The Winter Sailor: Francis R. Stebbins on Florida's Indian River, 1878-1888

The Winter Sailor: Francis R. Stebbins on Florida's Indian River, 1878-1888

by Carolyn Frances Baker Lewis (Editor)


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The Winter Sailor: Francis R. Stebbins on Florida's Indian River, 1878-1888 by Carolyn Frances Baker Lewis

A unique guide to Florida's frontier history along Indian River.

The Winter Sailor is a historical adventure that details the yearly winter travels of Francis R. Stebbins to Florida's Indian River. Stebbins, a writer from Michigan, visited Florida in March of 1878 and became entranced by its pristine beauty. Subsequently, Stebbins and his traveling companions made annual visits to Indian River—until 1888 when tragedy struck and ended Stebbins' yearly journeys.

Being an observant traveler, Stebbins began a series of descriptive articles for his hometown newspaper that chronicled his journeys to the Indian River area. Stebbins's articles tell of his own personal experiences during his leisurely visits, which included such activities as hunting and fishing, studying the natural surroundings, and excavating Indian mounds. What Stebbins enjoyed most was sailing down the river interviewing townspeople and examining local attractions as he went. His articles also detail the lifestyle of the region, food, fashion, industry, history, environment, and changes that occurred over time. Stebbins's articles not only entertained and informed but also became a travelogue for his readers. He inspired northern travelers to go south and visit Florida, which contributed to the beginnings of large-scale tourism in the region.

The Winter Sailor combines Stebbins's 49 articles along with three by his companions, to provide an enjoyable, historical guide. Unique among 19th-century travelogues, this fascinating look into Florida's past documents a decade of change to the Indian River wilderness and becomes Stebbins's gift to the present.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817351298
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 09/28/2004
Series: Alabama Fire Ant Series
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Carolyn Baker Lewis is an independent scholar who has published several articles on postbellum agriculture and settlement in Florida and South Carolina.

Read an Excerpt

The Winter Sailor

Francis R. Stebbins on Florida's Indian River, 1878-1888


Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5129-8

Chapter One

Indian River Longings In this clime of snow I'm longing For the balmy air of June, As it breathes thro' all the winter O'er thy waters, fair Lagoon. In the silent hours I'm dreaming Of thy song birds, everywhere, Singing out their heaven-born music On the orange-scented air. Ne'er did earth hear sweeter music Since the Christmas song of old, Than thy morning songs, oh! wild birds, In your robes of red and gold. Oh! what gladness! oh! what rapture Did thy swelling throats outpour, From the tall pines and palmettoes, As we sailed along the shore. Memory brings it all back to me; And I live those hours again; When all time from morn to evening Was one song of glad refrain. I can hear the palm leaves rustle; I can see the old pines sway, As the soft wind bloweth gently Thro' their foliage day by day. I can see the proud banana Vestured like a tropic queen; And the oranges, and lemons, Rich in form and golden sheen. I am dreaming of our boat life; I am sailing down the shore, By the curious Mangrove islands- Ne'er had life such charms before. I can see the cranes and herons, With their plumage white as snow, And the pelicans, and eagles, As they ever come and go. Fair thewinds and blue the wavelets; Serving us as willing slaves; While from o'er the narrow lowland Comes the roar of ocean waves. Down by Fabers; on by Rockledge; Merritt's Isle, home of the deer; Past St. Lucie; thro' the narrows; Lo! the Light of Jupiter! At Jupiter we moor our boat Safe in a sandbar sheltered cove, And many a pleasant hour we stroll O'er shell strewn beach or thro' the grove. Now in the ocean surf and foam We cast our lines with sinewy strain, And the sea bass and cavali Struggle on our hooks in vain. Now a shark and now a bluefish, Land we on the shore with glee; Thus we vary daily pastime, In our boat life by the sea. The days have passed and sleet and snow Are tapping on the window pane; But in my room, with fire aglow, I live those joy days o'er again. And while I live in sun, or storm, In forest camp, or gay saloon, I'll ne'er forget the days we sailed On thy blue waves, O, fair Lagoon.

