Off the Beaten Path of History

One of the most exciting aspects of archival research is stumbling upon records and events you didn’t know existed. Did you know, for example, that Florida sent several companies of soldiers to fight in the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-48? The war was short-lived and Florida’s role was small, which accounts for why the episode is so seldom mentioned in histories of the state. Floridians did serve in this conflict, however, and the State Library & Archives have several excellent resources for learning more about their participation.

The chain of events leading to the U.S.-Mexican War began with the United States’ annexation of Texas as the 28th state in 1845. Mexico considered Texas part of its territory, even though its military had retreated across the Rio Grande following the Texas Revolution of 1835-36. Mexican commander Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana had even signed a treaty agreeing to Texas’ independence from Mexico.

This excerpt of an 1845 map of the United States shows the disputed region of Texas between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers. The mapmaker chose to show the Rio Grande as the southern boundary of Texas. Florida Map Collection, State Library of Florida.

This excerpt of an 1845 map of the United States shows the disputed region of Texas between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers. The mapmaker chose to show the Rio Grande as the southern boundary of Texas. Florida Map Collection, State Library of Florida. Click the image to enlarge it.

Mexico was experiencing internal troubles and did not immediately attempt to retake Texas after Santa Ana’s retreat. The sticking point was the exact location of the border between the two entities. The Texans claimed their territory ran as far south as the Rio Grande, since that was how far Santa Ana had agreed to retreat after the Texas Revolution. Mexico, on the other hand, claimed the border was supposed to be at the Nueces River, about 150 miles north of the Rio Grande. When the United States annexed Texas as a state in 1845, President James K. Polk claimed the Rio Grande as the true boundary. Polk sent a diplomatic mission to Mexico City to attempt to buy the disputed territory, but this strategy failed. Both the U.S. and Mexico began moving soldiers into the disputed area between the Nueces and the Rio Grande, and after a series of skirmishes in early and mid-1846 the two sides declared war.

Meanwhile, across the Gulf of Mexico, Florida had just emerged from a conflict of its own, the Second Seminole War. It had also entered the Union as a state in 1845. News of the growing troubles on the Mexican border evoked a mixture of caution and enthusiasm among Floridians. Citizens in coastal communities like Pensacola and Apalachicola feared the Mexican government might call on privateers to interfere with American ships in the Gulf of Mexico. Pensacola’s citizens held a public meeting on May 4, 1846 and resolved to form a company of volunteers from Escambia and Santa Rosa counties to march to Texas and fight. Duval County citizens petitioned Governor William D. Moseley to enlist their services for a company, even offering to purchase their own uniforms.

A petition to Governor William Dunn Moseley from citizens of Duval County asking to be chartered as a militia company (1846), in Box 4, folder 10, Territorial and Early Statehood Papers of Florida (Series 2153), State Archives of Florida.

A petition to Governor William Dunn Moseley from citizens of Duval County asking to be chartered as a militia company (1846), in Box 4, folder 10, Territorial and Early Statehood Papers of Florida (Series 2153), State Archives of Florida. Click the image to enlarge it.

Shortly after the war began in earnest, President James K. Polk called on Governor Moseley to raise five companies of volunteers to fight in the war. Ultimately, only three actually went to Mexico, but many more remained in Florida to protect the coastline and maintain a state of readiness in case they should be needed.

Documentation for these activities is meager but easily available at the State Library & Archives. Governor Moseley’s correspondence (Series 679) and the Territorial and Early Statehood Papers of Florida (Series 2153) contain documents illustrating local enthusiasm for volunteering to fight, concerns about the safety of the coastline, and the logistical headaches of fielding a state militia in the 1840s.

One particularly notable document describes the kinds of medicines that were sent to the Florida troops in Mexico. Quinine, calomel, mustard, lemon syrup, castor oil, snakeroot, turpentine, tartar emetic, paregoric, and flax seeds are among the medicines Surgeon William Tradewell reports receiving on this list.

A list of medicines drawn up by Army Surgeon William Tradewell (1847), in Box 2, folder 63, Territorial and Early Statehood Papers of Florida (Series 2153), State Archives of Florida. Click the image to enlarge it.

A list of medicines drawn up by Army Surgeon William Tradewell (1847), in Box 2, folder 63, Territorial and Early Statehood Papers of Florida (Series 2153), State Archives of Florida. Click the image to enlarge it.

To explore deeper into mid-19th century medicine, check out the Journal of Dr. John M.W. Davidson and our exhibit on Early Florida Medicine.

Documents from the U.S.-Mexican War also present an opportunity for genealogists. Generally, when a militia company formed, one of its first tasks was to create a muster roll identifying its members. These lists were vital for determining how much the unit would need in terms of supplies, arms, and pay. The roll was also often sent to the state government as part of a request for the company to be officially activated.

The State Archives holds muster rolls for the three Florida companies that served in Mexico, plus two more that served at Fort Brooke near Tampa. These rolls (found in Series 1282) list each soldier’s name, rank, age, time and place of enlistment, and other details. These documents can potentially help pinpoint the location of a Florida ancestor whose whereabouts in the 1840s have been otherwise tricky to find, if in fact he volunteered for service in this conflict.

This is just one example of the many nooks and crannies in Florida’s history that deserve more attention than they often receive. Are there interesting but obscure historical episodes associated with your Florida community? Get a conversation started about them either by leaving a comment below or sharing with us on Facebook!

