Monday, March 27, 2017

Midnight Duel at Neal's Landing in Jackson County, Florida

The Chattahoochee River at Neal's Landing.
The last known duel in Florida history took place at Neal's Landing in Jackson County on the night of March 7, 1878. 

No one was injured but newspapers of the time reported that "both men stood up bravely."

The landing is now the site of Neals Landing Park, a popular and pretty spot for fishing, picnicking, camping and other outdoor activities. In 1878, however, it was the center of a prosperous riverboat community. A hotel, stores and warehouses thrived along the low bluff, their success made possible by the paddlewheel steamboats that carried passengers and cargoes up and down the Chattahoochee River.

The incident at Neal's Landing was one of the last true duels ever to take place in the United States. 

These "affairs of honor" were fought according to the Code Duello, a set of rules that governed how such encounters should take place. The code offered a way for gentlemen to settle their disputes in personal combat and was intended to prevent arguments from growing into violent outbreaks or family feuds.

Neals Landing Park is just off State Road 2 in Jackson County.
The practice fell from favor in the years following the War Between the States (or Civil War) and was outlawed in most jurisdictions.

The Neal's Landing duel resulted from a dispute that grew between a young man of that community and a young man of Columbus, Georgia. The former had "written something unpleasant about the gentlemen of this city," reported the Columbus Daily Enquirer.

The newspaper did not identify either man but reported that the challenge was issued by the resident of Columbus. 

Each man chose a second to take his place should he fail to appear and the choice of weapons and location fell to the man from Neal's Landing:

...The seconds are well known in this city [i.e. Columbus], and once lived here. The challenged party named the time midnight, weapons shot guns, each barrel to be loaded with thirteen buck shot, distance twenty paces. - Columbus Daily Enquirer, March 12, 1878.

An interpretive kiosk placed by the Jackson County Tourist
Development Council and Jackson County Parks provides
more information on the history of Neal's Landing.
Proper dueling etiquette then required that the two men meet at the time and place appointed. Their seconds were to load and check the weapons. The participants would then stand back to back. Each would then step off the required distance to the count of an observer and upon reaching 10 paces each, turn and fire.

The two men lived up to the requirements of the Code Duello but the Neal's Landing duel ended with an unexpected twist. The two seconds were unwilling to see their friends shoot each other down so they took matters into their own hands:

...The seconds did a good work for the principals by mutually agreeing to load with nothing but powder, without the knowledge of the latter parties. We did not learn how many shots were exchanged, but no damage was done as no lead was used. Both men stood up bravely and the "affair of honor" was settled amicably. - Columbus Daily Enquirer, March 12, 1878.

The bloodless duel allowed each man to demonstrate his courage while the wise decision of the seconds to load the shotguns with blanks prevented a tragedy.

No trace remains of the once thriving little community at Neal's Landing. Visitors can learn more of the site's history from an interpretive kiosk placed there by Jackson County Parks and the Jackson County Tourist Development Council.

Neals Landing Park is located at 7001 FL-2, Bascom, Florida.

For a bit duel-related fun, enjoy this clip from The Andy Griffith Show:

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

An 1827 visit to Jackson County, Florida

Shangri-La Spring near Blue Spring was likely visited by
       Rt. Rev. Michael Portier as he traveled across Florida in 1827.
The following account of an 1827 visit to Jackson County by Rt. Rev. Michael Portier, the Catholic Bishop of Florida, is one of the most detailed descriptions of the area when it was still a raw frontier.

The City of Marianna had not yet been founded but the Old Spanish Trail, which Portier followed, could still be traced from Orange Hill on the border with Washington County through Jackson County by way of Blue Springs (Jackson Blue Spring) to the banks of the Apalachicola River near Sneads.

