1.3 Human Occupancy of the Region (pre-1800S)

1.3.1. Native Americans

The Lower Basin of the St. Johns River watershed has been occupied, utilized, and modified by humans for over 12,000 years (Miller 1998). As the Ice Age ended, the first Floridians were the Paleo Indians. They inhabited a dry, wide Florida hunting and gathering for food and searching for fresh water sources. Gradually, the glaciers melted, sea levels rose, and Florida was transformed. By approximately 3,000 years ago, the region resembled the Florida of today with a wet, mild climate and abundant freshwater lakes, rivers, and springs (Purdum 2002). The conditions were favorable for settlement, and early Indians occupied areas throughout the state. In fact, historians estimate that as many as 350,000 Native Americans were thriving in Florida (including 200,000 Timucua Indians in southeast Georgia and northern Florida), when the first French and Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500s (Figure 1.4; Milanich 1995; Milanich 1997).

The Native Americans that occupied much of the LSJRB were part of a larger group collectively known as the Timucua Indians. Actually a group of thirty or more chiefdoms sprinkled in villages throughout north Florida and southeastern Georgia, the Timucua Indians were bound to one another linguistically by a common language called Timucua (Granberry 1956; Granberry 1993). The Timucua language was spoken throughout the LSJRB north of Lake George and its tributary the Oklawaha River (Milanich 1996). By the 17th century, the Spaniards living in the region referred to a distinct group of Timucua known as the Mocama (translates to “the sea”) (Ashley 2010). The Mocama Indians spoke a unique dialect of the Timucua language called Mocama. They lived near the mouth of the St. Johns River and on the Sea Islands of southeastern Georgia and northeastern Florida (St. Simons, Jekyll, Cumberland and Amelia Islands) as far back as A.D. 1000 (Worth and Thomas 1995). Evidence has suggested that the Mocama had extensive trading networks that stretched as far west as the Mississippi River (Ashley 2010). Archaeological evidence also suggests that the Mocama became a permanent settlement and cultivated maize for food, in addition to traditional hunting and gathering (Thunen 2010). The Timucua Indians did modify the land to their advantage, such as burning and clearing land for agriculture and constructing drainage ditches and large shell middens (Milanich 1998). But, by today’s standards, these impacts on the landscape were small in scale and spread out over a vast terrain.

The numbers of Native Americans in Florida plummeted during the 16th and 17th centuries, as many were killed by European diseases or conflicts (Davis and Arsenault 2005). By the 1700s, the original Timucua population in Florida had vanished (Figure 1.4).

Figure 1.4
Figure 1.4 Population of northeast Florida during the Colonial Period, 1492 to 1845. (Sources: Population estimates for the Timucua Tribe in northeast Florida were taken from Milanich 1997, and “Northeast Florida” is defined as all lands inhabited by Timucua Indians. Population estimates for European Colonists were taken from Miller 1998, and “Northeast Florida” loosely includes settlers in “the basin of the northward-flowing St. Johns River from Lake George to the mouth, as well as the adjacent Atlantic Coast and the intervening coastal plain” (Miller 1998). Complete data table provided in Appendix 1.3.1

1.3.2. Europeans

The first permanent European colony in North America was Fort Caroline, founded in 1564 by the French near the mouth of the St. Johns River (Miller 1998). One year later, the Spanish conquered the French, and from 1565 to 1763, the still-wild territory of Florida flew the flag of Spain (Schafer 2007). The epicenter of the Spanish colony became St. Augustine, and few colonists ventured beyond the walls of the guarded city. In retrospect, the footprint of these Spanish settlers on Florida was light. Apart from introducing non-native citrus, sugarcane, and pigs (the wild boars of today), they altered the environmental landscape very little along the St. Johns River watershed as compared to what was to come (Warren 2005; Schafer 2007).

In 1763, the British took control of Florida. Two years later, John Bartram, appointed as botanist to His Majesty George III of England, surveyed the natural resources of Florida that were now available for English use and benefit (Stork 1769). On this journey, John Bartram was accompanied by his son William, who would later become famous in his own right for discoveries recorded during his solitary travels through the southern colonies in the 1770s (Bartram 1998). The writings of this father and son provide evidence that the First Spanish Period left behind a wild and largely untouched land full of untapped resources and potential.

During the 20 years that the British occupied Florida, landscape modifications for colonization and agriculture were intensive. Large tracts of land were cleared for plantations intended for crop exportation, and timber was harvested and exported for the first time (Miller 1998). During the American Revolution, Florida became a haven for British loyalists, and the population of Florida ballooned from several thousand to 17,000 (Milanich 1997). The Spanish reacquired Florida in 1783, most of the British settlers left the area, and the state population declined again to several thousand (Figure 1.5). The Spanish continued plantation farming within the LSJRB, but did not exploit the land as successfully as the British (Miller 1998). Spain held Florida until the region was legally acquired by the United States in 1821. At this time, exploration and exploitation of the St. Johns River Basin began in earnest.