Chapter Two

1878 From Far Florida

Adrian, March 1.-For New Orleans, and Perhaps Farther.-To-morrow afternoon, Messrs F. R. Stebbins and F. W. Clay, of this city, start for a trip to New Orleans. They go all the way by rail, taking the Toledo & Wabash road at Toledo, and following out the line of the Canada Southern excursion party to New Orleans. After doing the Crescent City, they propose, if the spirit so moves them, to extend the trip to Havana. And just now, as we are threatened with a cold eastern storm, those of us who are chained to desks and counters will especially envy these fortunate excursionists.


New Orleans, March 6.-Thirteen hundred miles by rail on a Pullman car is by no means a task as severe as it looks to be, and the last half of it was to us one of new and varied interest. We crossed the "great river" at Columbus, about daylight, and the day's panorama of negro cabins, with the doors and yards always decorated with black diamond jewels, from the merest "chip" grading up to the mother "Kohinor," [sic] all the shining darkness embellished with the whitest ivory, always enlivened with the happy smile of those sons and daughters of Africa, kept us well occupied. Through Mississippi, almost the entire population seems to be of the colored people. Many of them have small but good and painted tenements, but there are also very many hovels of logs.

It would do even the eyes of a Lenawee county farmer good to look upon the vast expanse of those cotton and corn lands of Mississippi. As far as the eye could reach, we saw the long furrows stretched away, on both sides of the road, of black, rich soil, some of it already thrown into ridges for cotton and corn, the rest dotted over with colored men and women, with three mules and light ploughs, while in advance the children were gathering and burning the last year's corn stalks. The corn is raised on ridges with only one stalk in a place. Grass is only just beginning to start, even at Mobile, but near New Orleans we saw peas in the open field, a foot high.

We arrived at this city just thirty minutes before the procession of Mardi Gras started, and had a fine view of it. It was immense, but the display in the evening was beyond all attempts to describe in a short letter. The cars and their decorations must have cost thousands of dollars apiece. Over 200,000 people were in the streets, and the illuminations were gorgeous beyond description. In one of them there were red, white and blue gaslights, in number over 600. And all Canal street, which is 150 feet wide, was ablaze with these lights, and every balcony filled with ladies.

The levee is covered with cotton, oats, cotton-seed, etc., and lined with river and ocean steamers, and sailing vessels, as far as you can see. A Liverpool ship has just put in 6,000 bales in her hold.

The temper of the people seems to be fair. One man said to me, "I am a Democrat, but I had rather have an honest negro in office than a thieving white man." An old planter who had been ruined by the war, said to me, "The only and best way is to educate and elevate all the classes." We are obliged to leave the city to-night, as the only steamer for Florida for a week or more leaves now. We find no one who is an American citizen can visit Cuba without a passport. Not from Spanish objection, but from our own government; and passports are only issued at Washington. Therefore we decide to go to Cedar Keys and Jacksonville, Florida. We hope to take another look at this city on our return.

I find groves of the same pines, between here and Mobile, that grow on our Grand Lake property-the same form of trunky limbs, and bark and foliage. They looked like old friends, but the great beds, under them, of the "Spanish bayonet," did not look like home, and the dead cane reeds in the swamps, killed by an unusual frost this winter, remind us of fish poles. This same frost, they say, has killed a large portion of the sugar cane in Louisiana.

We expect to pass the jetties at the mouth of the river, to-morrow morning by daylight.


Steamer Margaret, 60 miles below New Orleans, March 7.-We left New Orleans at 2 a.m. this morning, and daylight finds us at this point, moving down the turbid Mississippi, between low shores fringed with a few willows, with an occasional cabin and orange grove, now and then a sugar plantation, and over and beyond marshes and canebrakes as far as you can see.