Early Dentistry in Florida

OUCH!!! Going to the dentist doesn’t generally fall on many people’s list of favorite things to do, but like it or not it’s a crucial part of maintaining oral health. Moreover, dentists in the twenty-first century have technology available that makes oral care much, much more comfortable and safe than it was in earlier days. Today we take a broad sweeping look at the dental profession in Florida from territorial days to the modern era.

Dentist Charles N. Clark with a patient at his office at 93 Market Street in Apalachicola (February 1899).

Dentist Charles N. Clark with a patient at his office at 93 Market Street in Apalachicola (February 1899).

Probably the most profound difference between dentistry today and the profession in the early nineteenth century is that prior to about 1840 dentists were not really considered professionals or doctors. They were tradesmen, much like barbers, midwives, or blacksmiths. Their education came not from a university or dental school, but from apprenticeships with older, experienced dentists.

Perhaps the lack of formal dental school training came from there also being a lack of standardized equipment or technique for the young dentist to learn. Before dentistry became organized as a profession, each dentist made his own drugs, if indeed he used them at all. He made his own equipment, or used whatever was available. Replacement teeth came from animals or from the deceased. Antiseptics or anesthesia? With the slight exception of whiskey, forget about it.

Page from the journal of physician Dr. John M.W. Davidson of Gadsden County, giving a recipe for a treatment for "facial and dental neuralgias," essentially toothaches. Davidson began keeping the journal in 1843. Click on the image for a full transcription.

Page from the journal of physician Dr. John M.W. Davidson of Gadsden County, giving a recipe for a treatment for “facial and dental neuralgias,” essentially toothaches. Davidson began keeping the journal in 1843. Click on the image for a full transcription.

As was the case with many professions during the nineteenth century, dentists began communicating with one another, establishing best practices, and sharing their techniques with one another. The founding of the world’s first dental school in Baltimore, Maryland in 1840 was followed by more openings around the country, and dentists soon were able to distinguish themselves with degrees marking them as formally trained professionals.

Some of the first professional dentists in Florida included Dr. Andrew Brookins of Jacksonville, Dr. Edward Dinus Neve of Tampa, Dr. James Chace of Cedar Key, Dr. William H. Bracey of Gainesville, and Dr. J.M. Baggett of Dunedin.

In 1883, Dr. James Chace of Cedar Key met with other dentists from around the state and laid plans for a professional society of dentistry that would help create and maintain standards for ethical practices. The Florida State Dental Society was founded the next year with twenty-five charter members, and they immediately set to work urging the state government to pass laws regulating the practice of dentistry in Florida.

The Society was successful; in 1887 the state legislature passed an act creating a Board of Dental Examiners and making it illegal to practice dentistry without a certificate of the board’s endorsement. Practicing without a license became a misdemeanor punishable by fine, although curiously the law stipulated that teeth could still be extracted by anyone regardless of whether they had received any sort of dental training.

Dr. E.N. Atkins with a patient - Blountstown (1917).

Dr. E.N. Atkins with a patient – Blountstown (1917).

The application process for a certificate was fairly simple, even into the early twentieth century. Applicants were questioned about their attendance at dental school, whether they had practiced dentistry elsewhere, whether they had been convicted or indicted in any felony cases, whether they were addicted to “the liquor or drug habit,” and whether they had ever been prosecuted for illegally practicing dentistry. If the answers to these questions appeared to be in good order, the Board of Examiners would subject the applicant to an exam, part written and part clinical. If the applicant passed both portions, he would be issued a certificate.

An example of an application for examination by the State Board of dental Examiners. This application was made by William M. McRae of Live Oak in 1910 (Box 4, Series 394, State Archives of Florida).

An example of an application for examination by the State Board of Dental Examiners. This application was made by William M. McRae of Live Oak in 1910 (Box 4, Series 394, State Archives of Florida).

At the turn of the twentieth century, even with improvements in technique, tools, and dental education, practicing dentistry required a bit of innovation and willingness to think outside the box. Many dentists had offices in town, much like we usually see today. Transportation, however, was often problematic and inconvenient for many Florida residents living on farms and settlements far away from the larger towns, and so many dentists often took to the roads in wagons, automobiles, and even boats to reach their patients. In the following quote, Dr. Alton B. Whitman of Orlando describes his method for treating “remote” patients around the turn of the century.

“The patient sat in a high-back rocking chair which was padded with pillows and quilts and propped into position with pieces of stovewood under the rockers. The work was usually done on the porch for good light. Sometimes, for extracting [teeth], two straight chairs were placed back to back. The operator’s left foot was put on the seat of the chair back of the patient, and his knee became the headrest, which afforded very good control.”

Dr. F.H. Houghton of Palm Beach developed his own method for getting to the patients who needed him most. In 1898, when he began his practice, the population of Palm Beach was too small to support Houghton’s business, but the residents along the Halifax, Indian, and Hillsborough rivers still needed plenty of dental work. The good doctor solved the puzzle by building a boat 153 feet long and 20 feet wide, on which he constructed several rooms outfitted with all the necessary equipment for practicing modern dentistry. Houghton aptly named his floating office the “Dentos.”

Dr. Houghton's floating dental office, the

Dr. Houghton’s floating dental office, the “Dentos,” (circa 1910).

Over time, dentistry standards became more intricate and rigorous, and dentists’ offices began looking more like they do today. The early history of Florida dentistry is, however, a reminder of how dedicated  practitioners of the profession were to doing the best they could with what they had.

What was going to the dentist like when you were young? Do you remember dental practices from that time period that are no longer in use? Tell us about it by leaving a comment.