Little Florence Cove: William Bartram's Farm

In 1766, William Bartram attempted to develop a farm at a 500-acre tract located at Little Florence Cove. William, better equipped as a nature artist than as a planter, intended to clear land and plant rice with the help of enslaved Africans purchased in Charleston by his father, John Bartram, the Quaker naturalist from Pennsylvania. John and William had just finished exploring the St. Johns River from near its source to the place where it joined the Atlantic Ocean. Unusually detailed correspondence documents that experience.

John was deeply disappointed with his son's decision. He wrote from Charleston on April 15, 1766: "all thy friends here lament thy resolute choice to live at St johns & leave off drawing or writeing. Thay say ye negros will run away or murder thee. Thay all seem to have A miserable opinion of negroes & recons ye new ye best as not yet haveing learnt ye mischievous practices of ye negroes born in ye countrey & town which the people generaly represents as if thay was all either murderers runaways or robers or theeves...[And yet] Mr. Lambol...declares thay are ye greatest curse that ever came to america yet owns that there is no raiseing rice without them..."

Despite these reservations, John "shiped on board ye [ship] East florida, Captain Bachop, 6 likely negroes called Jack A lusty man A new negro 5 foot 8 inches high & 1/4; Siby his wife new 5 foot one inch 3/4: Jacob 5 foot high & Sam 4 foot 7 inches 1/2 allso flora A lusty woman not so black as many A cromantee which her master & mistris solemnly declares to be incorupted with ye vices of ye town being never sufered to go out at night or any negroes to come to her but ye family she has A general good character & Bachus her son is A prety boy 3 or 5 years ould."

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The view is downriver showing the beginning of Shands Bridge on the eastern shore of the St. Johns, and Smith Point, Little Florence Cove, Florence Cove, Trout Creek, Palmo Cove and Six-Mile Creek. For a few months in 1766 William Bartram attempted to operate a rice farm on 500 acres at Smith Point and Little Florence Cove.

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This aerial image of Shands Bridge, Smith Point and Little Florence Cove on the east of the St. Johns River in St. Johns County. The image clearly shows the site of the 500-acre tract granted to William Bartram in 1766. The image should be compared with the plat map immediately below that was copied from records in the National Archive, Kew, England .



A map of Bartram's land is preserved in the records of the East Florida Claims Commission and archived in the Public Record Office of Great Britain. The map locates the property at what is today known as Smith Point, just south of the Shands Bridge, and depicts the flow of water currents around the point and into the cove at a depth of only two and three feet at the northern shore of the cove. William built his wharf and dwellings at the north end of the cove, on the protected inner-shore, away from the river breezes and close to the swamps and mosquitoes.

Henry Laurens stopped to visit with William in August 1766. Alarmed by the conditions he found, Laurens wrote immediately to John Bartram. "His situation on the River is the least agreeable of all the places that I have seen, on a low sheet of sandy pine barren verging on the swamp, which before his door is very narrow, in a bite or Cove of the River, so shoal and covered with umbrelloes that the common current is lost and the Water almost stagnated, exceedingly foul, and absolutely stank when stirred up by our Oars, on both days of my landing there, though, at the same times, the river was said to be rather high, and the stream running down strong, beyond that Cove. This, I should think, must make the place always unhealthy, as well as troubelsome to come at by Water carriage, especially in dry seasons. The swamp & adjoining Marsh which I walked into, will, without doubt, produce good Rice, when properly cleared & cultivated: but both seem to be narrow, and will require more strength to put them in tolerable order, than Mr. Bartram is at present possessed of, to make any progress above daily bread, and that of a coarse kind, too."

Laurens predicted that rice could be grown in the swamp and that cypress trees on the site could be turned into shingles and sold for ready cash. He judged the pine to be of inferior quality and noted that "pease, beans, corn and yams" had been planted "in the sand on the swamp-edge." Some trees had been cut down, but Laurens judged that "sort of work goes on very heavily, for want of strong hands," as only two of the six workers "could handle an axe tolerably and one of those two had been exceedingly insolent."

Laurens called Billy's house a "hovel...extremely confined, and not proof against the weather. He had not proper assistance to make a better, and from its situation it is very hot, the only disagreeably hot place that I found in East Florida." Billy was suffering from the fever when Laurens was first at his abode, "and looked very poorly the second visit." His food larder was so low as to "penury," prompting Laurens "to send him a little rum, wine, sugar, tea, cheese, biscuit, and other articles..."

Then followed a dismal assessment of the character and circumstances of young William Bartram. "Possibly, sir, your Son, though a worthy, ingenious man, may not have resolution, or not that sort of resolution, that is necesary to encounter the difficulties incident to, and unavoidable in his present state of life. You and I, probably, could surmount all those hardships without much chagrin. I verily believe that I could. But, at the same time, I protest that I should think it less grievous to disinherit my own Son, and turn him into the wide world, if he was of a tender and delicate frame of body and intellects, as yours seems to be, than to restrict him, in my favour, just in the state that your son is reduced to....In fact, according to my ideas, no colouring can do justice to the forlorn state of poor Billy Bartram. A gentle mild Young Man, no human inhabitant within nine miles of him, the nearest by water, no boat to come at them, and those only common soldiers seated upon a beggarly spot of land, scant of the bare necessaries, and totally void of all the comforts of life, except an inimitable degree of patience, for which he deserves a thousand times better fate, an unpleasant unhealthy situation; six negroes, rather plagues than aids to him, of whom one so insolent as to threaten his life, one a useless expence, one a helpless child in arms, one a pregnant woman without prospect of any female help, distant 30 long Miles from the metropolis, no money to pay the expence of a journey there upon the most common occasions, over a road always bad and in wet weather wholly impassable, to which might be enumerated a great many smaller, and perhaps some imaginary evils, the natural offspring of so many substantial ones; these, I say, are discouragements enough to break the spirits of any modest young man; and more than any man should be exposed to, without his own free acceptance, unless his crimes had been so great as to merit a state of exile."

At some point in late 1766 William Bartram abandoned his St. Johns River settlement. The fate of the enslaved Africans who had shared the habitation on the St. Johns River is unknown. The land reverted to the Crown and was reassigned to another planter.

Plat Map of Little Florence Cove

Bibliographic Information

A Note On Sources

The map depicting William's 500-acre tract is in T77/25, folio 944. A more lengthy treatment is in Daniel L. Schafer, "'the forlorn state of poor Billy Bartram': Locating the St. Johns River Plantation of William Bartram," El Escribano: The St. Augustine Journal of History (Vol. 32; 1995), 1-11.