Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Fourth Florida Naturalist

With its exotic flora and fauna (I was in college before I figured out which one was which) Florida has always been a destination for naturalists. There are at least four Florida naturalists worth knowing.

Probably everybody knows the name William Bartram, because he is memorialized in a sign by the marina at the bottom of Center Street. Less well known is the fact that the founder of the Sierra Club and savior of Yosemite, John Muir, came through here in 1866 on a walk from Louisville to Cedar Key.

A few of you may know that Bartram was in fact a father and son act, and both traveled in Florida in the 1700s when the Seminoles and Creeks still held sway.

In modern times, Florida’s own Archie Carr fought to preserve the unique Florida landscape with some victories and lots of defeats.

That’s three famous naturalists, so who is the fourth?

I bet you have never heard of Mark Catesby, in many ways the most interesting of the lot? No?

Let me remedy that

Catesby was born toward the end of the 1600s into a modest family in England. He was fascinated from youth by the natural world and heard stories about the Americas from relatives in The Carolinas. In 1712 he sailed off to visit them and stayed seven years. (And we think guests stink like fish after three days.) He collected specimens of every plant and animal he could find, and traveled within the limits of his budget. After returning to England he caught the eye of a number of rich patrons. On their nickel he returned to Charleston and this time stayed only four years. During this time, he was teaching himself to paint. The results you will be able to see shortly

His patronage ended upon his return to England and he began working as a gardener, quite a logical choice of profession. For the next eighteen years he devoted himself to the preparation his two volume Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. That’s right! Eighteen years.

William Bartram (the one on the Marina sign) was inspired by the work of Catesby, and eventually headed to Florida to find the marvels that Catesby had depicted. The resident Lower Creeks dubbed Bartram Pus Puggy, which means Flower Hunter, probably not intended to be a flattering name.

Now, the really good news.

The University of Virginia has put on line a really good E version of Catesby’s book, together with some biographical material. Click on the text and out pops the illustration. Its at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma02/amacker/etext/pre.htm

And that ends the blog for today because after you find Catesby’s pictures, you will have no interest in my insipid prose.


The Washington Post is running a contest and I entered

Dick Cheney is now working on his memoirs, and the contest is to find the best opening paragraph that he might write. My entry follows

I will let you know if I win.

On 9/11, within minutes after Moslem terrorists began their cowardly assault on the people of the United States, I assumed overall command of the military and security forces of The United States, and began to meet the attack, and to prepare a devastating and merciless counter attack upon their lair. I had no doubt that God had put me in this place at this time to save his country. President Bush, I knew, would have to grow, with my guidance, into a war time president, and until that happened, the responsibility of saving this country I love was mine alone. From this time forward, our task would be not merely total victory over our enemies, but their annihilation, with the help of God. My entire life to that date had prepared me for this moment, and I was eager for the fray.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Radioactive Amelia Island?

Last year, I read Ted Sorensen’s newly published memoirs, which includes a detailed account from his perspective of the Cuban Missile crisis. It’s a well written tale, but not one apparently people want to keep in their libraries, since you can get a used copy at www.amazon.com for $1.75. (I love Amazon.com)

A couple of days ago, I listened to pod cast of a recent lecture by Sergei Khrushchev, the son of old Nikita, in which he talked about the Cuban crisis from the Russian standpoint and from the perspective of one who was in the room with his father throughout.


Sergei speaks good English and is an astute observer, as well a pretty funny guy. The point he made which got my attention was that Russians and Americans just think differently, because their cultures and experiences are so radically different. Because of this, both sides made serious mistakes in the Cuban Missile Crisis that almost got us all killed.

The Russians simply did not think putting missiles in Cuba was any big deal. Russians have for millenniums had “enemies at the gates”, Mongols, Tartars, Germans, Poles, Swedes, French, and dozens more. Russians have learned to live surrounded by enemies, and in1962 they were, by their way of thinking, surrounded again by America and American allies. No big deal.

The Russians, said Sergei, in 1962 were looking to be recognized as equal with the Americans, and thought this might be a way to move in that direction. Khrushchev thought there would be a “crisis’ like Berlin, or any of the other crisis since World War II, and then the US and Russia would get back to some serious negotiations. In the end, that is what Russia got from the crisis, recognition as an equal, although no one really saw that at the time.

