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.

 

 

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).