The Tallahassee Sentinel
April 30, 1867

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Observations in Tropical Florida

(from a report made in the Spring of 1866 to Col. T.W. Osborn, by Col. Geo. F. Thompson, and never published before)

(Continued from his last Paper)

The two schools at Tampa accommodate about eighty scholars, and are primary in character.  If scholars advance to the higher branches of an English education, they must go to some academy at a great distance.  At Key West they have three schools, two for the whites and one for the colored people, accommodating about 160 pupils.  One of the most noticeable facts in the colored school is the rapidity with which the younger pupils learn.  I believe it is conceded, even by those who have no little prejudice in favor of the superiority of the white race, that the colored children advance quite as rapidly as the white children in their first lessons.  It is not so, however, with those of advanced age.  Those from sixteen to twenty years of age do not seem to have that power of application, and learn less rapidly.  These schools are supported by tuition, and from conversation with the negroes, I find that the expenditure is quite as cheerful to them as to the whites.


At Tampa, there are three churches, though without regular service at all of them.  At Key West there are five churches, one of which is for the colored people.  My observation and experience with the people of this district has thoroughly convinced me that, compare the negro with the whites, in reference to his desire for education, his respect for religion, or his disposition to lead an industrious life, he is in none of these respects their inferior.  In coming to this conclusion, I will be frank enough to say, it was not without encouraging a strong predisposition to a different result.

Disposition of the Whites and Negroes to Labor

One of the most general complaints among the whites is, that "the Negro won't work."  I have investigated the ground of this complaint in many cases, and generally have arrived at the conclusion from facts ascertained, either that the employer wanted the labor for less than value, or the negro could do better at some other employment than that offered.   While I was in Tampa, the same complaint was made by several parties, and I had occasion to test the justice of the charge.  I desired to employ a man to accompany me, to assist in sailing the boat, cooking, &c., but was able to find but two men disengaged, and they said their labor was worth $1.50 per day, with plenty of work.  I advised them to remain at home and accept of the certain employment, and concluded to work myself.  The fact is, the aversion to labor is quite as much in the mind of the white man as the colored, and in the course of quite a long conversation with one of the most intelligent men of this section, in regard to the country, institutions, climate, &c., he insisted that the long continued heat of the summer produced a lassitude, an unavoidable indisposition of physical exercise, which neither habit nor any amount of mental stimulant or association could remove.  That such a thing is a libel upon the climate, is evident from the fact that in this same climate, in South Florida, are as active, hardy set of men as are found in any northern latitude.  The men who tend stocks in the ranges are continually moving, and no class of men have a greater amount of physical exercise than they.  Action and physical exercise are the requirements of their vocation, and qualify them for its endurance.

Indolence, and success in stock raising, are incompatable, and in this branch of business necessity stimulates to industry, and in return industry gives success, and vindicates the climate from the charge of being the cause of indolence.

Considering that the negro is set free from an odious system of compulsory labor, in a country without any system of industry, it would not be at all strange if some of them would indulge the erroneous idea that it was a liberation from labor itself.  They have learned, however, that the boon conferred upon them is the right to choose the kind of labor and enjoy its fruits, and not to "reap when they have not sowed."

Negroes Peaceably Disposed

The negroes are almost universally peaceably disposed, and I believe have a higher regard for the law and civil authority than a majority of the whites.  At Key West, where considerable numbers of the negroes have congregated, I was informed by the Mayor and Marshal, that they were generally peaceable, and occasioned them much less trouble than the same number of whites, and that but for the whiskey shops, they would be far more orderly that they now are.  At Tampa, Captain Harding informed me that during his stay at that place, but one or two complaints had been made of their insubordination, and upon examination they proved to be trivial matters, and but for a prejudice on the part of the complainants, would not, probably, have been made at all.

Orange Orchards

Of the orange orchards, there are three or four on the Gulf coast, and one upon the Atlantic, worthy of notice; one at Old Tampa of about two hundred trees, owned by Mr. Phillippes; one bordering on Sarasota Bay, or about three hundred, with upwards of an hundred fine lemon trees, owned by Dr. Snell, and one at Fort Myers of between four and five hundred orange, lemon and lime trees.

Of the one at Old Tampa, I can say nothing from observation; but from representations made to us, I should judge it must be a valuable one.  That of Dr. Snell's we visited, and obtained between four and five hundred of the most delicious oranges I ever tasted.  The man who has it in charge pays no attention to it except to gather the fruit as it is called for, and even that labor he seems to consider a peculiar hardship.  When we were there in December, and again in January 11th, the lemon trees were bent to the ground with the immense loads of fruit, and many of the trees were nearly ruined by the limbs being broken off under the great weight, and yet the ground was nearly covered with as nice looking fruit as yet hung upon the trees.  The orange trees had been injured by the gale of October last.  During the last five years the trees have had no care, and many of them are standing monuments to the indolence and stupidity of the present occupant.  The grove at Fort Myers has been neglected by the proprietor, whoever he may be, and sadly abused by the temporary residents at that place, for the last two years.  With a reasonable amount of care this might be made one of the most beautiful, as well as remunerative, places I have see in Florida; the trees are all young and thrifty, and the soil in this vicinity seems to be particularly adapted to the growth of this fruit; and notwithstanding the want of care and hard usage these trees have experienced, they give promise of being exceedingly fruitful in a year or two.  The orange tree bears about the seventh year from the seed, and the third from the graft.