9 a.m.-The air is cool, and overcoats comfortable on deck. We have just passed Forts Jackson and Phillips, where the river is contracted to about a half mile in width. Below the forts it widens to about three-fourths of a mile. 1 p.m.-At the heads of the three main passes of the river, piles have been driven across a part of the east and west passes, throwing a larger quantity of water into the central channel. This raises the main channel one or two feet higher than the others. Below the conjunction of these passes the channel is about 300 feet wide, as I estimate it. The main jetties are at the mouth of this central pass, and consist of piled and filled wings jutting out into the river on both sides, thus throwing the current and volume of water into a contracted centre channel, thus creating a stronger current, and this tearing out the mud at the bottom and carrying it out to sea; thus from the old depth of eight feet, it is now increased to twenty-two feet.

Pelicans and gulls have been flying over us, and songs of many birds come to us from the shores, on our way down.

We have just steamed out into the gulf, 110 miles from New Orleans, and we have before us a ride direct 350 miles more to Cedar Keys.

20 miles out.-The water of the gulf is still yellow with the mud of the river. It requires no little pluck for one accustomed to pure water to drink water from a mudpuddle, wash in water yellow and thick with mud, and look out upon a river of mud from which is made your tea and coffee; and I suspect the first thought in making the black coffee of this region was to hide the mud of the water, and thus it has become the custom here to make coffee like a bitter solution of tar.

8th-On the Gulf-About noon yesterday a heavy wind from the southeast met us, and the huge swells of the water set our boat to bobbing and pitching so that no one could walk without holding on to something; and as darkness settled down upon us the scene was one not a little testing [of] one nerve's and confidence. We can brag and strut around in our fancied greatness and independence, with solid earth beneath, and fair skies over us; but find yourself a hundred miles out from land, in a small steamer, with dark clouds over you, the wind blowing a gale, the huge black waves crested with white phosphorescent light rolling upon your boat, making her quiver like a wounded bird, breaking over your bows, and rushing by with this peculiar seething, hissing surge of angry waters, with your boat rolling and pitching in the foaming turmoil of the great deep, and then turn into your narrow berth, and while you listen to the roar of the tempest, you will feel how small an item and atom you are in God's great universe. Happy the man who can look upward and claim with confidence the care of One mightier than wind and waves. When we turned in last night we knew not but the Times might write of us:


but the gale settled down before morning into a steady, strong trade wind, and we have been running against it all day, with a heavy sea. I have since learned that the old boat was shamefully overloaded and in danger of foundering had not the storm abated. I had suspected it from a low-voiced conversation between the mate and engineer and purser at the table. Of course most of our passengers are not hungry. I have missed no meals yet. Those beautiful little sailors, called "Portuguese men-of-war," have been passing us in numbers today. They are a kind of cuttle fish, which rise to the surface, and spreading a fan-shaped filmy fin, sail with the wind.

9th-Still out of sight of land, and the same steady, but lighter head winds; we hope to reach Cedar Keys before night.

4 p.m.-We have had a beautiful day. The invalids have all appeared on deck, and enjoyed the sunshine and beautiful blue waters of the gulf. At one time we were visited by a large school of porpoises, and they kept just alongside the boat and around our bows, directly under our vision for some time, affording a fine display of agility in aquatic maneuvers.

Cedar Keys, March 10.-We landed here at nine this morning, having laid at anchor all night some five miles from shore, and came ashore in a sail boat. On our way in, we passed a sawmill where a large part of the red cedar for Faber's pencils is prepared and shipped in boxes, to be leaded in New York. The cedar is found on this coast in great abundance.

We got our first sight of the cabbage palm, which grows an enormous bud, which is edible. In this land of oranges, we could not find one for sale in a town of 400 inhabitants, except on a transient coast schooner at the dock.

Several beautiful islands, called Kays or Cays by the Spaniards, and Keys by the English, are in sight, and we intend to visit some of them before we move on.


Cedar Key, March 12.-We leave this morning for Jacksonville, 120 miles by rail. Yesterday we chartered a little schooner and ran over to see Horse Key, about two miles out. The water all around these islands is shallow, and the channel to the town very crooked. We had a fine stroll around the shore of this island, picking up various kinds of shells, investigating the wonderful construction of the shrub palmetto, the cabbage palm, and huge cactus plants with spines an inch long, and very sharp and strong, which we found to our cost in attempting to push our way through the thick shrubbery.

