“Everything Carried the Face of Spring”
Biscayne Bay in 1772

Introduction

After his arrival in St. Augustine in 1764, Governor James Grant repeatedly described Britain’s newly acquired East Florida colony as a “New World in a State of Nature.” Only a handful of British settlements had been established outside the small garrison town and provincial capital. Under the previous Spanish colonial administration, a number of  Franciscan missions had been instituted during the late sixteenth century in south Georgia and north Florida and in the vicinity of St. Augustine and today’s Gainesville and Tallahassee. In addition, Spanish settlers had established widely scattered farms and cattle ranches. By late in the seventeenth century, however, a massive depopulation of the indigenous Native American population – caused by epidemic diseases – had reduced the aboriginal populations dramatically. In the first decade of the eighteenth century, English and allied-Indian raiders from the rival South Carolina colony destroyed the mission villages and agricultural settlements outside of the immediate St. Augustine vicinity. The ruins of mission complexes, ashes at sites that were once small farms and cattle ranches, and brush-laden “old fields” where Native Americans had once harvested corn and other crops were all that the incoming British could find in the vast terrain beyond the borders of St. Augustine. The daily entries in a travel journal recorded by John Bartram in 1765-1766 a travel journal recorded by John Bartram: For more on that historic journey see “John and William Bartram Travel the St. Johns River, 1765-1766,” also posted on this website. while he and his son William Bartram explored the shores of the St. Johns River document the vast wilderness that existed in East Florida when the British arrived.

The classic description of the southeastern coastal region of East Florida as a “New World in a State of Nature” was written in 1772 by Frederick George Mulcaster, the Surveyor General of East Forida and a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers. Mulcaster is believed to have been a half-brother of King George III, sired out-of-wedlock by Frederick, Prince of Wales. A graduate of the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, Mulcaster was deputy to the first Surveyor General of East Florida, and Mulcaster’s father-in-law, William G. DeBrahm. When Governor Grant removed DeBrahm from office, he named Mulcaster as his replacement. Eventually, Mulcaster became a major-general in the British army.

Early in 1772 Mulcaster traveled to what is today Dade County to survey several tracts of land for absentee British owners, including four 20,000-acre tracts along Biscayne Bay granted to William Legge, the 2nd Earl of  Dartmouth, and to three of his sons. After a three-month expedition, Mulcaster returned to St. Augustine and wrote a lengthy letter to Governor Grant describing the pristine conditions he observed during his wilderness journey from St. Augustine to Biscayne Bay and relating the harrowing challenges he survived on his return.

Lt. Mulcaster’s narrative of the adventure began at the Smyrnéa Settlement
For more on the Smyrnéa Settlement and Dr. Andrew Turnbull see the web page “Smyrnéa: Dr. Andrew Turnbull and the Mediterranean Settlement at New Smyrna and Edgewater, Florida, 1766-1777,” also posted on this website.

established by Dr. Andrew Turnbull in 1768 at Musqueto Inlet ( Ponce Inlet today), located eighty miles south of St. Augustine. Turnbull had transported 1400 Italians, Greeks and Minorcans to labor under contracts of indenture at a 60,000-acre wilderness tract granted by the British government to himself and two absentee partners. The surveyor general traveled with an entourage of several men in two sailing vessels, one a schooner large enough to carry two horses and a heavy load of measuring chains, axes, cooking utensils and provisions, and the tools needed to survive in the Florida wilderness. From Smyrnéa, Mulcaster apparently sent the schooner south along the Atlantic coast while he transported a vessel to the “haulover” to the Indian River (today east of Mims where a canal has been cut) and proceeded south observing land along the river, searching for tracts to survey for wealthy British absentees.

The men on the two vessels may have reunited at St. Lucie Inlet. Mulcaster wrote that he left his horses and two of his assistants at “Pt. Sn Lucea” (today St. Lucie Inlett) before continuing one hundred miles further south to Biscayne Bay, where he arrived on March 13th, nearly one month after departing New Smyrna. For the next four weeks Mulcaster explored the shores of Biscayne Bay searching for land capable of raising provisions, indigo, rice, and other produce. His letter to Governor Grant is a fascinating description of the eastern portion of Dade County when it was devoid of human inhabitants. He surveyed several promising tracts in today’s Dade and Broward counties before traveling north toward St. Augustine on what turned into a harrowing return journey.

