Denys Rolle and Rollestown
South of Deep Creek, the east shore of the St. Johns pushes west and forms a long promontory for several miles before the river narrows considerably to a distance of only one-half mile wide. At the narrows Denys Rolle established Rollestown on a high bank east of the river. In December 1765, a battoe carrying John Bartram and his son William Bartram stopped at the property of Rolle, a former Member of Parliament from Barnstaple. Bartram described the landing place as "a bluff point 17 foot high, more or less," with large oak trees adjacent to the bluff and stands of pine trees fifty yards back from the river. "This shell-Bluff is 300 yards more or less along the river's bank, gradually descending each way to a little swamp, round the head of which the pine-lands continue down the river a good way, and a little way up it; the bluff seems all soil and shells, but back near the Savannas is found some clay; there is a small Spanish entrenchment on the bluff about 20 paces square, and pieces of Indian pots; the river is very deep near the bluff, though there is a great barr opposite to the town, and a very rich extensive swamp." Bartram was surprised to find the "remains of [an] old Spanish entrenchment" that were "12 yards one way and 14 the other, about 5 foot high; on three sides being open to the river."
Federal Point to the left, east of the St. Johns River, and the land beyond which belonged to Denys Rolle between 1765 and 1784. Crescent Lake, which can be seen in the distance, was the southern boundary of Rolle's huge estate.
Rollestown, or Denys Rolle's residential complex, was located east of the St. Johns River at today's East Palatka, shown here on the far side of the bridge. The "great barr opposite the town" was the extension of swamp land which in this aerial photograph points at the site of Rollestown.
Rolle's huge estate bounded south on Dunns Creek and Dunns Lake. The latter is now named Crescent Lake. Rolle, with his customary lack of modesty, called it Lake Rolle.
Plat Map of the tracts of land granted to and purchased by Denys Rolle between 1765 and 1784. Total acreage of the land he owned at this location was 78,000 acres, bounded north by Deep Creek and south by Dunns Creek. Rolle also purchased tracts at other locations on the St. Johns River.
Rolles' gigantic property stretched along the east shore of the St. Johns River from Federal Point to Dunns Creek, and then extended east to marshes beyond Dunn's Lake. Rollestown, also known as Charlottia, was being built at the narrow neck of land near the landing (today East Palatka) to accommodate the indentured laborers Rolle brought with him from England. Bartram described the settlement as "half a mile long, with half a score of scattered houses in it, built of round loggs; the streets are laid out at right angles, one of them is 100 foot broad, the other 60; the land back is all pine and scrub-oaks; the bluff continues half a mile down the river, which is 7 fathom deep near the town, but towards the opposite shore there is a sand-bar, it is not above half a mile wide here, but soon widens above."
The eccentric Rolle was attempting to people a vast Florida settlement with white indentures from England. He persistently and repeatedly invested in his plantation and sent settlers and supplies up the St. Johns River, bringing more than two-hundred white indentured laborers in three separate crossings of the Atlantic. Most of the indentures absconded soon after reaching Charleston, Savannah, or St. Augustine, and were eventually replaced by enslaved Africans.
On more than one occasion Rolle's endeavors were ridiculed. From London, Dr. William Stork sent a satire to Governor Grant on June 8, 1766: "Mr. Rolles who came over full of grievances against Your Excellency [Governor Grant], but never had the courage to speak either to a Ministor or to the Board of Trade, goes back in a few weeks, & all his grievances with him, unheard & unnoticed. He brings with him a valuable colony of sixty people consisting of shoe blacks, cheminy sweepers, sink boys, tinkers and taylors, bunters, cinder wenches, whores and pickpockets. What a Joyful sight it will be for Your Excellency to see this brittiflo Senator arrive with such a valuable acquisition for your government. He carries also over with him presents for the Indians to the amount of fifty shillings. He has such a disadvantageous opinion of St. Augustine, that he won't bring his people to it, for fear of their morals being debauched."
Evidently Rolle felt his own and his wife's morals were immune to the debauchery he deplored in St. Augustine. He purchased a dwelling and lot in St. Augustine and resided there with his wife when they were in East Florida. The wife of Joseph Stout, plantation agent for grantee John Tucker, mentioned the friendship that developed in St. Augustine between herself and Mr. and Mrs. Rolle.