The Russian didn’t see putting nuclear armed missiles in Cuba as disturbing the balance of power at all. At the time, Russia had maybe 25 missiles capable of reaching the US on Russian soil. The US had thousands and thousands of missiles and other delivery systems pointed at Russia. How could a few more missiles in Cuba make any difference? As Sergei said, if Russia wanted to commit national suicide, a few missiles in Cuba wouldn’t stop that from happening.

The Americans had never been surrounded by enemies, or even tolerated any hostile regime nearby. The placement of missiles in Cuba was seen as a huge change to the balance of power, and a threat, not so much by The Kennedys, but by the public they had to satisfy and the military and other political forces which wanted a first strike.

Sorensen’s account is very different, a kind of historical Rashomon. But they do agree on what a close thing it was, the closest we ever came to a nuclear holocaust.

Neither side ever understood this mutuality of mistakes, which I suspect still plagues US Russian relations.

So what does this have to do with Amelia Island? Had it all went down, a few miles from Mayport, this island would have been radioactive for a few tens of thousands of years and its inhabitants at the time would have joined the Timucuans and the Dodos, quite extinct.

Down load the pod cast. Worth a listen.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Source of Magic

It is well known that we Amelia Islanders are trouble makers. But did you know it was someone from here, or roundabouts, that was responsible for the Salem Witch Trials? Or so says a noted historian writing for the Gilder Lehrman Quarterly Journal. http://www.historynow.org/06_2009/historian.html. The article is entitled The Years of Magical Thinking: Explaining the Salem Witchcraft Crisis.

Author Mary Beth Norton has reached some fascinating conclusions about the trial, which began when a local slave named. Tituba was accused of being a witch and then confessed, in great detail and naming many others as fellow witches.

Many recent historians assumed she brought these ideas of witchcraft with her from Africa. But Tituba was not African, but rather Native American; she probably had been captured by England’s Indian allies in a raid on one of the Spanish missions in the region that is now northern Florida or southern Georgia. One reliable source terms her a “Spanish Indian,” as such captives were known in New England. (Nineteenth-century authors concluded she was African or half-African because they knew she was a slave, and at that time historians did not realize how many enslaved Indians lived in New England.)

In the end, twenty-seven people were convicted, nineteen of them (fourteen women, five men) hanged; the last executions were on September 22, 1692. Our local Tituba was among the victims

The article is short and a nice read. The issue also has several other articles of interest.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Part II of II

Two Naturalists on Amelia Island

William Bartram was born in Kingsessing, Pennsylvania, then near Philadelphia, on April 20, 1739, the son of naturalist John Bartram. As a boy, he accompanied his father on many of his travels, to the Catskill Mountains, the New Jersey Pine Barrens, New England, and Florida. From his mid teens, Bartram was noted for the quality of his botanic and ornithological drawings. He also had an increasing role in the maintenance of his father's botanic garden, and added several rare species to it.

In 1773, he embarked upon a four-year journey through eight southern colonies, including wild and sparsely inhabited Florida. He kept a detailed journal which was eventually published as Travels Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida

March 1774 found Bartram on a ship near Cumberland Island headed for East Florida. Warning came of recent Indian massacres in nearby East Florida. Undeterred, Bartram insisted upon being put ashore on Cumberland Island to make his own way south, while his ship fled north.

Bartram soon came across the captain of a small fort on Cumberland Island who offered to take Bartram and another traveler who left the ship across the channel to nearby Amelia Island, where they headed for the the plantation house.

As Bartram recounts: ‘ … After walking through a spacious forest of Live Oaks and Palms, and crossing a creek, that ran through a narrow salt marsh, I and my fellow traveller arrived safe at the plantation, where the agent, Mr. Egan, received us very politely and hospitably. This gentleman is a very intelligent and able planter, having already greatly improved the estate, particularly in the cultivation of indigo. Great part of this island consists of excellent hummocky land, which is the soil this plant delights in, as well as cotton, corn, batatas, and almost every other esculent vegetable. Mr. Egan politely rode with me, over great part of the island.

Egan accompanied Bartram south as far as Cow-Ford, now Jacksonville, and the intrepid Bartram then proceeded alone across Florida. The publication of his journal in the late 1880s made Bartram the most famous naturalist of his time.

