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A Closer Look at Jonathan Dickinson

If you’re still wondering what Jim Snyder’s latest book is about, here’s a review that appeared on the web page of Book Review Directory;

Jonathan Dickinson introduces readers to the sea voyage and shipwreck that made Jonathan Dickinson a historic figure. Pulling directly from his preserved journals, we read Dickinson’s first-hand accounts during an unpredictable, tumultuous period in history. In Jonathan Dickinson, adventure and discovery go hand-in-hand as we learn about life in the early days of America through Dickinson’s eyes. 

In this non-fiction work, we follow Dickinson’s travels through the Caribbean and Spanish Florida. Readers will be transported back in time with vivid, concrete descriptions of the sea and landscape. Perfect for “the historically curious lay person,” Jonathan Dickinson is written in a voice that is friendly, casual, and approachable. With an entertaining and engaging format, and an entertaining narrator, a wide range of readers can digest this story and the author’s many commentaries.



Despite its historical subject, this book does not read at all like an academic textbook. Though it is a research-based text, the book uses Dickinson as a “main character” to create a natural narrative that shares his experiences in a way that will make readers feel intimately connected to this real-life story. One of the many ways this is done successfully is the incorporation of various mediums in the book.

Journal entries, maps, drawings, and photos paint a picture of the settings and surroundings that Dickinson encountered. With this combination of mediums, readers are given many ways to understand the historical context of the book’s topic while also keeping the reading experience interactive and engaging. The maps are especially fascinating because they illustrate where the original settlements and shores were located. 

The book includes long excerpts from Dickinson’s journal entries, allowing the readers to get acquainted with Dickinson’s voice, personality, and views. The entries are detailed and specific, and Dickinson is a great storyteller, so they never fail to entertain. However, the book jumps between focusing on Dickinson’s journey and focusing on related historical events, which disrupts the flow of all the information we’re reading. Organizing the book so that all the different mediums, people, and locations are well-established and balanced could have helped maintain the pace throughout the book. 

With enchanting imagery and a perilous journey, Jonathan Dickinson dives into the rich history of Spanish Florida, Native Americans, and Dickinson himself. History buffs of all kinds will indulge in this thorough, well-researched work. Chock-full of visuals and compelling tales, Jonathan Dickinson takes readers on a riveting adventure through history. 

An Author Interview by Literary Titan

Shortly after the launch of Jonathan Dickinson, the author was interviewed for a podcast by Karen Almeida, assistant editor of Literary Titan, another leading book review organization. Among her questions:

Jonathan Dickinson looks into the history and thoughts of Dickinson after his shipwreck on the Florida coast and the impact it had on him and the people they encountered. What research did you do to understand the backdrop for your book?


A - Dickinson’s original manuscript, which focused solely on his shipwreck and escape from hostile natives, has been available for many years. Telling the story in a broader context first led me to historical records in his native Jamaica. Understanding that Dickinson was witness to the dying days of Spanish Florida involved sifting through numerous eyewitness accounts in several Spanish archives. Learning the perspective of Florida’s Native Americans meant delving into and distilling the academic works of modern archeologists and historians. 


What were some ideas that were important to you to share in this book?


A - I’ve always felt that Dickinson was a bit myopic in his journal. Yes, it’s a hair-raising account of suffering and courage, but it’s both odd and irritating that this intelligent, well-traveled merchant offers so few political insights as to the relationships between the Indian tribes he encountered along his way. The same goes for the Spanish colonists and their testy relations with the Indians and the dire threat Florida faced from the English settlers who were flexing their military muscles in Georgia and the Carolinas. 


Dickinson might not have realized that he was witness to the dying days of Spanish Florida, but providing more detail would have allowed the rest of us to understand what was unfolding. Hence, I saw my purpose as to gather up the historical fragments and bundle them into a story explaining why Spain failed in Florida and why its Indians disappeared in the process. 


Equally important to me was to avoid an academic dissertation and keep the story concise enough to be appreciated by a general readership - people who are curious to learn more about the subject but who have scant knowledge about it. This also meant paraphrasing some of the archaic expressions and woeful misspellings that make the original Dickinson journal so hard to read. 


What experience in your life has had the biggest impact on your writing?


