Florida’s Most Colorful Surveyor

Land surveying is a precise business, at least most of the time. The goal of the surveyor is to show as accurately as possible the boundary lines of a person’s property, usually in relation to a written legal description. Surveyors will readily tell you that is both a science and an art, but there’s one Florida surveyor who took that idea to a whole new level. Take a look at this survey plat drawn by Robert McHardy in 1818:

Survey plat drawn by Robert McHardy in 1818 depicting a parcel of land claimed by John Bolton in the vicinity of New Smyrna Beach. Click or tap the image to view all of the documents Bolton used to support his claim. This and more than a thousand additional claims for Spanish land grants are documented in records at the State Archives. This particular dossier is found in Box 4, Folder 23 of Series S990 (Confirmed Spanish Land Grant Claims).

Survey plat drawn by Robert McHardy in 1818 depicting a parcel of land claimed by John Bolton in the vicinity of New Smyrna Beach. Click or tap the image to view all of the documents Bolton used to support his claim. This and more than a thousand additional claims for Spanish land grants are documented in records at the State Archives. This particular dossier is found in Box 4, Folder 23 of Series S990 (Confirmed Spanish Land Grant Claims).

If you’ve seen a modern survey plat, you’ll recognize that this goes above and beyond showing someone where the boundaries and corners of their property are. That begs the question, who was Robert McHardy, and why did he take such an elaborate, colorful approach to land surveying?

Robert McHardy was born in Montrose, Scotland in 1776. As young adults, he and his brother James worked for a mercantile business, sailing back and forth between Scotland and Charleston, South Carolina and the West Indies. In the late 1700s, the two brothers decided to strike out on their own. They moved to Nassau in the Bahamas and set up their own firm. Business was good for the McHardys until around 1800 when a family friend failed to repay a fairly large loan. Robert, having just married and looking to get his finances back in order, decided to take advantage of a trend that was taking place just across the water in Spanish Florida.

Excerpt from Doolittle's Map of the West Indies (1796). Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the complete map.

Excerpt from Doolittle’s Map of the West Indies (1796). Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the complete map.

Since taking Florida back from the British in 1783, Spanish authorities had been trying to convince settlers to move into the province and make it profitable. They offered to let the people who moved in during the period of British ownership keep their land, but they had to take an oath of fidelity to the Spanish Crown, which at the time also meant converting to Catholicism. Many of the British settlers chose not to accept these terms, and instead moved north into Georgia or to British islands in the Caribbean, especially the Bahamas.

Seeing that the religious requirement was the main stumbling block, the Spanish tried offering Florida land to Irish Catholics, but only a few families took advantage of the program. In 1790, the King issued an order inviting non-Spanish individuals to settle in Florida regardless of their religion. New immigrants would be offered “head rights,” meaning they would receive free land based on the number of persons–slave or free–that they brought into the province to establish a plantation. That offer was awfully tempting for British nationals like Robert McHardy in Nassau. In 1802, he and his wife Mary and their young family moved to Spanish Florida with their nine slaves, which entitled them to a sizable chunk of land to begin farming. The McHardys initially settled with a cluster of other Bahama transfers near New Smyrna, but they later acquired property near Mary’s father around present-day Tomoka, where they set up their main planting operation.

Excerpt from an 1845 survey plat of Township 13 South, Range 32 East, showing Robert McHardy's land just north of a parcel belonging to his father-in-law, John Bunch. Both are located in the vicinity of the Halifax and Tomoka rivers in what is now Volusia County. Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the excerpt. Image courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management, United States Department of the Interior.

Excerpt from an 1845 survey plat of Township 13 South, Range 32 East, showing Robert McHardy’s land just north of a parcel belonging to his father-in-law, John Bunch. Both are located in the vicinity of the Halifax and Tomoka rivers in what is now Volusia County. Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the excerpt. Image courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management, United States Department of the Interior.

McHardy’s luck was hard in the decade that followed. Five of his six children died, as did his wife Mary. The one child who survived, John Bunch Bonnemaison McHardy, was sent to live with his mother’s relatives in Nassau. In 1812, McHardy became embroiled in the disturbance that came to be known as the “Patriot War.” A group of Georgians, with the tacit approval of the United States government, invaded Spanish Florida aiming to seize it and transfer it to United States control. The effort failed, but not before the so-called Patriots caused plenty of damage to the plantations of settlers who didn’t join their cause. McHardy was British and had a lot in common with the Americans, but he chose to support the Spanish administration in St. Augustine rather than endorsing the rebels’ plan to annex Florida to the United States at that time. In return, the Patriots ransacked his plantation at Tomoka, knocking down his fences and destroying his crops. They also took McHardy prisoner, although he was later released. McHardy would later be awarded damages from the United States government for his trouble, although he had been dead for years by the time the litigation was complete.

Excerpt from a document in the Supreme Court case file relating to the litigation over Robert McHardy's compensation for property damages during the Patriot War of 1812. Click or tap the image to view a description of the case and 241 pages of records relating to it.

Excerpt from a document in the Supreme Court case file relating to the litigation over Robert McHardy’s compensation for property damages during the Patriot War of 1812. Click or tap the image to view a description of the case and 241 pages of records relating to it.

Things began looking up for Robert McHardy after these trying years. In 1816, he remarried to Caroline Williams, one of his neighbors in the Tomoka area. He also began surveying for the Spanish government, who by this time was giving away land grants for a variety of reasons. The old head rights system was still in play, but a person could also obtain land grants for government or military service, or for starting a mill or cattle ranch. Once a person had applied for one of these kinds of grants, they had to present their paperwork to the public surveyor, who would then lay out the boundaries and corners of the land. George J.F. Clarke was the public surveyor at St. Augustine from 1811 until the end of Spanish rule in Florida, but he had a number of surveyors working under him at his direction. McHardy was one of them.

Hand-colored survey plat drawn by Robert McHardy in 1817 showing a parcel of land claimed by John B. Gaudry. Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the map and the dossier of records in which it is located.

Hand-colored survey plat drawn by Robert McHardy in 1817 showing a parcel of land claimed by John B. Gaudry. The land was located along the St. Johns River near present-day DeLeon Springs. Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the map and the dossier of records in which it is located.

McHardy’s survey plats are the most colorful and detailed maps found in the Spanish land grant records at the State Archives. Surveyors were given a detailed set of instructions explaining exactly what was supposed to be included in the plats, but McHardy went beyond just showing the compass bearings and distances that defined a piece of land. He used color and illustrations to convey the shape of the terrain, marking out forests, swamps, pine uplands, buildings, roads and canals.

Excerpt of a map drawn by Robert McHardy in 1816 for his neighbor, John Addison, whose property was located along the Tomoka River in what is now Volusia County. Click or tap the image to view the complete map and the full dossier of documents relating to Addison's claim.

Excerpt of a map drawn by Robert McHardy in 1816 for his neighbor, John Addison, whose property was located along the Tomoka River in what is now Volusia County. Click or tap the image to view the complete map and the full dossier of documents relating to Addison’s claim.

Marking the location of corners was particularly important. Today’s surveyors use metal rods or concrete monuments to mark corners, but this system was impractical in the 1810s, long before modern metal detectors and measuring devices were available. Instead, surveyors like McHardy used trees for property corners. They would shave the bark off one or more sides of the tree and carve letters into it. On the excerpt from the survey plat below, for example, you can see the phrase Pino Marcado B, meaning “pine marked B.” This enabled the landowner (John Bolton in this case) and his neighbors to know exactly where the corner of the property was located. Pine trees appear to have been the most common boundary marker, but in looking through the records you also see oak trees and even royal palm trees on occasion.

