Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Middleborough Naturalist in Florida, 1874

Among the earliest Middleborough visitors to Florida was John Whipple Potter Jenks (1819-94), a naturalist, professor at Brown University and resident of Middleborough. Jenks had gained local prominence as the principal of Peirce Academy at Middleborough, a private college preparatory institution whose reputation improved steadily during Jenks’ tenure. While at the Academy, Jenks also pursued his interest in natural history, at one time assisting the noted naturalist Louis Agassiz with the acquisition of freshly-laid turtle eggs which Agassiz required for the compilation of his landmark study on the embryology of turtles. In 1870, Jenks resigned his position at Peirce Academy and later assumed the directorship of the museum at Brown University where he lectured on agricultural matters. In late summer, 1874, Jenks would be named professor of Zoology and Agriculture at Brown.

At the time Jenks moved to Brown, Florida had been popularized as a destination for naturalists through earlier visits by such naturalists as William Bartram, John James Audubon, and Titian Ramsey Peale had. Reports noted the rich variety of flora and fauna, and the appeal to a naturalist like Jenks was easily understood. This increasing interest in Florida as a naturalist’s paradise was fostered following the Civil War by the burgeoning post-war development of natural history as a field of study and the requisite need for the collection of scientific and popular specimens. A noted local naturalist himself, who had established a fine collection of specimens at Peirce Academy, and later Brown University, Jenks was drawn to Florida, and specifically the region north of Lake Okeechobee in early 1874. The object of Jenks 1874 tour of Florida was to secure scientific and popular specimens, many of which undoubtedly made their way into the display cases at Brown.

Additionally, Florida by the mid-1870s had achieved some notoriety in the north as a destination thanks to reports by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and it was rapidly acquiring fame as a refuge for invalids, though little was known of the interior or the southern portion of the state. As a naturalist, Jenks was determined to know the region first hand, taking exception to those academics who explored only from the comfort of their studies. “Into such a wild region you must go if you would study nature first hand instead of second. Hence the reason so few naturalists do anything more than study books and take the observations of others and use them second-handed.” Accordingly, in January, 1874, Jenks set out upon an expedition to Florida, the object of which was to visit Lake Okeechobee in the center of the southern peninsula, and his adventure would be documented in Hunting in Florida 1874 which Jenks published privately in 1884.

Jenks’ companions on the excursion were “an experienced collector of forty, inured to all the hardships of camp life, and recognized by naturalists as Doctor P., and the other two, youths of eighteen, inexperienced, but enthusiastic, whom we will call Erwin and Fred.” Though Jenks was reticent about revealing the identities of his companions, Doctor P. was likely Alpheus Spring Packard (1839-1905) a noted entomologist who would later serve as professor of zoology and geology at Brown Later, in 1885, Jenks and Packard would travel to Mexico. The “two youths of eighteen” were Erwin Isaac Shores (1854-1906), a Brown University student from Suffield, Connecticut, whose interest in ornithology was fostered by Jenks, and possibly Frederick Tingley Jencks (1856-1948), a distant relation who would later become the junior partner in the natural history specimen dealership Southwick & Jencks of Providence.

For the trip, Jenks was outfitted in a canvas hunting suit and equipped with a double-barrelled breechloader, revolver and claw-hatchet. “For preserving and transporting specimens, I found a tin knapsack, constructed with various apartments for alcoholic vials, lunches, medicine-box and eggs, very convenient. “ Ten gallons of alcohol, twenty pounds of arsenic and “hundreds” of muslin bags were included for preserving specimens, as well as instruments for skinning birds and animals and blowing eggs.

Jenks visited the state in 1874 just 9 years following the Civil War which remained fresh in the minds of the people, and he visited the battlefield at Olustee in northern Florida. Like later travelers, Jenks commented at first upon the contrast in the weather he found in Jacksonville, with that he left behind in Middleborough. “At 10 A. M. arrived at Jacksonville – four and one-half days from snow and ice, to orange groves laden with fruit.” Jenks speaks of Florida as being known as a land of invalids, making note of his unexpected encounter with a colleague at Jacksonville who sought the southern climate for his health.