On the beach we would occasionally come upon an army of "fiddlers," a species of crab only about an inch and a half in size; but they swarmed along the smooth sand beach in countless numbers. The beaches all around this section, and much of the interior soil, are almost pure white sand. We found on one part of the sand bluffs, partly concealed by shrubbery, an old earthwork, and two dismounted old rusty 32-pound cannon, half buried in the sand. Cedar Key, and other islands, gave shelter to over 10,000 colored men, and deserters from the Confederate army during the war, under the care of the U.S. government. About a quarter of a mile from this island, in the open but shallow water, a southern man, a few years ago, built a small house on piles, and some ten feet above the water, and lived in it during the summer. The house is still standing, and the roof was covered with great numbers of cormorants, a large sea bird. A pistol shot made a great many feathers fly.

Cedar Key is merely a supply station for the west coast, and a red cedar and pine lumber center. They are constructing very durable buildings of concrete, composed of pounded oyster-shells, shell-lime, and a little sand. Large oyster-shell reefs are found along the coast. They keep no cows here, but use condensed milk. Our landlord edits and publishes a weekly paper, keeps a drug store, doses the people, and feeds the traveler.

Jacksonville, 18th.-We left Cedar Key at 10 a.m., yesterday, and arrived here about dark. The railway for the first few miles, ran over lagoons and grass islands which spread out as far as we could see on both sides, presenting a diorama of low islands and water fields, the islands now and then containing a few pines, or palms, which are very pleasing to the eye. We passed, soon after, many trees and groves of the cabbage palm, which, with its straight, curious trunk, and its round, fan-shaped foliage at the top, brings the northern eye wonder and interest. After the first thirty miles the country is almost entirely covered with a thick growth of the pitch pine, and we passed several turpentine stills. Only for a few miles did we see any rolling land. We could see the apparently dead level far off through the tall pines, as the ground in most places contains little or no shrubbery save the Spanish bayonet.

We met occasionally several patches of cypress swamps, and in a few instances a dense growth of foliage full of white and yellow blossoms out of which rose tall trees covered with the long southern moss, which was swaying in the wind, and giving to the trees [a] weird and ghostly look.

We saw a few cattle along the neighborhood of the clearings, for there are some on the route, and a few villages, but they make no winter provision, and the cattle were poor and small. But the hogs! One of them would make a good addition to a menagerie in the north for an animated black pine slab.

Mr. Clay and self went through the meat market this morning; and that white folks will buy and eat such as the best beef we saw there, is beyond solution to us.

The weather here is warm as ordinary summer at the north, the flies are annoying, and a few mosquitoes are appearing. We have our tickets for 300 or more miles up the St. Johns river by steamer, and leave in the morning.8


On Board the Starlight, St. Johns River, Fla., March 14.-We left Jacksonville this morning to go up the St. Johns river. Jacksonville is about the size of Adrian, with one main business street, along the river, and good brick buildings. The rest of the city is laid out in squares, with wide streets, well shaded with large water oaks. Very many of the front yards and gardens contain orange trees, many of them still holding oranges, while the blossoms are opening for a new crop. The orange crop is a peculiar one. The fruit ripens early in November, but will remain on the trees until the following May, and improve in quality most of the time.

It is a beautiful day over the river, warm sunshine, tempered with a hazy, dreamy atmosphere, like the warmest days of our northern Indian summer. We have just passed Mandarin, noted as the winter residence of Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose modest cottage is shaded by a cluster of magnificent old live oaks, and their huge bulk, draped in this wonderful grey moss, contrasts finely with the deep green of the magnolia and of the modest little orange trees; and the air is perfumed with the sweet odor of the orange blossoms.


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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations....................ix
1. Indian River Longings....................1
2. 1878 From Far Florida....................4
3. 1879 Indian River, Florida....................18
4. 1880 Our Florida Letter....................42
5. 1881 On the Bounding Billows....................61
6. 1882 Among the Mangroves....................72
7. 1883 Life on the Lagoons....................90
8. 1884 Where Summer Lives....................103
9. 1885 Northerners in the South....................118
10. 1886 Florida's Freeze Up....................130
11. 1888 Roving on Indian River....................140

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