A Tour of Central Florida and the Lower West Coast
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George Franklin Thompson
From the American Images Gallery of the U.S. Military History Institute
The journal of George Franklin Thompson, housed in the diary collection of the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History, University of Florida, is a 216 page leather-bound volume chronicling a tour of inspection through central and lower Florida during the winter of 1865-1866. Thompson was appointed to this tour of duty as an Inspector for the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, the federal agency charged with the task of overseeing Reconstruction in a non-slave South.  In a lively style and a clear hand, he records his impressions of Gainesville, Paynes Prairie, Ocala, Silver Springs, Tampa, the Manatee River, Charlotte Harbor, Fort Myers, and Key West, as well as his encounters with Florida cattle-baron Jacob Summerlin and steamboat operator Capt. James McKay.

This web version of the journal is presented together with a series of articles that ran in The Tallahassee Sentinel publicizing Thompson's official report of his tour.  The text is a direct transcription of the journal entries, reproducing Thompson's spelling and punctuation, with page breaks and page numbering according to the original. Editorial comments are included in italics in brackets. Words that were struck out or changed in the original are also shown in brackets. In cases where Thompson's handwriting was illegible or difficult to decipher, the word used is followed by [?] to indicate it is in doubt.

George Franklin Thompson was born in Medway, Massachusetts, on August 9th, 1827, one of eleven children, and spent his early years in Worcester. At the age of 22 he began work in a local shoe factory. Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Thompson was mustered into the 21st Massachussetts Volunteers, along with his youngest brother Edward, and was appointed regimental quartermaster with the rank of 1st lieutenant. Serving during the entire term of the war, he fought at Kelly's Ford, Second Bull Run, Chantilly, Antietam, and Brandy Station, and achieved the rank of captain. On June 16th, 1866, he left the service in Tallahassee, Florida, having just completed a tour of inspection for the Freedmen's Bureau. His rank at retirement was that of major and he was also breveted lieutenant colonel. Returning to Worcester, he briefly resumed work in the shoe business, tried his hand in insurance, served for a time as internal revenue collector, and then became a clerk in the statistical department of the Boston customs house. He had ventured into politics in 1857, when he was elected to represent Worcester in the legislature, and continued to seek public office following the Civil War, becoming a member of the state senate for Worcester in 1873, and then serving for several years on the town's school board. Thompson died on November 13, 1895 from complications caused by heart disease and pulmonary illnesses. He was survived by his widow, Caroline (Sanborn) Thompson, a native of Lowell, and four sons and two daughters, another son having predeceased him.

Background to the Journal and Thompson's Tour
As a memoir of post-Civil War Florida, Thompson's journal is a rich source of both fact and hyperbole, and records his early investigations for the Bureau of Freedmen at the beginning of Reconstruction.   Thompson arrived in Tallahassee on December 2, 1865, to receive confirmation of his appointment as Inspector for the Bureau, with orders to proceed to District 5. The district assigned to him comprised all of Florida below Ocala, embracing the 1865 counties of Volusia, Orange, Polk, Hillsboro, Manatee, Monroe, Dade, and Broward (see map).

While he was in Tallahassee, Thompson's superiors introduced him to William Henry Gleason, an attorney and engineer from Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  Gleason was eager to see Florida and obtained permission to accompany Thompson. He would later become a major land broker in Brevard, Broward, and Dade counties, and would serve as Lt. Governor of Florida from 1868 to 1870, and in the state legislature from 1871 to 1874. It was his journey with Thompson that first convinced Gleason to move his family from Wisconsin and take up residence and investment in Florida.

The exact provenance of the journal is unknown. It probably came to the University of Florida as part of the Gleason Family Papers. Although written by Thompson, it does not appear to be the original diary that he kept while making his tour. The journal bears none of the weather-staining, smears, or hard use one would expect of a pocket diary that accompanied a military man through many nights of outdoor camping in rainy weather. Thompson's entries are small, neat and frequently emended, covering 123 pages of the journal, with post-scripts on page 213 and on the inside back cover. Additional notes, in pencil by an unknown hand, appear on the inside front cover and title page. Thompson abruptly left off writing on page 124, Saturday, January 20th, 1866, for which there is no entry. At that date, the journal records him as being in Key West, planning a trip into South Florida.

First page, G.F. Franklin diary

It is likely, therefore, that the journal is a transcription of a portion of Thompson's original field notes, copied out at the conclusion of his travels. As part of his duties as Inspector, Thompson was obligated to submit a report on Florida to his superior, Col. T. W. Osborn.  In particular, he was charged with discovering the condition of the district, its suitability for settlement and agriculture, the loyalty or disaffection of residents for the government, and the status of the freedmen.  The journal seems to be an early draft of his report, containing the personal information, opinions, and observations that Thompson omitted from the official version. It is possible to compare the two because Thompson's report to Col. Osborn was later published as a series of articles in The Tallahassee Sentinel between April 19 and May 7, 1867.

