Ghost Towns of the St. Johns
Francis Philip Fatio’s Plantation on the St. Johns and the Disappearance of the River Leviathans
By Geoff Dobson
Professor Phil Roberts has noted that often history is found in the names of streets or towns.
Developers come into an area and the history of a community is destroyed, destroyed not by bulldozers, but by well-meaning developers seeking a more euphonious and pleasant name for an area. Thus today, the community of Never Sweat, Wyoming, is all but forgotten, in favor of a name selected by the Postmaster General seeking favor of the politically powerful Chairman of the Senate Postal Committee.
Rattlesnake, Florida, near Tampa and Kiss-Me-Quick near Cedar Key, are all but forgotten.
Several years ago, a ninth-generation Floridian of Minorcan descent mourned the passing of Bombing Range Road in favor of the more pleasant sounding Greenbrier Road. The fact that a piece of St. Johns County and Florida history was lost did not deter our imperious leaders any more than it deterred them in changing the name of Nine Mile Road or deterred developers from changing the name of Stinking Water, Wyoming, in order to honor one of the developers.
In the Northwest corner of St. Johns County, New Switzerland, Fruit Cove and Julington Creek have now been combined under the single name “St. Johns” and the zip code 32259. As time passes, their history surviving in their names will all fade away just as Rollestown, Tocoi Junction, Molasses Junction, Tater, and Middleton are now forgotten New Switzerland may be regarded as one of the oldest communities in Florida, dating to 1771 when three British subjects, Thomas Dunnage, John Francis Rivas, and Francis Philip Fatio purchased the rights to New Castle a proposed plantation on the St. Johns River. The new plantation was named after the birthplace of Fatio who originally came from Switzerland.
Notwithstanding entreaties by Fatio and others that Britain should retain East Florida for its valuable naval stores needed by the Royal Navy, in 1783, George III traded East and West Florida to Spain in exchange for the Bahamas and recognition of British title to Gibraltar. The Spanish King had offered Puerto Rico in exchange for Gibraltar, but George III certainly recognized the importance of Gibraltar, a prescience later borne out in the Napoleonic Wars and World War II. At the time, and maybe in after sight, it was like trading Mediterranean and Baltic for Park Place and Boardwalk.
At the conclusion of the British evacuation, only 450 whites and 200 blacks remained in East Florida. The majority of the whites that remained were Minorcans from Dr. Andrew Turnbull’s plantation at New Smyrna… Among the non-Minorcans who stayed were Francis Phillip Fatio and his future son-in-law George Fleming after whom Fleming Island in Clay County is named. The Treaty between Spain and Britain provided that British subjects could obtain an extension of time to sell their property, if a buyer could not be obtained. In 1790, recognizing a distinct shortage of population in the restored Spanish colony, Governor Juan Nepomucceno de Quesada afforded former British subjects to the opportunity to retain their properties if they would swear allegiance to the Spanish Crown, adopt the Roman Catholic religion, and adopt a Spanish forename. Thus, Francis Philip Fatio became Francisco Philippe Fatio and his plantation became Nueva Suiza. It is one of the few examples of a British title to lands in Florida being confirmed by Spain and subsequently by the United States. See United States v. Fatio’s Heirs, 33 U.S. 492 (1834) In contrast, Lord John Rolle’s and numerous other British efforts for American confirmation of titles were for naught. For list of British titles rejected see American State Papers, Senate 21st Congress 1st Session, Vol. 6, page 121.
The plantation in the wilderness was a shining example of gentility in the wilderness. Fatio held 10,000 acres and 12 miles of river-front. His plantation house and library were a wonder. Fatio raised citrus and naval stores.
The underwhelming population certainly caused difficulties for the Spanish government. Seminole Indians invaded the colony. American Freebooters from Georgia came south intent on annexing East Florida into the United States. Indians invaded Fatio’s plantation and stole some of his slaves. In 1812, the freebooters in the so-called “Patriot’s War” burned Nueva Suiza, the plantation house, the library and the remaining buildings.. The Plantation was abandoned. In 1822, Fatio’s daughter returned to the site and found a few scraggly citrus trees and the foundation of the slave quarters. All else was gone.