One corner of a map drawn by Robert McHardy depicting a parcel of land claimed by John Bolton in the vicinity of what is now New Smyrna Beach. Click or tap the image to view the complete map and the full dossier of records relating to Bolton's claim.

One corner of a map drawn by Robert McHardy depicting a parcel of land claimed by John Bolton in the vicinity of what is now New Smyrna Beach. Click or tap the image to view the complete map and the full dossier of records relating to Bolton’s claim.

The level of detail in Robert McHardy’s survey plats was especially helpful because in those days there was no reliable grid system to use to describe the exact location of land. Latitude and longitude could be calculated, but not with anywhere near the kind of precision needed for land surveying. The land measurement system we use today–the Public Land Survey System–was only established after the United States acquired Florida, so that wasn’t available either. In the absence of anything better, McHardy’s careful representation of the physical appearance of a piece of property helped the government, the owner and his neighbors understand where the property was in real space.

Monument in Cascades Park in Tallahassee marking the point of beginning for the Public Land Survey System in Florida. Virtually all land in the state is measured in relation to a grid system that originates at this single point (2014).

Monument in Cascades Park in Tallahassee marking the point of beginning for the Public Land Survey System in Florida. Virtually all land in the state is now measured in relation to a grid system that originates at this single point (2014).

All that being said, McHardy’s plats are far from perfect. Since his time, the terrain has changed considerably and many of the parcels of land shown on his maps have been transferred many times and divided into pieces. So if you’re a genealogist, a local historian or just plain curious, how can you tell where a former Spanish land grant was located? The State Archives is working to make it easier to do just that!

When the United States acquired Florida, one of the first priorities was to start selling land to settlers so they could move in and develop the territory. That meant measuring the land into some kind of system so pieces of it could be accurately described. The government had a system in mind already, but there was a problem. In acquiring Florida from Spain, the Americans had promised the Spanish that they would respect any legitimate land titles granted to individuals during the time the Spanish owned the territory. Those grants came in all kinds of crazy shapes and sizes–nothing like the grid-based parcels the Americans planned to sell. To avoid accidentally selling off land that rightfully belonged to landowners left over from the Spanish period, the American government surveyors had to show exactly where those Spanish land grants were in relation to the new grid system. Accordingly, many of the township plats around Pensacola and northeastern Florida look like this:

Survey plat for Township 4 South, Range 27 East (1851), located just south of Jacksonville. Note that part of the township is surveyed into regular one-mile sections, while other sections are irregularly interrupted by private land claims dating back to the Spanish era. Click or tap the image to view a larger version. Image courtesy of the Bureau of land Management, United States Department of the Interior.

Survey plat for Township 4 South, Range 27 East (1851), located just south of Jacksonville. Note that part of the township is surveyed into regular one-mile sections, while other sections are irregularly interrupted by private land claims dating back to the Spanish era. Click or tap the image to view a larger version. Image courtesy of the Bureau of land Management, United States Department of the Interior.

Many records relating to the Spanish land grants have been available on FloridaMemory.com for years, but up to this point they have only been searchable by the name of the person claiming to own the land as of the 1820s, plus geographic terms typical for that time period. We’re now in the process of cross-referencing between the Spanish land grant records, township plats like the one above and a variety of other documents to pinpoint exactly where each of the 1,000-plus Spanish land grants were located. Soon, you’ll be able to browse a modern map of Florida, zoom in on whichever area you like and see the Spanish land grants located there. You’ll also be able to search for grants by county, the nearest town and other criteria. These changes will make it easier to use the collection for family and community history research. We hope you’ll also take some time to simply enjoy the colorful maps in the records, like those drawn by Robert McHardy.

 

 

At the Edge

They’re small, they’re remote and many folks aren’t even aware they’re part of Florida.

They’re the Dry Tortugas, a group of islands located about 65 miles west of Key West, making them the last of the Keys as you follow them from the tip of the Florida peninsula. Juan Ponce de Leon encountered these islands during his 1513 voyage to Florida, making him the first European to make a record of them. He called them Tortugas, the Spanish word for “turtles,” because he and his crew saw plenty of them when they approached. The term “dry” was applied later by sailors because the islands had no springs or other sources of fresh water.

Gardner Key as seen from Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas (1986).

Bush Key as seen from Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas (1986).

In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the Dry Tortugas were an important landmark for ships carrying silver from Spain’s colonial possessions in North America back to Europe, because they marked the entrance to the Florida Straits. Catching a boost from the powerful Gulf Stream, these ships would typically sail across the Gulf of Mexico, through the Florida Straits, up the Bahama Channel and into the Atlantic Ocean. This was a fast-lane route that sped up the voyage, but it was also dangerous. Pirates frequently harassed ships that passed through the Florida Straits, and violent storms could easily cause a ship to run aground on hidden reefs and shoals.

Excerpt of a map from around 1680 showing the Dry Tortugas at the western entrance to the Straits of Florida. Click on the image to view a zoomable version of the complete map.

Excerpt of a map from around 1680 showing the Dry Tortugas at the western entrance to the Straits of Florida. Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the complete map.

The Dry Tortugas got their first real survey during the brief period when Florida was a British colony (1763-1783). Surveyor George Gauld painstakingly measured the shape and area of the islands and the depth of the water at various points around them. His 1773 nautical chart, A Plan of the Tortugas and Part of the Florida Kays, became the standard guide for navigating in that neighborhood for more than half a century.

Even with Gauld’s maps, the waters around the Tortugas were still a difficult place for sailing by the time the United States acquired Florida in 1821. Pirates still looted passing ships that weren’t adequately armed, and wreckers descended upon shipwrecked boats to carry their cargo off to the British Bahamas to be sold. There were laws regulating this practice, but enforcing those laws was next to impossible in this remote, undeveloped section of the Florida territory. In 1822, the United States government purchased Key West to establish a military and civil government presence in the area. The U.S. Navy began patrolling the Florida Keys to combat piracy and unlawful wrecking, and by 1828 there was a federal court in operation at Key West.

Illustration from Harper's New Monthly Magazine depicting survivors of a shipwreck aboard a raft (1859).

Illustration from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine depicting survivors of a shipwreck aboard a raft off the Dry Tortugas (1859).

Several lighthouses were also established by 1826 to help mariners keep their bearings and avoid wrecking, including one on Garden Key in the Tortugas. This first lighthouse was a 65-foot brick tower with a fixed light. Shippers complained almost immediately that it was poorly located and too small to see. In 1856, Congress appropriated $35,000 to build a new lighthouse, but this time it would be taller–150 feet–and it would be located on Loggerhead Key where ships approaching from the west would be able to see it sooner and better. It would also have a first-order Fresnel lens, manufactured by L. Sautter and Company in Paris, France, a big improvement over the old light. The new lighthouse went into operation on July 1, 1858.

Excerpt of a nautical chart by the U.S. Coastal Survey showing the Dry Tortugas, including the original lighthouse on Garden Key (1851). Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the complete chart.

Excerpt of a nautical chart by the U.S. Coastal Survey showing the Dry Tortugas, including the original lighthouse on Garden Key (1851). Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the complete chart.

Another federal project got underway in the Dry Tortugas in 1846–a new fort from which to monitor shipping and commerce in the Gulf of Mexico and prevent potential enemies from seizing the Florida Keys in the event of a war. This would eventually be called Fort Jefferson, named in honor of President Thomas Jefferson. The fort, which still stands, is hexagonal in shape with outer walls 10 feet thick at the base, tapering to 8 feet at the top. The bricks were sourced from northern Florida; the granite blocks came from Maine.

