Chokoloskee's Wilderness World

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Article taken from "Backsights" Magazine published by Surveyors Historical Society


by Joe Knetsch, Ph. D.

On January 3, 1882, John P. Apthorp, farmer, writer and surveyor from Tallahassee, signed a contract with the Surveyor General of Florida. He agreed to survey the lands below the Big Cypress Swamp (in todayís Collier County). His first attempt did not fare well. Arriving at Cape Romano, where he stayed with John Roberts, Apthorp set out in late February to scout out the area of his survey. On March 26, the weary surveyor wrote to Surveyor General Malachi Martin for a "modification of my contract" because the work was progressing so slowly. Apthorp complained: "I find them (townships) composed largely of dense swamps of such luxuriant growth that every step of the way often for miles has to be hewn foot by foot."

The 1882 survey season ended with Apthorp unable to finish the work. However, apparently undaunted, he went back to southern Florida in January 1883, this time to the Ten Thousand Islands. He traveled via the schooner Ida McKay out of Key West and recorded his hope that the provisions for his crew would reach his base in the next few days.

Though the terrain was difficult, Apthorp was making considerable headway on the survey. However, the time for "smooth sailing" was about to come to a tragic end.

While surveying in the hot South Florida sun, two of Apthorpís crew had a difference of opinion which continued into the evening of March 11, 1883. Before anyone could stop him, one Duke Pindar had drawn a gun and fired at his antagonist. The results were unexpected. Instead of hitting its target, the bullet passed by and struck Henry Jones of Tallahassee in the stomach, causing much pain and suffering.

In a letter to the Surveyor General, Apthorp described the attempt to save him: "We made him as comfortable as possible during the night and in the morning started to carry him on a stretcher to the coast 13 miles distant, hoping to get him to Key West in time for medical treatment. We had gone less than two miles when it became evident he would not outlast the journey. We put him down to rest, and in an hour he died. There was nothing left now but to afford the body as decent a burial as lay in our power, which we accordingly did.

"On account of this sad event we were obliged to abandon the survey of the two difficult Townships of 50 S Ranges 28 & 29 East which we were about to enter upon. To attempt such difficult work shorthanded, and with the men so demoralized a condition was out of the question; besides the guilty party must be turned over to the Authorities and the affair investigated."

After burying Henry Jones, the crew left the area and arrived at the home of William S. Allen on Chokoloskee Bay. Apthorp decided to take Duke Pindar to Key West and place him in the custody of the sheriff.

On May 1, 1883, the Weekly Floridian reported: "The Key West Democrat says that Duke Pindar, who killed Henry Jones near Chokaluska, some four weeks since, is now in jail there, and the grand jury has brought in an indictment against him...The man for whom the shot was intended is the principal witness against the murderer."

Pindar remained in the county jail for about one year prior to his trial, at which he received a sentence of one year in the state penitentiary for fourth degree manslaughter.

By May 23, 1883, Apthorp had finished the contract work. In Township 53 South Range 29 East he found no land fit for cultivation and all but three sections in 52 South 29 East in a similar condition. In Township 51 South Range 29 East, he found 25 out of 36 sections unfit for use or cultivation. Most of the area was salt marsh and swamp, totally "impracticable to survey," and under water most of the year. In townships fit for surveying, he found cypress swamps, prairies and pine lands based upon a mixture of sand, clay and shell rock made of limestone. These areas were fit for cultivation and adapted to settlement. In describing the pine lands he wrote: "These pine lands occur sometimes in the form of islands of small extent, while at others they stretch over large areas, from 20 to 100 and more in size. On the pine lands the Settler could erect his dwelling and other buildings and enclose his fields for raising corn, potatoes and other crops, while the surrounding prairies and cypress would afford excellent pasturage as well as fields for rice. The pine lands are generally covered with a growth of saw palmetto and sometimes dense shrubbery of other kinds.

The land characteristics detailed given above is important to the understanding of why the lands were not conveyed directly to the settlers. Under the Swamp Land Act of 1850, public lands were granted to the states if the greater part of a legal subdivision was "wet and unfit for cultivation". If less than half the legal subdivision (sixteenth, section or fractional lot) was swamp land, no part of it was granted. Additionally, the sale of the land to private parties had to cover costs inherent to the determination made by the state. If these conditions were not met the land would not be divided any further into sections and would remain in government ownership.