Pushing on the next morning, Bishop Portier soon crossed the border into modern Jackson County. His passage through the magnificent forests that then grew in the region prompted him to wax philosophic:

Rt. Rev. Michael Portier
On beholding this American counterpart of the Thessalian Tempe, one is almost led to put faith in the glowing pictures of ancient Greece, as described by the poets, and in the extravagant stories that travelers tell of certain Asiatic countries. The trees are constantly in leaf and, despite their close proximity, attain an enormous height, bringing their upper branches together as if to ward off the torrid heat of the sun.
What agreeable sensations fill the soul on drawing near to these imposing forests after journeying through interminable tracts of stunted pine-trees, where the air, expanded by the heat and heavy with odor, sickens the traveler at every step, not to mention the suffering caused by the reflected heat of the glowing-white sandy soil. It is like escaping suddenly…into paradise.[i]

Adding to Bishop Portier’s fascinating descriptions is the fact that he crossed the site of Marianna just before Robert Beveridge and his workers arrived to begin clearing the land. His account provides an interesting view of what the land looked like on the eve of the founding of the city:

…On every side you could hear the rippling of the brooks which here and there blended their waters and developed into streams of deep and regular formation. Rocks were to be met as high as the trees themselves, and bordered around with wild flowers, while sweet-scented shrubbery decked the sides and summits of these pygmy mountains. Natural wells, underground caves, oak trees blasted by lightning or cast by the tempest across our narrow pathway like an artificial bridge – everything was present to enhance the spectacle.[ii]

Crossing the Chipola, the Bishop and his traveling companion pushed on to the still new home of William Robinson to spend the night. Portier noted that they “fared better than we expected there,” but also commented on the “coolness of our reception.”
Robinson had arrived from Georgia a few years earlier and acquired more than 3,100 acres surrounding Blue Spring. He built his house on the hill overlooking the spring, then called Robinson’s Big Spring in his honor. Unlike most of the other early settlers of the county, Robinson was unmarried and remained that way until he died. Legend holds, although the device was not mentioned by Bishop Portier, that he built a unique system using chains and buckets to bring fresh water up to the house from the spring.
Portier was fascinated by Blue Spring:

The stream called Big Spring has cut a channel through the rocks over which it dashes with amazing rapidity. Like a small flood tired of being hampered and held up in its progress, it pours over with mighty force into a bed cut deep into the rock. This bed or vase is oval in shape and possibly a hundred feet wide at its broadest span. So clear is the water that the smallest objects are distinctly seen in it at a depth of thirty or even thirty-five feet; while all around the magnolia, laurel, cypress, and cedar are found in profusion. The wild grape-vine, after pushing its plaint branches to the very tops of these trees, hangs suspended over the stream in festoons. Fish without number find shelter in this retreat; but at the slightest sound of an inquisitive wayfarer they seek speedy refuge in the deeper places.
This beautiful body of water, of a perfect blue color, imparts the same tint to whatever it reflects, and when the sun is in the zenith the reflected images take on all the colors of the rainbow through the prismatic influence of the waters.[iii]

This story will continue below, but first enjoy this video on the history of beautiful Blue Springs Recreational Area:

The damming of the stream to create today’s Merritt’s Mill Pond has greatly chanced the appearance of Blue Spring, but the water retains its unique blue appearance and is spectacularly clear.
Setting out again early the next morning, the Bishop followed a pathway that was “little more than a furrow” until he reached a “dark dense wood and guessed that the river Apalachicola was not far distant.”[iv]
Along this section of his journey, Bishop Portier followed the same old trail that had been in use since the Spanish missionaries first visited the area in 1674. Passing between the modern communities of Grand Ridge and Dellwood and then just north of Sneads, he “struck the Apalachicola at its very source, the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers.[v]
The greatest adventure of his journey through Jackson County came when he and his companion tried to get across the Apalachicola to the inn on the other side at Chattahoochee Landing:

The view across the Apalachicola River
to River Landing Park at Chattahoochee
is the same observed by Bishop Portier
as he waited for the ferry in 1827.
…Proceeding down the river to the boat-landing, we shouted for the ferrymen residing on the opposite bank. For a while hour we taxed our lungs to the utmost, but without result. Noon arrived, and we gave up all hope of making ourselves heard. To return up the river, a distance of twelve miles, to the next ferry without guide or beaten track, would be to risk being overtaken by the night before reaching the goal….My companion offered to swim across the Apalachicola, capture the boat and come back for me. I did not believe he could accomplish it, in view of the strong current, the great breadth of the river, and the presence of alligators.
But, despite my remonstrances and solicitation, he insisted on his plan, and proceeded to carry it out. I beheld him plunge into the river, cut through it like a fish, and gain a distance of a third of a mile in less than ten minutes. Yet I was ill at ease, I confess, until I saw him safe on the other side. A moment later he reappeared with the boat, steering in my direction. But his strength was not a match for the ponderous force he had to meet; the current carried him further down than he expected, and it was only by hauling upon the branches of the trees overhanging the bank on my side that he finally got back. It had been a wonderful exploit.[vi]

Portier’s account of his journey through Jackson County is remarkable for its descriptiveness, but he felt that he had failed to do justice to the country he had seen. “I am relating what I myself beheld,” he wrote, “I am telling what I personally experienced; and I declare that my descriptions fall short of the actual facts.”[vii]

To learn more about Jackson County, please consider one or all of my books that touch on our wonderful corner of Florida. Be sure to visit for video visits to historic sites throughout the South.


[i] Portier, Michael. "Journal of his Journey from Pensacola to St. Augustine," 1827.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Andrew Jackson's 250th Birthday: His march through Jackson, Calhoun & Holmes Counties in Florida

Andrew Jackson as he appeared late in life.
(Matthew Brady photo, Courtesy Library of Congress)
Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States, would have turned 250 years old today. In the Florida county that bears his name, however, the anniversary will pass quietly.

Jackson County has no events planned to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Jackson's birth.

The only part of Florida to touch two other states - Alabama and Georgia - Jackson County was established just three years after Old Hickory made his only visit to the area. He came through in 1818 during the closing phase of the First Seminole War.

Florida was still a Spanish colony in 1818, but the borderlands had been the scene of open warfare since U.S. troops attacked the Creek Indian village of Fowltown in Decatur County, Georgia. The Battle of Fowltown was really two separate events that took place on November 21 and 23, 1817. The action was the first battle of the Seminole Wars.

Creek, Seminole and maroon (Black Seminole) warriors retaliated on November 30, 1817, by attacking a U.S. Army supply boat on the Apalachicola River at Chattahoochee, Florida. The first U.S. defeat of the Seminole Wars, the action is remembered today as the Scott Massacre of 1817 and ended with the deaths of around 34 men, 6 women and 4 children.

Outraged over the Scott attack but unconcerned over the U.S. raids on Fowltown, President James Monroe had Secretary of War John C. Calhoun order Major General Andrew Jackson to the frontier. Jackson was authorized to invade Spanish Florida to "punish" those responsible for the attack on Lt. Richard W. Scott's command.

The site of Fort Scott as it appears today.
The commander of all U.S. troops in the South, Jackson was at the zenith of his military career in 1818. He had defeated Red Stick Creek forces at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1814-1815. He reached Fort Scott at today's Lake Seminole on the evening of March 9, 1818, and assumed command of the troops there on the next morning.

The first phase of Jackson's Florida campaign saw him march into Spanish Florida and battle the Native American alliance at the Battles of Miccosukee, Econfina and Old Town while also capturing the Spanish fort of San Marcos de Apalache. He executed the Creek Indian leaders Josiah Francis and Homathlemico while also capturing and ordering the executions of two British subjects, Alexander Arbuthnot and Robert C. Ambrister.