A - Sorry…no earthquaking epiphanies. Just as some folks feel their souls will shrivel if they don’t paint on canvas or climb mountains, I’ve always had this unexplainable compulsion to write about what strikes me as interesting - especially if no one has tackled the subject before. There’s a special challenge - maybe like a detective delving into an unsolved cold case - in pulling together threads of information and knitting them into some sort of literary sweater. You always think you’ve missed a stitch, or the sleeves are too long. But if enough folks think your new book is interesting, it motivates you to keep pecking away on a new topic, perhaps without mixing metaphors as I just did. 


What is the next book you are working on?


A - I’m not “working on” a book right now - as in typing feverishly. When I send a book off at last, there’s a sense of relief not unlike finally ushering your twenties-something offspring out the door. Then comes a lull when you tidy up the office, toss out extraneous research notes and file away those that may be needed in case some nitpicker wants to argue a point (my papers remain unmolested in their sarcophagus). Then come the book talks and promotions.


Yet, “working on” the next one grinds on inside the head. Nowadays the brain churns away mostly on another historical fiction built around an actual event. It centers on Berlin when The Wall is about to fall and a certain young Russian KGB officer stationed there struggles to grasp what’s happening to the Soviet empire. He has a name…Pushkin, who is really a marker for someone else we know all too well today.  


Mixing fiction with real events is always a lot of work. But maybe if enough readers find the latest book interesting, I’ll give it a try.

Whales in Florida? Absolutely! For 500 Years!

In mid-January January, local TV showed dozens of people on the Jupiter-Juno Beach shoreline watching as a right whale and her calf glided by on a “winter vacation” from their home waters off Nova Scotia.

It was a goosebump moment for me because in the novel La Florida I created some scenes in which the Jeaga Indians of Jupiter Inlet would earn tattoos for bravery every winter by canoeing among passing pods of right whales and spearing some for their meat, oil and ambergris.

I didn’t just make it up. While researching the book, I came upon no less than four accounts in sixteenth century Spanish records. Here’s a 1590 account by one Joseph Acosta:

The Indians get into a canoe, and paddling, approach the side of the whale and with great agility [one man] leaps upon the back of its neck and there he rides, waiting an opportunity. He inserts a stout and sharp stick through one nostril of the whale...then strikes it very hard with another stick. The whale storms and thrashes in the sea and raises up mountains of water and dives into it with fury, and returns to leap, not understanding what causes its rage.


The Indian is very quiet and valiant and the reward produced by the wild behavior is that he thrusts another similar stick in the other that it closes for good and stops the breathing. And with this he returns to his canoe that he has fastened to the side of the whale with a rope. And giving line to the whale, which is long as it is in deep water, struggles from side to side as if crazed from anger, where with the enormity of its body, quickly runs aground.

Here, a large group of Indians finish the killing and divide it and cut it into pieces, and from its abundant tough meat, drying it and grinding it, they make a true powder that they use for their food, and it lasts for a very long time.

Scenes like this help explain why, instead of dozens of right whales floating by the Jeaga Indians, observers in 2023 spotted only one mother with her calf.

But there’s something hopeful and reassuring that Nature is still calling whales to Florida some 500 years later. With a cadre of scientific agencies, drones and computers now tracking the annual whale migration - and with killing outlawed - perhaps the right whale census will soon increase.

An Audio Introduction to Trapper Nelson

Members of the large Florida Trail Association often trek through the 11,000-acre Jonathan Dickinson State Park and they unfailingly want to know more about the “celebrity hermit” who once owned much of its land along its Loxahatchee River. One of the trail walkers is Misti Little, a prominent podcaster and blogger, who decided to get acquainted with Vince “Trapper” Nelson by asking me about my book, Life and Death on the Loxahatchee.

The 45-minute interview is part of a series of podcasts entitled Orange Blaze: A Florida Trail Podcast. You can access it on iTunes and Spotify. Or…. just click the link below:

Now Presenting: the First Films of Trapper Nelson

We recently introduced an expanded, updated edition of Life and Death on the Loxahatchee before a sold-out crowd at the Jonathan Dickinson State Park environmental center. Even “newer” was the first-ever films showing the legendary Trapper Nelson in his camp over 70 years ago.


For these home movies we can thank Trapper’s grandnephew Philip Celmer (at left in the photo). During his boyhood, Phil’s family from New Jersey began spending summer vacations with their famous Florida relative. Now 77, Phil recently discovered a treasure trove of four-color home movies filmed in the 1950s when many tour boats visited our “celebrity hermit” in his jungle habitat. Phil’s recall of details about life in a boy’s paradise was amazing – and entertaining.

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