Driving west over the Whitehair Bridge, across the Saint John’s River, there is an abrupt transition from restaurants and marinas to deep forest. The trees are suddenly dense, the ground marshy, dotted with pools of water. Down there, a few feet north of the bridge, on the west bank, where the forest is deepest, there was once a town called Crow’s Bluff. It lasted from the 1870s to the 1930s. They finally took out the post office in 1932, and the last family moved away following floods in 1938. It was doomed almost as soon as it was founded, as the new railroads cut into the riverboat trade on which its economy depended. Now, where there were once houses, a hotel, and a service station, at the least, are now not even foundations. The forest has taken it all back. But the spirits aren’t all gone. They persist, giving a faint sense of uneasiness to even the least sensitive. The current owners of the land block all access to the old town site, for reasons unknown. Perhaps it’s to escape liability for injured hikers, perhaps to hide illegal activity of some sort, or perhaps they know something of the spirits that are there. There are a lot of ghosts along the Saint John’s.
This river has seen a lot of history. Three genocides, three conquests, at least four wars, slavery and Jim Crow, the coming and disappearance of languages and cultures, settlements and farms, hopes and dreams. It was first named Rio de San Juan by the Spanish who conquered Florida in the 1500s. In the process, the diseases they brought wiped out 90% of the population, hundreds of thousands of human beings. Before the Spanish renamed it, the Timucua, about forty miles downstream from the bridge, called the river Welaka, “Chain of Lakes”.
The Timucua were not the first in this part of the river, though. That distinction belongs to the Mayaca, a fishing people whose language is lost except for a place name or two and the name of the tribe itself. Their main settlement was at Mayaca town, now Astor, twenty miles downstream, halfway to Timucua country. The Mayaca had a village on the site of what is now Hontoon Island State Park, upstream, a couple miles south of the bridge. They were apparently divided into animal clans, who lived in their own parts of the village, because great wooden statues of an owl and an otter have been dredged from the river-bottom. When the Spanish first got here, they were a numerous people, powerful in their section of the river. By the time the Spanish got around the sending them missionaries, fifty years or so later, their numbers had been greatly reduced by plague.
In the early 1700s, Muskogee and Hitchiti Creeks, in the employ of the English settlers of South Carolina, began raiding the Florida Indians for slaves. The people kidnapped were taken to Charleston and sold to plantation owners in the Caribbean. Those Caribbean plantations were essentially death camps for Indians. Overwork and disease killed almost all the Timucuas and Mayacas sent there. In the mid 1700s, the last remaining Mayacas moved south to the shores of Lake Okeechobee, where they fought for survival with the local peoples. A few Timucuas apparently settled Hontoon Island for a while, but they didn’t last long. By 1763, when the Spanish turned Florida over to the English, there were fewer than 100 Timucuas left, out of an original population of 250,000 to half a million. They had all moved to Saint Augustine, where Spanish guns could protect them from the slave raids. When the Spanish left, they took these last survivors with them to Cuba. A few Cuban families are said to claim Timucua ancestors to this very day, but I am not aware of any Mayacas left.
During the period of English rule in Florida, the Creeks moved south into the now empty province of Florida and settled along the Saint John’s. English-speaking Scots-Irish settlers also did, at about the same time. So, too, did displaced Yamasees from South Carolina, and Yuchis from what would later be called Tennessee, and runaway African-American slaves from Georgia and South Carolina. All settled along the river, bringing their cultures and histories with them, leaving their spirits behind, shaping the land. The Creeks, Yamasees, Yuchis, and African-Americans gradually combined into a single people, the Seminole, who still speak three languages – English, Muskogee Creek, and Mikasuki, a descendent of Hitchiti.
The American Revolution at first had hardly any effect, here. Neither did the return of the Spanish administration as a result of the Treaty of Paris, in 1783. The population remained the same mix of Seminoles and whites as before, living in the same uneasy tension as ever. The American conquest in 1819 brought changes, though. American rule brought more white settlers, who came into conflict with the Seminoles over land, grazing, springs, and hunting rights. The first Seminole War was fought mainly in north Florida, and affected the middle Saint John’s valley mostly by causing an influx of Seminoles after the war, to land promised them to replace land stolen. The Third Seminole War was fought in south Florida down in the Everglades. But the Second Seminole War, fought in the 1840s, took place right here, on either side of the Saint John’s. It was an affair of small unit engagements, grinding guerrilla war, massacres and atrocities by both sides. It went on for years. In the end, the whites won. The land was “ethnically cleansed”, most of the Seminoles deported to Oklahoma, where the bulk of the Seminole people still reside. A few escaped south to the Everglades, where they fought for generations until they finally won recognition and rights. They are also still there, as the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Only a little more than a decade elapsed between the end of the Second Seminole War and the start of the American Civil War. During that time, slavery put down roots in north Florida, and, to a limited extent, also in the central Saint John’s Valley. There was a sugar mill up near DeLeon Springs with slaves, Volusia Plantation, across the river from what is now Astor, and a couple plantations near Ocala, about an hour from here by car. The sugar mill was burned by Union troops during the Civil War, when Union raiders moved up and down the Saint John’s, chased by Confederate defensive boats.
With the end of the Civil War came another influx of white settlers, this time many of them from up north or from Europe. Towns like Crow’s Bluff, Saint Francis, and Oldtown were settled, persisted awhile, and then faded. This land is dotted with ghost towns, more than in most parts of the country. A few settlements, Astor, twenty miles north of here, or Paisley, eight or nine miles west of the river, last to this day. African-Americans also came, drawn by the turpentine industry, but laboring under the restrictions of full-on Jim Crow segregation.
The Great Depression hit the area hard. Many towns died, and those who remained survived by subsistence agriculture and moonshining. Prosperity didn’t come until the years after the Second World War, and then it was modest. Still, roads were paved, the Whitehair Bridge built, businesses established, Jim Crow replaced by subtler forms of discrimination, tar paper shacks replaced by trailer homes, libraries and schools and community centers established. People of many kinds moved in, and the population, always diverse, became more so. For an area that had never had it very good, it was progress, of a sort.
And all this has left its mark on the land. The spirits of all these peoples persist and linger on. This land, like any other, is the product of all of its history, the hopes and the horrors, the heroes and the villains, and those who were both. The layers pile up, and pile up, and new history grows from them. But older than all of them, older than even the Mayacas, older than human settlement in these lands, there is the river, flowing endlessly northward to the sea.