Read Letter XIII - St. Augustine of Letters of a Traveller Notes of Things Seen in Europe and America, free online book, by William Cullen Bryant, on ReadCentral.com.

St. Augustine, East Florida, April 2, 1843.

When we left Picolata, on the 8th of April, we found ourselves journeying through a vast forest. A road of eighteen miles in length, over the level sands, brings you to this place. Tall pines, a thin growth, stood wherever we turned our eyes, and the ground was covered with the dwarf palmetto, and the whortleberry, which is here an evergreen. Yet there were not wanting sights to interest us, even in this dreary and sterile region. As we passed a clearing, in which we saw a young white woman and a boy dropping corn, and some negroes covering it with their hoes, we beheld a large flock of white cranes which rose in the air, and hovered over the forest, and wheeled, and wheeled again, their spotless plumage glistening in the sun like new-fallen snow. We crossed the track of a recent hurricane, which had broken off the huge pines midway from the ground, and whirled the summits to a distance from their trunks. From time to time we forded little streams of a deep-red color, flowing from the swamps, tinged, as we were told, with the roots of the red bay, a species of magnolia. As the horses waded into the transparent crimson, we thought of the butcheries committed by the Indians, on that road, and could almost fancy that the water was still colored with the blood they had shed.

The driver of our wagon told us many narratives of these murders, and pointed out the places where they were committed. He showed us where the father of this young woman was shot dead in his wagon as he was going from St. Augustine to his plantation, and the boy whom we had seen, was wounded and scalped by them, and left for dead. In another place he showed us the spot where a party of players, on their way to St. Augustine, were surprised and killed. The Indians took possession of the stage dresses, one of them arraying himself in the garb of Othello, another in that of Richard the Third, and another taking the costume of Falstaff. I think it was Wild Cat’s gang who engaged in this affair, and I was told that after the capture of this chief and some of his warriors, they recounted the circumstances with great glee. At another place we passed a small thicket in which several armed Indians, as they afterward related, lay concealed while an officer of the United States army rode several times around it, without any suspicion of their presence. The same men committed, immediately afterward, several murders and robberies on the road.

At length we emerged upon a shrubby plain, and finally came in sight of this oldest city of the United States, seated among its trees on a sandy swell of land where it has stood for three hundred years. I was struck with its ancient and homely aspect, even at a distance, and could not help likening it to pictures which I had seen of Dutch towns, though it wanted a windmill or two, to make the resemblance perfect. We drove into a green square, in the midst of which was a monument erected to commemorate the Spanish constitution of 1812, and thence through the narrow streets of the city to our hotel.

I have called the streets narrow. In few places are they wide enough to allow two carriages to pass abreast. I was told that they were not originally intended for carriages, and that in the time when the town belonged to Spain, many of them were floored with an artificial stone, composed of shells and mortar, which in this climate takes and keeps the hardness of rock, and that no other vehicle than a hand-barrow was allowed to pass over them. In some places you see remnants of this ancient pavement, but for the most part it has been ground into dust under the wheels of the carts and carriages, introduced by the new inhabitants. The old houses, built of a kind of stone which is seemingly a pure concretion of small shells, overhang the streets with their wooden balconies, and the gardens between the houses are fenced on the side of the street with high walls of stone. Peeping over these walls you see branches of the pomegranate and of the orange-tree, now fragrant with flowers, and, rising yet higher, the leaning boughs of the fig, with its broad luxuriant leaves. Occasionally you pass the ruins of houses walls of stone, with arches and staircases of the same material, which once belonged to stately dwellings. You meet in the streets with men of swarthy complexions and foreign physiognomy, and you hear them speaking to each other in a strange language. You are told that these are the remains of those who inhabited the country under the Spanish dominion, and that the dialect you have heard is that of the island of Minorca.

