Next> | <Prev | ^ToC | End

Four Months in a Sneak-Box

By Nathaniel H. Bishop (1837-1902), 1879

[Map Cape San Blas to Cedar Keys.] [63KB]

Chapter 11

From Cape San Blas to St. Marks


A PORTAGE now loomed in our horizon. The distance across the neck of land was one-third of a mile only, but the ascent of the hills of the Gulf beach would prove a formidable task. I proposed to Saddles that he should return to the boats, while I hurried down the beach to the point of the cape to find a man to assist us in their transportation from the bay to the sea.

While discussing the plan, a noise in the thicket caught my ear, and turning our eyes to the spot, we saw two men hurrying from their ambush into the forest. We at once started in pursuit of them. When overtaken, they looked confused, and acknowledged that the presence of strangers was so unusual in that region that they had been watching our movements critically from the moment we landed until we discovered them. These men wore the rough garb of cow-hunters, and the older of the two informed me that his home was in Apalachicola. He was looking after his cattle, which had a very long range, and had been camping with his assistant along St. Joseph's Sound for many days, being now en route for his home. Two ponies were tied to a tree in a thicket, while a bed of palmetto leaves and dried grass showed where the hunters had slept the previous night.

These men assured us that the happiest life was that of the cow-hunter, who could range the forest for miles upon his pony, and sleep where he pleased. The idea was, that the nearer one's instincts and mode of life approached to that of a cow, the happier the man: only another version, after all, of living close to nature. One of these wood-philosophers, taking his creed from the animals in which all his hopes centred, said we should be as simple in our habits as an ox, as gentle as a cow, and do no more injury to our fellow-man than a yearling. He was certain there would be less sin in the world if men were turned into cattle; was sure cattle were happier than men, and generally more useful.

Upon learning our dilemma, the good-natured fellows set at once to work to help us. We cut two pine poles, and placing one boat across them, each man grasped an end of a pole, and thus, upon a species of litter, we lifted the burden from the ground and bore it slowly across the land to the sea. Returning to the bay, we transported the second boat in the same manner; and making a third trip, carried away our provisions, blankets, &c

It was now evening, and viewing with satisfaction our little boats resting upon the beautiful beach, we thanked our new friends heartily for their kindness. The owner of a thousand cattle gave us a warm invitation to visit his orange grove in Apalachicola, and then retired with his man to their nest in the woods, while we slept in our boats, with porpoises and black-fish sounding their nasal calls all night in the sea which beat upon the strand at our feet.

In the morning the wind arose and sent the waves tumbling far in upon the beach. After breakfast I walked to the extremity of the cape, and dined with Mr. Robert Colman, the principal light-keeper. He was a most ingenious man, and an expert in the use of tools. The United States Light House Establishment selects its light-keepers from the retired army of wounded soldiers. In all my voyages along our coast, and on inland waters, I have found the good results of the perfect discipline exercised by the superintendents of this bureau. These keepers live along a coast of some thousands of miles in extent on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Gulf of Mexico, many of them in isolated positions, but honesty, economy, and intelligent skill are everywhere apparent; and these men work like an army of veterans. I have intruded upon their privacy at all hours, but have never found one of them open to criticism. There is no shirking of the onerous duties of their position. Too much praise cannot be given to these light-keepers in their lonely towers, or to the intelligent heads which direct and govern their important work.

As I was leaving the light-house, a young woman approached me, and introducing herself as a visitor to the keeper's family, said she had a favor to ask. Would it be too much trouble for the stranger, after he reached New York, to inquire the price of a switch of human hair of just the shade of her own flaxen locks, and write her about it! Of course such an appeal could not be disregarded; but I confess that as I gazed upon the boundless sea, and along the uninhabited strand, and into the unsettled forests, I wondered where the men or women were to be found to appreciate the imported New York switch. Would it not "waste its sweetness on the desert air" in the unpeopled wilderness?

