From today's Beecher Point (John Bartram's "Mount Hope"), to Lake George, the land east of the St. Johns was granted to British absentees who pooled their land under the control of the Earl of Egmont. Three grants totalling twenty-five thousand acres went to James Fortrey, Richard Brett, and James Morrison; these tracts were grouped together by Egmont and treated as a single estate. A grant of four thousand acres at Mount Royal given to Martin Jollie, a former merchant and plantation agent in the West Indies, was later included in this grouping. The tracts were occasionally referred to by the individual grantee's name, the Brett grant, for example, but the term Mount Royal generally applied to all the tracts.
This upriver view of the St. Johns River from the Stephens Point area shows Beecher Point, Little Lake George, Orange and Buzzards Points, and around the bend, Mount Royal. From the mount the St. Johns River appeared to Governor James Grant to be a majestic highway leading straight to Lake George.
Plat Map for James Morrison 5000 Acres
The individual tracts were granted to James Fortrey, 10,000 acres; Richard Brett, 10,000 acres; Martin Jollie, 4,000; and James Morrison, 5,000 acres. Egmont asked for an additional acreeage (perhaps 10,000) upriver from Morrison and extending to the northern edge of Lake George. He also pressured Governor Grant to give him the island just inside the lake and west of Drayton's Island where his overseers could raise hogs to feed his workers. The governor at first said no, saying that the land had already been promised to Lord Lillington. It may well be, however, that the land was given to Egmont, since Luke Lillington died before his grant papers for the tract were finalized. A hint may come from the fact that the island is still labeled Hog Island on some maps.
Development of these estates was initiated by previous occupants, people John Bartram called the "former Florida Indians," who left "50 acres of cleared old fields, fine oranges in the woods, and a fine spring issuing out above a mile from the river, making a stream big enough to turn a mill, on the back of which the pine-lands begin...." Bartram visited Mount Royal twice during his exploration of the St. Johns River, and wrote vivid eye-witness observations of the site before Europeans and their Arican slaves changed its appearance forever. Bartram was as impressed with the forests and the agricultural potential of the soil at Mount Royal as he had been at Johnson's Bluff and Mount Hope. He wrote in his diary of walking "over a dry kind of rich swamp full of shells mixed with black tenacious mud, under which is a white tenacious clay or marl, and in about 400 yards came to rising ground, pretty rich, and good corn-land, then to palmetto yet blackish soil, then to whitish, in which grew pines, then savannahs and ponds...and bay swamps...[which] are supposed to be the best rice-grounds, as neither the dry weather nor wet can hurt them so much as where there is no water in dry times, and in wet there is too much, for this is rarely overflowed but in spring-tides...."
Bartram visited Mount Royal again on January 25, 1766. This time he focused his attention on "an Indian tumulus, which was about 100 yards in diameter, nearly round, and near 20 foot high, found some bones scattered...it must be very ancient, as live-oaks are growing upon it three foot in diameter; what a prodigious multitude of Indians must have laboured to raise it...It is surprizing where they brought the sand from, and how, as they had nothing but baskets or bowls to carry it in; there seems to be a little hollow near the adjacent level on one side, though not likely to raise such a tumulus the 50th part of what it is, but directly north from the tumulus is a fine straight avenue about 60 yards broad, all the surface of which has been taken off, and thrown on each side, which makes a bank of about a rood wide and a foot high...The avenue is as level as a floor from bank to bank, and continues so for about three quarters of a mile to a pond of about 100 yards broad and 150 long N. and S...its banks 4 foot perpendicular, gradually sloping every way to the water...do not imagine it deep, as the grass grows all over it; by its regularity it seems to be artificial; if so, perhaps the sand was carried from hence to raise the tumulus, as the one directly faces the other at each end of the avenue...."
It was in what Bartram called "rising high ground" that Egmont's workers focused their initial efforts to clear forests and plant provisions. In 1768, Egmont's agent, Martin Jollie, brought white indentured laborers from Scotland and England and enslaved men from Africa to begin clearing and planting. Egmont's plan was to establish at Mount Royal "neighborly improvements and a sense of acquaintance" that would attract other white settlers and investors.
Governor Grant visited the site with Jollie in December 1767 and called it "fine indeed. I thought it was impossible to find such a place in a flat country, [having] a command of the Great and Little Lakes [Lake George and Little Lake George today] and many different views of one of the finest Rivers in the World. I was so pleased with the place that I stayed two days there, we cut down a number of trees to open up the prospect from the Mount, upon which there may be a noble house built, but we were as careful of the Oaks as Your Lordship could have been in one of your parks. One of them near the bank of the River is so fine & so large that I insisted with Mr. Jollie not to touch it, though it obstructed the view of the Great Lake, till he saw what effect it had after the house was built.
"The Mount is certainly the work of former inhabitants, but it must have been raised a hundred years ago, for there are Oak Trees upon it of that age."
