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.

 

 

Susan’s Journey

Have you ever passed by a beautiful old house, a rusty car or a sailboat up on blocks and wondered, ‘What was that thing like when it was new? Who used it, and what did they use it for?’

The staff members of the Florida Merchant Marine Survey must have had that feeling in 1938 or so when they happened upon the dry-rotting remains of the Susan, a 14.7-foot fishing sloop sitting in the sun in a vacant lot in Key West. The point of their survey, designed as a relief work project during the Great Depression, was to compile the history of boats and shipping in Florida and publish a book out of it. The book never came to pass, but the staff still managed to take lots of photos and measurements of historic boats up and down the Florida coast and to trace their histories by talking with locals. They had their work cut out for them with the Susan; her story ended up stretching back more than a century!

Technical Drawings of the Sloop Susan, ca. 1938 (Series 2382, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Technical Drawings of the Sloop Susan, ca. 1938 (Series S2382, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

The Susan, which likely started out its life either with a different name or no name, was originally built in the Bahamas in 1830 by a farmer living on Current Island, just northeast of Nassau. According to the information gathered by the Florida Merchant Marine Survey, the boat cost about $150 to build, and was made from a combination of pine and oak, with iron fittings. The builder designed Susan for fishing, but in practice he used the boat to carry home produce from his fields on a neighboring island.

Excerpt from Colton's Map of the West Indies (1855), showing the location of the Bahamas in relation to Florida. The approximate location of Current Island is indicated by the red arrow. Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the complete map.

Excerpt from Colton’s Map of the West Indies (1855), showing the location of the Bahamas in relation to Florida. The approximate location of Current Island is indicated by the red arrow. Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the complete map.

By 1860, the farmer had gotten involved with the pineapple trade, and business was booming. He decided to build himself a larger boat, and he sold the Susan to John Alden, a commercial fisherman in Nassau. Alden operated the boat for 18 years before selling her to a wealthy resident of Nassau named “Tinky” Sturrup, who mainly wanted a vessel to use for exploring the nearby islands.

Deck plan of the Susan drafted by Henry Lechner of the Florida Merchant Marine Survey, circa 1938 (Series 2382, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to view a larger version.

Deck plan of the Susan drafted by Henry Lechner of the Florida Merchant Marine Survey, circa 1938 (Series 2382, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to view a larger version.

A violent storm in 1895 prompted Sturrup to give up pleasure boating, and he sold the vessel to John Francis Pierce, Jr. of Key West for $100. Pierce was a commercial fisherman who had lost two of his own boats in the same storm that shook up Mr. Sturrup. It also appears that the two men may have known each other prior to the sale. John Francis Pierce was born in the Bahamas, and his brother in law was Robert G. Sturrup. It is unclear whether Robert was the “Tinky” who had acquired the boat from John Alden. At any rate, Pierce sailed the boat back to Key West by himself and used it for years to fish for grouper, yellowtail and snapper. It’s also likely that Pierce was the man to actually name the boat Susan. His wife, who was also born in the Bahamas, was named Susan A. Pinder.

During this latter phase of the boat’s life, Susan performed admirably under some tough conditions. A number of strong storms battered Key West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but none managed to seriously damage the sloop, not even the 1909 hurricane that destroyed 400 structures and killed at least 17 people, including men working on Flagler’s Over-the-Sea Railway. As the water began to rise ahead of that storm, Pierce floated the Susan three blocks up Petronia Street near his home and tied her down. When the skies cleared, buildings had been smashed and the streets were filled with debris, but the old sloop was fine to continue its service.

West end of Caroline Street in Key West after the 1909 hurricane.

West end of Caroline Street in Key West after the 1909 hurricane.

John Francis Pierce, Jr. died in 1922, and the 92-year-old Susan passed to his son, Ernest, who continued to use the boat for commercial fishing. The vessel was finally beginning to show its age, however, and in 1925 it was hauled onto shore and stored in a vacant lot, where it remained until the Florida Merchant Marine Survey discovered it in the 1930s.

The Susan is just one of many vessels from all over the state that were carefully documented by the Florida Merchant Marine Survey. The State Archives holds many of the records produced in the process, including short histories, pen and ink sketches, schematic drawings and deck plans, and a partial census of registered boats in service in 1938. Take a look at the collection to see if your Florida county is represented!