Rolle's expenditures in East Florida must have seemed miniscule when compared to his fortune in England. From an inheritance, he was collecting rental income in England in excess of £40,000 Sterling a year in the early 1760s, prior to his decision to invest in East Florida.
A bitter feud developed between Rolle and Governor James Grant that turned into an entertaining spectacle for the residents of St. Augustine. The governor recorded his version of the conflict in a series of letters to London and in a personal diary. Soon after his own arrival in East Florida, Grant wrote that he had been "plagued to death with Denys Rolle, Esq. for some time. He ruffed it out from England as he told me...lived upon his provisions and lay in the hold with the common seamen and his people." On arrival at Charleston, "his people" immediately "desert[ed]." In November 1764 Grant said Rolle was "starving on St. Johns River at a place called Mount Pleasant," his settlers having dwindled in number to one hunter and "a poor girl living there under an Old Sail under the name of a cousin, a neice, or a mistress according to different reports." When Rolle resided in St. Augustine his behavior at Grant's dinner table in St. Augustine so distressed the governor that he advised the wealthy Member of Parliament to dispense with personal entreaties and put his complaints in writing.
Grant confided to his friend Richard Oswald that "Mr. Rolle...is the most miserable wretch I ever saw. He starves himself, the few people he brought out have left him. . . . He will be a detriment to the Province by taking lands on the St. Johns River which could have been occupied by more useful inhabitants." In September 1769, Grant noted a vessel carrying "eighty useless and expensive settlers" had arrived for Rolle, but the eccentric proprietor was not aboard. Rolle had been left behind after disputes with the ship captain. Grant predicted that this third importation try would also fail and that Rolle would blame him, "though in fact I cannot have the most distant connection with his management of indentured servants, who I would not employ if they were delivered to me free of all expense from England."
Rolle, however, felt he made herculean efforts to move the colony forward until unfortunate circumstances, uncooperative government officials, especially Governor Grant, and lazy and evil employees led to the stagnation of his estate. He imported a herd of more than 1,000 cattle from Georgia, which thrived until, Rolle claimed, a dishonest overseer sold off the herd and pocketed the proceeds. That is not the way James Penman described the incident. Penman said the manager, William Collins, objected to Rolle's refusal to pay the bills for normal expenses that accrued from running the estate, and that he "immediately sold all the Negroes, the crop of corn and indigo, cattle, sheep, and horses. In a word all of his [Rolle's] effects in this country for cash." The sale, which raised less than £1000 Sterling, apparently cleared Rolle’s debts that Collins was being pressured to pay. Rolle was furious yet he ordered another large herd driven south from Georgia. Bad fortune continued to foil Rolle's efforts to raise cattle; this time the animals were killed by vagrants and refugees.
The Rolle estate at "the narrows" on the St. Johns River was unmanageably large, stretching for twenty-three miles along the St. Johns River from Federal Point to the north shore of Dunn's Creek. From the St. Johns River, Rolle's estate extended south and east for the entire length of Dunns Creek and Crescent Lake, both shores of Dead Lake and Bull Creek, and to the marshy origination point for Haw Creek. The towns of East Palatka, Hastings, Spuds, and San Mateo, and the fields of potatoes, cabbages, and winter vegetables that surround them, now occupy portions of a three-county conglomerate once owned by Denys Rolle.
In addition to his own grants totaling 23,000 acres, Rolle acquired 20,000 acres from William Elliot, 20,000 more from John Grayhurst, 10,000 from William Penrice, and 3,000 from James Cusack--a total of 76,000 acres all on the east side of the St. Johns River. The "Plan of the Settlement" Rolle submitted to the East Florida Claims Commission suggests that he acquired approximately 1,500 acres on the west side of the river from Joseph Gray.
Plat Map of Dennys Rolle
Despite his early losses in East Florida, Rolle returned in 1779 with 150 enslaved Africans and new overseers determined to resuscitate operations at Charlottia. He had finally recognized that his repeated experiments with white indentures had failed and instead brought Africans with him on this return to Rollestown. His new enslaved laborers refurbished the "mansion house" at Rollestown and built their own dwellings around the sides of a ten-acre square fronting on the main dwelling.
