Florida’s First Coast – History Lessons Among the Dunes

Written by on January 11, 2014 in Campskunk with 4 Comments

I am camping at Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area, a treasured reservation for snowbirds fleeing the brutal winter weather up North.

Here's one of my neighbors at Gamble Rogers. He's from Ontario. He's happy to be in Florida. hat's a 1995 Popular on a Dodge chassis, and he drives it all over - still rock solid reliable after nearly 20 years.

Here’s one of my neighbors at Gamble Rogers. He’s from Ontario. He’s happy to be in Florida. That’s a 1995 Popular on a Dodge chassis, and he drives it all over – still rock solid reliable after nearly 20 years.

I’m surrounded by Yankees walking around with blissful smiles on their faces in the 60 degree temperatures and sunshine here on Florida’s first coast. Because I have lived near here for decades, I’ve learned the history of the settlement of this area, which includes many odds and ends of global struggles over the centuries.

Right up the coastal highway is Saint Augustine, the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the US. Florida started out Spanish, who ran off the French Huguenots also trying to settle the area. It was Inquisition time, and in addition to territorial disputes there were also religious differences between the two groups, settled emphatically in favor of the Spanish at Matanzas Inlet right up the road (matanzas is Spanish for massacre).

The Castillo de San Marcos in Saint Augustine, which provided the Spanish a good place to retreat to and watch the British burn their town. It's made of soft coquina, which is just compressed shells, and happily absorbs cannonballs instead of shattering, which accounts for its remarkable preservation.

The Castillo de San Marcos in Saint Augustine, which provided the Spanish a good place to retreat to and watch the British burn their town. It’s made of soft coquina, which is just compressed shells, and happily absorbs cannonballs instead of shattering, which accounts for its remarkable preservation.

Florida was later British and briefly Spanish again as various treaties divided up the spoils of European wars. Regardless of who was in charge, they and the native Americans liked to make things difficult for the slave-holding Americans to their north by welcoming runaway slaves, who formed the first free black communities in the Americas and assimilated into the native American tribes, who had been forced down into Florida by the settlement of Georgia and Alabama. European diseases so decimated the original Timucuan tribes that the remaining members left with the evacuating Spanish by boat.

In 1819 Florida became part of the United States via treaty with Spain. Many of the free blacks fled to Cuba and the Bahamas, but some stayed with the Seminoles, who fought a remarkably successful military campaign against the US Army, led by Billy Bowlegs, who had the distinction of defeating three future US presidents in battle.  Eventually, many of the Seminoles were removed to Oklahoma, but the more fractious stayed and retreated into the Everglades, which the US government, based on their past experience trying to defeat the Seminoles on their home turf,  wisely decided would be an excellent place for a reservation, and there they remain – the only native tribe east of the Mississippi still living on lands they successfully defended in battle.

Operation Pastorius historical marker just up the coast.

Operation Pastorius historical marker just up the coast. As you can see, it’s pretty well developed now.

Another interesting historical tidbit is Operation Pastorius – an attempt by Nazi Germany to land saboteurs in the US six months after Pearl harbor. U-boats deposited teams of English-speaking German soldiers on Long Island and also South Ponte Vedra Beach, which was an isolated stretch of nothing back then. Unfortunately for the Germans, prior mistreatment of these soldiers by the Nazis prompted two of them to rat the whole operation out to the FBI, and all except the two informants were executed as spies. There’s a historical marker on the spot they landed.

The last of the US Army coastal watch towers, maybe a mile south of the campground.

The last of the US Army coastal watch towers, maybe a mile south of the campground.

The scare from the discovery of this operation prompted the Army to construct coastal watch stations, and Gamble Rogers where I am staying is the site of one of these stations. It was a different situation back then – German U-boats had turned the Atlantic coast into a shooting gallery for Allied shipping, and my mom remembers blackouts during the war when she lived in Miami. Time and a front row seat on the Hurricane Alley firing lines have destroyed most of the coastal watch towers, but there’s one left just south of here (surrounded by condos, of course).  Florida was a different place back before all the tourists and development. There’s no way anyone could sneak ashore these days ;-)


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About the Author

About the Author: "Campskunk" is a blissfully retired former public servant who has left the challenges of how to run the government to younger and less cynical hands, and wanders the continent in his Roadtrek Class B RV with his wife and cat. In addition to his work in the public sector, he has also at various times been a mechanic and delivery driver, skills which come in handy in his new role. Because his former job involved the forensic evaluation and sometimes the subsequent detention of some not-so-nice people, he uses the name Campskunk instead of his legal name on the Internet. His was not the type of job where customer service feedback would be welcome. .

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  1. Maureen says:

    Thanks Campskunk….love this historical tidbit. Although our weather is mild here in the Pacific Northwest, we are experiencing lots of rain right now so I am very envious. My son and his friends once drove from Vancouver BC to Florida in 54 hours taking shifts driving. As you can imagine, I was a nervous wreck for them but they arrived safely as the friendly truckers took care of them along the way. I think I need to find out their route but I would do it much slower. I always remember to give the truckers my respect when driving the highways.

  2. Gene Bjerke says:

    I would like to recommend a book called, as best I remember, “The Commodore’s Story.” It is a story about Miami when it was just a village and the mail was delivered by a Sharpie sailboat. Lots of adventures in the mangroves.

  3. Ronald says:

    Good one campskunk,really impressed with that 95 dodge roadtrek popular,looked at that model last year,it was a 170,however way too small,but i did like the look of the dodge,it aged well.

    • Campskunk says:

      those 318 motors last FOREVER. some of the dodges develop transmission problems in their second decade, but overall it’s a 300k mile chassis. just gotta do the maintenance.

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