Fort Jefferson was only half completed in 1861 when the American Civil War broke out, but Union troops rushed to occupy it anyway. Portions of the Florida Keys (including Key West) remained Union territory throughout the war, and the U.S. Army even raised a cavalry unit that included Floridians from the area.

Aerial view of Fort Jefferson (1984).

Aerial view of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key (1984).

Far removed as it was, Fort Jefferson didn’t see much military action during the Civil War, although it did serve as a prison both during and after the conflict. Prisoners of war and Union soldiers serving sentences for desertion and misconduct made up most of the prison population. Perhaps the most famous prisoners ever to occupy the fort were four of the individuals found guilty of conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln in 1865. One of the four, Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd, was the physician who splinted John Wilkes Booth’s leg after he broke it jumping from the theater box where he had shot the president. While at Fort Jefferson, Dr. Mudd put his medical skills to work in the post hospital, although he lost that job for a time after he attempted to escape by stowing away on a departing ship, the Thomas A. Scott. When yellow fever broke out at the fort in 1867 and the prison doctor died, Mudd again filled in at the hospital. Some 300 soldiers at the fort, crediting Mudd as a lifesaver, petitioned President Andrew Johnson to pardon him. Johnson ended up pardoning all of the imprisoned conspirators except one, Michael O’Laughlen, who had died during the yellow fever outbreak.

Portrait of Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd (1860).

Portrait of Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd (1860).

Yellow fever, hurricanes and the obsolescence of Fort Jefferson’s walls led the Army to abandon the Dry Tortugas in 1874, although the Navy continued to store coal there for its ships to use. In fact, the Dry Tortugas were the last stop for the U.S.S. Maine before its fateful trip to Havana Harbor in 1898. The ship exploded and sank on February 15 of that year, killing most of the people aboard. American newspapers played up the idea that Spain had had something to do with the incident, which helped precipitate the Spanish-American War.

Wreckage from the U.S.S. Maine after it exploded and sank in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898.

Wreckage from the U.S.S. Maine after it exploded and sank in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Fort Jefferson a national monument in 1935, and Congress expanded the designation to include all of the Dry Tortugas in 1992. Despite its remote location, the park is open to the public and receives thousands of visitors annually. Visit the Dry Tortugas National Park website to learn more about how to reach this fascinating group of islands at the edge of Florida.

View of the Fort Jefferson lighthouse and Bush Key (1980s).

View of the Fort Jefferson lighthouse and Bush Key (1980s).

Florida’s Lost County

Florida started out its territorial existence with only two counties–Escambia and St. Johns–established by provisional governor Andrew Jackson right after the Spanish relinquished control in 1821. The Suwannee River served as the boundary line separating these two massive divisions. As more people arrived and established communities in the territory, the legislature created more counties to make local government more accessible and responsive to their needs. As of 1925, when Florida’s most recent county (Gilchrist) was established, the total number of counties was up to 67, where it remains today. That number could easily have been different, thanks to a multitude of attempts over the years to divide or change existing counties. There’s only one case, however, in which an existing county was completely wiped off the map, never to return. That’s the quirky case of Fayette County in the Florida Panhandle.

Map showing Florida's two original counties as they appeared in 1822. Click or tap the image to view a complete, zoomable version of the map.

Map showing Florida’s two original counties as they appeared in 1822. Click or tap the image to view a complete, zoomable version of the map.

Fayette County was established by an act of Florida’s territorial legislative council on February 9, 1832. It was carved entirely out of territory belonging to Jackson County, consisting of all the land between the Chipola and Apalachicola rivers, with the Florida-Alabama line as its northern boundary. The process began on January 23 when Thomas Baltzell, who represented Jackson County in the legislative council, submitted a petition from several citizens of the county asking that it be divided. The petition has not survived, so we don’t know exactly what reasons they gave, but the request had enough merit for the legislative council to refer it to a select committee appointed to decide whether the division should take place.

Portrait of Thomas Baltzell after he became Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court (ca. 1846).

Portrait of Thomas Baltzell after he became Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court (ca. 1846).

The select committee reported favorably on the petition and drafted a bill to divide Jackson County and create a new one called Fayette. It was controversial from the start, however. As the final vote approached, representative John P. Booth presented multiple petitions from other Jackson County citizens asking that the county not be divided. When the bill moved forward anyway, Booth attempted to mitigate its effect by proposing an amendment to change the boundaries. None of this stopped the act from passing the legislative council, but when it landed on the desk of Acting Governor James D. Westcott for a signature, it gave him pause. He wrote a message back to the legislative council rejecting the bill, saying he wasn’t satisfied that a “decided and sufficient majority” of the people of Jackson County actually wanted this division. “There is no tyranny so severe as the tyranny of a small majority,” Westcott wrote, and he explained that from the looks of things, it appeared that sectional interests of planters on the eastern side of the county might be driving this move. There was certainly evidence to back up Westcott’s observation–at the same time that the legislative council was voting on whether to establish Fayette County there were already bills lined up for incorporating a new town at Ochesee and granting a franchise for a ferry across the nearby Apalachicola River. The new law would have also given Fayette County its own representative on the legislative council instead of having it share two representatives with the voters of Jackson County. All three of these moves favored the citizens of the new county while conferring little or no benefit on the people left in Jackson.

After receiving Westcott’s message, the legislative council amended the bill to address his objections, particularly the part giving Fayette County its own legislator. Upon receiving the revised bill, Westcott wrote back that he still had objections to the law, but not enough to reject it a second time. With his signature on February 9, Fayette County became a reality.

Excerpt of a map from the 1830s showing the newly created Fayette County. Click or tap the image to view a complete, zoomable version of the map. Image courtesy of the University of South Florida Libraries.

Excerpt of a map from the 1830s showing the newly created Fayette County. Click or tap the image to view a complete, zoomable version of the map. Image courtesy of the University of South Florida Libraries.

The odd circumstances under which the new county had been established became even more obvious once its officers attempted to actually govern. Many of the planters drawn into the new county, especially in the northern part around present-day Greenwood and Bascom, protested that they never had any desire to be separated from Jackson County. Some even continued to pay taxes and vote as citizens of that county rather than Fayette. In July 1832, James W. Exum of Marianna wrote to Governor William Pope DuVal that there was even a justice of the peace appointed for Fayette County that counted himself a citizen of Jackson instead. To make matters worse, Exum explained, the new law didn’t properly specify an eastern boundary for the new county. It was clear enough that the northern boundary was the Alabama line and that the western boundary ran down the middle of Big Spring Creek to the Chipola River and then down to the Washington County line. The law said nothing, however, about how the boundary got back to the point of beginning on the eastern side. That being the case, was the county even legally a county, or was it just a line? Exum told the governor he had pointed out this discrepancy in a roomful of men from Jackson and Fayette counties, and that it had stirred a considerable amount of debate “and probably some warm words.”

Whether or not Exum was the catalyst, the legislative council took action at its next meeting in 1833. A new act was passed to clarify the boundaries of Fayette County, this time setting the northern boundary of Township 4 North between the Chipola and Chattahoochee rivers as the county’s northern extent. The land between that line and the Alabama line–the part that had been such a bone of contention with the planters before–was returned to Jackson County.

Excerpt of a map showing the new shape of Fayette County after the legislative council reunited the northern half with Jackson County in 1833. Click or tap the image to view a complete, zoomable version of the map.

Excerpt of a map showing the new shape of Fayette County after the legislative council reunited the northern half with Jackson County in 1833. Click or tap the image to view a complete, zoomable version of the map.

