“Hasty remarks” from a traveler in 1823

by Dale Cox

The lands along the Chipola River drew high praise from early explorers of Jackson County, Florida.

The accounts of early Spanish, British and even American explorers were largely forgotten by 1823 and the wilderness along the Chipola River was a deep and mysterious place. Jackson County was only one year old and stretched from the Choctawhatchee River on the west to the Suwannee on the east, the state lines of Alabama and Georgia to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the south.

Newspapers of the day hungrily sought out and published the observations of travelers who braved the long distances to cross through the region, with one such account appearing in the Pensacola Journal on August 23, 1823:

The Chipoli River rises in the state of Alabama, and from the northwest empties itself into the Apalachicola River, about twenty miles below the junction of the Flint and Chatahoochy. The rich lands on this stream within Florida is about thirty miles in length, and will average fourteen or fifteen in breadth. The country is generally high and undulating, the soil red with the oxid of iron, based on clay, which is incumbent on lime stone. [1]

Buffalo (American bison) disappeared from the landscape of Jackson County in the 130 years between 1693 and 1823.

The “rich lands” of the Chipola had generated the wonder of travelers for thousands of years. One of the first written accounts, prepared by the Spanish friar Rodrigo de la Barrera (or Barreda) in 1693, described the region as a “delightful” place of woods, meadows and springs then populated only by deer, bear and even buffalo (American bison). The buffalo disappeared over the next 130 years, but the Chipola country still attracted wonder:

…The growth of this district is oak, hickory, white ash, cherry, gum, dogwood, &c. The forests are lofty, but not thick: with no undergrowth of consequence, except the hickory shrub and sassafras. The crops of corn and cotton promised abundance; and the specimens of the sugar cane appeared well. The land, I think is of the first quality, and is capable of a very dense population. [2]

The mention of crops of cotton and corn confirms other reports that American settlers had begun to expand from subsistence farming to export agriculture in the four years since they first began to settle along the Chipola in 1819. The production of cotton would change the face of Jackson County over the next two decades as large plantations replaced the simple farms of 1819-1823, bringing with them an economy based on the enslavement of other human beings. More than 5,000 slaves labored in the county by 1860, largely due to Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin and the rise of cotton as a major cash crop.


Such issues were just surfacing in 1823, however, and the writer was more fascinated by the caves he saw in many of the hills and outcrops. In fact, he became one of the first people to admit vandalizing the formations of a Jackson County cave:

The caves along the Chipola River are one of the wonders of Florida.

Lime stone appears on almost every hillock, and indeed there are numerous and pretty extensive lime caves; one of which we explored sixty yards in length and thirty three yards in the greatest breadth. In this there were numerous and fancy pillars of stalactites, a specimen of which, I herewith transmit to you. [3]

The description does not provide enough detail to identify the cave visited by the early traveler, but it likely was either the Arch, Ladies or Natural Bridge (Old Indian) Cave, all three of which lay along the route of the Old Spanish Trail. The pathway was then still in use.

Jackson County would never achieve the “very dense population” prophesied by the early writer, but the farm lands of the Chipola River valley remain some of the richest in Florida.

Note: To learn more about the early exploration and history of Jackson County, please consider Dale’s book The History Of Jackson County, Florida: The Early Years.

 

[1] Unknown traveler to Messrs. Fitzgerald & Co., Pensacola Gazette, August 23, 1823.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.