Jean Ribault Explores the St. Johns River

The French arrive in Florida, from Theodor de Bry, Grand Voyages (1591)

The French arrive in Florida, from Theodor de Bry, Grand Voyages (1591)

On April 30, 1562, an expedition under the command of French explorer Jean Ribault (1520-1565) arrived at the mouth of the St. Johns River north of present-day Jacksonville. Ribault and his Huguenot (Protestant Calvinists) companions hoped to find religious freedom and to start a prosperous colony in the Americas.

Timucua Indians worshipping at the stone pillar erected by Jean Ribault, from Theodor de Bry, Grand Voyages (1591)

Timucua Indians worshipping at the stone pillar erected by Jean Ribault, from Theodor de Bry, Grand Voyages (1591)

After briefly exploring the St. Johns, which Ribault dubbed the River May, and erecting a stone pillar to mark their arrival, the French contingent continued northward along the Atlantic coast. They eventually landed near Royal Sound in what is now South Carolina and constructed a fortification named Charlesfort, in honor of the French monarch King Charles IX.

Drawing of Jean Ribault and his troops

Drawing of Jean Ribault and his troops

Ribault returned to Europe from Charlesfort, trying to garner support for further Protestant colonization in La Florida. He hoped to gain the patronage of Queen Elizabeth I of England, but was confined to the Tower of London under suspicion of espionage instead.

The French abandoned Charlesfort about one year after its founding, but returned to La Florida two years later in 1564 and established the short-lived settlement of Fort Caroline. An attack on Fort Caroline by the Spanish in September 1565 ended France’s efforts to colonize Florida. 

Happy Arbor Day!

Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) worker planting a tree at the Key West Botanical Garden: Stock Island, Florida (1935)

Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) worker planting a tree at the Key West Botanical Garden: Stock Island, Florida (1935)

Visitors from each state represented in the winter colony were called upon to plant a tree at the Botanical Garden on Stock Island.

Vassar Clements’ Birthday (April 25, 1928)

Vassar Clements was born April 25, 1928, in Kinard, Florida, but growing up in Kissimmee, where he first picked up the fiddle, earned him the nickname “Kissimmee Kid.” By the age of 21 he replaced Chubby Wise in Bill Monroe’s legendary Blue Grass Boys, and went on to work with artists as diverse as Jim and Jesse McReynolds, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Grateful Dead, and Dave Holland, to name a few. Although he got his start playing in string bands, Clements performed masterfully in any setting, and developed his own distinct style which he referred to as “Hillbilly Jazz.”

Despite a demanding performance schedule, the Kissimmee Kid still returned to his home state, appearing at the Florida Folk Festival between 1997 and 2004. He often sat in with other Festival musicians, appearing alongside the likes of the Rice Brothers, John McEuen and Jimmy Ibbotson, and Billy Dean.

You can listen to a podcast featuring Clements’ final performance at the 2004 Florida Folk Festival in White Springs.

Vassar Clements died of lung cancer on August 16, 2005, at the age of 77. In his 70 years of fiddle playing, he left behind a large body of classic recordings, unique compositions and undeniable influence.  Let’s enjoy some of Vassar’s legacy with his rendition of the Chubby Wise tune “ Florida Blues,” recorded at the 1997 Florida Folk Festival, and “ Salt Creek,” from a 2001 performance with the Rice Brothers.

“Florida Blues”
[audio:http://fpc.dos.state.fl.us/memory/collections/folklife/blog/s1576_d-97-16_clements_fl_blues.mp3|titles=Vassar Clements|artists=State Archives of Florida]
Download: MP3
More Info: Catalog Record

 

“Salt Creek”
[audio:http://fpc.dos.state.fl.us/memory/collections/folklife/blog/s1576_d-01-15_clements_salt.mp3|titles=Vassar Clements|artists=State Archives of Florida]
Download: MP3
More Info: Catalog Record

Tamiami Trail, A.K.A. U.S. 41 (Officially Opened April 25, 1928)

Before the completion of the Tamiami Trail (U.S 41), few travelers successfully navigated the 108 miles between Miami and Naples. Wetlands, mosquitos, alligators and cypress swamps made travel across southern Florida difficult at best.

