The Story of Jonathan Dickinson:
Retold and Re-imagined.
Folks often ask, “What are you writing about these days?” My answer: ”Jonathan Dickinson and the demise of the Indians of Spanish Florida.”
Typically, this elicits blank stares, and truth be told, I don’t expect the book to sell many copies. But I’ve long thought it’s needed to set the historical record straight.
The name Jonathan Dickinson means little outside South Florida – and then mostly because the state park near my home bears his name. But back in the early eighteenth century, Jonathan Dickinson’s Journal was a sensation because it chronicled how a Pennsylvania Quaker family was shipwrecked on Jupiter Island, captured by Indian “cannibals,” and forced to endure hunger and death during a tortuous trek up the Florida coast until finally reaching friendly St. Augustine some four months later. Reprinted many times in the American colonies and then throughout Europe, the book became a worldwide best seller back when printing was still primitive.
One must admire the faith and courage of Dickinson’s party, but the story deserves to be told in a much broader context. Confined first by its Elizabethan prose (awkward for today’s reader), it’s also told as a one-dimensional tale. Dickinson describes his party’s ordeal, but what of their upbringing in England? Why did they sail from Jamaica? Just who were these “cannibal” Indians and why did they despise the English? Why was Spanish-ruled St. Augustine so hospitable to citizens of archrival England? And why did this pious Quaker, whose sect crusaded against slavery, himself own plantations worked by slaves?
Each new research “dig” yields shards of a story that begins to explain the geopolitical scene of its time and sheds light on why Florida’s Native American population was already disintegrating at the very time the Dickinson party staggered up its coast. If and when I weave it all into a book, you might even find it as interesting as I do.
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.
A Good-bye Salute to Our Riverkeepers
Just ended one of my most fulfilling experiences: ten years on the Governing Board of the Loxahatchee River District. Here I’m sharing a “farewell photo” with fellow commissioners Gordon Boggie, Dr. Matt Rostock and Steve Rockoff.
CEO Albrey Arrington and his talented staff of 84 are the watchdogs of our historic river’s ecosystem, from conducting environmental education to water quality research to maintaining the nearly 300 miles of underground pipes that carry wastewater to the top-notch treatment plant. And did you know that the District also pipes recycled wastewater to irrigate 16 golf courses and the green spaces in Abacoa?
Sad to retire when the best is yet to come: a re-do of the
headquarters/treatment complex and expanded environment education
facilities on the campus of the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse. I’ll miss being part of it.
La Florida: “Highly Recommended”
When the new paperback edition of La Florida debuted in December, Literary Titan published a review by editor Thomas Anderson that captures what I was trying to convey. Here are some excerpts:
Author Snyder has written a well-researched and captivating historical novel that will make you feel like you are in a movie. At times the story was a little hard to follow because there are many names, dates, and places involved, but that is the information that comes with history. However, this didn't deter me from reading the book, as I was able to go back in the chapter to get clarification.
I enjoyed that Snyder provided background information about the Calusa and the other tribes they ruled over, showing the tension between tribes even before the Spanish arrived. The reader also gets a closer look at Menendez and the obstacles he had to overcome in order to get funded for his expedition to Florida.
Snyder doesn't sugarcoat the actions of anyone in the story, making this a realistic read. Maps are provided throughout the chapters, which helps the reader to visualize locations, especially since many places in Florida had different names back then.
The author seamlessly provided readers with historical information without making us feel like we are in history class having information fed to us.
La Florida contains a complex history with perfectly executed storytelling. I highly recommend this book to history buffs and to those who are looking to expand their horizons in this genre.
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 nostril...so 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.
A New Edition of the Saga of Trapper Nelson
After some twenty years in print, we’ve issued a revised, updated edition of Life and Death on the Loxahatchee.
