Historic City Memories: Ghost Towns

Ghost Towns of the St. Johns

” Rollestown and Denys Rolle, a pain in the anatomy ”

By Geoff Dobson

A few weeks ago, the writer’s wife was asked for directions to one of the county schools. The wife replied by telling the individual to turn south at Mill Creek. “Mill Creek?” was the response. “Where is Mill Creek?” “At Horton’s store,” she responded.

Horton’s store is now gone. Mill Creek is fading and becoming a ghost town, its name replaced by the name of a golf course or becoming a part of “World Golf Village.”

When thinking of ghost towns, the mind tends to think of old mining camps in the American West; towns which faded when the gold gave out, abandoned; towns such as California’s Bodie, Wyoming’s South Pass City, Colorado’s Tin Cup, or New Mexico’s Mogollon; places where remains of old buildings still exist and the doors to the old saloon flap in the wind coming in off the desert.

Few think of Florida as having ghost towns. Occasionally, because of a feature on television, one may come across Rosewood outside of Cedar Key, Rattlesnake which has now been absorbed by Tampa, or perhaps see a sign on U.S. 17 in Jacksonville for “Yukon.”

St. Johns County itself has numerous ghost towns which have all but disappeared. Some such as Armstrong, Mill Creek, and Ward’s Creek are marked by highway signs. Others such as Picolata and Tocoi are remembered in the name of a road or as a name given to an area.

Former towns such as New Switzerland, which date back to the British Period, are rapidly losing their identity; their names replaced by other names. Others such as North Beach Junction (not to be confused with North Beach), Tocoi Junction (not to be confused with Tocoi), Carterville, Middleton, and Oglethorpe are almost completely forgotten.

The two most historic of the ghost towns along the St. Johns River associated with St. Augustine are Rollestown and Fort Picolata. Rollestown was established in 1767 by Denys Rolle, a Member of Parliament for Barnstaple. With the acquisition of Florida in 1763, His Majesty’s Government began resolution of the problems with the Native Americans. Two treaties were entered into with the Indians, the Treaty of Augusta and later the Treaty of Fort Picolata. Entry into the treaties made development of Florida possible. Thus, in a letter, September 15, 1764, to John Bartram, Thomas Lamboll of Charleston, South Carolina, noted that Rolle had honoured him with a visit. Laboll wrote that Rolle “proposes settling a little colony of his own, in Florida.”

The definition of “little” has changed over the years. Rolle originally proposed that he be given a stretch of land from the Altamaha at present day Brunswick Georgia to Apalachicola in the Florida Panhandle. He then proposed a site for his colony at St. Marks. He then proposed to settle on Cumberland Island. Ultimately, Rolle explored the St. Johns River. He was offered land near Fort Picolata but eventually located his plantation south of East Palatka near the present site of the power plant. Governor James Grant found that dealing with Rolle’s constant changing of mind and complaints was unpleasant.

Governor Grant wrote,

“Mr. Rolle labours hard with his own hands, but he has nobody to assist him, in a penurious way he trifles away a great deal of money, and has nothing to show for it; he is impatient of advice, and thinks every man his enemy who differs in opinion with him, ’tis therefore impossible to put him or keep him right and if he goes on as he has done he will undoubtedly ruin himself without being the least use to the province, where he has more disputes, differences, quarrels and grievances than all the other inhabitants.”

In August 1768, Governor Grant wrote Lord Hillsborough, Secretary of State for the American Colonies:

“Mr. Rolle has met with no unnecessary difficulties or improper obstruction in locating his land, but on the contrary every facility which was in my power to give him, for I had heard and seen enough of Mr. Rolle at London to wish most anxiously to get him off my hands as soon as possible, after his arrival here. ”

Hillsborough County, Florida is named for Lord Hillsborough. Governor Grant continued:

“The delay of location therefore, my Lord, can only be imputed to Mr. Rolle’s suspicious and litigious disposition, for an unhappy jealousy in his temper is the source of all his grievances, which exist nowhere but in his imagination.”

Rolle wrangled a preference in the location of his plantation. Thus, the delay in making up his mind as to whether the plantation was to be at St. Marks, at Apalachicola, Cumberland Island, or Fort Picolata, delayed others in their applications for land grants from the Privy Council.
Others referred to Rolle in less kind terms. Andrew Turnbull, who later had his own problems in New Smyrna, referred to Rolle as “wrong headed” and as “the malevolent Rolle” Such terms were mild compared to the summation of Rolle by author Gene M. Burnett, “Florida’s Past: People and Events That Shaped the State, ” Pineapple Press, Sarasota. Burnett referred to Rolle as “priggish and oppressive,” “capricious,” and “petty and niggardly.”

The town was originally named Charlotta after Rolle’s mother, Isabella Charlotta Walter Rolle. The Rolle’s plantation, however, extended into St. Johns County as far north as present day Tocoi and consisted of a modest 40,000 acres. At its peak, Rolle owned some 78,000 acres running from Federal Point to Dunn’s Creek to Crescent Lake. In establishing his plantation, Rolle expended some £23,000.

