The Tallahassee Sentinel
May 7, 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)

 
Castor Bean

The castor bean, from which the castor oil is manufactured, grows here also to perfection.  The increasing demand for this article, and the liberal protection afforded by the Government, by a revenue duty levied upon the importations, commends it to the especial attention of those who seek the settlement and development of this county.
 
Fruits, &c

Oranges, lemons, limes, bananas, cocoa nuts, grapes, and, in fact, all the most delicious of the tropical fruits, can be produced here with comparatively little labor.  We saw some specimens of very fine long-staple cotton raised here, and were informed by the party who raised it that the yield was far more abundant on a given space than in the favorite locations in South Carolina, where the party formerly resided.  Some samples of Cuba tobacco were also shown us, from which we made some cegars, and the flavor was superior to any I ever used.  Sugar cane grows upon the hammock land to a prodigious size, and I have no doubt that, should the low prairies be drained, and cultivated for this crop, an immense harvest could be obtained.  From the description of Demarara and Barbadoes, given by Anthony Trollope, I should judge that this country is similar in some respects, and especially these peculiarities, which make them valuable for the growth of the sugar crop.
 

Springs

There are numerous springs of fine cool water found in the hammocks, on the prairies, and also on the beach.  Standing upon the beach at the "Hunting Grounds," you will find numerous springs boiling up and rippling the waters of the bay.  By placing a barrel or tube over any of the springs, the water will force itself above the barrel or tube, and furnish an inexhaustible supply of as pure fresh water as comes from a mountain's side.  In the hammocks you will occasionally find an opening to a current of clear running water, making its way to the ocean or bay in its subterraneous passage-numerous fish are in these living streams.  Unquestionably, these springs or streams have their source from the Everglades.  In the bed of the Miami river, about four miles from the mouth, is found one of these springs, which seems to be strongly impregnated with iron.  By placing a pen-stock over the spring, the water is raised three or four feet above the level of the river, and a continual supply furnished.  The equable climate, the springs of pure water, and the continual supply of fresh fruits and vegetables throughout all the seasons of the year, commend this section to the especial attention of those suffering from pulmonary complaints from all parts of our country.  Game is not as abundant as in some other sections, but deer are found, and the rivers and creeks abound with fish.
 

Insects, Reptiles and Wild Animals

Although this part of the State offers peculiar inducements for settlement, yet, it is not without it annoyances, for during the entire year mosquitoes and sand flies seem to vie with each other in their efforts to torment humanity.  While we were there in the winter, they were almost intolerable, and during the summer months, are said to be still more numerous and aggressive.  To sleep at night without a mosquito bar, would be nearly as fruitless at to attempt to fly without wings.  In April and May appears a blue-head, and a grey fly, about the size of a honey bee, which attacks cattle and horses with great violence, and drives them mad.  We were told of several cases where horses had been attacked by a swarm of these insects, and killed within three hours.  We encountered a few of the grey flies on the sand ridge or "divide," between Pease creek and the Kissimmee river, and so violent was the attack that the blood oozed out of our horses in big drops when bitten or stung.  The blue-headed fly is represented as much more numerous than the grey.  It is thought by some, that on account of these insects, stock or horses can never be raised in Dade county, except by great care during the fly season.

Mocasins and rattle snakes abound in the hammocks.  Wild cats, panthers and bears, infest the hammocks and jungles of the Everglades; but unquestionably, most of the annoyances would disappear, or at any rate, be very much diminished by a settlement and improvement of the country.  They constitute he general objections to all new counties in a southern latitude.

The value of this county for general settlement, as well as the entire valley of the Kissimmee, embracing millions of acres of the best lands in the State, depends entirely upon its feasibility of draining or lowering the waters of Lake Okee-Chobee.  It has been ascertained that the fall from the Everglades to Byscayne bay, through the channel of the Miami river, amounts to six feet nine inches.  Could the water of the lake be reduced that amount, I am inclined to the opinion that Southern Florida would become the Garden of the United States.  If the reduction of the lake is impracticable, these lands must remain unfit for cultivation or general settlement, until nature shall accomplish this result by some general upheaval or volcanic action.
 

Seminole Indians

We were unable to find any Indians; they had been at Key West about two weeks before our arrival at that place, and on reaching the "Big Hunting Grounds," they had a few days before started for their homes through the Everglades.  We were informed that they manifest a feeling of friendliness, and occasionally come down to the coast to trade.  Their principal article of barter is skins, such as deer, bear and panther.  They are not entirely destitute of money, but have learned the value of greenbacks, and use them in their purchases and in adjusting balances.  They have also obtained a passion for wrecking, but manage their business somewhat differently from the whites.  Instead of putting the cargo into the hands of the Marshal and awaiting the decision of the Court for a decree of salvage, they make their own decree, and the cargo is generally considered the salvage.  They dress on special occasions like white men and in some other respects imitate his customs, i.e., get drunk and "stick their head into the sand."  Their passion for whiskey is inordinate, and the great misfortune is that there are white men debased enough to pander to their appetite.  We found one man here by the name of Mike Sayers, or as he is called, "French Mike," who keeps a dirty shanty and trades with them, and without doubt, sells them whiskey.  They number about 112 warriors, or, probably, about 600 in all; they live principally upon game, fish, corn and kountee.  They still resist the march of civilization among them and probably in a few years will become entirely extinct as a tribe.

The result of my observations through the district, has convinced me that such is the condition and disposition of the colored people, that 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, under the Homestead Bill.  Their desire to become land owners is almost universal, and according to the provisions of that bill, they can become so by having a little direction how to proceed, from individuals or officers of the Bureau.  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 to commence with in case the they should avail themselves of the provisions of the law.  The lands available for actual cultivation are in comparatively small tracts, and no general settlement of the Southern part of Florida ever be effected without first adopting a vast system of drainage to reclaim the country form annual inundations.  Such is the nature of the country that for years the principal part of the labor, will be most profitably absorbed in the fisheries, cultivation of fruits and raising of stock.  Wherever we wave been the people have treated us with kindness; and, if in any case, their hospitality was limited, it was on account of their destitution of means rather than any manifest disposition to embarrass us in the objects of our mission.
 

Geo. T. Thompson,
Capt.  and Bvt. Lt. Co. U.S.V.
 
 
 


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