Mulcaster’s first stop after leaving Biscayne Bay was at today’s Jupiter Inlet. He ordered the captain of the schooner to sail north and to rendezvous with him at the southern inlet of the Indian River – at St. Lucie Inlet where he had previously left men and horses – while he explored land along Hobe River. On discovering that the men he had left at a camp at the inlet had departed, he sent the schooner on to Ponce Inlet and he proceeded north on the Indian River, exploring and searching for sites for prime plantation land. He finally reached “Capt. Ross’s Plantation” on April 25th. Capt. Ross was John Ross, from the northeast of Scotland, the resident manager of two settlements owned by a London merchant, William Eliott. The Eliott tracts were south of New Smyrna Beach and north of Titusville. Mulcaster stayed with Ross briefly, observed his early efforts at sugar cane cultivation, and returned to St. Augustine. 

“Everything carried the face of spring”

Frederick George Mulcaster to James Grant St. Augustine, May 6, 1772

“I wrote [February 13th] from Smyrna [Smyrnéa, today New Smyrna Beach] telling Your Excellency I was that far on my way to the southward to look for land. I left it the following day and after experiencing a variety of weather both by sea and land laying sometimes upon oyster banks and others upon mangrove islands frequently without fresh water for forty hours together I reached the Bay of Biscayn [sic] on the 13th of March with both boats, having left my horses upon the Pt. of Sn. Lucea [today St. Lucie Inlet]about a hundred miles to the northward of this bay and about a hundred and forty miles to the southward of Capt. Ross’s plantations.

“The entrance of this bay is at the northward end of Key Biscayn [sic] a channel of above a quarter of a mile wide with above 13 ft. of water without a breaker and the water so clear that you might see to pick a sixpence at the bottom. The main land is about three miles from the inlet, it consists of large fresh marshes, and rich open savannahs, the soil of them dove coloured and blue clay in other parts varied by a rich greasy marl. The hammock land is a brown mould in some places entirely without sand, in others with a very small mixture, it runs from 10, to 14 or 15 inches deep upon a rock foundation. The swamp resembles the hammock land, only has sometimes a different foundation, which is marl. The timbers growing on them are live oak, red bay, mastick, gum elm, mulberry, grape tree, elder, cocoplumb, papa, button wood, cypress, yellow plumb, laurell, Black, red and yellow mangrove, persimmon, willows, cabbage, maple, ivey, pear granneti, and several others which I am quite a stranger too. The papa [papaya] which was killed by the frost at the head of Indian River had here ripe and green fruit on it, everything carried the face of spring and a fine verdure. The pine land nearest to the bay is very rocky and the pine not very good, but farther back the pine land is cut by savannahs and the timber is straight, tall, and exceeding good, the back part of these lands form back marshes of great extent with small hammocks here and there dispersed among them.

“The sound which forms the head of the bay has four large fresh water creeks or rather small rivers which empty themselves into it on the west side. Three of these rivers I am confident no man has been up these fifty or sixty years. Probably much longer as I was obliged to make my way up them by cutting away large branches of trees which from each side hang across. These rivers are deep, clear and full of fine fish, the bottom rock and the water as sweet and good as any I ever tasted. On the banks of these rivers are the same kind of land as I have already described, and upon one of them a remarkable natural curiosity, being a bridge of solid rock forming a more regular arch than you can well conceive where it is certain no human hand has ever given it assistance. The width of the arch at the surface of the water is 25 ft, the perpendicular height from the water four feet, and the rock itself in the center 6 ft. The breadth of the bridge is 33 ft covered with trees and makes a most romantic appearance. I passed under it in the four oar’d boat only by holding my head down. The water being about 7 ft deep this bridge is about a mile and a half in a direct line from the mouth of the river, but by the winding about three miles upon some of these rivers may be seen the remains of old Indian fields which I suppose must have been the Yamasees. The Native Americans of this region of Florida were the Tequesta. The Yamasee were originally located on the coast and barrier islands of south Georgia. Spanish Franciscan missionaries established missions among Yamasee after 1570. A revolt in 1687 resulted in the Yamasee fleeing into the English colony of South Carolina, and a subsequent rebellion against the English in 1687 resulted in the flight of most of the Yamassee into Spanish Florida. They settled in villages near St. Augustine but were attacked incessantly by English and allied Creek raiders. Mulcaster apparently confused Tequesta and Yamasee.

North bank of the Miami River, off Biscayne Bay, 1884.  Courtesy of the Ralph Munroe Collection, Historical Museum of Southern Florida.
North bank of the Miami River, off Biscayne Bay, 1884.
Courtesy of the Ralph Munroe Collection, Historical Museum of Southern Florida.

 Arch Creek (North Miami, Fla), circa 1890, Looking inland from the natural bridge. Courtesy of Ralph Munroe Collection, Historical Museum of Southern Florida.
Arch Creek (North Miami, Fla), circa 1890, Looking inland from the natural bridge.
Courtesy of Ralph Munroe Collection, Historical Museum of Southern Florida.