Grant continued to visit Mount Royal to observe the white laborers and enslaved Africans as they cleared the forests and prepared provisions and indigo fields and erected buildings. He was impressed at first by the skill and ambition of the white workers but observed how quickly they tired and became ill in the Florida heat, and there was another problem the Governor noted. Although the indented workers were the best "I have seen come from England, but tho' they had wages & were well fed, they were tired of the name of servant, & in fact have been of little or no use, as thay are kept at an amazing Expence. I have advised Mr. Jollie to get rid of them as soon as he can, and to carry on his works in future by Negroe artificers or by contract, and in that way the very people he turns away may become industrious, as their idleness will chiefly affect themselves.
"In a late conversation which I had with Mr. Jollie, I found he has not above twenty working hands, that won't do at all my Lord. The produce raised by so small a number of slaves can never defray a fourth of the Expense...and I have told him that if Houses are to be built, surveyors, artificers, & overseers employed according to my idea of the projected plan, there must be a great deal of money sunk every year, if he does not get at least two hundred working Negroes to raise something to go to market from the several plantations which are to be carried under his Inspection."
Grant's basic advice to Egmont was the same given to all the absentee owners he wanted to move from prospective planters but probable speculators, to active planters who invested generously in their East Florida estates. To prosper, "Settlements in this warm climate must be formed by Negroes, our indented white people can hardly be prevailed upon to work for their own subsistence," much less the interest of an owner. Only after plantations were established could white farmers be utilized profitably, "but such a plan is not to be thought of till this new World has in some means been created....This country can only be brought to that rich and plentiful state by the labor of slaves."
Egmont followed that advice. By September 1768, ten whites and thirty-three black men had been put to work at Mount Royal at Egmont's expense, and forty more had been supplied by Egmont's partners. Expenditures for the white workers had been excessive, Egmont noticed, prompting him to "dismiss my white artificers who are very expensive and I find but little useful," and to replace them with "Negro Carpenters and Bricklayers at a less expense than £40 [Sterling] per head...which would make the remedy worse than the disease. In the meantime, lazy as they [the white indentures] are, they cannot but serve as able masters to my young Negroes." In March 1769 Egmont arranged to send a small vessel directly to the Coast of Africa to purchase fifty slaves.
The work at Mount Royal was arduous and time consuming. Forests had to be cleared, roots of tree dug up and burned, and dug up, and swamps drained and dammed, but a crop of indigo was ready for harvest in September 1770. By that time, however, Egmont had become so alarmed by the mounting expenses and limited returns, so perturbed by the lack of correspondence from his agents, that he dismissed Jollie and ordered his next agent, Francis Levett, to abandon Mount Royal and begin a new plantation on Amelia Island. Governor Grant, however, recognized that abandonment of the estate would be foolish. He countermanded Egmont's order and kept the slaves at Mount Royal at least until the crop was harvested.
Late in 1770 Egmont died. After reviewing Egmont's business affairs in East Florida, Lady Egmont and the executors of Egmont's estate decided to continue at Mount Royal, but to transfer some of the slaves to Amelia Island. Until the end of the British years in East Florida, a scaled-back presence at Mount Royal would be the extent of involvement by the Egmont estate.
After viewing Mount Royal with his father in 1765 and 1766, William Bartram returned in 1774 during a journey that retraced the route that he and his father had followed. At Mount Royal he stopped at the dwelling of a man he identified as “Kean,” a former “Indian trader.” From his earlier visit Bartram remembered the "most enchanting prospect of the great Lake George, through a grand avenue...[of a] narrow reach of the river, which widens gradually for about two miles, towards its entrance into the lake....” There had been “no settlements of white people," in 1766, "all appeared wild and savage; yet in that uncultivated state, it possessed an almost inexpressible air of grandeur, which was now  entirely changed.” The extensive sites of the Indian “old fields,” orange groves, palm, and live oaks had vanished. The “Noble Indian highway,” and the “oblong artificial lake...on the edge of an extensive green level savanna” which William remembered as possessing “an almost inexpressible air of grandeur,” could not be found. “All has been cleared away and planted with Indigo, Corn and Cotton, but since deserted: there was now scarcely five acres of ground under fence. It appeared like a desart, to a great extent, and terminated, on the land side, by frightful thickets, and an open Pine forest.”
Fortunately, “the proprietor had...preserved the mount, and this little adjoining grove inviolate. The prospect from this station is so happily situated by nature, as to comprise at one view, the whole of the sublime and pleasing.”
Egmont to Grant, January 5, 1767; February 10, 25, April 17, June 1 and 16, September 1, 1768; April 19, May 4 and 29, September 11, October 27, 1769; May 11, 1770. Grant to Egmont, June 16, 1764; December 23, 1767; February 9, September 11, October 27, 1769; July 18, 1770, all JGP. Henry Drummond to James Grant, March 7, 1771, The Egmont Papers, 47054A Additional Manuscripts, British Library. John Bartram, "Diary of a Journey," 38, 45; William Bartram, Travels, 64-65.