The boisterous weather kept us on the beach until Friday, when we launched our boats and rowed along the coast three miles to a point opposite a lagoon which was separated from the sea by a narrow strip of land. While pulling along the beach, great black-fish, some of them weighing at least one thousand pounds, came up out of the sea and divided into four companies. The first ranged itself upon our right, the second upon our left, the third, forming a school, proceeded in advance, while the fourth brought up the rear. Unlike the frisky porpoises, these big fellows convoyed us in the most dignified manner, heaving their dark, shining, scaleless bodies half out of the water as they surged along within a few feet of our boats.

When we arrived at our point of disembarkation, and turned shoreward to run through the surf, our strange companions seemed loath to leave us, but rolled about in the offing, making their peculiar nasal sounds, and spouting, like whales, jets of spray into the air. A landing was accomplished without shipping much water, and we immediately hauled the boats across the beach, about three or four hundred feet, into a narrow lagoon, the western branch of St. Vincent's Sound.

Indian Pass was two miles east of our portage. It is an inlet of the sea, through which small vessels pass into St. Vincent's Sound, en route for the town of Apalachicola. Heavy seas were, however, breaking upon its bar at that time, and it would have been a dangerous experiment to have entered it in our small boats. Emerging from the lagoon, the broad areas of St. Vincent's Sound and Apalachicola Bay met our gaze, while beyond them were spread the waters of St. George's Sound.

Following the coast on our left, numerous reefs of large and very fat oysters continually obstructed our progress. We gathered a bushel with our hands in a very few minutes; but as the wind commenced to blow most spitefully, and the heavy forests of palms on the low shore offered a pleasant shelter, we disembarked about sunset in a magnificent grove of palmetto-trees, spending a pleasant evening in feasting upon the delicious bivalves, roasted and upon the half shell.

The tempest held us prisoners in this wild retreat for two days, and during that time, if we had been the possessor of a dog, we might have supped and dined upon venison and wild turkey. As it was, we were well content to subsist upon wild ducks and the fine oysters, with bread from fresh wheat-flour, baked in our Dutch oven, or bake-kettle, and coffee that never tastes elsewhere as it does in camp.

At last the gale went down with the sun, and we rowed in the evening thirteen miles up the bay to Apalachicola, and went into camp upon the sandy beach at the lower end of the town. While sleeping soundly in our boats, at an early hour the next morning some one came "gently tapping at my chamber-door," or, in sea phrase, pounding upon my hatch. I soon discovered that my visitor was Captain Daniel Fry, United States Inspector of Steamboats. His pretty cottage, environed with beds of blooming flowers, was perched upon the sandy bluff above us. The captain, in a nautical way, claimed us as salvage, and we were soon enjoying his generous hospitality. In this isolated town, once a busy cotton-shipping port, there was a population of about one thousand souls, among whom, conspicuous for his urbane manners and scientific ability, lived Dr. A. W. Chapman, the author of the "Flora of the Southern United States."

While at New Orleans I had addressed a letter to the postmaster at St. Marks, Florida, requesting him to forward my letters to Apalachicola, but the request had not been noticed. The mystery was, however, explained by Lieutenant N., of the Coast Survey schooner Silliman, who one day called upon me, and said that when he stopped at St. Marks for his mail, a few days previous to my arriva1 at Apalachicola, he saw about thirty letters addressed to me lying loosely upon the desk of the negro postmaster of that marshy settlement. My letter of instruction had been received, but as the postmaster could not read, no notice had been taken of it. The coast survey officer had kindly gathered my letters in one parcel, and had deposited them for safe-keeping with the postmaster's white clerk. The responsible position of postmaster was filled by an ignorant colored man, because his politics were those of the party then in power.