Despite the fact that the coasts of Florida were relatively well known (though sparsely settled outside the few cities such as Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Pensacola), the interior was largely a mystery. Jenks went in search of Lake Okeechobee which like the source of the Nile remained unknown and unmapped. One of Jenks’ informants told him, “It is said to be there, but I have never met one who has seen it. Should you find it and return, having escaped its miasma and reptiles, do not fail to give me a call…”

Common practice among visitors to Florida was the shooting of wildlife from the decks of steamers plying the rivers, and Jenks’ companions were no different. “Once more on the St. John’s, we found its breadth steadily narrowing, till it was reduced to less than 200 ft., an advantage to the hunters on board, of which they were not slow to avail themselves, in popping away at every alligator and large bird that appeared at short or long range.” Clearly, Jenks found the slaughter of local wildlife senseless.

Jenks experienced a number of adventures as he and his party travelled southward towards Okeechobee through the prairies, cypress swamps and everglades. Eventually, guided by a Seminole Indian named Tommy, Jenks reached his objective. Fighting their way through tall grass, and wading through waist-deep water, the party transferred to canoes, eventually finding its way through a bramble-tangled cypress swamp, their course impeded by fallen logs and confused by the lack of a perceptible current. “After toiling another hour in forcing our way through the cypress, and disturbing not a few ‘’gator, moc’sins and such like varmin,’ as my ‘Cracker’ companion called them, we found ourselves suddenly debouching on the lake, with only a water horizon in front, and limitless banks on the right and left. The problem is solved – there is a Lake Okeechobee, and even my ‘Cracker’ guide, who had been five years searching for it, is obliged to give up his doubts and confess that I had enabled him to find it.”

Surprisingly, once Jenks reached Okeechobee, he appears to have spent little time investigating it. An expansive, yet shallow body of water (Jenks’ native guide assured him is was no deeper anywhere than eight feet), the vegetation of the surrounding cypress sloughs held greater interest for Jenks, “the gigantic ferns and flaming epiphytic air plants. Overarching vines and Spanish moss festooned the trees, while variegated leaves of beautiful lilies tinted the waters. But hideous snakes and repulsive alligators alone represented the animal kingdom to enjoy these rare charms of the vegetable – leading me often to ask, ‘Why does the Creator so frequently display His selected skill in places inaccessible to mortal man?’”

Jenks’ 1874 visit to Okeechobee would pave the way for later explorers, including editor Will Wallace Harney, author Frederick A. Ober and naturalist John Kunkel Small.

John Whipple Potter Jenks, photograph, F. J. Walsh, Trenton, New Jersey, c. 1874
Jenks appears in this photograph dressed in the outfit he described in Hunting in Florida 1874: "For hunting-dress outfit, I was provided with a suit of sail cloth, colored yellowish brown or butternut, to resemble dead leaves, the sack coat prepared with ten pockets, besides one, full size of the skirt, for large specimens, the pants with six pockets, two blue flannel shirts, with inside pockets for watch, money and photographs, all wrapped in oil silk bags (carefully keeping paper money from contact with the oil silk surface, by first enclosing it in an envelope), military boots and brogans, and four pair of thick woolen socks."  Jenks cradles his double-barreled breechloader used "for obtaining game".

Hunting in Florida 1874, title page, privately printed by John Whipple Potter Jenks, 1884
Jenks' account of his 1874 trip to Florida, and his search for Lake Okeechobee was published ten years after the event and was distributed to friends and colleagues.  The slim volume, however, is one of the earliest accounts by a naturalist of the Okeechobee region.

Map of Florida Showing the Route of the Jenks Party in 1874
The green line marks the route followed by the Jenks party between Jacksonville and lake Okeechobee.  Much of the route followed the course of the St. John's and Indian Rivers.  While the St. John's was navigable by steamer and proved relatively comfortable for the group, the final leg of the journey between Fort Capron and Lake Okeechobee was through rough, relatively unknown, territory characterized by difficult terrain and teeming with snakes and alligators.


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