Thompson's Attitude Toward Florida: Published and Unpublished
The journal and the Sentinel articles therefore complement and sometimes complete each other. Without question, the official report is drier and less picturesque than the journal entries, omitting most of the vignettes Thompson recorded about his conversations and misadventures. A practical Massachusetts man, someone who had worked with his hands in manufacturing and whose interests included rhetoric and statistics, Thompson brought both a keen wit and a keen eye to his task of assessing Florida. As a Yankee, a confirmed Republican, and a battle-hardened veteran of the Union Army, he was congenial enough to those around him but contemptuous of the "cracker" life style he saw in Florida and often ridiculed Southerners for their indolence and for blaming their hard life on the loss of slave labor. Micanopy, he observed with disdain, was a "southern town" full of "loafers and hangers on," with a "universal appearance of shiftlessness."  Indeed, Thompson's overall reaction to Florida was unfavorable until he reached Tampa, which he described as having a prosperity and industriousness more in keeping with his New England business sense.

Taken together, the journal and Thompson's later report afford historians a more complete account of his trip than either work provides by itself.  For example, the journal describes Thompson's experiences in Alachua and Marion counties, a segment of his tour that the report omits.  It also reveals the latent hostility between Confederate and Union Floridians in the immediate post-war period. People were careful about where and with whom they discussed politics, according to Thompson. In one fortuitous encounter with a "General Owens" of Marion County, he and Gleason learned of the Regulators (local groups formed to harass Floridians who sided with the Union during the war). While mentioning such hostilities in his report (see The Tallahassee Sentinel, April 23, 1867), he tended to downplay the tensions as exaggerated.

On the other hand, the entries in Thompson's journal cease prior to his excursion to Dade County, an area that clearly made a great impression on him and that comprised about one-third of his entire tour.  Hence, this portion of his trip might have been lost to posterity had it not been for three articles that appeared in the Sentinel (on April 30, May 3, and May 7, 1867). In them, he recorded his great hopes for development in Southern Florida, and his oft-repeated recommendation that the Government undertake draining to increase arable land. A portion of this official report can also be found in the papers related to the Florida offices of the Freedmen's Bureau housed in the National Archives.

Although Thompson was an agent for the Freedmen's Bureau, his journal entries provide surprisingly little information on the condition of recently emancipated slaves in Florida, a subject that he dedicated more space to in his report. Thompson's attitude toward freedmen was typical for a Northerner in the South, being both sympathetic and patronizing. He characterized blacks as hard-working while whites were idle; however, he seemed uncertain that black residents could succeed in a free labor market.  As a former quartermaster, he focused more on the problems of supply and labor that the freedmen faced, rather than incidents of intimidation or political disenfranchisement. In concluding his report to Col. T. W. Osborn, Thompson summed up his impressions of the freedmen's condition by saying: ". . . there will be but little, if any, occasion for the interference of the powers of the Bureau, unless it should be to establish schools and assist them in settling upon public lands. The desire to become land owners is almost universal.  I have, however, counselled them in all instances, to hire themselves out for a year or two, and save their earnings as far as possible, so as to have some capital [The Tallahassee Sentinel, May 7, 1867].

Other prejudices also emerge in his writing.   In his visit to Jacksonville, he penned several anti-semitic remarks concerning Jewish store-keepers. Terms like "cracker" and "poor white trash" occur in entries about encounters with rural folk. Thompson was clearly amused by what he considered the outlandishness of the Florida frontier and took great pains to reproduce conversations and dialogue. Most of his stories, misadventures, and personal comments were left out of his official report, and therefore never appeared in print.

A prominent theme running throughout the journal is Thompson's and Gleason's profound interest in Florida's economic resources. Thompson entered many comments about forest cover, drainage, soil fertility, and natural features such as sinks and springs. In particular, his description of the fish die-off in Paynes Prairie and of the fishing enterprises along the Gulf Coast are significant glimpses into local ecology.  References to Florida's healthy climate, found in both the earlier works of John Lee Williams and the subsequent work of Harriet Beecher Stowe, are also much in evidence in this journal.

Overall, Thompson's journal and later report provide a fascinating assessment of a Confederate state just recovering from the turmoil of the Civil War and still beset with dissensions and divisions.  Thompson directed his attention to many aspects of the physical and social landscape of Florida that were omitted or overlooked by other writers.  For additional information, the best account of Thompson's tour is George R. Bentley's "Colonel Thompson's 'Tour of Tropical Florida'" in Tequesta, Volume 10, 1950, pp. 3-12. Bentley identifies many of the individuals mentioned in the journal and describes the latter part of the tour into South Florida. See also the Worcester Daily Telegram, November 14, 1895, and the Worcester Spy of the same date for brief abstracts of his life, published at the time of his death.

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