Advertisement for real estate on the Tamiami Trail (1924)

Advertisement for real estate on the Tamiami Trail (1924)

Until the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), the interior of the Florida peninsula south of Lake Okeechobee was largely unknown, except to the Seminoles themselves. Through repeated attempts to expel the Seminoles from Florida in the 19th century, the United States government slowly learned about the region known today as the Everglades. Greater knowledge of the vast swampland hatched various schemes to exploit its resources.

Boosters envisioned agricultural enterprises converting wetlands into farms producing sugarcane, livestock and copious vegetables—enough to feed the frozen north in winter. Massive drainage efforts in order to “reclaim” the rich Everglades soil began in the early 20th century.

Surveyors on the highest spot in the road (1920s)

Surveyors on the highest spot in the road (1920s)

Roads suitable for cars followed closely behind drainage infrastructure. On April 25, 1928, the Tamiami Trail opened to travelers. Construction on the east-west section of the road lasted for 12 years. Once completed, cars could travel east from Naples to Miami for the first time.

Nellie Tommie and her son in the Tamiami Canal (1956)

Nellie Tommie and her son in the Tamiami Canal (1956)

The southernmost Seminoles, known today as the Miccosukee, took up residence alongside the Tamiami Trail in the 1920s. Many Miccosukee Seminoles worked on the construction of the road and enjoyed greater access to Miami after its completion. The Miccosukee living on the Tamiami Trail built businesses specializing in crafts and animal demonstrations and led hunting expeditions into the Everglades.

Tamiami Trail blazers (1923)

Tamiami Trail blazers (1923)

30th Anniversary of the Conch Republic (April 23, 1982)

Conch Republic Customs Agent identification card

Conch Republic Customs Agent identification card

On April 18, 1982, the United States Border Patrol set up a roadblock just south of Florida City, on U.S. Highway 1, to catch illegal immigrants traveling to and from the Florida Keys. In response, after five days of ensuing traffic congestion and intrusive behavior by the Border Patrol, the people of Key West staged a mock secession from the United States and established the Conch Republic on April 23.

Mayor of Key West, Dennis Wardlow, holding the flag of “ secession” of the Conch Republic (1982)

Mayor of Key West, Dennis Wardlow, holding the flag of “ secession” of the Conch Republic (1982)

Mocking Bird: Bird of Matchless Charm

Florida mockingbird and poinsettia blossoms
State bird of Florida
Young Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos): Cape Canaveral, Florida

The Mocking Bird was designated as the State Bird of the State of Florida on April 23, 1927.

Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 3 read, in part:

“WHEREAS, The Legislature of the State of Florida has thrown the arm of its protecting care around the Mocking Bird by the enactment of suitable legislation and,

WHEREAS, The melody of its music has delighted the heart of residents and visitors to Florida from the days of the rugged pioneer to the present comer, and

WHEREAS, This bird of matchless charm is found throughout our State, therefore

Be It Resolved by the Legislature of the State of Florida:

Section 1. That the Mocking Bird be and it is hereby designated as the State Bird of the State of Florida.”

 

Thanks, Mocking Bird, for 85 years of dedicated service as the state bird of Florida!

April 1862: Carnage and Conscription

Florida and the Civil War

This is the third in a series of monthly posts commemorating the sesquicentennial anniversary of Florida’s role in the American Civil War.

On the morning of April 6, 1862, the men of the 1st Florida Infantry Battalion crossed Shiloh Branch stream to engage the enemy in what turned out to be one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. In two days of fighting, over 23,000 men died in the Battle of Shiloh, which saw two massive Union and Confederate armies clash in the fields and woods surrounding Shiloh Meeting House, a Methodist Church near the banks of the Tennessee River in southwest Tennessee.