The new version includes several “new” photos of the “Legend of the Loxahatchee,” discovered recently by Trapper’s grandnephew Philip Celmer in various family archives. The two examples shown here show Vince Nelson in his heyday, spearfishing near his riverfront compound, and setting a trap along the trail he walked nearly every morning.
Also revealed for the first time is the comprehensive coroner’s report that followed his mysterious death in July 1968. Instead of being a slipshod whitewash, dismissed by many locals at the time, the hundred-plus page report sheds light on many important details.
The revised version is available in print and eBook formats by clicking the bottom of the title page under “Books.”
Julie Alexander and the author team
up at a recent fair in Jonathan Dickinson State Park.
A Treasure Trove for Florida History Buffs
We’re pleased to announce that the author’s books will be distributed throughout Florida by Florida Classics Library, the most extensive resource for books, maps and art about the Sunshine State.
The company began in 1959 when the late Val Martin established a bookstore in Stuart, FL. In 1972 he decided to carve out a niche in the book world by specializing in titles about Florida.
Today it’s been expanded under the ownership of his niece, Julie Alexander.
Besides its statewide book distribution services, Florida Classics Library operates a retail store at its headquarters at 11300 S.E. Dixie Highway, Hobe Sound, FL. It features over 1,000 titles about Florida’s history and ecology. It also offers an extensive collection of historic Florida Maps and is the home gallery of renowned Florida landscape painter Dan Macklin.
Julie Alexander can be reached at Julie_alexander@floridaclassicslibrary.com. Phone:
Another Snapshot of Jupiter History
Here’s an old photo of what locals in Jupiter-Tequesta called “Cato’s Bridge” across the Intracoastal Waterway. Today you swing east off U.S. 1, go past the lighthouse grounds and over the four-lane bridge and you’re soon passing a wall of Jupiter Island condos as you head north on A1A.
Fifty or so years before that, the Cato family operated a swing bridge between uninhabited Tequesta and the equally uninhabited, unpaved south end of Jupiter Island. Kids would fish from the bridge and stop to help Mr. Cato crank the swing bridge into position when an occasional boat passed on the Intracoastal.
To augment their spare income, the Catos sold mullets for bait (5-cents each) and rented rowboats for $1 a day. Daughter Shirley, who now lives in North Carolina, remembers catching shrimp to add variety to their usual fare of fish and beans.
The long-gone "Cato Bridge" in old Jupiter
No prize, but kind words for Amelia's Gold
Yes, judge, there is a Yaupon Tree. Its holly berries provided tea for Amelia and friends.
One of the book world’s most prestigious prizes is the annual Benjamin Franklin Awards, with over a thousand entries from around the world.
I’ve had two such awards previously and was hoping that Amelia’s Gold might fetch a third in the 2020 contest. Nope. But I was stunned and surprised when one of the judges took time to send the following email:
“James D. Snyder, I salute you! This book is as rich and delicious as Swiss or Belgian chocolate - the kind of chocolate that one must savor and not gulp down. I really wanted to have this book grab me by the eyeballs and suck me into its pages to the point where I had no choice but to suspend my belief systems and submerse myself totally. Instead, what I found was a gentle, engrossing character study full of intrigue, peril that resulted in the personal growth of many of the story's cast of characters.
“This is not a book to read hungrily and greedily. It is a book to make the reader fall in love with the characters who were in the midst of a civil war in an infant nation. It is a book to sit with in a comfortable chair and see the history of the time when brother fought brother from a different viewpoint. It is to be read with a fine cup of tea, glass of whisky, wine or hot cocoa. This well written, well researched book was a pleasure to read. I learned more than a few little things from reading this book, such as what a Yaupon is. Thank you, Mr. Snyder for a good read.”
An Award for Amelia
The New York City Big Book Awards organization proclaims that after reviewing books from “100 cities on six continents” it has picked Amelia’s Gold as a “Distinguished Favorite” in the historical fiction category for 2020.
“Distinguished Favorite” means runner-up and no garland of roses. But thanks for the bouquet.