The northern planters must have been satisfied, but the remaining Fayette County voters were not. In 1834, they sent a petition to the legislative council, asking the members to either return their county to its former shape or dissolve it entirely. The boundary changes of the previous year had left them with fewer than a hundred voters, they claimed, leaving them unable to hold court or even build a courthouse and jail. Half the population, half the territory and two thirds of the wealth had gone back to Jackson County. “The evils complained of by your humble petitioners are not visionary,” they wrote. “To the contrary, they have been too seriously felt by many of them.”

Petition from citizens of Fayette County asking for the county to either be dissolved or its boundaries modified, January 8, 1834, in Box 4, Folder 7, Records of the Territorial Legislative Council (Series S876), State Archives of Florida.

Petition from citizens of Fayette County asking for the county to either be dissolved or its boundaries modified, January 8, 1834, in Box 4, Folder 7, Records of the Territorial Legislative Council (Series S876), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the entire document along with a transcript.

The legislative council ended the entire sordid affair by terminating Fayette County’s existence in 1834 and returning the territory to Jackson County where it had been previously. Since then, a few Florida counties have changed names, such as when Hernando County became Benton briefly and then switched back, or when New River County was renamed Bradford. Not since the Fayette County debacle, however, has a county been completely legislated out of existence. Here’s a map from the State Library’s Florida Map Collection that shows the history of Florida’s county additions and changes:

Map explaining the creation and reshaping of Florida's 67 counties between 1821 and 1936. Click or tap the image to view a complete zoomable version of the map.

Map explaining the creation and reshaping of Florida’s 67 counties between 1821 and 1936. Click or tap the image to view a complete zoomable version of the map.

Florida Urban Legends: Share Your Stories!

The staff of the State Archives of Florida are excited to introduce our Oral Tradition and Urban Legends project, highlighting the cultural significance of urban legends and the oral tradition. This two-part project will consist of a radio feature on the subject of the oral tradition in Florida, as well as the establishment of a new collection of oral histories contributed by Floridians.

Postcard advertising the mysterious Spook Hill attraction in Lake Wales, Florida.

First, listen to our radio feature below about Oral Tradition and Urban Legends in which State Folklorist Amanda Griffis and Sound Archivist Ross Brand discuss oral tradition in Florida and best practices for recording and preserving your own stories for future generations.

Oral Tradition and Urban Legends Radio Feature

Many myths surround the Phillips Mausoleum in Tallahassee.

After listening, record your own tales and share them with us! The State Archives of Florida is developing a new collection of urban legends, ghost stories and other Florida lore, and we need your stories. Does your community whisper tales of haunted cemeteries, vengeful spirits or other creepy happenings? Have you had your own experience with a local ghost or strange place? We want to hear Florida-specific urban legends and other tales from across Florida straight from the experience and perspectives of Floridians. Record the ghost stories, Florida folktales and urban legends that you remember from your childhood, or interview family or members of your community to capture their own tall tales.

Recordings can be uploaded and shared on social media under the hashtag #TalesFromFla. If you would like to submit your recording to be included in our new collection of urban legends oral histories and perhaps even be featured on our official Facebook page, you can email your recording to TalesFromFla@gmail.com. The submission deadline is November 30, 2019.

The Old Jail attraction in St. Augustine is often reputed to be haunted.

The Oral Tradition and Urban Legends project is just one of the ways that we will be celebrating American Archives Month 2019 this October as we explore “Tales from the Archives.” This year, we will be highlighting some of the darker, spookier records we have in our holdings to illustrate how archives can be used to examine the past and explore historical narratives. For more information on our upcoming events, check out the American Archives Month web page.

Remembering State Archivist Edward Tribble (1943-2019)

The staff of the State Archives of Florida were saddened to hear this week of the passing of former State Archivist Edward “Ed” Jennings Tribble. He was 76 years old. Mr. Tribble’s many passions included a love of history and the arts, and he will be long remembered for his lifelong dedication to preserving historical records for future generations.

Left to Right: June, Kermit, Jenny, Ardell and Ed Tribble in DeLand, Florida, 1957, box 1, folder 2, Florida postcards and photographs, 1934-1974 (M99-20), State Archives of Florida.

Mr. Tribble was born August 10, 1943 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but grew up in DeLand. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from Stetson University in 1968 and a master’s degree in library science from Florida State University in 1969. After working as a librarian in Tennessee from 1969 to 1973, he returned to Florida and was hired as an archivist at the newly established State Archives of Florida. At various times, Mr. Tribble was in charge of the State Archives reference desk and its arrangement and description program, and he most notably served as State Archivist. Before leaving this post in 1985, Mr. Tribble helped move the State Archives’ collections into the new R.A. Gray Building when it opened in 1977, and developed the first alphanumerical classification system for the Archives’ collections.

Edward Tribble with Motorcycle in DeLand, Florida, 1957, box 1, folder 11, Florida postcards and photographs, 1934-1974 (M99-20), State Archives of Florida.

Upon leaving the State Archives, Mr. Tribble co-founded the research firm Florida Information Associates, Inc. and worked there until his retirement with his wife of 37 years, Connie Beane. However, his interest in preserving Florida’s history extended well beyond his tenure at the State Archives. He donated many records to the State Archives in recent years, including two collections of Tribble family papers and a sizable collection of Florida postcards and photographs from the years 1934-1947. These collections enrich researchers’ cultural understanding of Florida and document the experiences of members of the Tribble family, ranging from their involvement in local politics to service during World War II.

The State Archives of Florida would not be the institution it is today without the work of Mr. Tribble. Grateful for his contributions to the information profession in Florida, State Archives staff offer condolences to Mr. Tribble’s family. He will be missed.

For more information, see Mr. Tribble’s obituary at https://www.youngfulfordcremationandfuneralservices.com/obituaries/Edward-Tribble/#!/Obituary.

The Fountain of Youth

You’ve probably heard the old saying that truth is stranger than fiction. That could be said of De Leon Springs in Volusia County, which has long been reputed to be the Fountain of Youth that Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon was searching for when he came to Florida in 1513. It turns out this was a bit of creative myth-making–old Ponce never made it quite that far inland. That being said, De Leon Springs is still a naturally beautiful spot with a fascinating past.

Excerpt of a 1985 map published by the Florida Department of Transportation showing the location of Ponce de Leon Springs State Park in relation to Orlando, Daytona Beach and Ocala. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Excerpt of a 1985 map published by the Florida Department of Transportation showing the location of De Leon Springs State Park in relation to Orlando, Daytona Beach and Ocala. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Evidence suggests that the first Floridians to live near De Leon Springs arrived at least 6,000 years ago. In 1985 and 1990, dugout canoes made of yellow pine and bald cypress were discovered in the spring. Carbon dating confirmed that they came from the Middle Archaic Period (6,000-3,000 B.C.E.), making them two of the oldest watercraft ever found in the Western Hemisphere. Native Americans were still living near the springs when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, although it wasn’t Ponce de Leon who first encountered them. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, adelantado of Florida and founder of St. Augustine, led an expedition up the St. Johns River in 1566 and made it within about 10 miles of De Leon Springs. Menéndez had been hoping that the St. Johns connected with Lake Okeechobee, but after a confrontation with the local Mayaca natives he decided to turn back.

Portrait of Pedro Menendez de Aviles (1565).

Portrait of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1565).