In all, Rolle purchased more than 200 enslaved Africans. When his total expenses related to land acquisition, construction, agricultural tools and farm animals, and the failed experiments with white indentured laborers are considered, it is clear that his personal investment in East Florida was considerable. When compared to the size of his land holdings, however, his investments were minimal. With an estate of such incredible dimensions, most of its acreage never having suffered an axe or hoe before Rolle acquired it, a force of 1,000 workers would have been insufficient. Consequently, only a tiny percentage of Rolle's property around Charlottia was developed, fewer than 600 acres.
Despite his setbacks and foolish investments, Rolle continued to purchase East Florida land until its demise as a British colony. With stubborn determination, he remained optimistic about the colony's future. In 1780, he purchased Jericho Plantation near the Cowford, along with the enslaved Africans who labored there. Rolle was still acquiring land near the mouth of the St. Johns River in 1783. In 1784, Rolle joined the general exodus, ordering the evacuation of his enslaved workers to a 2,000-acre estate on Great Exuma in the Bahama Islands. Selections from his claim for compensation to the East Florida Claims Commission follow.
General conclusions on repeated experience of a gentleman planter of great judgement. (T77/15/13 the Memorial of Denys Rolle, Folios 210-3. Turpentine. East Florida 1780.)
"Each Negroe tends 2400 or 2500 trees. They box the trees in December. Large Trees have two boxes. They gouge or scar the trees with channels to conduct the sap or turpentine to the boxes in 10 days after boxing them. And from time to time chipping the bark as little at a time as possible to make them run gradually more. The trees have their boxes fixed in March and so on every 5 weeks till the end of Autumn. Each Negroe produces from the above number of trees 50 casks of turpentine of 32 gallons each. Each gallon weighing 9½ pounds each.
"If one Negro performs the whole work on fresh trees he should begin boxing them in November as it would take 7 weeks to box so many. I mention fresh as the same trees produce a 2d & 3d the two following years and sometimes a fourth portion but diminishing in quantity each year. The tree then dies but many types of them remain unperished especially the (knotts?) & with those of a long course of years back wherein the resinous substance is still retained in considerable quantity is applicable to the manufacture of Tarr and Pitch.
"The other necessary person for the Turpentine Tarr & Pitch crops to bring it to market is a cooper. He can make and set up...[not legible] in a day. There should be two iron hoops to each cask, these were afforded ready made by the above gentleman at 6/6 a cask. His cooper at £70 a year with plantation provisions finding himself Rum. might make them at less value.
"The clothing of Negroes have been engaged for at a guinea per annum to which must be added once in 3 years a blanket at near a crown or 1/8 annually. But as I chuse to buy the materials for cloathing, blankets & some extra articles to make them pleased & happy and medicines (in Carolina a physical attendant is at 3sh per head) [line not legible].
"Each tree in 5 weeks runs the box full more than 3/4 of a pint. This seems very far within probability especially in the average of dimensions of the trees as the larger have 2 boxes. 1 Negro from each tree---3 [&] 1/4 quarter of a pint weighing 14 ounces. 20/21. In each hour 10 trees. Tag only 8 hours 8 in a day 80 [trees]
"Neat Weight 304 of each cask, with 50 casks, equals 15200. By tracing it back from the general position the practicability by labour of an individual appears as well as the reasonable quantity in the abstract.
"The above gentleman computed 2 barrels were made in each acre. Note – The residue of the year from the last of October by the time of renewal of work for the next year's crop may afford some produce by labor in the lumber trade or clearing of land.
Turpentine sold in 1780 in Florida on the spot for 36 shillings per barrel. In 1781 also I sold 29 barrels at that price.