The attention of a traveller, should be particularly turned, in the first place, to the various works of Nature, to mark the distinctions of the climates he may explore, and to offer such useful observations on the different productions as may occur.

William Bartram

John Muir, Scottish-born American naturalist, author, and early advocate of preservation of U.S. wilderness was born 21 April 1838, almost 100 years after William Bartram. He was drawn early to the natural world, and tirelessly crusaded for its preservation through his letters, essays, and books. His particular passion was the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California. He alone was largely responsible for saving the Yosemite Valley, Sequoia National Park and other wilderness areas.

In March of 1867, as a young man, he injured his right eye in an industrial accident, and vowed to go on a long walk if his vision recovered. By August, 1867, his vision had largely returned and he set off walking from Louisville, Kentucy, bound for Savanna, Georgia, and then Florida.

On October 15, 1867, he reached Amelia Island, describing the island as ‘a flat, watery, reedy coast with clumps of mangrove and forests of moss dressed strange trees appearing low in the distance.”

”…I step onto a rickety wharf. A few steps more take me to a rickety town Fernandina. I …make for the shady, gloomy groves.”

Departing “rickety” Fernandina, Muir followeed the track of David Yulee’s railroad across Florida to Cedar Key, where his journay ended. The journal of his long walk, entitled Thousand Mile Walk to t he Gulf, was not published until 1916.

'Many good people believe that alligators were created by the Devil, thus accounting for their all-consuming appetite and ugliness. But doubtless these creatures are happy and fill the place assigned them by the great Creator of us all. Fierce and cruel they appear to us, but beautiful in the eyes of God. They, also, are his children, for He hears their cries, cares for them tenderly, and provides their daily bread.

John Muir

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Part I of II

First, I have two books to recommend. The first is The Third Reich at War by Richard J. Evans. It is long, and dense with facts, but worth the slog for anyone interested in the Second World War. Evans has two premises to establish, and does so by marshalling fact, after fact, after fact.

1. There were no Germans who did not know that Hitler was killing the Jews and others, and very few who even complained, let alone acted to save victims. The myth of The Good German is just that.

2. It wasn’t only the Germans who acted badly; so did the Poles, the Russians and most of the other peoples of Eastern Europe. Sadly that includes many Jews who were later themselves killed.

The second book is Stone's Fall: A Novel by Iain Pears, which I have just started. It is also a heavy weight at almost 800 pages, but both a satisfying mystery and a journey through Victorian England, France and Venice, exploring the world of business and finance. He wrote a similar book some years ago called An Instance of the Fingerpost: A Novel. This one is also a mystery, set in 1663, in Oxford, England, during the height of Restoration political intrigue. When Dr. Robert Grove is found dead in his Oxford room, hands clenched and face frozen in a rictus of pain, all the signs point to poison. Rashomon-like, the narrative circles around Grove's murder as four different characters give their version of events.

Second, Alex has awarded me the speaking slot for 3rd on 3rd in November. I am thinking about talking about The Decline and Fall of the Golden Age in Fernandina. The conventional story is that Flagler offered to put a spur of his railroad into Fernandina, but the city fathers spat upon his offer, and he then bypassed the town, whereupon all the tourists went further south.

That may have been part of the story, but not all. I have come to believe that the longshoremen’s strike in 1888, and the dredging of the St John’s to create the port of Jacksonville were more significant. I would love to hear from anyone as to their theory.

Third, Amelia Island had brief visits from two of America’s greatest naturalists – William Bartram and John Muir. I have put together a draft of panels that could be part of the natural history exhibit, or could be mounted as part of the permanent exhibits, or could be trashed, if they aren’t that interesting. They are to follow shortly.

-Jim Longacre, Local Historian

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Good Stuff

Today’s Blog is about sharing. Me sharing good stuff I have discovered recently.

First, The Beach Lady.

I saw her several times on the beach and around the island and I never, to my regret, worked up the courage to start a conversation. And of course now she is gone. Or perhaps is now a butterfly as she foretold.

But with video no one today is ever entirely gone. Here is a clip of her talking about her life and philosophy.


Next, seven young black men make up as astounding acapella group called Naturally Seven. They had a gig in Paris recently and their agent sent them to perform on the Metro. It was recorded on a camcorder, and is really quite a performance. I won’t spoil it for you; Watch and you will be drawn into it.