There is no evidence to suggest that the Spanish ever settled at De Leon Springs, but it’s clear the area was considered valuable territory. William Panton and Thomas Forbes, British merchants who traded regularly with local Native Americans, both received grants of land surrounding the springs from King George III during Florida’s brief stint as a British province in the late 1700s. This may have been part of a move to drum up some business with the natives still living in the vicinity. One survey plat belonging to William Panton shows a road heading from the springs toward “Panton & Forbes’ Upper Indian Store.”

Excerpt of a 1779 survey plat depicting a plot of land near Spring Garden granted to William Panton by the British government. Box 32, Folder 23, Confirmed Spanish Land Grants (Series S990), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the full map and the entire land grant dossier.

Excerpt of a 1779 survey plat depicting a plot of land near Spring Garden granted to William Panton by the British government. Box 32, Folder 23, Confirmed Spanish Land Grants (Series S990), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the full map and the entire land grant dossier.

The two traders seem not to have established anything too permanent at the springs, however, because in 1804 the Spanish granted a 2,020-acre plot of land to William Williams in almost exactly the same spot, with the future De Leon Springs right in the center. William Williams and had emigrated to Spanish Florida with other members of his family from the Bahamas in 1803. William had originally received a land grant at New Smyrna about 26 miles to the southeast, but he found the land unsatisfactory and asked to swap for something better. He called his new possession “Spring Garden,” and established a plantation growing corn, cotton and other crops.

Excerpt of an undated survey plat showing the overlapping land claims of William Williams, William Panton and Thomas Forbes (ca. 1825). Box 34, Folder 7, Confirmed Spanish Land Grants (Series S990), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the entire plat and the complete Spanish land grant dossier submitted by the heirs of William Williams.

Excerpt of an undated survey plat showing the overlapping land claims of William Williams, William Panton and Thomas Forbes (ca. 1825). Box 34, Folder 7, Confirmed Spanish Land Grants (Series S990), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the entire plat and the complete Spanish land grant dossier submitted by the heirs of William Williams.

William Williams died in 1808, and his family later sold the Spring Garden property to Joseph and Jane Woodruff of McIntosh County, Georgia. Woodruff had intended to start growing sugar on the site, but he died before he could get his plan into action. A new owner, Colonel Orlando Rees, decided he too would try his hand at growing sugar cane, and by 1832 his operation was up and running, with a water-powered mill taking advantage of the springs’ rapid flow. An 1834 government survey map shows the location of both the mill (called the “sugar house”) and the Rees family’s home just to the east.

Excerpt of a survey plat showing the location of a sugar mill and dwelling on the property surrounding Spring Garden, later De Leon Springs. The plat was reproduced sometime in the early 20th century from the 1836 original. Box 65, Township Survey Plats (Series S617), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the complete map.

Excerpt of a survey plat showing the location of a sugar mill and dwelling on the property surrounding Spring Garden, later De Leon Springs. The plat was reproduced sometime in the early 20th century from the 1836 original. Box 65, Township Survey Plats (Series S617), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the complete map.

The Rees sugar plantation was destroyed at the outbreak of the Second Seminole War in 1835, but a descendant later sold the property to a man named Thomas Starke. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the Starke family rebuilt and enlarged the mill, and during the war they supplied sugar, corn meal and other commodities to the Confederacy. In 1864, Union forces pushed through to the Spring Garden area, hoping to catch the “notorious rebel” Thomas Starke, as U.S. treasury agent A.G. Brown called him. Starke had fled with his slaves and a large supply of corn, but the Union managed to capture 19 bales of Sea Island cotton. They also destroyed the sugar mill and–according to legend–pushed the equipment into the springs.

Artist's rendering of the old sugar mill at Spring Garden, contained in a booklet about the Ponce de Leon Springs Inn, built in 1925. Florida Collection, State Library of Florida.

Artist’s rendering of the old sugar mill at Spring Garden, contained in a booklet about the Ponce de Leon Springs Inn (1925). Florida Collection, State Library of Florida.

Spring Garden began a whole new life when Major George Norris of New York purchased the land in 1872. Norris rebuilt the sugar mill and established a successful orange grove. He also built a hotel–the Spring Garden House–and advertised it primarily to northern tourists. At some point in the 1880s, Norris seems to have shifted his focus more toward his booming citrus business and left the business of putting up a good hotel to his brother, Abijah Hart Norris. “Hart,” as he was called, put out newspaper advertisements promising to give “sufficient land” and 10,000 board feet of lumber to “anyone who will put up a good Hotel.”

Advertisement for the Spring Garden House in The Florida Agriculturist, October 15, 1879.

Advertisement for the Spring Garden House in The Florida Agriculturist, October 15, 1879.

Around that same time, local leaders decided to establish a new post office called De Leon Springs. The old Spring Garden post office remained in place until 1933; this new office was for the growing village located just south of the spring itself. This was likely the beginning of the effort to identify the spring and the surrounding area with Ponce de Leon’s famous Fountain of Youth.

In 1925, the new owners of the spring, F.N. Conrad of Daytona and C.M. Greiner of Seabreeze, opened up a new hotel and doubled down on the Ponce connection, publishing a booklet extolling the site’s storied past. “Picture, if you can, such a spot with all these modern sources of amusement, with every modern convenience, not detracting in the least from its beauty and from the romance of its historical background,” they gushed. “Picture all this, we say, and you have Ponce de Leon Springs.” The “Florida Boom” hadn’t quite burst just yet at this point, so they did what many other developers were doing around the state–in addition to the hotel they also offered land for homes. A folded map inside their booklet showed the land around Ponce de Leon Springs laid out into lots, plus a golf course and space for farming.

Ponce de Leon Springs: Florida's Great Natural Wonder, the Fountain of Youth (1925). Florida Collection, State Library of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the entire booklet.

Ponce de Leon Springs: Florida’s Great Natural Wonder, the Fountain of Youth (1925). Florida Collection, State Library of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the entire booklet.

 

A colored plat map showing the layout of the prospective Ponce de Leon Springs development. Note the golf course, farm, and

A colored plat map showing the layout of the prospective Ponce de Leon Springs development. Note the golf course, farm, and “colored town” included (Florida Collection, State Library of Florida). Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Ponce de Leon Springs (ca. 1925).

Ponce de Leon Springs (ca. 1925).

The new hotel, the De Leon Springs Inn, closed after a time and the would-be residential paradise surrounding it never quite got off the ground. Still, the springs continued to attract visitors. In June 1953, the springs reopened as a roadside tourist attraction with a zoo, a jungle cruise and even water-skiing elephants. By the 1970s, facing a lag in business as many roadside attractions did in those years, the owners contemplated selling the property to developers. Locals petitioned to have the site turned into a state park instead, and in 1982 Ponce de Leon Springs officially became a part of Florida’s state park system. The focus is a bit more on the cool, refreshing quality of the springs these days rather than their ties to the Fountain of Youth, but there’s still plenty of Florida history to be enjoyed. Stop by next time you’re in the area!

Entrance to the Ponce de Leon Springs attraction featuring the Spanish explorer himself (1954).

Entrance to the Ponce de Leon Springs attraction featuring the Spanish explorer himself (1954).

 

The Watermelon Special

When the weather is hot and you’re craving something sweet but refreshing, there’s nothing like a big slice of Florida watermelon. That’s true whether you happen to be in Florida or on the other side of the country, so an important part of Florida’s watermelon industry has always been adequate transportation. These days, Florida watermelons usually get where they’re going by truck, but it hasn’t always been that way. In the old days, well before the age of expressways and 18-wheelers, trains were the main way of getting watermelons from the farm to faraway markets. At peak harvest time in June and July, the supply of watermelons often exceeded the capacity of ordinary trains to handle the crop. The solution? Enter the “watermelon special.”

