A piece I wrote for the Spring, 2018 edition of FORUM
On a “fine, cool” May morning in 1774, William Bartram navigated his tiny craft up a broad stretch of the St. John’s River and nosed toward the western shore.
“I suddenly saw before me an Indian settlement, or village,” he wrote. “Some of the youth were naked, up to their hips in the water, fishing with rods and lines, whilst others, younger, were diverting themselves in shooting frogs with bows and arrows.”
Four months later, Bartram – artist, explorer, map maker and botanist – would return to the village to partake of the tribe’s watermelon fest.
“We were received and entertained friendlily by the Indians, the chief of the village conducting us to a grand, airy pavilion in the center of the village,” he wrote. “Here being seated or reclining ourselves after smoking tobacco, baskets of the choicest fruits were brought and set before us.”
It was as fine a welcome to Palatka – or what would eventually become Palatka – as a Quaker from far off Philadelphia could hope for.
This gentle stranger who would become known to the Seminoles as Puc-Puggy: Flower Hunter.
Nearly a century and a half later, Sam Carr sits in Palatka’s gleaming new St. John’s River Center and ponders the relationship between America’s first naturalist and Carr’s beloved hometown.
“When you read Bartram’s writings his heart becomes our heart,” said Carr, retired Ford Motor Co. executive, avid fisherman and homespun conservationist. “He was more concerned about how man took care of God’s creations. He was the first to see the relationship between our wetlands, the river, the wildlife, the seasons.
“This guy belongs to Palatka. He’s ours.”
Carr is not so much a Bartram enthusiast as a Bartram evangelist. For the past several years he has lived, breathed and expounded upon Bartram’s writings and explorations – to just about anybody who would listen.
From his home in nearby Satsuma, Carr can see Murphy Island, which Bartram described as “1500 acres more or less of good swamp, and some hammock.” And last year, when Palatka hosted for the first time the national, annual Bartram Trail Conference, Carr took conferees on a journey up river to sulfurous Satsuma Springs to experience that “prodigious large fountain of clear water of loathsome taste.”
“There were people with tears in their eyes to realize it’s really here as Bartram described it,” he said.
His book “Bartram’s Travels” was wildly popular in young America. And partially as a result, “people were coming here to find that this was indeed what he called a creator’s garden. They came to see the springs, the river, the flowering plants and all that creates Palatka.”
The city’s popularity as an early nature tourism destination was such that Palatka once boasted nearly 6,000 hotel rooms. Most of which burned down in a disastrous fire in 1884.
Palatka never fully recovered its luster after that inferno. But it may yet.
Palatka has seen many economic evolutions since then, alternatively fueled by shipping, railroads, citrus, lumber and paper mills. But busts have inevitably followed booms. An article in the Washington Post last year deemed Palatka and its 10,000 residents, a city “desperate for an economy to call its own.”
Which is where William Bartram and his legacy may come in.
Bartram’s travels up and down the American east coast are well recorded. And his Florida explorations took him the length of the St. John’s as well as to points as distant as Alachua County’s Paynes Prairie and the Suwannee River.
But Bartram mapped more sites, 32 of them, in what is now Putnam County than anywhere else on the river. And for the past few years, Carr and other members of Palatka’s ad hoc Bartram Committee – with financial backing from the city, county and the Florida Council on Humanities – have been locating and marking Bartram’s sites with colorful information kiosks. They have also mapped a growing network of greenways (biking) blueways (kayaks) and hiking trails with the intention of once again establishing Palatka as the ecotourism center of Florida. Maps that will lead modern explorers from Palatka to Welaka, Port Royal, Georgetown and points in between.
Where Bartram once set foot, others can now follow.
“Putnam county’s assets are amazing,” Carr says. “We have a huge amount of public lands and the river. We can be the bike trails hub, the river hub.”
Carr and others hope that Bartram’s legacy will become integral to this river city’s very sense of place.
In addition to hosting last year’s Bartram Trail Conference – drawing scholars and enthusiasts from as far away as London – Palatka now sponsors an annual “Bartram River Frolic,” which offers visitors historical reenactments, riverboat tours, food and drink and concerts and art displays. At the River Center visitors and student groups learn not only about Bartram’s travels, but are also schooled on how to exercise environmental stewardship over the land and the water around them.
“This is the headquarters for Bartram recreational trail,” Carr says. “Go through the Bartram exhibit, get the brochure, the maps. Figure out whether to hike, bike boat or drive. It takes about four days to see everything and it’s rather unique.”
Another Bartram Committee member, Linda Crider, recently converted her two-story historic home near the river into the Bartram Inn. “What I really wanted to do was promote adventure tours and wrap it around our Bartram efforts,” she said. “On the second floor I have on the walls all the kiosks panels that explain who he is. Every room has a brochure. I have bicycles available to do Palatka’s historic homes and murals tour.
“The Bartram Inn is probably Palatka’s first tangible business-commercial connection,” she said, “but I think it’s going grow. Who knows where it might lead?”
Puc-Puggy surely knew. He who sailed up this great river to discover a “boundless apartment of the Sovereign Creator…inexpressibly beautiful and pleasing” yet “equally free to the inspection and enjoyment of all his creatures.”
For more information
William Bartram in Putnam County
St. John’s River Center
The Bartram Trail Conference