Vertical Sun and Gilded Vallies

A gentleman spent several years in Florida

General Collection
Date palms and orange trees at the home of James E. Hendry in Fort Myers, Florida. Via Florida Memory.

A gentleman who spent several years in Florida, during the Indian troubles here, having collected his observations of the country in a manuscript, which has been obligingly lent to us, we extract from it some passages which we think the reader will find interesting:

“The southern extremity of Florida is over 1300 miles south of us, and the sun in the shortest day in the year has almost the same meridian altitude that it has here on the 1st of March, or the 10th of October. On the 20th of June its appearance in the heavens is nearly a vertical position, shines with a much more resplendent light that in more southern latitudes.

The climate there in the shortest days would be as cold as in this latitude in October; but for the following reasons:

First. They have no mountains or highlands in their vicinity.

Second. The protracted warm seasons have much an influence on the elements that during the short period of the sun’s declination to the south they do not become cold.

Third. Florida, being a peninsula, is nearly surrounded by water, and that too coming in from the Gulf Stream in a current tropical regions passing near the shore, keeps up a high temperature even during the winter months.

To these we may add the prevalence of southern winds, wafting air of high temperature from the vicinity of the equator.

From these causes the thermometer in the southernmost points is seldom seen below 60 degrees. As you move to the northward, the influence of the enumerated causes diminish and the gulf stream diverges from the shore, and yet on the northern confines of Florida most of the tropical fruits flourish, and many winters have passed without frost. At St. Augustine they seldom have more than two or three frosts in a year. Orange trees have never been seriously affected there except in the frost of 1835. Thus the climate of Florida is much modified by its proximity to the Gulf Stream is apparent from the fact that the south parts of Louisiana on a parallel of latitude with the northern portions of Florida are many degrees colder, and the Orange trees have been destroyed in New Orleans by winters that did not materially affect them in St. Augustine or on the same parallel on the St. Johns.

vertical sun. At St. Augustine they seldom have more than two or three frosts in a year.

The inland navigation of Florida lines of more than 4000 miles in the aggregate more than quadruples the inland navigation of New York, including our Canals. There is not a spot in the territory more than 30 miles from navigable waters. The highest ground is less than 200 feet-above the sea, and there is a chain of inland waters, cut off from the ocean by a succession of island, reaching most of the way round the whole of its coast, affording good steamboat navigation.

The soil of the country is peculiar; – you have doubtless heard much of the white sands of Florida. As you sail along the coast the shore and beach very much resemble a snow bank in the distance, and indeed, as you travel over the country much the same appearance is preserved; more than three-fourths of the soil is covered with white sand.

To northern eyes such a soil looks barren and dreary, – and if found on a northern coast, it would in fact be so; because on our coast the sand is mostly formed of sylex, and when mixed with other soil gives no enriching qualities. It will be remembered that the whole surface of Florida has been thrown up from the ocean, and all the sands of the ocean there are formed from the attrition of shells, and are therefore calcareous; when mixed with vegetable decomposition, or when decomposed they constitute a fertilizing substance, and will produce the most luxuriant growth.

The whole country is based on Lime Rock composed also of shells, which mostly preserve their original form. This rock lies in many places very deep, and in other cases near the surface; there is however above the rock a layer of clay, beneath the upper surface.

There is also a loamy soil in Florida found in many parts similar to our chestnut and red oak soil which produce in great abundance.

Another kind of soil is found along the banks of rivers, and at the wet hammocks, which is immensely productive; a soil equal to the Delta of Mississippi – This land lies on clay, then a layer of marl, on the surface of which is a deep vegetable deposit, such a soil is not scarce there; even in our climate it would produce immense crops. Take it altogether the soil of Florida is fully equal to Alabama and superior to Louisiana; but it is unfair to consider the soil of any country disconnected from its climate. Climate is everything with the vegetable as with the animal creation; and a sterile soil under the influence of a genial sun and a soft bland atmosphere will do more for the growth of plants than the most fertilising manure and the richest soil could do under the influence of an October breeze.

But it is not my purpose here to dwell upon the climate of Florida; with the blessing of Providence shed upon the land, a vertical sun to gild their vallies and to ripen their golden fruit with a generous soil and the gentle zephyrs of heaven floating over it, this same country has been, for the last 300 years the cost of rapacity, murder and conflagration, and the bloody footsteps of rapacious man have marked its highways and byeways, until there is scarce a hammock, grove or recess that has not witnessed horrors and cruelties at which humanity bleed.

vertical sun. the gentle zephyrs of heaven floating over it

In March 1822, Congress passed a law organizing East and West Florida into one territorial government. By this organic law a Governor, four Judges, four district attornies [sic] and four marshals were to be appointed by the President, a legislative council to be chosen by the people, which with the Governor, formed the law making power. Public lands were surveyed by the general government and Tallahassee an inland town, about midway between St. Augustine and Pensacola, was made, and still continues the Capital.

The district of Middle Florida soon became thickly populated; – the borders of the St. Johns, Apalachicola, and a country 60 miles west of the St. Johns, called Alachua, New Smyrna, and most of the southern points on the eastern coats were penetrated with settlements, so that in 1835 Florida contained 48000 souls and was increasing most rapidly.

But as the Seminoles possessed 5,000,000 of acres in the heart of East Florida, and along the Western Coast there was a reluctance to settle in their neighbourhood, and a large portion of East Florida remained a wilderness.

Numerous emigrants from the north were beginning the cultivation of the fruits, so that in the years 1835 and 1836 Florida exported more in amount of her own products than the State of New York. It was nothing strange to see $200 worth of sugar or $100 worth of cotton taken from an acre without more labor than is required to produce an acre of corn in the north. St. Augustine, from about 100 acres of Orange trees sold $100,000 worth of oranges; a single tree would produce to its owner $50. But in the winter of 1835 the unparalleled cold weather, which astonished and dismayed all in the north, extended its influence to this region, and on the 13th of February the thermometer sank to 8 degrees below zero. Such a frost was not within the memory of the oldest inhabitants; it cut down orange trees 100 years old, and left scarce a living fruit north of New Smyrna and Tampa Bay. But there was 300 miles south of these points that had not been injured even by this frost.

vertical sun. on the 13th of February the thermometer sank to 8 degrees below zero

The inhabitants at once replanted their groves, and at St. Augustine and on the St. Johns they already begin to export oranges.

But for the war which broke out in 1836, I cannot doubt that Florida would now be furnishing the Northern States with half the sugar they now consume, and in less than 5 years from this time, would have driven all the Sicily and West India oranges out of the market.

But alas! tales of horror and keen distress are yet to be told – War, bloody, brutal war, has ever since desolated the country, blasted its fair hopes, and spread mourning over the land. There are but three plantations in all East Florida that have not been ravaged and burned. There are no families out of St. Augustine and Jacksonville, that have not been forced to fly from the conflagration of their own dwellings or perish under the ruins. More than a thousand families have been driven from their homes and more than a hundred battles have been fought in the last 5 years.

marsanneMarsanne Petty conducts historical research about 18th century southern United States and environmental history. To get more great updates and original history, sign up at The Southern Sage. To get her to help you with your own research project, email mapetty[at]gmail.com.

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