John and William Bartram
John Bartram’s party, having camped at or near Palmetto Bluff on the west shore of the St. Johns River, packed their gear and on this cold Christmas day in 1765, began rowing upstream towards present-day Palatka. By the descriptions in the Journal and allowing that the purpose was to survey the natural resources along the River, it is apparent that the route was close along the shoreline where the swamp and upland vegetation could be observed and cataloged (Figure 1). The width of the river in this reach averages between one and two miles below (north of) Palatka and is not less than half of a mile at any point between Palatka and Nine Mile Point.
Nearly two hundred and fifty years later, the choice swamps described in Bartram’s Journal remain the key feature along this reach of the west shoreline of the St. Johns. The magnificent Cypress trees that would have dominated these swamplands are now but vestiges of their former stature as all of the old growth was harvested by the Wilson Cypress Company that operated in Palatka in the early 20th century.
John’s Journal describes a landfall “several miles” upstream of the location of their previous night’s camp. The location of this landfall is probably one of the most questionable (and therefore most widely debated) of all of the Bartram sites within Putnam County. Other than its distance from the camp, the details about the site provided in the Journal are limited to “a point of high ground, which has been an ancient plantation of Indians or Spaniards” the presence of “many live oak-trees … , and plenty of oranges” and the lay of the land which he described as they “walked back from the river, the ground rising gradually from the swamp on the right-hand.” Probably the most useful part of this description is of the swamp on the right-hand. What is most lacking from the description is any mention about having crossed the River prior to making the landfall. Whether this is an omission or an indication that no crossing occurred, we cannot know.
If the Bartram’s party continued along the west shore and did not cross the River before making the landfall described in the Journal entry for January 25, 1765, and if one accepts that John’s definition of “several” could extend to as many as “12” when estimating the number of miles traveled, then it is quite possible that the landfall was at present-day Palatka.
Regardless of the actual location, the party spent some time cataloging the vegetation, examining the soil and general lay of the land and the ruins of an ancient Indian or Spaniard plantation before resuming their journey upstream towards Squire Roll’s.
They passed by Palatka again on January 30, 1766, on their return trip down the River, but made no mention of the site as they traveled from Roll’s to Gray’s Creek, present-day Rice Creek, on the west shore about four miles farther downstream. Headed downstream, they very likely rounded the bend in the River hugging Harts Point on the east shoreline of present day East Palatka which would be the shortest and easiest route to the mouth of Rice Creek (Figure 1).
It should be noted that sources vary regarding whether this site in Palatka was that visited by the Bartrams on Christmas Day, December 25th, 1765. Frances Harper (1958) contends that the site of the landfall on this date was at Forrester Point. Schafer (2010) suggest that the site was nearer Deep Creek at what was once known as Fort Buena Vista. Florida History Online identifies present-day Palatka as the location of the landfall. Harper agrees that this site in Palatka was the site described by William during a Seminole festival in the Fall of 1774. More discussion about the possible locations of this landfall can be found under the Bartram Trail Provisional Site.
William Bartram sailed past Palatka twice on his solo trip up the River, once in late April or early May of 1774, once during a brief schooner trip downstream to pick up mail, and again on his return trip by trading schooner at the end of his explorations. Towards the end of his travels, probably in September 1774, he hiked from Spalding’s Lower Store, a few miles south, and visited the Seminole village at Palatka taking part in a local festival.
The routes of his journeys past this site can be approximated from the description in his Travels. It appears that he retraced the upstream route taken nine years earlier with his father save for his departure from a point perhaps at or near Federal Point on the east shore rather than Palmetto Bluff on the west shore of the River. From his description of the village at Palatka, it is apparent that he sailed close to shore on his initial passage, exchanging hand signals with the Seminole residents as he passed by. The water depth along the west shore in this area, despite being on the outside bend of the River, is sufficiently shallow to allow the villagers to wade out into the River yet deep enough for William to approach fairly close to the shore line in his small sailboat (Figure 2). On his second and third passages in the trading schooner, his route would have been farther from the shoreline in deeper water and influenced greatly by the wind direction on the day of his passage. There is no mention of the present-day site of Palatka in his cursory description of this sailing trip down the river at the end of his Florida visit.
It is interesting to note that this site was not mentioned in William’s Report to Dr. John Fothergill. The Report describes sailing 30 miles in one day, from a campsite two miles south of Fort Picolata, past this site (making no mention of a Seminole Village) and on to Villa Role where he spent the night (Page 146). Harper (1958) in his commentary on Travels, suggests that if the details provided in this account are accurate, the route followed by William on this day began near Tocoi Creek and coasted the east shore to Racy Point, where he took advantage of the shorter crossing of the broad river to Nine Mile Point on the west shore which he coasted until he rounded Forrester Point. He concurs that the Seminole village described in Travels was at this site in Palatka.
Bartram Trail Site Marker 4 is located across the street from the Headquarters Trailhead at the St. Johns River Center in downtown Palatka. It can be reached by water or land and is located at the foot of the Memorial Bridge on the southwest side. The Palatka Bartram Trail Kiosk is located at this site as well and is only a few yards from the Marker (Figure 3).
Resources and Links
Bartram, William. Travels Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws; Containing An Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions, Together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians. Embellished with Copper-Plates. James and Johnson Publishers. 1791. Electronic Edition.
Harper, Francis, ed. The Travels of William Bartram, Naturalist’s Edition. Yale University Press. New Haven. 1958.
Bartram, William. Annotated by Francis Harper. Travels in Georgia and Florida, 1773-74; a report to Dr. John Fothergill. Annotated by Francis Harper. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s., Vol. XXXIII, Pt. II. Philadelphia, PA, 1943.
Florida History Online “John Bartram’s Travels on the St. Johns River, 1765-1766.” May 2013.
Bartram, John. Diary of a Journey through the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, from July 1, 1765, to April 10, 1766, annotated by Francis Harper. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s., Vol. XXXIII, Pt. I. Philadelphia, PA, 1942.
Florida History Online. New World in a State of Nature; British Plantations and Farms on the St. Johns River, East Florida 1763-1784. May 2013
Bruce, F.W. Assistant Engineer, US Army Corps of Engineers. St. Johns River to Lake Harney, Florida. 1908. The Portal to Texas History. University of North Texas. Nautical Chart of the St. Johns River.
Coordinates: 29° 38.799’N 81° 37.676’W
The coordinates given for this site as the location of the visit mentioned in the Journal and of the Seminole village mentioned in the Travels, are for the Bartram Trail Site (BTS) marker at the Palatka Riverfront Park. The actual site of the Seminole village cannot be pinpointed but can be estimated with good accuracy.