By 1819, it was apparent that Spain would soon relinquish Florida, either to be taken by Britain or purchased by the United States. The only delay was Spanish insistence on retaining Texas. With American acquisition of the two Floridas, settlement along the St. Johns resumed.
In 1835, President Andrew Jackson informed the Indians that they were to move to present-day Oklahoma. The Seminole reaction was immediate. Fort King was attacked. By the end of May, 1836, Fort King (present day Ocala) was abandoned. In July, Fort Drane, located between present-day Irvine and Fairfield in western Marion County to the east of Williston was ordered evacuated. The wagon train with a large military escort was attacked and was relieved only by the appearance of reinforcements. The various towns east of the St. John’s River, lying south of the Picolata road were all destroyed. The Plantations lying south of Black Creek and Newnansville were attacked. In July, the Indians appeared at New Switzerland and destroyed the plantations of Colonel Miller Hallows, Dr. William Wayne Simmons, and George Colt, a son-in-law of Fatio.. The William Travers plantation at Black Creek was destroyed. The Militia in East Florida was withdrawn from the plantation areas for the protection of St. Augustine itself.
At first, the Indians were better armed than the militia and the regular army. The army was still using smooth bore muskets from the American Revolution. Gradually, however, the military beat back the Indians through tactics and deceit. Indians were captured under flags of truce. In 1842, development along the St. Johns recommenced.
The outbreak of the Civil War again made life difficult. Union gunboats patrolled the river. Palatka itself was bombarded by a Union gunboat. Following the war, prosperity again came along the great river. Steamboats provided regular transportation for shipment of passengers and goods. Steamboat transportation along the east side of the St. Johns was provided to Arlington, St. Nicholas, Mandarin, Fruit Cove, New Switzerland, Reminton Park, Orange Dale, Hogarth’s Landing, Picolata, Tocoi, Federal Point, Orange Mills, Cook’s Landing Dancey’s Wharf, Russell’s Point, Russell’s Landing, Hart’s Orange Grove, San Mateo, and so forth including to Silver Springs and to Lake Monroe.
Steamboats had first appeared on the St. Johns in 1838 but it was Hubbard L. Hart (1827-1895) of Palatka who made the waterway a great river of commerce carrying freight and passengers up and down the River. Hart, originally from Vermont received a contract to carry mail from Palatka to Fort Brooke by stage in 1855. The stage route ran by Silver Springs and Ocala. Hart recognized the value of tourism. While the Civil War interfered with tourism, Hart was able to receive remunerative contracts with the Confederate government as a blockade runner and to clear the Ocklawaha for navigation. Following the War, Hart’s steamboats dominated the St. Johns. In the 1880’s railroads pushed into central Florida. The railroad reached Ocala in 1881. By 1890 a number of railroads had reached Palatka including the Florida Southern, the Jacksonville, Tampa & Key West, and the Georgia Southern & Florida. State Road 100 parallels the latter’s right-of-way from Palatka to Lake City.
The coming of the railroad reduced the demand for freight. Stops at the smaller communities were discontinued. Some communities, the ones with large hotels, continued to thrive. Palatka boasted some 5,000 hotel rooms at its peak. In 1884, Hart’s Putnam House hotel burned. With railroad connections to towns further south, tourism on the river faded.
The final blow was the coming of the motor car. In 1915, the Dixie Highway Association, headed by Carl Fisher the developer of Miami Beach, designated the route for the Dixie Highway. The highway by-passed many of the small towns along the river. One by one the great steam-powered leviathans of the St. Johns disappeared. The last reminder of an era that had passed was the Hart Line’s Hiawatha which sat beached at Hart Point — slowly disintegrating. All traces were removed in the 1980’s.
Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 33 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 firstname.lastname@example.org