Natural Bridge at Arch Creek, 1906. Courtesy of Historic Museum of Southern Florida, Miami.
Natural Bridge at Arch Creek, 1906.
Courtesy of Historic Museum of Southern Florida, Miami.

Cypress trees along New River (Fort Laud, Fl) ca. 1890. Courtesy of the Ralph Munroe Collection, Historic Museum of Southern Florida.
Cypress trees along New River (Fort Laud, Fl) ca. 1890.
Courtesy of the Ralph Munroe Collection, Historic Museum of Southern Florida.

Contemporary photograph of red mangrove in Florida.
Contemporary photograph of red mangrove in Florida.

Contemporary photograph of red mangrove trees in Florida.
Contemporary photograph of red mangrove trees in Florida.

“Upon these rivers and on the Bay of Biscayn I ran tracts to the amount of a hundred thousand acres, which I am certain will produce either rice, indigo, sugar, or any other produce of the West Indies. The mangrove swamps are higher and differ greatly from any I have before seen in this province. The trees are large, straight and tall with large spreading tops and carry more the face of an open forest than of the mangrove we see a little farther to the northward. The roots of the trees are in general entirely covered with the earth and not growing out in suckers as is commonly seen.

“The head of the sound seems to end in a small lake, but upon a strict examination I found it was not so, as after some trouble I got into a small river which takes about a S. W. and afterward a N. W. course and heads in several branches in a large marsh in the same manner as the others all do. From this lake I chain’d across to New River, now called New Hillsborough, and sent the schooner and boat round by sea to meet me. This river empties itself into the sea. It is about 15 miles from Key Biscayn, and 6 from the lake where a communication might be easily had by land to the Bay and Sound of Biscayn. This river for about 5 miles runs due North and is parted from the sea by a beach of 40 or 50 yards wide. It then takes a west course and branches and seems to head in large marshes. Upon the banks of it are many old fields and exceeding good land resembling that I have already described to you. The fresh marshes run from this river all the way to Biscayn. How far they reach to the Northward I had not time this excursion to examine, being so short of provisions as to depend chiefly on the hunters, fortunately game is very plenty and the rivers abound with fish. On this river I ran only small tracts which it is most adapted for, and capable of making pretty settlements which with the lands adjoining if once settled would make a valuable country.

“The entrance of this river is but shallow but then the beach is almost constantly smooth as a river, and in the offing is fine anchoring ground. It is the sea winds only that ruffles these and even then not in any manner like the northern parts being defended by the force of the Gulph Stream and the Bahama Banks, besides there is shelter for shipping within Key Biscayn, and the run from New Hillsborough to that place is only fifteen or sixteen miles. Upon the north beach of this river I expect to find more good land for it is far from being yet properly searched.

“The 10th of April at 10 at night I passed the barr, the schooner following me the day after and having a fair wind I got into Jupiter’s Inlet at the mouth of Hobe River the next afternoon. This river divides itself in three branches. The south river I had examined on my way to the Southward. It runs almost parallel to the sea has fine fresh water and plenty of fish, but no good land. The middle branch I could not now examine, having been away from my people and horses fifty days, which was longer than I expected. I was therefore anxious to get to them for fear they might suffer for want of provisions.

“The north branch is rather an arm of the sea, with banks and shoals which leads to the south head of Indian River [today St. Lucie Inlet]. I therefore ordered the schooner to the Indian Inlett & come by that way up to Sn. Lucea to meet me, which place I arrived at the 13th at 11 at night, but the horses and people gone. I found their kettle burnt thro’ in the bottom and the hole stop’d with a piece of a check’d shirt in order to prevent their provision from running out in the boiling, and near it some leaves of the cabbage tree whereon Rob’t scratched with a penknife their distress, mentioning their having staid forty two days, that the Indians would go, that their provisions, powder and shot was all gone and that they had set off for Capt. Ross’s where he trusted in God they should safely arrive. There was more writing which I could not make out, and as I saw only the trace of two horses. I was alarm’d for fear the Indian had left them and if so that they would perish as Rob’t was no woodsman, and [name not legible] only a boy equally as ignorant.

“I therefore gave up all thoughts of looking at Sn. Lucea which I had all along determined to strictly search and make the best of my way along the banks of the river to look for them. I therefore set off at one-o-clock in the morning and the same day met the schooner and directed her to go to the Musqueto and wait my arrival. I proceeded myself up the Indian River and about 50 miles south of the plantation of Capt. Ross’s saw a blue flag on the shore. Upon going nearer I perceived it as an Indian blanket and saw the Indians beckoning to me. I immediately went to them and found it was Hecoffi and Sehaiki with a gang of Indians hunting. They told me they had made the sign to let me know that the people were all safe with the horses and were gone to Ross’s, that Indian Tom was with them, that they had staid 42 days and the last 12 had nothing to eat but cabbage tree leaf, mention’d the circumstances of the kettle and ask’d me if I did not get the book that the white man had wrote with his knife.