“Twelve years ago,” said an acquaintance of mine, “when I first visited St. Augustine, it was a fine old Spanish town. A large proportion of the houses, which you now see roofed like barns, were then flat-roofed, they were all of shell-rock, and these modern wooden buildings were not yet erected. That old fort, which they are now repairing, to fit it for receiving a garrison, was a sort of ruin, for the outworks had partly fallen, and it stood unoccupied by the military, a venerable monument of the Spanish dominion. But the orange-groves were the ornament and wealth of St. Augustine, and their produce maintained the inhabitants in comfort. Orange-trees, of the size and height of the pear-tree, often rising higher than the roofs of the houses, embowered the town in perpetual verdure. They stood so close in the groves that they excluded the sun and the atmosphere was at all times aromatic with their leaves and fruit, and in spring the fragrance of the flowers was almost oppressive.”

These groves have now lost their beauty. A few years since, a severe frost killed the trees to the ground, and when they sprouted again from the roots, a new enemy made its appearance an insect of the coccus family, with a kind of shell on its back, which enables it to withstand all the common applications for destroying insects, and the ravages of which are shown by the leaves becoming black and sere, and the twigs perishing. In October last, a gale drove in the spray from the ocean, stripping the trees, except in sheltered situations, of their leaves, and destroying the upper branches. The trunks are now putting out new sprouts and new leaves, but there is no hope of fruit for this year at least.

The old fort of St. Mark, now called Fort Marion, a foolish change of name, is a noble work, frowning over the Matanzas, which flows between St. Augustine and the island of St. Anastasia, and it is worth making a long journey to see. No record remains of its original construction, but it is supposed to have been erected about a hundred and fifty years since, and the shell-rock of which it is built is dark with time. We saw where it had been struck with cannon-balls, which, instead of splitting the rock, became imbedded and clogged among the loosened fragments of shell. This rock is, therefore, one of the best materials for a fortification in the world. We were taken into the ancient prisons of the fort dungeons, one of which was dimly lighted by a grated window, and another entirely without light; and by the flame of a torch we were shown the half-obliterated inscriptions scrawled on the walls long ago by prisoners. But in another corner of the fort, we were taken to look at two secret cells, which were discovered a few years since, in consequence of the sinking of the earth over a narrow apartment between them. These cells are deep under ground, vaulted overhead, and without windows. In one of them a wooden machine was found, which some supposed might have been a rack, and in the other a quantity of human bones. The doors of these cells had been walled up and concealed with stucco, before the fort passed into the hands of the Americans.

“If the Inquisition,” said the gentleman who accompanied us, “was established in Florida, as it was in the other American colonies of Spain, these were its secret chambers.”

Yesterday was Palm Sunday, and in the morning I attended the services in the Catholic church. One of the ceremonies was that of pronouncing the benediction over a large pile of leaves of the cabbage-palm, or palmetto, gathered in the woods. After the blessing had been pronounced, the priest called upon the congregation to come and receive them. The men came forward first, in the order of their age, and then the women; and as the congregation consisted mostly of the descendants of Minorcans, Greeks, and Spaniards, I had a good opportunity of observing their personal appearance. The younger portion of the congregation had, in general, expressive countenances. Their forms, it appeared to me, were generally slighter than those of our people; and if the cheeks of the young women were dark, they had regular features and brilliant eyes, and finely formed hands. There is spirit, also, in this class, for one of them has since been pointed out to me in the streets, as having drawn a dirk upon a young officer who presumed upon some improper freedoms of behavior.

The services were closed by a plain and sensible discourse in English, from the priest, Mr. Rampon, a worthy and useful French ecclesiastic, on the obligation of temperance; for the temperance reform has penetrated even hither, and cold water is all the rage. I went again, the other evening, into the same church, and heard a person declaiming, in a language which, at first, I took to be Minorcan, for I could make nothing else of it. After listening for a few minutes, I found that it was a Frenchman preaching in Spanish, with a French mode of pronunciation which was odd enough. I asked one of the old Spanish inhabitants how he was edified by this discourse, and he acknowledged that he understood about an eighth part of it.

I have much more to write about this place, but must reserve it for another letter.