The Tallahassee Sentinel
May 3, 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 last Paper)

There are numerous Keys or Islands comprised within the county limits, and upon them the principal part of the inhabitants are to be found; they number probably about two hundred souls.  Their principal occupation is wrecking, but when not engaged in this, they employ themselves in taking sponges, fish and turtles.  They are entirely destitute of all educational institutions, but yet, as a general rule, are a more intelligent class of people than those found in the interior of the Peninsula.  Their vocation brings them in contact with people from all parts of the world, and this keeps alive among them a spirit of inquiry, and they do not sink to that lethargy which seems to take so strong a hold upon those living inland.  There are but three colored people in the county, and they are so circumstanced that any interference of the Bureau is entirely unnecessary.  Two of them are the wives of white men, and one is the son of white parents.  We did not stop to inquire the reason of this state of things, but simply contented ourselves with a knowledge of the facts as related to us by the parties themselves.

The history of this section of the State has frequently been written in blood, and during the last Indian war, the most cruel and barbarous murders were committed by the Seminoles, without a single premonitory warning.  Many families were entirely annihilated, while others barely escaped in the darkness of night form the clutch of the infuriated savage.  These savages have been reduced since then very materially by removal to the West and little or no apprehension is now felt on their account.

Climate of Dade County

The first and most noticeable characteristic of this section is the climate.  Beyond all question it is the most equable of any in the Unite States, and by many travelers is pronounced superior to that of Italy.  During our stay here from the 27th of January, to the 14th of February, the thermometer varied but little from 74 deg.  at 8 o'clock in the morning than about the same at sunset; but what makes even a higher temperature endurable is the fact that about 8 o'clock in the morning an exhilarating breeze commences, and continues until the evening from the Bay, and in the evening returns from the land, so that there is continued cooling process going on and a person at no time feels uncomfortably warm or suffers from the cold.  Our guide had lived at the "Hunting Grounds" several years, and he testified that in midsummer he had never suffered any more with the heat than while there with us.  There was no day when it was warm enough to endanger a man's health in any out-of-door occupation.  The flowers were in full bloom, the birds as lively and gay, and vegetable growth as fresh and green as in New England in the month of June.  It really seemed at times as though the season had changed, and instead of being winter had been suddenly converted into summer.  We have found vegetables flourishing as rapidly as in summer and nothing whatever to remind us of the season of the year.

Surface of the Country in Dade County

Leaving out the Everglades, the balance of the country is divided into pine barrens, low prairies and hammock.  The pine barrens seem to constitute about 6-10; low prairie 3-10; and hammock about 1-10 of the available surface.  The pine barrens are at first sight rather repulsive.  The surface at the "Hunting Grounds" is entirely a rotten lime-rock with a honey-comb surface; the trees are small and scattered, with a knotty and gnarled growth, which, with their diminutiveness, renders them entirely unfit for lumbering purposes.  I really can see no useful purpose they can be put to, except in building cabins and fences, and for the manufacture of turpentine and tar.  There have been several attempts to manufacture lumber but we were informed that the general result was a complete failure.  As far north as the Miami river the rock is covered with a thin layer of sand, and this increases in depth as you proceed in that direction.  Where this appears, there also comes a vegetable growth, a little grass, a great deal of kountee, and an unwelcome amount of the bastard palmetto.  There are occasionally stuks or depressions in this lime-rock where the vegetable growth is very luxuriant.  These places seem specially adapted to the growth of the banana, or in fact any of the tropical fruits.