Watermelon slices ready for a watermelon eating contest at the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs (1986).

Watermelon slices ready for a watermelon eating contest at the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs (1986).

Men loading watermelons into a car on the Live Oak, Perry & Gulf Railroad in Suwannee County (ca. 1914).

Men loading watermelons into a car on the Live Oak, Perry & Gulf Railroad in Suwannee County (ca. 1914).

Watermelon specials were extra trains that ran in between normally scheduled trains to pick up melons from stations all along the railroad. Most of these weren’t actually stations, just side-tracks or “sidings” that allowed the train to stop long enough to pick up cargo or drop off empty cars for loading and move on. Farm workers would bring their crops up to the empty cars on the sidings and load the melons one by one, packing them carefully to avoid bruising or splitting. Sometimes sawdust or straw were used for extra cushioning, and the general rule was never to stack them more than four melons high. These watermelon loaders may have missed that memo:

“Cannonball” watermelons being loaded in Tavares (1947).

Watermelon was (and is) a big business for Florida farmers. Even as early as 1890, Floridians planted 2,678 acres of melons, which produced 1,491 carloads valued at $95,950. That was a lot of money in those days, roughly equivalent to $2.7 million in 2018 money. In modern times, watermelon production has increased exponentially. In the 2010-2011 season, Florida growers harvested 24,400 acres of melons valued at $111.9 million. We say the 2010-2011 season because Florida is the only U.S. supplier of watermelons that can market them in December, although the bulk of the crop still comes in from May to July.

It was profitable for railroads too. Some companies, like the Georgia & Florida Railroad, even provided circulars to farmers offering the latest advice on methods for growing, fertilizing and harvesting melons. After all, the more melons the farmers produced, the more cargo the railroads would have to ship. The G&F also aimed to get more people eating watermelon by praising its nutritional value in public service announcements. Under the headline “Eat a Slice of Melon a Day!” company president Hugh Purvis urged readers to take advantage of all the benefits of watermelon during its peak season.

Farm workers load watermelons at a Seaboard Air Line depot in Pasco County (1938).

Farm workers load watermelons at a Seaboard Air Line depot in Pasco County (1938).

Atlantic Coast Line car loaded with watermelons from Columbia County (ca. 1920s).

Atlantic Coast Line car loaded with watermelons from Columbia County (ca. 1920s).

The only constant is change, of course, and the days of the watermelon special came to a close as truck transportation became cheaper and faster. Trucks and the trailers they carried could go directly to the fields to load in multiple locations–a feat the railroads simply couldn’t match. Many railroad companies stopped shipping watermelons in the 1950s and 1960s, or ran watermelon specials only in especially heavy years when even the trucks had trouble keeping up with the harvest.

Workers loading a truck with watermelons in Jefferson County (1965).

Workers loading a truck with watermelons in Jefferson County (1965).

What memories do you have associated with watermelon in Florida? Have you ever won a watermelon eating contest? Maybe picked watermelons for summer work or grown a few of your own? Join the conversation by leaving a comment or sharing this post with your family and friends on social media. Also, try searching the State Archives’ Florida Photographic Collection on Florida Memory for more historical photos of watermelon production all around the state.

Under the Spring

What’s the best way to explore a cool, crystal-clear Florida spring? Usually, we recommend getting up close and personal by swimming in it yourself, especially during hot weather. There are other ways, of course. Glass-bottom boats, for example, have plied the waters of Florida springs for more than a century, allowing visitors to glimpse into their underwater worlds without needing a change of clothes afterward.

But that just wasn’t enough for the early owners of Rainbow Springs near Dunnellon in Marion County. Around 1940, they decided to put their visitors even closer to the underwater action by offering rides around the spring in a submarine!

Visitors view Rainbow Springs through their own personal portholes in one of the park's

Visitors view Rainbow Springs through their own personal portholes in one of the park’s “scenic submarines” (1956).

Well… it was at least a kind of submarine. The boats didn’t exactly dive below the surface, but the passengers themselves were seated 5 feet beneath the water line, which gave them a breathtaking view of Rainbow Springs and the wildlife that lived there. Brochures called it “America’s most unusual boat ride.” Here’s one of those brochures:

Brochure from around 1959 advertising Rainbow Springs. Click or tap the image to view the entire brochure.

Brochure from around 1959 advertising Rainbow Springs. Click or tap the image to view the entire brochure.

The idea started back in the 1930s when Frank Greene and F.E. Hemphill began making plans to develop Rainbow Springs as a privately owned park and tourist attraction. When they opened for business in 1937 they had a lodge, a gift shop, a dance pavilion, a boat dock and a ticket office. They also put two glass-bottom boats into service, much like the ones a few miles away at Silver Springs. They hired a small staff to run the place, including Dave Edwards, a young African American man who had grown up just south of Rainbow Springs. Edwards did a wide range of odd jobs at the park, even slapping Rainbow Springs stickers onto the bumpers of cars in the parking lot. When he began training to be a glass-bottom boat captain around 1940, he hatched an idea. Why not build a boat that let the visitor actually go beneath the water to see Rainbow Springs at eye level rather than from above? He sketched out some plans, and the owners decided to give the idea a shot.

The Mermaid, one of the

The Mermaid, one of the “submarines” at Rainbow Springs (ca. 1950).

The new “submarines” were a big hit with visitors, and they became a major selling point for Rainbow Springs. Much like the glass-bottom boat tours that came before, the magic came from a combination of beautiful underwater scenery and expert narration from the captains. These guides did more than just run down a list of plants and animals along the tour route. Over time, they developed a spiel that became almost musical in its delivery. “Skipper” Manning Lockett, one of the original employees of the park, earned a reputation as the “bard of Rainbow Springs” for the poetic way he conducted his tours. It was unique and enjoyable enough that the park owners recorded his tour and offered it for sale in the gift shop. The following is an excerpt from one of Skipper Lockett’s tours, although we daresay reading the tour does it no justice. We recommend listening to the recording as well… all of it.

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Rainbow Springs.
Rainbow Springs is one of Florida’s most beautiful and scenic attractions.
Rainbow Springs is a beauty, created beneath deep waters, made only by the hands of God.
Now look through your left-side port hole, far as your eyes can see, watch that dreamy sunlit landscape.
Looks like mountains, looks like valleys, looks like green pastures.
And the fish look like birds [winging?] in the air, and the turtles look like cattle roving in the forest.

“Skipper” Manning Lockett aboard one of the “submarines” at Rainbow Springs (ca. 1950).

Rainbow Springs flourished throughout the heyday of the Florida roadside attraction in the 1950s and 1960s, but sales began to decline in the 1970s. Interstate highways siphoned travelers off the smaller routes like U.S. 19 and U.S. 41 where many of the roadside parks like Rainbow Springs were located. Supersized theme parks like Walt Disney World also helped draw the crowd away. By the end of the decade, many roadside parks like Rainbow Springs had closed their doors or were barely hanging on.

Postcard showing the fleet of submarine boats at Rainbow Springs (ca. 1960).

Postcard showing the fleet of submarine boats at Rainbow Springs (ca. 1960).

In 1973, the owners of Rainbow Springs told the managers to close the park on Sundays and Mondays as a cost-saving measure. Less than a year later it closed to the public entirely. The property sat neglected for a number of years until a company called Chase Ventures bought it in 1984. By then, nature had reclaimed much of the area around the springs, but the new owners allowed local garden clubs to go in and spruce things up. In October 1990, the State of Florida purchased the 55-acre site, plus a 600-acre buffer zone, and turned Rainbow Springs into a new state park.