Major General James Patton Anderson (ca. 1862)

Major General James Patton Anderson (ca. 1862)

The 1st Florida Battalion was a unit in the brigade of Brigadier General James Patton Anderson, a part of General Albert Sydney Johnson’s Army of Mississippi. Anderson, a member of Florida’s secession convention and delegate to the Provisional Confederate Congress in Montgomery, had commanded Florida troops at Pensacola before being ordered to move his men to Corinth Mississippi to reinforce the faltering Confederate front in the west.

At Shiloh, Patton’s Floridians became the first Florida soldiers to see action outside of their state. In one of the most terrifying engagements of a battle that was full of horrible episodes, the Floridians were among the Confederate forces that charged the Union troops defending the Sunken Road. After only a few minutes of fighting, the Florida Battalion lost several officers and men but continued to attack the Union position. The battalion survived to fight on April 7, the second day of the battle, and ended the fight with over a quarter of its strength of 250 men either dead or wounded. Although the Union army under Major General Ulysses S. Grant lost more men than the Confederates, the Confederates failed in their mission of destroying Grant’s army and withdrew back into Mississippi.

Confederate soldier Lawrence “Laurie” M. Anderson of Tallahassee

Confederate soldier Lawrence “Laurie” M. Anderson of Tallahassee, killed at the Battle of Shiloh on April 7, 1862

The carnage at Shiloh—the Confederates suffered over 10,000 casualties—combined with the toll of the battles waged across the South since secession resulted in the Confederate government’s decision to pass the Conscription Act on April 16, 1862. The Conscript Act, as it was usually called in the press of the day, was the first national draft in American history (the Union would begin drafting men in 1863). Although President Jefferson Davis and a majority of the Confederate Congress supported the act, conscription was probably the most divisive and unpopular Confederate law passed during the war. The Conscript Act authorized the Confederate president to draft all able bodied white male residents of the Confederate States between the ages of 18 and 35 for three years of military service and extended the service of all men of draft age already in the Confederate forces.

In order to avoid the stigma attached to conscription, which many Southern men saw as an affront to their honor because it seemed to question their willingness to fight, most men volunteered before the draft took effect. Men and women across the South also hated the Act because it allowed a man who could afford it to pay a substitute to serve in his place. Politically, the draft was unpopular because it seemed a direct threat to states’ rights, the doctrine that the South had used to justify secession. Up to 1862, only states could draft men (usually for emergency militia service). Now the national government was demanding that states turn over their men for military service rather than allowing states to organize volunteers and offer them for service as had been done in all of America’s previous wars.

Many state governors denounced the Conscript Act as unconstitutional and resisted compliance. This was especially the case for Florida’s neighbor Georgia, where Governor Joseph E. Brown became the South’s principal opponent of the draft and the policies of Jefferson Davis. Brown made every effort to resist and delay the implementation of conscription in Georgia.

Portrait of Florida’s 5th Governor, John Milton (between 1861 and 1865)

Portrait of Florida’s 5th Governor, John Milton (between 1861 and 1865)

In Florida, Governor John Milton was also philosophically opposed to the draft as an infringement on states’ rights; however, he was willing to put off the question of the constitutionality of the draft until after the war was won. Milton reasoned that the constitutionality of the Conscript Act would be irrelevant if the South lost the war. He believed it was more important for the states to support President Davis and the Confederate government to enroll the manpower necessary to fight the Union: “Impending clouds of destruction hover over, and threaten the destruction of our liberties, of all rights of property, and the dishonor of our wives and children. The threatened evils can only be prevented by concert of action between the State Governments and the Confederate Government, and the indomitable and invincible courage and unfaltering patriotism of our entire population.”