"Turpentine in 1781 sold in England for 38sh. Per hund: that is at 250 w’t (24lb lost weight) 4.15.0 per cask. But after all charges freight commission insurance etc. even at 34/9 per hund. it has been found to have added 15 sh per cask to the 36, that is more profit in each cask. [times] 50 [casks] 37.10.0 more clear profit in each cask 106.5.0
"It was said above 2 barrels per acre consequently as in other side it was 4:5:0 per acre. On a merchants average on 200 casks of turpentine 2.0.22 draft & tonnage, deduct 50 casks: 2.0.11 = 105.1.8 at 34/8 18210/6
The General State of the Settlements of Plantations of Denys Rolle in East Florida 1783
"The possessions of Denys Rolle consist of two distinct plantations, a small island that has been partly had by him, one more detached piece of 1000 acres and another smaller piece untouched. In the whole about 80,000 acres being of grants to D.Rolle from the Crown and many others purchased by him. These tracts appear by the office plans to consist of about [in acres]
"The Higher Plantation on St. Johns River consists of a Tract of Land nearly 23 miles in length and 8 miles in Breadth almost surrounded with 36 miles of water navigation and an impassable swamp wherein there is a secure range and that esteemd of the finest feed for cattle in the inhabited part of the province in which it was supposed D. Rolle had in 1769 and 1770 above 1000 head till a villanous agent sold them at vendue to himself and was protected in his villany by the chief justice, but now would have produced a considerable annual income from above 24 per head had not the Indigent refugees in their starving condition made free with forty or more of them. In those years there was also a flock of sheep and goats which thrived greatly and exhibited a profit from that land which has the Epithet of barren or pine barren fastened on it. The mutton of them eat at Augustine was greatly esteemd by the Bon Vivant on the sale. There was placed a few sheep again in 1780.
"The Buildings at One Plantation are valued at 300 and were at the time supposed worth much more. Of Plantations stores tools etc., an immense quantity unvalued boats, draft nett fishing tackle, etc. Cattle from what is above said uncertain, also hoggs sheep poultry.
"The state of the Negroes in good order and health. Total number is 138, among whom are 96 working Negroes. Nineteen were tradesmen valued at £100 Sterlng each. Included in the tradesmen were 1 Tar Burner; 1 Driver; 1 Carpenter; 1 Ast Carptr; 4 Coopers; 8 Sawyers; 1 Squarer; 2 Carters.
"Seventy-seven were categorized as field laborers, including 17 male turpentine workers; 32 male field workers; 17 female field workers; 1 Gardiner, possibly a male. Among the female field workers, one was also a midwife. Thirty-two of the enslaved were children of various ages: 17 Boys of 'Rising Generation,' and 15 Girls of 'Rising Generation.' Ten of the slaves worked in the kitchen, five males and five females, all of whom were counted as 'Past Labour.' The Tradesmen and some of advanced value by instruction therefore may be valued on an average:
"Tho the accumulating so great a quantity of land might appear needless in respect of land occupied in tillage yet it not only gives the owner power of chusing for that purpose particularly as his leisure in increase of hands permits him to enlarge yet turpentine trade must require an extent of ground to make any considerable quantity but a large range is absolutely necessary for the run of cattle and Planters in Georgia and Carolina are obliged to retire further back as plantations increase unless they have large grants. Must observe the common produce annually sufficient to have served half the garrison in St. Augustine in 1769 & 1770 if not embezzled–would have proved equal benefit to the garrison as to the proprietor. The value of uncleared swamp land is 10 s[hilling] per acre and of uncultivated pine land 1 sh per acre (as sent out under the seal of the province). The value of DR’s [Denys Rolle’s] was not sent out as there had been till lately hopes of remaining planter in the province. Some advices of DR’s agents add that of £5? per acre for rice land and 3 for corn and orange grove cleared. The rice land is well known to produce £4 an acre in the clean and unbroken rice for market besides the small rice as good for plantation and home use. The shed rice fatting the Hoggs & Fowls, the second crop springing from the roots the same year fatting the cattle in the cattle season.