The general was at Fort Gadsden, the fort he had built on the site of the earlier "Negro Fort" or Fort at Prospect Bluff, when he decided to march into West Florida. Reports had reached him that Creek refugees were being fed and supplied by the Spanish at Pensacola.

Click here to see a great first person interpretation of Andrew Jackson by Billy Bailey of Florida Caverns State Park.

Jackson left Fort Gadsden with an army of 1,092 men and two cannon and marched back up the Apalachicola River to what is now Torreya State Park. Boats had been prepositioned there by soldiers from Fort Scott and the general crossed his army over to Ocheesee Bluff in today's Calhoun County on May 9, 1818. The crossing of so many men was dangerous and took all day to complete.

The next morning, guided by the Creek chief John Blunt for whom present-day Blountstown is named, the army turned northwest and entered the county that now bears his name. The following is excerpted from my book, The History of Jackson County, Florida: The Early Years:
Jackson Blue Spring, where Gen. Jackson's army camped on
May 10, 1818 while marching through West Florida.

The army turned to the northwest on the morning of May 10th and crossed into Jackson County. Their route led them across the approximate site of Grand Ridge to Blue Spring where they camped for the night. Captain Hugh Young, Jackson’s topographer, called the spot “Big Spring,” a name that it held for a number of years. He described it as being “forty yards in diameter and of considerable depth with a rock bottom and a clean rapid current.” 

The soldiers in Jackson’s army marveled at the beauty and richness of the surrounding countryside. Young himself kept careful records of the quality of the lands through which they marched. 

The army continued forward on the morning of May 11, 1818. Crossing the hills between Blue Spring and the Chipola River, they reached the Natural Bridge of the Chipola River in today's Florida Caverns State Park by noon. It was here that a supposed incident involving Andrew Jackson took place. 
The Natural Bridge of the Chipola River is seen at left. The
sink into which the river descends to begin its underground
journey is at the center of the photo.

According to the oft-recited legend, Jackson’s army was moving forward in two columns. One column, led by the general himself and guided by John Blunt, crossed the river at the natural bridge. The second column, maching more to the north, was forced to halt and build rafts so the men and artillery could get across the river. Jackson’s column reached the planned rendezvous point west of the river and the general, known for his temper, supposedly became irate when the second column failed to appear on schedule.

When the bedraggled men of the flanking column finally trudged into camp, legend holds that Jackson berated their officers, demanding to know the reason for the delay. His temper soared even higher when they explained the reason for their lateness. The general had seen no river. The legend holds that it was not until John Blunt explained the phenomenon of the natural bridge that Old Hickory could be placated.

It is a fascinating little story and one of the few about Andrew Jackson that survive in the county today. Mrs. Janie Smith Rhyne, a Jackson County writer and historian of the 20th century, even memorialized the event in poem:

“About first candle-light he spied
His draggled cavalcade
Emerging from the northward swamp –
No sooner seen than sprayed

With oaths as hot as shrapnel shells.
They pled, ‘We built a raft
To cross the river;’ Jackson yapped
‘No river there, you’re daft!’

‘I crossed no stream.’ ‘Then come;’ they led
Him to Chipola’s bank.
He saw, and spat another oath;
Then all his mind seemed blank.” 

The "River Rise" where the Chipola River resurfaces after
flowing beneath the Natural Bridge. It is also part of Florida
Caverns State Park in Marianna, Florida.
There seems to be more legend than truth about the story. Captain Young, Jackson's topographer, did not record it in his journal. He wrote instead that the men were well aware that they were crossing a natural bridge and even offered his own opinion as to how it had been formed:

The Natural Bridge is in the center of a large swamp and appears to be a deposit of earth on a raft or some similar obstruction. The passage is narrow and the creek, with a rapid current, is visible both above and below. 

Young, of course, was mistaken about the formation of the bridge. It is really formed by the sudden disappearance of the Chipola River down a sink and into a series of limestone passages. It flows underground for a short distance before rising back to the surface. Nineteenth century loggers cut a canal across the top of the feature to allow them to float timber across to downstream mill. The logging run takes away a bit of the original appearance of the bridge, but it is still quite visible today.