The grove upon the East coast is situated about thirty miles south of New Smyrna, and is reported to be the most flourishing and valuable one in the State.  It is owned by an old many by the name of Dummett, who, in addition to the raising of oranges, has tested the experiment of miscegenation, the results of which may be seen running about his place, with complexions of a color midway between charcoal and chalk.  I merely speak of this fact to indicate the character of some of the men to whom has been entrusted the settlement of this country.  If this was an isolated case it would hardly be worth mentioning, but such peculiarities are by no means rare.

When we take into account that oranges, lemons and limes require water transportation and that all along the West coast there are numerous places where this fruit may be cultivated with very little labor or expense, and that New Orleans and St. Louis are the best accessible markets for these productions, it would seem that not many years could elapse before a thriving population should skirt the coast from Tampa Bay to Cape Romans.  I think the country bordering upon the Manatee and Caloosahachee rivers, offers more than ordinary inducements for such enterprises, for besides having sufficient water for boats of five or six feet draught, the land is richer an better adapted to their growth than upon Pease creek, or generally immediately on the coast.

Of the productiveness of this fruit I could get no positive information, for those who have these orchards never have taken any exact account of the number raised upon a single tree, and their estimates vary so largely, that but little reliable data could be obtained to form an idea of the general average.  Their estimates would vary from 1,000 to 10,000 oranges per tree.  I saw no tree which had upon it as many as the latter, though in several instance I should judge there were upon the trees as many as 2,000.

I find the same difficulty in getting accurate information in regard to other productions throughout the country.  The people never weigh or measure anything except in delivering to a purchaser, and then it is generally done with great regard to their own protection.  The idea of pursuing any system in agriculture has never yet even entered the mind of most people.  They know that selected cattle are worth from ten to twenty dollars a head, but have no idea as to how many could be raised on any given amount of pasturage.  They know that Hayti potatoes grow when they take the precaution to set the plant in the soil and that after they are raised are good for food, but as to the quantity raised, or value, can give us no definite idea, simply for the reason that they have none.  They have not accustomed themselves to notice any such particulars, and consequently their knowledge is as unsatisfactory to themselves as it is unreliable to others.  The peculiarity is remarkable among all the inhabitants of the interior, and is not in all cases confined to want of attention to products of the soil, for in one instance in making the enquiry of a man as to the number of his children, he actually named his fingers and then made the enumeration before he could give a decided answer.


The fisheries of Southern Florida promise, at no distant day, to attract the attention of many of the hardy fishermen of the North.  In the vicinity of Charlotte Harbor we found several parties engaged in taking fish, especially for the Havana market; they numbered in all about twenty-five men.  We visited two of them, and they imparted to us such information as led us to believe that the business was to them a very profitable one.  Messrs. Dewey, Bennett & Co., from Connecticut, were located at Punta Rosa, and employed eighteen men, and although they had been there but five or six weeks, had succeeded in taking and curing upwards of 1,800 quintals of fish, which in the Havana market brought between six and seven dollars per quintal in gold.  They employed white men exclusively in their fishery, and paid $25 to $30 per month and found.  Besides taking and curing fish, they also caught large numbers of sharks, from which they extract the oil, although this was not a prominent part of their business, yet it served to keep the men profitably employed when the weather or other circumstances were unfavorable for taking fish with the seine.  With the other parties, there was not that judicious division of labor, confining themselves almost exclusively, to taking such fish as they would find sale for in Havana.  The mullet is the principal fish, and the waters of Charlotte Harbor as well as Sarasota and Tampa Bay, are completely alive with them.  The tarpon, jewfish, redfish, and many other kinds, are also found in great numbers.  Oysters of fine flavor are also found here in great abundance.  Upon Indian river, also, are found immense quantities of mullet, turtle, and oysters.  In Biscayne Bay are found large quantities of turtle.

Dade County

There are some distinguishing peculiarities about Dade county, which have induced me to speak of this part of the country separately.  The other counties, except Monroe, have such a general similarity in climate, soil and productions, that whatever may be said upon these points in regard to one, may apply generally with equal justice to them all.  By far the larger part of this country, on the main land, is known as the Everglades, the available land comprising a narrow strip from three to fifteen miles in width, and extending from Hillsboro' Inlet to Cape Sable.

(To be Continued)

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