Nor was this an exceptional case, many such appointments having been made, as an inevitable result of a peculiar enfranchisement in which there is no restriction, and where license stands for liberty. While on my "Voyage of the Paper Canoe," I met in one county in Georgia, through which flows the beautiful Altamaha, the colored county treasurer, who lived in a little backwoods' settlement a few miles from Darien. He could neither read nor write, but his business was managed and the county funds handled by a white politician of the "reconstructing" element then in power, which was sapping the life-blood of the south, and bonding every state within its selfish grasp by dishonest legislative acts. The poor black man was simply a tool for the white charlatan, living in a miserable log cabin, and receiving a very small share of the peculations of his white clerk. When all the enfranchised are educated, and not until then, will the great source of evil be removed from our politics which to-day endangers our future liberty of self-government. We are floating in a sea of unlimited and unlettered enfranchisement, vainly tugging at the helm of our ship of state, while master-minds stoop to cater to the prejudices of hundreds of thousands of voters who cannot read the names upon the ticket they deposit in the ballot-box--the ballot-box which is the guardian of the constitutional liberties of a republic.

We left the kind people of Apalachicola, and crossed the bay to St. George's Sound, with a cargo of delicacies, for Captain Fry had filled our lockers with various comforts for the inner man, while our friend, the cattle-owner, whom we had met at Cape San Blas, and who had now returned to his home, stocked us with delicious oranges from his grove on the outskirts of the city.

Four miles to the east of Cat Point we saw the humble homes of Peter Sheepshead and Sam Pompano, two fishermen, whose uniform success in catching their favorite species of fish had won for them their euphonious titles. We camped at night near the mouth of Crooked River, which enters the sound opposite Dog Island, having rowed twenty-four miles. If we continued along the sound, after passing out of its eastern end, we would be upon the open sea, and might have difficulty in doubling the great South Cape; so we took the interior route, ascending Crooked River through a low pine savanna country, to the Ocklockony River, which is, in fact, a continuation of Crooked River. The region about Crooked and Ocklockony rivers is destitute of the habitation of man.

About midway between St. George's Sound and the Gulf coast we traversed a vast swamp, where the ground was carpeted with the dwarf saw palmettos. A fire had killed all the large trees, and their blasted, leafless forms were covered with the flaunting tresses of Spanish moss. The tops of many of these trees were crowned by the Osprey's nest, and the birds were sitting on their eggs, or feeding their young with fish, which they carried in their talons from the sea. So numerous were these fish-hawks that we named the blasted swamp the Home of the Osprey. We spent one night in this swamp serenaded by the deep calls of the male alligators, which closely resembled the low bellowing of a bull.

About noon the next day signs of cultivated life appeared, and we passed the houses of some settlers, and the saw-mill of a New Yorker. At dusk our boats entered a little sound, and by nine o'clock in the evening we arrived at the Gulf of Mexico, in a region of shoal water, much cut up by oyster reefs. The tide being very low, the boats were anchored inside of an oyster reef, which afforded protection from the inflowing swell of the sea. We shaped our course next day for St. Marks, along a low, marshy coast, where oyster reefs, in shoal water, frequently barred our progress. From South Cape to St. Marks the coast, broken by the mouths of several creeks and rivers, trends to the northeast, while for twenty miles to the east of the light house, which rises conspicuously on the eastern shore of the entrance to St. Marks River, the coast bends to the southeast to the latitude of Cedar Keys, where it turns abruptly south, and forms one side of the peninsula of Florida.

The great contour of the Gulf of Mexico, into which St. Marks River empties, is known to geographers as Apalachee Bay. On that part of the coast between the St. Marks and Suwanee rivers, the bed of the Gulf of Mexico slopes so gradually that when seven miles away from the land a vessel will be in only eighteen feet of water. At this distance from the shore is found the continuous coral formation; but nearer to the coast it is found in spots only.

While traversing this coast from St. Marks to Cedar Keys, I observed the peculiar features of a long coast-line of salt marshes, against which the waves broke gently. With the exception of a few places, where the upland penetrated these savannas to the waters of the sea, the marshes were soft alluvium, covered with tall coarse grasses, the sameness of which. was occasionally broken by a hammock, or low mound of firmer soil, which rose like an island out of the level sea of green. The hammocks were heavily wooded with the evergreen live-oaks, the yellow pine, and the palmetto. From half a mile to two miles back of the low savannas of the coast, rose, like a wall of green, the old forests, grand and solemn in their primeval character.