"The pine land produces naval stores as turpentine tarr & etc. One Negroe tends 2500 trees producing 60 barrels the clear profit appears from the sale at the present low price of 16 shillings per hundred all expenses whatsoever deducted. £1-1s-7p Str per barrel, two barrels being produced on an acre. 2-3-3 is the first years income, the second being less & the third less again. 2-16-9 say is the 2 next years income. In all 5 for the 3 years. Tar is also made from the remaining part of the exhausted trees–can’t be ascertained in value but suppose w’d add only 1-0-0. Then 6 pounds income of 4 years. If the land is assumed destitute of produce–infertile–if had yet a permanent interest accrues to the owners of the 6£ principal for ever. But low pine lands at the Indian Store higher up the river has produced Indian corn of 14 in height & a good crop.
"The Negroe coopers are said to be compleatly taught under a white man and therefore not only sufficiently able for providing for the turpentine & tarr manufactory but are capable of executing more stores for sale to others or export to the West Indies–and the sawyers can produce a vast quantity of lumber for like sale & export. Colonel Malovin Of Georgia, [whose] chief income arose from sawing by hand.
"The list of products will then appear thus:
"Hides from game is an article of produce. This is vast grape country, wine certainly might be produced. The Pine Land tho it has the epithet of barren affixed to is hardest put to deserve it by the produce in 3 and 4 years to produce 5 guineas per acre from turpentine. A fund producing as many shillings invest for ever, therefore improperly valued at only 1 sh by the provincial valuators. I refer to the gentlemen present for their description of the produce of such land. By raising lumber from a strong instance of which they gave to Col. Marvin near Savannah [who] I think employed 10 pair of sawyers cutting on that business many years.
"But after the timber is by either mode destroyed it is not a barren spot. In 1765 D. Rolle raised some cotton of which this is a sample: from a low species of plant about the size of a Rose Bush spreading 3 feet either way. Being hand picked it appeared to prove 3 eighths in clean cotton. At 6 feet distance an acre takes 1089 plants. Suppose we deduct 289 failed, then remains 800. It flowered & ripened for 4 months & could not produce less half a pound per plant. Mr. Long relates in Jamaica a pound a plant but by weighing the podds & comparing the produce I found it nearly the half pound. On an average 400 gross then produced 150 neat weight clean fit for market which at 8p a pound only is 5 per acre. The sort appears finer than the present Bahama species which sells for 1.0 & new at 15 pence. This plant is known to be the produce of the poorest soil, the burning lands of Arabia? where it is the only plant to be seen. It thrived within the pine land of Florida; for 5 years I had some plants still living in. The fine mutton eat in 1771 in Augustine was the produce of these pine lands & suppose a thousand head of cattle ranged partly in them as well as the savannah lands. Now at the cession I had purchased just before of a Mr. Godfrey a large breed at 7-10-0 per head and broke to plough supposed 800 weight. The pine lands tho naturally bear a tender grass if ploughed produce the coop grass a rich pasture.
The annual Produce of Denys Rolle’s Higher Plantation or Vill Rolle.
N.B. Indian corn by the lowest calculation produces 10 bushels an acre, but 30 bushels is reckoned a common crop in Georgia, which at 5s a bushel (11.0 Corn was sold at the lower plantation at 2 Dollars or 9/6 per bushel) is 2.10.0. The interest of the clear income say £600 at 5 percent is 30, which is 1 per acre for the 600 acres for ever.
"There is also rice sown during the intervals which usually produces as many bushels but say only 6 at 5/--1.1.0 = 4.0.0. Mr. Rolle had a tolerable crop of rice without dams & had seen a great crop in the province in Inland Swamps. His Rice Dam was but lately compleated before the cession, but the Sir James Wright, Governor of Georgia, cleared £4 to £5 an acre, 30 Negroes under one overseer managing 100 acres as he informed Mr. Rolle.
"W. Pengree, the most judicious manager of Turpentine in the province gives the following Estimate and Mr. Rolle had a considerable quantity made on each of his plantations by his direction. One hand tends 2500 trees which make the 1st year 60 barrels, 2 to an acre, so 30 acres about 93&1/3 (23?) trees to an acre at 1.1.7½ per bushel clear. Say 1 hand tends 2400 trees on 30 acres and produces 50 barrels at 1 or (7)1.0 is 52.10.6 clear in the 1st year; 35. 0.0 in the 2nd year, and 17.10.0 in the 3rd year. This amounts to £105.0.0 or £35 a Hand per year....[remainder not legible].
