, and the attendant-no doubt-when he announced that some strangers sought audience, represented that they were travellers of little consideration judging from their apperance-as he continued at dinner, leaving the gentlemen in the guard room, their impatience not being lessened by the sound of enjoyment reaching them from above. After awhile Gov. Coppinger (afterwards Coy. Gen. of Cuba)24 sent for them, and they were ushered, in their soiled travel garments, into the convivial ball, where the guests were still seated. The Governor, probably annoyed by the interruption, from such unattractive visitors, haughtily demanded their business while his guests looked patronizingly on them as they stood there. When the passport was handed him, the effect was magical. As soon as he saw the royal seal and signature, he exclaimed "from the King!" and was completely astounded, rising immediately and bowing low with many apologies for their detention he urged them to sit at dinner-which they declined-but as he insisted on their taking wine with him, they consented. He was profuse in his offers to serve them bowing low all the time, as did every one-following his example guests and all. They told him all they wanted was lodgings that they might retire to, and get rid of the load of soil the unusual travel had laden them with, and make comfortable for the night. Immediately persons were sent different directions, but no quarters could be found-until British officers said, at their boarding house they might possibly be accommodated and sending, they got room for the party. After calling next day on the Governor-whom they found such beloved by the people-they returned to the vessel, ailing on, anchored in an eastern branch of the St John's and landed on a plantation, just deserted, where they hunted some time with very great success. Landing again the next morning they shot as many Partridges as they wanted before breakfast. They then went ashore to dig at an Indian mound in middle of a neighbouring plain. It was 90 ft in circumference 9 or 10 ft high. They dug about 7 ft in the centre of it-three flint spear heads, a stone hatchet, a copper rod at both ends, and a large Conch shell of a species that is not on the coast of America and is probably extinct-also some lumps of red paint.25 They sailed within the Sea Islands landing at various plantations, generally deserted-gathering specimens many kinds-of birds &c-until they came to Pablo Creek where they hunted in the canoe.26 Mr McClure and Mr Say went up the Creek to a plantation, to get information and found from the jealousy of the Spaniards they would be unable to go further south. They therefore contented themselves with coasting the St John's river. The next morning Mr Peale shot a very fine white Pelican, and prepared it the following day, it weighed eighteen pounds. They hunted also on North Beach and from the north end of Fort George island where there is a high range of hills covered with Live Oak, they enjoyed the finest prospect they had ever seen in Florida,-a wide expanse of Sea, besides the nearer islands, lakes and lagoons. Another fine view was enjoyed from St John's Bluff the highest front of land yet seen.27 It was here the town of St John was have to been built. nothing however was to be seen but two poor huts. After cruising to anchor next day at the mouth of a creek just below Cowford. Mr Say and Mr Peale proceeded up the creek in a boat, and about two miles up found the nest of an Alligator. It was in a marsh about six feet from the water-3 ft high and 4 in diameter-the eggs about the centre. Next day went up another branch of the river, saw numbers of alligators. They continued coasting for some day and they sailed for Ft Picolata where they arrived about noon. Mr Peale made a drawing of the fort. The next morning they set out with Wantou their Guide-(whom they had kept with them) to St Augustine to hunt, had not been out long when they shot: fine Buck, and wounded three others, also a large male squirrel and saw a Black Wolf, but did not get a shot at it,28 returned to get dog, to hunt the wounded Deer-Mr Ord having brought his dogs with him. They found among the several modes of hunting Deer the people there practiced is one they call fire hunting which is done at night. The hunter has a wallet slung on his back filled with Pine knots or light wood, and a frying pan on his shoulder on which he mades a fire, the wood in the wallet is to feed it. Thus equipped he walks through the haunts of the fleer. At sight of the fire they stand still and look at it, their eyes reflect the light strongly which makes the hunters mark who rarely misses. If only wounded they hunted the next day with dogs.

Back to Top