Last, remember George Smiley, the frumpish, shy and tenacious anti-hero of John LeCarre’s brilliant spy novels? I started my first LeCarre novel many years ago on a Saturday night about midnight. I finished it five hours later. It was The Spy who Came in from the Cold. When Leamas at the end comes through Checkpoint Charlie, Smiley was there waiting.

The BBC is doing a radio dramatization of every Smiley book, starting May 23, 2009. Here is a special web site for the series, including LeCarre reading excerpts from the books.


And, yes, Smiley is real.


-Jim Longacre, Local Historian

Rafting The Owyhee River

One of the advantages of having a blog is you can write whatever you want. Mostly, this blog focuses on history, but today we take a little diversion.

Two weeks ago I had the privilege of spending five days rafting down the Owyhee River. The Owyhee is a wild river in South Eastern Oregon, flowing through some of the most spectacular and desolate country in the world. The name is a corruption of Hawaii, and the river was named for three native Hawaiians who were killed by Native Americans on the river long ago.

We passed through some of the most magnificent country I have ever seen. Its odd how desolate and beautiful always go together. The river is fed by snow melt, and is down to a trickle by mid-summer when the land reaches temperatures we associate with Death Valley. But, in May, it has rapids, ones dangerous and difficult enough to kick start the stoutest heart, including two awesome Class V rivers. The water is cold, a few degrees above freezing, and we had frost on the tents in the morning.

On the way back home, a few Owyhee Haiku got written;

Owyhee abides,

Flowing on since time began,

Raven overhead.

Blood among the sage,

Paint brush holds its glory close,

Seen by someone’s gods.

Not far from the river, on a rise, is the grave site of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, the son borne to Sacagawea, during the Lewis and Clark expedition. He become a mountain man and, in 1866, passing though this wild country, he caught pneumonia and died. They buried in a place fit for a real mountain man.

I stayed there for quite a time, just listening to the wind and gazing out at the endless sky and high desert.

-Jim Longacre, Local Historian

Friday, June 5, 2009

Attn: History Buffs

I have discovered two places for the history buff to feed his or her habit.

The first is free. The Gilder Lehrman Institute has a couple of dozen podcasts lectures on various history topics, always by someone who has written the book. More are added every month, and they vary is quality from very good to amazing. Even if you don’t have an ipod or iphone, you can listen directly from your computer.


The second costs money. It’s the Teaching Company and they sell courses on audio, DVD or CD on several hundred topics. The courses feature well known academic experts who can be lively and entertaining as well as knowledgeable. Currently I am working through a 36 lecture series on the crusades.

Check out their catalog at http://www.teach12.com

-Jim Longacre, Local Historian

A New Voice From The Jail

It seems I am now, in addition to everything else, a blogger. I am going to blog here for a year, no more, and then turn over my podium to someone else. My plan is to write sporadically about history in general and the history on our little island in particular, and about what’s happening at the museum. But it’s a certainty that I will wander afield from time to time, and maybe even stir up some controversy. It seems I have this need to be outrageous from time to time, and I intend to indulge. Who wants to read boring stuff all the time? And expect grammatical miscues and the like, I am a Blogger, not an English Major!

Now for a little history. I have been reading, well rereading in fact, Rough Crossings; Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution by Simon Schama. Great book about the American slaves who joined the British Army and fought to keep America British.

We are taught that Washington’s defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown ended the war and the path to independence was straightforward. It was not. The Brits still garrisoned Savanna, Charleston and New York, and Washington lacked the resources to do a damn thing about it. In fact, the British army in 1781 could go anywhere in the thirteen colonies it wanted. More than half the colonies in fact were still pretty strong loyalists. The Brits had a huge pool of willing recruits in the black American slaves, who had proven to be good and loyal soldiers. They could have just continued on until the hardcore patriots either had all given up, and were all executed.

For the first year or so after Yorktown, the Brits dithered. And then a government came to power that just wanted to get rid of the colonies. Good riddance! It was a failure of British will, not a failure of British arms that resulted in US independence.

It was essentially what happened to the French 150 years later at Diembienphu, but that’s a story for another day.

I thought this first bog maybe should be generous, but expect something more succinct in the future...or not.

-Jim Longacre, Local Historian