A few things have changed since the old days, of course. Skipper Lockett and Dave Edwards have passed away, and the “submarines” they piloted are no more, except for one the park is saving as the centerpiece of a historical exhibit. The springs themselves go on, however, reminding visitors of Florida’s majestic natural beauty.

Man holding a model of a Rainbow Springs submarine boat (ca. 1950s).

Man holding a model of a Rainbow Springs submarine boat (ca. 1950s).

Looking for more information about Florida springs that became popular roadside attractions? We recommend Glass Bottom Boats & Mermaid Tails: Florida’s Tourist Springs by historian Tim Hollis.

 

 

 

 

James Van Fleet and the Normandy Invasion

Early on June 6, 1944, a force of about 175,000 Allied troops began making their way ashore along the beaches of Normandy in Nazi-occupied France. This invasion, generally called the D-Day invasion or Operation Overlord, involved the coordinated efforts of 12 nations under the leadership of U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The goal was to establish an Allied foothold in Adolf Hitler’s so-called “Fortress Europe” and roll the Axis forces eastward while Soviet troops closed in from the opposite side. Many Floridians participated in this daunting maneuver, including a man who had grown up in Bartow in Polk County and had been a classmate of General Eisenhower–Colonel James Van Fleet.

James A. Van Fleet (1953).

James A. Van Fleet (1953).

James Alward Van Fleet was born in 1892 in Coytesville, New Jersey, but almost immediately moved with his family to Bartow, where his father invested in phosphate mining. The Van Fleet phosphate venture didn’t pan out, but James’ father, William, supported his family by running a newsstand in the Bartow post office building. In his earliest years at school, James Van Fleet was close friends with the man who would be governor of Florida during most of World War II, Spessard Holland. He later recalled the two of them being dressed by their mothers for their first day of kindergarten–both wearing suits and bowties, but barefoot. Van Fleet began attending the Summerlin Institute in 1907, although he confessed he found it difficult to concentrate on his studies. Even at a young age, he was an avid outdoorsman and worked at a local grocery and as a mail carrier, which occupied much of his time. He also played for the Summerlin football and baseball teams until a back injury kept him on the bench.

James Van Fleet (left) and Spessard Holland (right) in Bartow, Florida (ca. 1910).

James Van Fleet (left) and Spessard Holland (right) in Bartow, Florida (ca. 1910).

The Summerlin Institute's 1909 baseball team. James Van Fleet is pictured in the middle row on the far right.

The Summerlin Institute’s 1909 baseball team. James Van Fleet is pictured in the middle row on the far right.

In 1911, Van Fleet received a congressional appointment from U.S. Representative Stephen M. Sparkman to the United States Military Academy at West Point. His cohort, the Class of 1915, was later nicknamed the “class the stars fell on” because so many of the members became generals. Both Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley were among them.

After graduating 25th in his class at West Point with the rank of Second Lieutenant, Van Fleet chose to become an infantry officer. “Infantry is the heart of the United States Army,” he later said. “Armor and artillery are powerful allies, but it is the infantry that seizes territory and holds it.” His first assignment was with the 3rd Infantry Regiment in New York, where he helped train civilian volunteers for potential service in the event of U.S. involvement in World War I. In 1916, the 3rd Infantry moved to Camp Eagle Pass on the U.S.-Mexican border to help contain unstable conditions stemming from the Mexican Revolution. Van Fleet also served as an instructor at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and overseas with the 6th Division during World War I.

After the war, Van Fleet became an ROTC instructor at Kansas State Agricultural College, the first of several ROTC posts he would hold in the interwar era. In 1921, he was transferred to the University of Florida, where he commanded the ROTC cadets and served as head coach of the football team. He almost left the Army to accept a lengthy contract as head coach, but he eventually decided to stay in the military. Over the next few years, he served in a variety of roles–commanding troops in Panama, coaching the Army’s football team, serving another stint at the University of Florida, and supervising several camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.

James Van Fleet as commander of the ROTC cadets at the University of Florida. Taken from UF's yearbook, The Seminole (1922).

James Van Fleet as commander of the ROTC cadets at the University of Florida. Taken from UF’s yearbook, The Seminole (1922).

Van Fleet was in the process of transferring to Fort Benning, Georgia, for duty when Hitler’s army invaded Poland in 1939. After two years training the troops at Benning, he was elevated to the rank of colonel and given command of the 8th Infantry, 4th Division. When the 4th was retooled as a motorized division–designed to handle tanks, trucks, half-tracks and the like–he led his regiment through a lengthy series of maneuvers to train for combat. Colonel Van Fleet’s men were passed up for participation in the Allied invasion of North Africa, as was the entire 4th Division, but they didn’t have to wait much longer to join the fighting. In late fall 1943, the 4th was ordered to prepare to ship overseas. Their destination would be the heavily fortified western coast of Europe.

Although the plans for the invasion of Europe were under tight wraps, Van Fleet and his men had some idea of what to expect because of their extensive training. Some of that training took place in Florida at Camp Gordon Johnston, located in the Panhandle near Carrabelle. Here the soldiers practiced the best ways to launch an amphibious invasion, including the use of new amphibious vehicles like the DUKW (commonly called a “duck”) and LCVP (commonly called a “Higgins boat”). By the end of December 1943, the 4th Division had finished up its Florida training and was en route to England to prepare for D-Day.

Soldiers training for amphibious warfare at Camp Gordon Johnston near Carrabelle, Florida (ca. 1943).

Soldiers training for amphibious warfare at Camp Gordon Johnston near Carrabelle, Florida (ca. 1943).

Operation Overlord, as the invasion was code-named, called for five main invasion zones–Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. United States forces concentrated on Utah and Omaha beaches. Colonel Van Fleet’s regiment was assigned to Utah Beach and scheduled to land at 6:30 a.m. local time, the H-Hour of D-Day. As the transport ships chugged across the churning waves of the English Channel, soldiers battled seasickness and feverish anticipation for the fight to come.  As daylight began to break, Allied gunboats unleashed punishing artillery fire on the German beach defenses, providing cover for the invading troops. The initial deployment of men and equipment didn’t go off without a hitch–a few of the ships hit mines, some drifted away from their targets in the swift currents and many of the smaller boats stopped well short of the shoreline, forcing the troops to wade ashore just as the Germans were beginning to return fire. Colonel Van Fleet’s 8th Regiment ended up landing south of its assigned beachhead but were determined to make the most of their situation. By mid-morning, they had neutralized several German pillboxes (small concrete forts) and threaded their way through minefields, opening up an exit from the beach for the troops that would follow them.

For his leadership of the 8th Regiment during the Normandy invasion, Colonel Van Fleet was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He was also promoted to Brigadier General on August 1, 1944, and reassigned to assist in commanding the 2nd Division. In less than a year, he replaced General John Millikin as commander of the 3rd Corps in General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army.

General Van Fleet continued to lead a distinguished military career after World War II. He served in Greece and Korea, commanding the 2nd and later the 8th armies as the United States fought on multiple fronts to contain the spread of Communism during the Cold War. He retired from active duty in 1953, arriving home in Florida to a triumphant welcome.

General James Van Fleet (right) with Loyal Frisbie (left), chairman of Polk County's

General James Van Fleet (right) with Loyal Frisbie (left), chairman of Polk County’s “Welcome Home” celebration in honor of the general’s return to Florida (1953).

