William Bartram’s famous East Florida Expedition of 1774 – exploring the St Johns River and the interior of the British colony

William Bartram

NOTE: Kartik Krishnaiyer is currently working on a book about British influence in Colonial Florida. Work on the book was suspended during the 2020 Election season but has now resumed. The following is a passage on William Bartram’s 1774 visit to East Florida, during the period of British rule over the colony.

Famous Philadelphia naturalist William Bartram had previously visited Florida, but his 1774 visit to East Florida was among his most famous travels and left a lasting impression of the then-British colony. Bartram began his trek on Amelia Island in March 1774. He sailed through the St Johns River observing Alligators, Bears and Snakes. He also visited villages and Native American settlements on the river. One was a site near where Palatka stands today, another a little further south is where Bartram recorded this in his diary:

“I observed one of them was a young prince who had, on my first interview with him, declared himself my friend and protector, when he told me that if ever occasion should offer in his presence, he would risk his life to defend mine or my property. This young champion stood by his two associates, one on each side of him, the two affecting a countenance and air of displeasure and importance, instantly presenting their scratching instruments, and flourishing them, spoke boldly, and said that I was too heroic and violent, that it would be good for me to loose some of my blood to make me more mild and tame, and for that purpose they were come to scratch me; they gave me no time to expostulate or reply, but attempted to lay hold on me, which I resisted, and my friend, the young prince, interposed and pushed them off, saying that I was a brave warrior and his friend, that they should not insult me, when instantly they altered their countenance and behavior; they all whooped in chorus, took me friendly by the hand, clapped me on the shoulder and laid their hands on their breasts in token of sincere friendship, and laughing aloud, said I was a sincere friend to the Seminoles”*

Bartram eventually visited the prairies of modern-day Alachua County and also visited the Suwannee River. In September 1774, he returned to one trip on the St Johns before leaving the colony in November. Near present-day Astor, Bartram recorded this in his diary:

Behold him rushing forth from the flags and reeds. His enormous body swells. His plaited tail brandished high, floats upon the lake. The waters like a cataract descend from his opening jaws. Clouds of smoke issue from his dilated nostrils. The earth trembles with his thunder. When immediately from the opposite coast of the lagoon, emerges from the deep his rival champion. They suddenly dart upon each other. The boiling surface of the lake marks their rapid course, and a terrific conflict commences. They now sink to the bottom folded together in horrid wreaths. The water becomes thick and discoloured. Again they rise, their jaws clap together, re-echoing through the deep surrounding forests. Again they sink, when the contest ends at the muddy bottom of the lake, and the vanquished makes a hazardous escape, hiding himself in the muddy turbulent waters and sedge on a distant shore. The proud victor exulting returns to the place of action. The shores and forests resound his dreadful roar, together with the triumphing shouts of the plaited tribes around, witnesses of the horrid combat.“*

Bartram’s sketch of Alligators on the St Johns- From The Florida Archives

Bartram’s observations of the St Johns shaped an image of Florida that persisted for a century. A backwater with wild beasts and dangerous terrain. The St Johns certainly was a river dominated by wild beasts, as areas of it remain today, particularly south of Sanford. However, the lingering image of Florida wasn’t helpful to attracting new settlers or visitors.

One positive impact for Florida’s image of Bartram’s voyage and diary was his reporting on the number of Oranges he found along the banks of the river and inland. This helped lead to the further cultivation of the crop in British, Spanish and American Florida. Florida’s first Citrus baron, Englishman Jesse Fish used Anastasia Island around this time to create a to plant Orange trees and export the fruit to the Thirteen Colonies as well as directly to London.

*Quotations from Travels of William Bartram published by Dover in 1955

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