The marshes were much cut up by creeks, some of which came from the mainland, but most of them had their sources in the savannas, and served as drains to the territory which was frequently submerged by the sea. When the southerly winds send towards the land a boisterous sea, the long, natural, inclined plane of the Gulf bottom seems to act as a pacifier to the waves, for they break down as they roll over the continually shoaling area in approaching the marshes; and there is no undertow, or any of the peculiar features which make the surf on other parts of the coast very dangerous in rough weather. The submarine grass growing upon the sandy bottom as far as six or eight miles from shore, also helps to smooth down the waves.

When the strong wind blows off the coast on to the Gulf, it is known to seamen as a "norther," and so violent are these winds that their force, acting on the sea, rapidly diminishes its depth within twelve or fifteen miles of the marshes. A coasting-vessel drawing five feet of water will anchor off Apalachee Bay in eight feet of water, at the commencement of a "norther," and in four or five hours, unless the crew put to sea, the vessel will be left upon the dry bottom of the Gulf. After the wind falls, the water will return, and the equilibrium will be restored.

We ascended St. Marks River; and passed the site of a town which had been washed out of existence in the year 1843 by the effects of a hurricane on the sea. These hurricanes are in season during August and September. The village of St. Marks consisted of about thirty houses, the occupants of which, with two or three exceptions, were negroes. The land is very low, and at times subjected to inundation. A railroad terminated here, but the business of the place supported only two trains a week, and they ran directly to the capital of Florida, the beautiful city of Tallahassee, eighteen miles distant.

The negro postmaster courteously presented me with my package of letters, and I had an opportunity to observe the way in which he fulfilled his duties. When the mail arrived, it was thrown upon a desk in one corner of a small grocery store, and any person desiring an epistle went in, and, fumbling over the letters, took what he claimed as his own.

The railroad agent, a young northerner, I found sleeping soundly in his telegraph office, though the noonday sun was pouring in his windows. He apologized for being caught napping, but declared it was his only amusement in that desolate region of damps, and assured me a man would deteriorate less rapidly by sleeping away his idle hours than by keeping awake to what was going on in the neighboring hamlet. Besides the United States Signal officer, his only intelligent neighbor was a brother of the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, who had purchased a property, two or three years before, in the once flourishing town of Newport, a few miles up the river. He spoke feelingly of the efforts of the Rev. Charles Beecher to educate his enfranchised negro neighbors; of his inviting them to his house, and laboring for the welfare of their souls. All the patient and Christian efforts of the philanthropist had proved unavailing, and thieving and lying were still much in vogue.

It has been proposed by engineers to connect all the interior Gulf-coast watercourses from the Mississippi River at New Orleans to the Suwanee River in Florida. To achieve this end it will be necessary to excavate several canals at points now used as portages. From St. Marks to the Suwanee River there are some rivers which might be used in connecting and perfecting this great interior water-way.

I mentioned in my "Voyage of the Paper Canoe," that preliminary surveys, under General Gilmore, had been made for a continuous water way across northern Florida to the Atlantic coast, via the Suwanee and St. Mary's rivers. Detailed surveys are now in progress. Those interested in this enterprise hope to see the produce of the Mississippi valley towed in barges through this continuous water-way from New Orleans to the Atlantic ports of St. Mary's, Fernandina, Savannah, and Charleston. The northwestern as well as the southern states would derive advantage from this extension of the Mississippi system to the Atlantic seaboard, and its execution seems to be considered by many a duty of the national government.

There has been little written upon the water-courses of northwestern Florida, but several of the central, southern, and Atlantic coast rivers and lakes have been carefully explored by Mr. Frederick A. Ober, of Massachusetts, a young and enthusiastic naturalist, who, as correspondent of the "Forest and Stream," has published in the columns of that paper a mass of interesting and valuable geographical matter, throwing much light on regions heretofore unfamiliar to the public.

Next> | ^Top