Soil of the Low Prairie

The low prairies are by far the most inviting to the skill and industry of the country.  They vary in extent from 500 to 5000 acres, and appear to have been formed by the washing of vegetable matter and lime from the Everglades.  They are generally very long and narrow, and make their head near the Everglades.  The soil bordering on the pine barrens is from six to twelve inches deep, and towards  the center of the tract has an unknown depth.  Mr. Addison, at the "Hunting Grounds," informed us that he had several times tried to touch the bottom on several of the tracts, by forcing a pole down when the soil was softened by water in the wet season, and reached from ten to fifteen feet without being able to strike the rock.  The soil appears to contain a very large proportion of vegetable matter, with a liberal quantity of lime.  That it is a rich, fertile soil is evident from the immense growth of grass which appears.  The only difficulty in making them available for cultivation is in draining them.  From a somewhat careful examination of several of them, I believe that a system of drainage and dyking would succeed in reclaiming some of them for profitable cultivation.


The hammocks are small in extent, varying from forty to one hundred and sixty acres, considerably higher than the barrens, and covered with a dense growth of wood, such as red, white, and live-oak, mastic, wild fig, magnolia, &c.  The soil upon these is extremely fertile, producing sugar-cane, cotton, tobacco, of superior quality, vegetables of nearly all kinds, and fruits of superior flavor.  The hammocks are so small a proportion of this country that, unless the low prairies are brought under cultivation, the country would support but a small population from its own products.

Productions of Dade County

The productions of this county are very limited, but sufficient experiments have been made to indicate its adaptation to the culture of all the tropical fruits and plants.  Here is found a root called by the Indians, kountee, resembling somewhat in shape, the maugel wortzel or ruta baga.  It contains a large amount of starch and formerly large quantities were manufactured for the northern market.  The process of manufacture is very similar to that of potatoe starch.  At one time it had a high reputation among many of the manufacturers of cotton goods, and was largely sought for.  The Indian wars, however, broke up the establishment where it was made, and the uncertainty of supply led the cotton manufacturers to abandon its use.  There are several small establishments, however, on the Miami and other fresh water streams, where it is made to great profit.  It readily commands from ten to twelve cents per pound at Key West, where it is preferred to other kinds for the laundry, besides large quantities being used for food.  We visited one establishment where three hands were employed, using the rudest of machinery, and averaging 1000 lbs.  per week.  Six barrels of the root produce one barrel or 196 pounds of starch.  It is very hardy, and grows upon the poorest soil, and the supply seems almost inexhaustible.

Sisal Hemp

Another plant found here and which grows with astonishing rapidity, even upon the poorest soil, is Sisal hemp.  The value of this plant is in the fibre it produces; it has already a high reputation in the market, and only requires some feasible means of separating the fibre from the vegetable matter to make its production one of the most profitable on the continent.  In appearance the Sisal hemp resembles the century plant, and flourishes even as high as the 30th parallel of latitude, but the general opinion is that its growth is very much retarded even if the strength of the fibre is not injured by the  frost.  In this section of the country it is beyond frost, and continues its growth throughout the year.  The leaves or blades grow from four to six feet in length, and from flour to eight inches in width, yielding from one to one and a half ounces o clear fibre per leaf.  It matures in three years, and then shoots up in a staff about twenty or twenty-five feet and from the branches of this staff ripens hundreds of young plants which drop down and immediately take root and grow, despite the most unfavorable circumstances.  They are also propagated from suckers shooting up from the parent root.  It is a plant which resists the drought beyond all calculation.  When corn and vegetables are entirely subjugated, this seems as fresh and healthy as ever.  The fact that it attains such growth in such poor soil and resists the drought so effectually, shows that a large part of its nourishment is derived from the atmosphere.  From the indications of its growth upon the Keys and mainland, I should judge that one ton (of 2000 pounds) per acre would be a reasonable estimate.  During my tour I became acquainted with a gentleman who is interested in cultivation of this plant in Campeachy, and he informed me that he had found the following process for separating the fibre to be successful, viz: Pass the leaves through two setts of rollers, running the juice into vats; after the juice ferments, immerse the leaves, and let them remain from 24 to 48 hours.  The juice takes an ascetic state, and when in that state will dissolve both the starch and vegetable matter.  Shake and rinse the fiber in clear fresh water, and dry either in the sun or by steam.  If this method is successful, it opens this country to rapid development, even by the lowest class of labor

(To be Continued)

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