General Van Fleet turned down several opportunities to run for public office, but did write and make  public appearances in support of various causes. He also operated a ranch and citrus groves near his home in Polk County. He passed away peacefully on September 23, 1992, six months after celebrating his 100th birthday.

For more information on the life and military career of General James A. Van Fleet, we recommend Paul F. Braim, The Will to Win: The Life of General James A. Van Fleet (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001).

Using Tax Rolls for Family History Research

You’ve probably heard the tired old cliché that nothing in life is certain except for death and paying taxes. Roll your eyes if you must, but if you’re researching your family tree, you can make this reality work in your favor! Tax records are probably one of the most sorely underutilized resources in the genealogist’s toolbox. Much like census records, they provide lists of people living in a specific place at a specific time, with the added bonus that they’re created every year instead of every decade like the federal census. Moreover, they contain all sorts of information about each taxpayer’s property and occupation–anything that was being taxed at that time. Government officials used the information to determine how much to charge each citizen in taxes, but you can use it to help reconstruct an ancestor’s life and household.

An employee at the Leon County Tax Assessor's office helps a customer (1961).

An employee at the Leon County Tax Assessor’s office helps a customer (1961).

The most commonly available tax record is the annual tax roll, a list of all the taxpayers (or their agents) in a county and a table showing the various kinds of property and activities they were taxed on for the year. Today’s tax rolls deal almost exclusively with real estate, which is certainly helpful, but the most descriptive rolls come from the early to mid-19th century because in those days the county tax assessor was responsible for collecting taxes on everything from land to professional licenses to household property.

Just like today, early county tax assessors would receive guidance from the state on how to calculate the taxes for the year, plus the necessary forms. He would then take inventory of the taxable property belonging to each head of household in the county. The tax collector would then be responsible for collecting the revenue. Sometimes the positions of tax assessor and tax collector were combined, and sometimes the county sheriff acted as both. No two tax rolls are exactly alike, even for the same county–the tax rates change from year to year, as do the categories of property and activity that were being taxed. Take a look, for example, at the column headers from these three tax rolls from St. Johns County:

This graphic shows the column headers from three 19th-century tax rolls from St. Johns County. Compare the headers to see how taxation changed over time. Tax Rolls (Series S28), State Archives of Florida.

This graphic shows the column headers from three 19th-century tax rolls from St. Johns County. Compare the headers to see how taxation changed over time. Tax Rolls (Series S28), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

So what can you do with these records? One of our favorite uses for tax rolls is to get a better sense of when exactly someone moved into or out of an area. Take John Toby of Monroe County, for example. John shows up in the 1850 federal census as a butcher living in Key West, but he’s missing from both the 1840 and 1860 censuses, and we haven’t yet been able to positively match him up with any of the other John Tobys who appear in records from other parts of the United States. John does, however, show up in multiple tax rolls from Monroe County on either side of 1850. By looking through the Monroe County rolls, we can get a better sense of when he arrived in Key West and when he left.

Excerpt from the 1849 tax roll for Monroe County showing an entry for John Toby. Tax Rolls (Series S28), State Archives of Florida.

Excerpt from the 1849 tax roll for Monroe County showing an entry for John Toby. Tax Rolls (Series S28), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Looking through the tax rolls, the first time we see John Toby in Monroe County is in 1846. He didn’t have much at the time–no real estate, just one silver pocket watch. If his 1850 census listing is to be trusted, he was about 31 years old then. Moving forward in the records, we see him in the tax rolls for each year after 1846 through 1859. He does not, however, show up in the 1860 tax roll or any other roll thereafter, at least not for Monroe County. We can reasonably guess, then, that he lived in Key West from about 1846 to 1859, and then either died or moved someplace else. When a man dies, his name usually still appears on the tax roll for a year or two afterward while his estate is being settled, or sometimes his wife will appear on the tax roll instead as head of household. In John Toby’s case, neither of these occurred, so we can infer that John and his wife Mariam moved away from Key West around 1859. It’s no silver bullet, but this information could help us match our John Toby up with other John or Mariam Tobys that occur in other records, even if they don’t specifically refer to Key West.

An excerpt from an 1859 Monroe County tax roll showing John Toby once again, this time with much more property than he had ten years before. Tax Rolls (Series S28), State Archives of Florida.

An excerpt from an 1859 Monroe County tax roll showing John Toby once again, this time with much more property than he had ten years before. Tax Rolls (Series S28), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Another useful feature of tax rolls is their ability to show us how families change over time. Using John Toby once again as an example, we can follow his taxpaying years in Key West and see how his wealth and property grew the longer he operated his business. When he first appears on the tax rolls in 1846, he was only charged a head tax for himself and a small tax on his silver pocket watch. The next year, however, he was also taxed for a town lot valued at $200. By 1850, the assessed value of John’s town lot had increased to $300 and he owned one slave. He seems to have sold or lost the slave soon after that, but in 1856 he was taxed for a carriage or cart worth $20, horses and mules worth a total of $40, $50 worth of household goods and that same silver pocket watch, which was valued at $10 that year. Business must have been picking up for John, because the following year (1857) he had at least one slave valued at $300, and by 1859 he had two slaves with a total value of $1000 (see the excerpt from the 1859 tax roll above). These are small details, but when we look at how John Toby’s taxable property changed over time and combine that information with what we know from his 1850 census record, we start to get a clearer picture of what his life was like in Key West. It also gives us a sense of what kind of person we should be looking for when we search for John or his wife Mariam in other records.

Another valuable feature of 19th century tax rolls is the information they can provide about an ancestor’s occupation. For many years, license taxes were reported on the tax rolls, which means you can quickly scan to see who all of the doctors, lawyers, merchants and other professionals were in a given county in a given year. Other occupations can be determined by looking at a person’s taxable property. If someone was being taxed on a sawmill or $2,000 in cattle or $5,000 in merchandise, for example, you can safely guess at least part of what they were doing for a living. We can see lots of occupations represented in this excerpt of the 1851 tax roll from Leon County:

Excerpt of the 1851 tax roll from Leon County. Tax Rolls (Series S28), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Excerpt of the 1851 tax roll from Leon County. Tax Rolls (Series S28), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

One final feature that you may find useful is the tabulations page at the end of each year’s tax roll. One of the roll’s most important functions was to determine how much tax revenue the county would receive that year, as well as how much the county had to remit to the state. At the end of each roll, the tax assessor would write up a summary with totals for each category of taxation for the entire county. This is a great way to track how many people there were in certain occupations in a county at a given time, the total number of slaves, the value of land, etc. Here’s an example of one of those tabulation pages from Escambia County in 1854:

Data from the tabulation page of the 1854 Escambia County tax roll. Tax Rolls (Series S28), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Data from the tabulation page of the 1854 Escambia County tax roll. Tax Rolls (Series S28), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

So where do you find these tax rolls? The State Archives of Florida holds a fairly large–though by no means exhaustive–collection of these documents for the early to mid-19th century. They have not yet been digitized, but they are open for public research. Also, if you know the specific tax roll you need, you can contact the State Archives’ reference staff at archives@dos.myflorida.com to request copies of the entire tax roll for a specific county in a specific year, or just the page with a specific person on it. Reproduction fees may apply; see our fee schedule for details. To see which tax rolls we have for the counties that interest you, visit the catalog record for Series S28 in the Archives Online Catalog. From that page, click the yellow folder icon to display a box listing of the tax rolls we have available in that series of records. The records are arranged alphabetically by county and then chronologically.

Counties also sometimes hold copies of tax rolls from the early to mid-19th century. Depending on the county, older tax records may be retained by the clerk of the courts, the tax collector or the property appraiser.