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 www.twoegg.tv 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.

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