"Six weeks free from Turpentine work can raise provisions on already cleared land in their work in sawing, shingling, & lumber trade will more than answer for provisions, in which time for 3 coopers will clear their interest & expence.
"Now is no value yet put for the tar and pitch the old knotts & residue of the trees make after the three years turpentine hath killed the tree & also the feed from sheep and range for cattle, some also will be found fit for corn & pease, but the above quantity of 42000 acres would feed 20 Negroes for six years in affording turpentine only. Before the sale in 1770 sheep were fed on these lands whose mutton was much esteemed in Augustine.
"Poultry and Hoggs, which are fed on the waste corn, as well as orange juice which was made in large quantity and sold on the spot for two shillings a gallon produce a considerable income as well as Myrtle Wax, Bees Wax, Hides, even Peaches & China Oranges as been have produced by small planters, a source of pounds.
"Planting cotton was not pursued by the Memorialist’s Agents but he had the first year he set down in Florida some of as fine cotton as the Brazils afford. The pine lands after being despoild of Trees will nourish it -- as the barren lands of Arabia when no other plant or grass produces it in abundance. It flowered & ripend for 4 months in Florida and a computation was made of 400 gross weight per acre...."
[Below are summary generalizations]
At the Upper Plantation (Vill Rolle), Rolle claims a total of 75,635 uncultivated acres. Break down is Rice = 23735 acres valued at 11860; Corn = 4175 valued at 1562.10.0; Pasture = 6100 valued at 1525 (for 34010 acres valued at 14947.10.0); and Turpentine or Pine Land = 41625 valued at 2081.5.0. Total value of 17025.15.0.
The provincial evaluators mixed the rice, corn and pasture together, totaled the acreage at 28022 and valued it at 7812.15.0; then evaluated 47635 acres of turpentine or pine land at 2382.7.6 or £4843 less than the figure Rolle arrived at. The difference apparently the result of provincial evaluators declaring about 6000 of the acres turpentine or pine land rather than rice, corn or pasture as Rolle had labeled them.
On the cultivated land, both sides agreed on acreage (200 rice; 250 corn), but Rolle estimated £5 per acre for rice and £3 for corn, whereas provincials said £3 for rice and 30 shillings for corn. Difference of £775.
Total of the Higher Plantation. For Rolle = 76085 acres valued at £18778.15.0; for Provincials = 76085 acres valued at £13170.2.6.
At the Lower Plantation (Chichester) the cultivated acreage is: Rice 25 acres valued at 125; Corn 245 valued at 735; Turpentine Pines, with sap running: 1400 acres valued at £35 (total of 1670 acres valued at 895). Uncleared land included 200 acres considered potential corn land, valued at 7/7 or 75; Unexamined land amounted to 462 acres at 1/0/0, valued at 23.2.0; Unexamined on West Side of the River totaled 1000 acres valued at 1/0/0 or 50.
At Perry’s (Ferry’s?) Separate lot higher up the River, Rolle lists Rice at 50 acres valued at 10/ or 25; Corn at 100 valued at 37.10.0; and Pine 50 valued at 2.10.0. Total acreage at Chichester was 3532 valued at £1108.2.0.
Provincial evaluators subtracted 10 acres from pine land and called it garden valued at 5.0.0. Total value was given at £573.15.0, or less than Rolle’s figure by £543. The estimates of value for the separate Perry or Ferry lot was £65 by Rolle and £70 by province.
Summary: Denys Rolle’s estimates and Province figures.
T77/4/8 and T77/15/13 the Memorial of Denys Rolle. Robert Legg, A Pioneer in Xanadu: Denys Rolle: 1725-1797 (London: The Furrow Press, 1997), 34. Bernard Bailyn, "Failure in Xanadu," Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986), 447-51. Grant to William Knox, Nov. 15, 1764; Grant to Pownal, Nov. 21, 1764, Dec. 23, 1767, Sept. 9, 1769; James Penman to Grant, August 11, 1771; Dr. William Stork to Grant, June 8, 1766, all in the James Grant Papers.