On June 9, 1883, Apthorp wrote to the Surveyor General one of his most revealing letters regarding the Chokoloskee Bay area.

"I have been requested by the people living at what is known as Chockaluskee in the Thousand Islands, to present to you their situation and desire in regard to the survey of their lands. Some thirty or forty families are living at the place named, on keys near the coast, mostly along the banks of creeks which come down from the main land. These strips of alluvial land are of the highest fertility, and the settlers are engaged in raising early vegetables and tropical fruits for the Key West and Northern markets. Some of them have been occupying their places from upwards of thirty years, but have never been able to acquire any titles, as the lands have not been surveyed."

"Thirty or forty families" at Chokoloskee Bay in the year 1883 shows the area was well known and settled earlier than other histories have reported. Historian Charlton W. Tebeau, who interviewed many of the locals, did not establish any population totals for the area and recognized only a few of the families as being there earlier than 1883. Apthorpís report proves otherwise.

Apthorpís letter prompted Surveyor General Martin to request E.O. Gwynn, a Deputy Surveyor from Key West, to investigate the need for further surveying in the area. Gwynn estimated that the necessary surveys would require the running of nearly 180 miles of lines. He claimed to have discussed the matter with a local resident who informed him that most of the land was dense mangrove swamp and almost always "overflowed" with water.

According to this unnamed source, a "practical surveyor" of the area, the land near Chokoloskee was, "most difficult, tedious and inn some instances impracticable" for surveying. This unfavorable report gave rise to a letter from settler William S. Allen to Gwynn in the fall of 1883.

Allen wrote: "I am very glad to hear that there is a possibility of your surveying our lands. I think you would save yourself much running and time if you would come and see the situation before commencing the work.

"No help can be obtained here at any price. We have to send away for all our help. You can have fresh water at my cistern free of charge. Also I can furnish storage room for Provisions and a shelter for your men without any charge for either. In case you dare run the risk and give up for a time the luxurious diet of Key West, I can cheerfully furnish you cooked Oysters, clams, fish and birds at my own table and feel myself honored in entertaining you. A room and bed are also at your service.

"I need not inform you that nearby every one of us in this community are old acquaintances of yours and every house will be open to you as to an old friend."

Allen then listed the settlers in the area including the number of people living at each homestead. The total of 116 named settlers and the estimate of 125, including transients, shows that a viable frontier community had been established as of 1883 and probably earlier.

The Allen letter may have been the motivating force for the Surveyor General to contract in early 1884 with Charles F. Hopkins for a survey of the area. Hopkins was not optimistic about the assignment and wondered if he should survey only the settlement areas or the entire township.

As Hopkins noted: "The dense mangrove swamp surrounding these small strips of Hammock, on which the parties here settled - should not be Surveyed being entirely unfit for cultivation."

On Chokoloskee Island the surveyors did find 200 or 300 acres of land suitable for cultivation and some half dozen families living on the island growing tropical fruits. Hopkins also noted that he had been with the famous New Orleans Times-Democrat Everglades expedition of 1882-83 and found most of the lands in the interior to be saw grass marshes and sloughs with some out-cropping of rock and fertile hammocks.

The rough, rugged and inhospitable land of South Florida proved to be simply too difficult to survey and too sparse of cultivatable land for titles to be perfected for the pioneer settlers of Chokoloskee Bay. The lands could not support the costs of the survey to make them available to public sale.

However, when the state did acquire title to the lands from federal government, in the early 1890s, it immediately surrendered title to at least four railroad companies, who were entitled by grant, to swamp and overflowed lands in alternate sections along the route of their line. Thus, because of a shortage of such lands along the routes of the railroads, the lands surveyed, in whole or part, in the Chokoloskee Bay area were given over to railroad control. Exactly how the state was able to convince the federal government that this area came under the definition of "swamp and overflowed" remains to be investigated.

One thing is certain, the pioneers who asked for the survey because they had improved the land and wished to perfect their titles, did not benefit in any way from the labors and trials of John Apthorp, Henry Jones, E.O. Gwynn or Charles Hopkins. In the end, only the railroads could claim a clear title to the fertile hammocks of Chokoloskee Bay.

Reprinted from South Florida History Magazine, Vol. 21, no.1 (winter Ď93). Another version of this research appeared in the Florida Surveyor magazine, co-authored by SHS member Jim Richmond of Naples, Florida.



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