Milton never retreated from these words contained in his 1862 annual message to the state legislature. He became one of the staunchest defenders of conscription and the leadership of Jefferson Davis, even naming a son born in 1863 after the Confederate president. This son, Jefferson Davis Milton or “Jeff Davis,” became one of the West’s most famous law enforcement officers, serving the U.S. government as a legendary immigration officer along the Mexican border, defending the sovereignty of the nation his father had tried to defeat.

March 1862: Invasion!

Florida and the Civil War

This is the second in a series of monthly posts commemorating the sesquicentennial anniversary of Florida’s role in the American Civil War.

March 1862: Invasion!

The arrival of a Union invasion fleet off Amelia Island on March 3, 1862, was a startling but not unexpected event. As early as October 1861, Governor John Milton notified neighboring Confederate governors that a Union invasion fleet was steaming southward for a possible landing in Florida. Although the fleet’s target at that time was Port Royal, South Carolina, not Florida, ships from the flotilla eventually transported the Union expeditionary force that descended on Amelia Island in March.

Map of the harbor at Fernandina (1862)

Map of the harbor at Fernandina (1862)

For months, east coast Confederate and Unionist Floridians had expected Federal troops to land in Florida. Although a Federal raiding party occupied the Gulf port of Cedar Key in January 1862, under orders from General Robert E. Lee, General James H. Trapier, the commander of Confederate forces in the Department of Middle and East Florida (the area from the Atlantic to the Choctawhatchee River in the west), concentrated the bulk of his forces for the defense of Amelia Island. Meanwhile in Jacksonville, a city with a strong Unionist element, pro-Union men and women awaited the liberation of their city, where many of them were threatened by secessionist vigilance committees.

By March 1862, however, the Unionists had more cause for optimism than the secessionists. Confederate defeats in Tennessee during February resulted in the Richmond government’s decision to withdraw its troops from Florida to reinforce Tennessee. As the Union fleet approached, General Trapier ordered the withdrawal of his troops from Amelia Island. On March 4, the Federals occupied Fernandina after the last train carrying troops and fleeing civilians crossed the bridge to the mainland under the fire of the USS Ottawa, a Union gunboat. Fernandina remained under Union control for the rest of the war and became a place of refuge for hundreds of escaped slaves from Florida and southeast Georgia.

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February 1862: Florida the Undefended

Florida and the Civil War

This is the first in a series of monthly posts commemorating the sesquicentennial anniversary of Florida’s role in the American Civil War.

February 1862: Florida the Undefended

Florida’s precarious position on the periphery of the Confederacy became even more exposed in February 1862, when the Confederate government ordered the withdrawal of all but a handful of the Confederate forces in Florida.

9th Mississippi unit: Pensacola (1861)

9th Mississippi unit: Pensacola (1861)

This decision came in the wake of a series of Union victories during the first half of the month. Federal troops in Tennessee under the command of Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant captured Forts Henry and Donelson on February 6 and 16 respectively. In between those victories, on February 8, a Union naval force captured Roanoke Island off the North Carolina coast.

These victories resulted in the surrender of thousands of Confederate troops and opened the way for Union thrusts into the Confederate interior, especially in the West, where Grant advanced south towards Mississippi. A shocked and dispirited Confederate government rushed to reinforce the West by withdrawing Confederate troops from Florida.

On February 18, Richmond ordered General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate army at Pensacola, to withdraw his units and send them to Tennessee as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, on Florida’s east coast, General Robert E. Lee began preparations to remove most of the forces under his command. At this stage of the war, Lee was responsible for the defense of the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and East Florida. On February 24, the Confederate War Department ordered Lee to transfer units under his command in Florida to Tennessee. He was only to keep enough troops in Florida to block Union entry into the St. Johns River and for the defense of Apalachicola: the Confederate government feared Union capture of Apalachicola could result in an invasion of Georgia from the south.

General Robert E. Lee (1860s)

General Robert E. Lee (1860s)

By the end of the month, Florida was virtually defenseless as a Union flotilla carrying an invasion force approached the coast.