“They were exceeding civil, gave me plenty of venison, honey, and bears oil, being near night and satisfied about the people I camp’d with them and the day after went to Fishing Point to run the two five thousand acre tracts for the Mr. Herries’s, but the lake which was said to run about three or four miles back from the river was not to be found, tho’ John Ross had seen it and Moncrief [Colonel James Moncrief, a Royal Engineer assigned to St. Augustine] had waded into it. The former’s mistake was owing to a hazy day and therefore mistook marsh for water and the other’s [Moncrief’s mistake] was only a grass pond
He perhaps refers to Lake Washington, part of the St. Johns River system. The prevailing drought conditions in 1772 may have dried the eastern portion of this large fresh water lake enough to give it the appearance of “a grass pond” when Mulcaster rode through it. Today, Lake Washington is at the western border of Melbourne in Brevard County.
which I rode thro’ as I was going to the Southward. Running up the Indian River as I did I could see but little of it, the banks indeed are a true resemblance of its savage name, however in running the two tracts I just mentioned I came upon good back swamps and from appearance of those I’m inclined to think the front of them occasions the river to have a worse carracter [sic] than it really deserves, for as to its having been examined by any one is all idea. I have seen more of it than any one else and I look upon myself as very little acquainted with it indeed. The country anywhere that I have been is totally unknown.

“As to Mr. DeBrahm, his age rendered him incapable of the hardship for it requires the constitution of a horse to go through the business. A large schooner with conveniences to make it comfortable is useless. Boats of little draught of water is what is most wanted consequently to make just surveys and give the country a proper inspection a man must not think much of being exposed to all kinds of weather. Sun, wind, and rain he must be proof against and sleeping in an open boat, the sea, beach, or an oyster bank are circumstances he must teach himself to laugh at. DeBraham deserves rather to be pitied than blamed for as to himself it was impossible and his deputies, some wanted skill, some industry, for those who knew their business idled their time away at a heavy expence to him, and those who were ignorant could do no good if they were inclined and they had no character to lose, which give me leave to assure your Excellency that if a man has not at heart more than profit, the hardship will always render the undertaking of no effect. The expenses also are enormous, if I had not had several large tracts to survey I could not have afforded to have staid so long as I did, as upon settling my expenses on my return after an absence of three months, I have disbursed one hundred and fifty guineas and had (notwithstanding the greatest care of provisions) to live the last five weeks on the chance of powder and ball, no bread, rice, flower, biscuit, or any kind of bread, however thank God (tho’ as they tell me a little less thorn scarred as it is vulgarly called) I am in perfect health.“The 25th of April I reached Capt. Ross’s plantation, where I learn’t they had nothing but high winds and frosts since I left them, the former I had sometimes seen to the southward, but not the least appearance of frost. The weather in general being exceeding pleasant neither too hot or too cold and what was very remarkable, very few Musquetos, tho’ in the summer no doubt there is plenty, yet I believe not in any degree to equal the Indian River which was the only place I found them at all troublesome.

“Ross’s cane is coming on. It certainly could not have had a worse season to begin with. The ratoons are very healthy, the young plants I think backward but no wonder, yet they are green and look well. The frame of the mill is up and the main trial will be in the making as the cane certainly will not be fit to cut till the season for frost is sett in. If a moderate one he may certainly succeed, if like this last winter. I think it very hazardous, however he is resolved to try and the mill is getting on as fast as the people can work at it, from the little I have seen of it. I can perceive there is some difference between the expense of an indigo vat and a sugar mill, however if Your Excellency has a mind to erect one at Grant’s Villa
Governor Grant’s indigo plantation, known popularly as Grant’s Villa, was located six miles north of St. Augustine at the intersection of the Guana and North Rivers.
I’ll send you an estimate of the Expense, it will not be much. I suppose the first cost of your gang of Negroes (I mean the whole gang) may probably pay the expense? Flora at 8 pence [flora is a high quality grade of processed indigo] perhaps you may think will suit better, as I am no planter, I’ll not presume to differ in opinion.

.	.	.

[The concluding paragraphs of the lengthy letter were primarily gossipy reports of incidents and people in St. Augustine.]

I am with great Truth and Esteem
Your. Excellency’s very obliged and obed.
Servant
Fred. Geo. Mulcaster

P.S. The Padre [Reverend Forbes] has got the fever.

James Grant Papers