In 1824, after Florida was conveyed by Spain to the United States, Rolle’s son, Lord John Rolle filed a petition with the United States claiming 20,000 acres. It was summarily denied.

Rolle originally intended to man the plantation with paupers from the slums of London along with sweepings from some of the London goals. They were described by Dr. William Stork as “a valuable colony of sixty people consisting of shoe blacks, chimney sweepers, sink boys, tinkers and tailors, bunters, cinder wenches, whores and pickpockets”.

Dr. Stork, an English physician, acted as an agent for owners of property in East Florida. He was present at Dr. Andrews Turnbull’s plantation in New Smyrna at the time of the Minorcan uprising. It has been alleged that as a result Dr. Stork died of fright.

The scheme of using indentured servants did not work. Most of the indentured employees left the plantation for St. Augustine or for Georgia, and the Carolinas. The workers were then replaced by slaves.

At its peak, Rollestown had a population of about 200. But by the time of William Bartram’s exploration, the plantation was already falling into disrepair. Bartram described Rollestown: “The remaining old habitations are mouldering to earth, except the mansion house, which is a large frame building, cypress wood, yet in tolerable repair, and inhabited by overseer and his family. There is also a blacksmith with shop and family, at a small distance from it.”

The plantation provided naval stores, beef and citrus. In one year, Rolle shipped some 1,000 gallons of orange wine north. At the end of the American Revolution, Britain traded Florida to Spain in exchange for Spanish recognition of British title to Gibraltar and for the Bahamas. With the evacuation of Florida, Rolle petitioned the Privy Council for land in the Bahamas as compensation, claiming a loss of £23,000. Not withstanding, that Rolle had been a pain in various parts of the anatomy with regard to Rollestown, he was awarded land in Exuma.

Rolle then moved his operations to Exuma where he established two new communities, Rolletown and Rolleville. To this day, the name “Rolle” is one of the most common surnames in the Bahamas adopted by the slaves taken by Rolle to the Bahamas and freed by Rolle’s son, Lord John Rolle. The evacuation of East Florida was chaotic. The two principle ports of embarkation were St. Augustine and St. Mary’s Georgia. The St. Augustine inlet was blocked by a sandbar. A visitor to the city at the height of the evacuation noted a brigantine which was trapped in the harbor for five weeks waiting for a tide high enough for passage over the bar. The visitor, himself waited on board his vessel for five days until he could cross the bar. It was estimated that there was one wreck every two to four weeks in crossing the bar.

The evacuees took everything. Governor Tonyn sent to the Bahamas, the fire engine, bells, and church pews. Others shipped out ovens, furniture, window frames, and shingles. One householder pulled down his house, intending to take it with him. Part of it rotted while awaiting shipment to St. Mary’s for transport to the Bahamas. Another part was lost while being shipped, and another part lost while it was being unloaded in the Bahamas. Toward the end of the evacuation, goods and slaves were stolen. Many had to rely on governmentally provided transport. A few such as Panton, Leslie and Company and Denys Rolle were able to obtain private transport.

Denys Rolle died in 1797. Rolle was never awarded a knighthood or peerage. That would be given to his son. A memorial plaque in Denys Rolle’s honor is within St. Giles in the Wood, Devon.

With Spanish acquisition of Florida, the plantation overseer, Job Wiggins remained in Florida and established his own plantation near present day Tocoi. After Wiggins’ death in 1797, his six children and his widow, Nansi Wiggins, a freed Senegalese slave, continued to manage the plantation. Nansi Wiggins, however, was not permitted to inherit the plantation. The Spanish government did not recognize her marriage as being valid since she and Wiggins had been married in the Anglican Church at Rollestown. Wiggins’s plantation was described as a plantation house, 1400 acres, one hundred head of cattle and 14 slaves living in six cabins.

In 1812, Indians burned the various plantations along the Saint Johns River. Nansi Wiggins with some of her children moved to Fernandina.

The remnants of Rollestown continued to remain visible until the late 1870’s. Eunice Bullard White (Mrs. Henry Ward Beecher) in her 1879 “Letters from Florida,” wrote, that a “ part of the old foundations of Rolle’s mansion were used as the foundation of the present cottage where I now write, and I have picked up the glazed bricks that were used in building the houses for his tenantry. The old earthworks and rifle-pits built to protect them from the Indians are still to be seen here.”

The name Rollestown remained in use until the coming of the railroad in the 1890’s. Hastings, Federal Point, San Mateo, and East Palatka all lie within the area encompassed by Denys Rolle’s plantation. The name of the ship on which he evacuated, “The Peace and Plenty” is used as the name of a hotel in Georgetown, Exuma. It is also used as the name of a bed and breakfast in St. Augustine. The Town of Hastings on its website refers to itself as the “Land of Peace and Plenty.”

Today little marks the site of Rollestown, a state sign gives a brief history, but little else.

Next week: Fort Picolata, New Switzerland.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 32 years, is a western and Florida history writer. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

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