The absence of any mention of the legendary natural bridge incident in Young’s account is curious. A careful examination of his memoir, however, shows that the legend probably grew from an incident at the Natural Bridge of the Econfina River near present-day Perry, Florida. Jackson and the main body of his army crossed over that bridge but had to wait for a second column to catch up. When the soldiers arrived, they explained that it had been necessary for them to build rafts to cross a river.  

The real incident at the Econfina Natural Bridge was somehow claimed by the early settlers of Jackson County and relocated to the Natural Bridge of the Chipola. A number of the soldiers in Jackson’s army came back to settle Jackson County and it is possible that their descendants remembered their story about and natural bridge incident and assumed they were talking about the one at Florida Caverns.

Kelly Banta of Florida Caverns State Park (L) discusses the
history of the remarkable caves with historian Dale Cox (R)
in a scene from a coming documentary.
A second legend about Jackson’s passage through Jackson County appears to have more of a basis in truth. 

Local tradition holds that Creek and Seminole families watched his crossing of the natural bridge from hiding places in the caves and rock shelters of Florida Caverns State Park. Native American families still living in both Jackson County and Oklahoma preserve strong oral tradition about the incident. A representative of one family described in 2007 how older members of the family would take children to the area of the natural bridge and point out caves in which their ancestors said they had hidden while the soldiers marched past.  

One such cave is today's Old Indian Cave. This cave was once called the Natural Bridge Cave and is located in a commanding outcrop of limestone from which the natural bridge is clearly visible. The multiple entrances to the large cavern would have provided hidden places from which Creek and Seminole families could have seen the troops marching past.

Click here to watch a video exploration of Old Indian Cave at Florida Caverns State Park.

Beautiful formations at Florida Caverns State Park.
After crossing the natural bridge, Jackson’s army continued on past Blue Hole Spring and Rock Arch Cave before turning to the northwest again and marching out of what is now Jackson County near present-day Graceville. The trail they followed took them through some of the fine farmlands between the Chipola River and Holmes Creek. The country was impressive and they knew that once the Seminole War was over, the area would be wide open for settlement. Men from the Williams and other families returned to the Chipola River country even before Florida was transferred from Spain to the United States. 

Jackson’s topographer, Captain Hugh Young, clearly had the future settlement of the area in mind as he recorded his observations of the country through which the army passed. Describing the area below and around present-day Grand Ridge, for example, he noted that it was “good pine land with reddish soil.” With regard to the land west of the Chipola River through which the army marched, he wrote that it was “excellent land” with a “mixed growth of oak, pine and hickory with several sinks affording abundance of excellent water.” 

Curry Ferry, where Jackson's army crossed the
Choctawhatchee River, remains a Holmes County landmark.
The U.S. Army crossed Holmes Creek near present-day Graceville and then marched along the old Pensacola - St. Augustine Road through what is now Holmes County. Jackson crossed the Choctawhatchee River at Curry Ferry Landing and then continued on westward to Pensacola and eventually the Presidency.

Click here to watch a video on the history of Curry Ferry in Holmes County, Florida.

Although he spent only a few days passing through Jackson, Calhoun and Holmes Counties, Andrew Jackson played a pivotal role in the settlement of the area. His march gave rank and file military men a chance to scout the countryside. Many came back within two years to clear fields and build homes, ignoring the fact that the land in question still belonged to the Creek Nation and that Florida was still a Spanish colony. 

It was not until 1823 - one year after Jackson County was established by the Florida Territory's Legislative Council - that Native American leaders signed the Treaty of Moultrie Creek and gave up their rights to most of the lands that form the county today.

To learn more about the First Seminole War, please enjoy this video and be sure to check out the books at the bottom of the page:

Please click here to learn more about Florida Caverns State Park: