St. Johns River Timeline
Before the Timucuan peoples settled in northeastern Florida, the St. Johns River flowed north from deep inside the region to the Atlantic Ocean. Shortly after Florida became part of the United States, a handful of men laid out Jacksonville to be on the river. The river meant transportation: carrying goods and passengers upstream into the state, and downstream for coastal trading and across the sea and facilitated commerce, enhanced security, and provided food and recreation for tourists.
100,000 Years Ago
- The St. Johns was formed approximately 100,000 years ago after land rose along the coast and trapped a portion of the sea inland. However, the river did not take on its current form until only about 5,000-7,500 years ago, after the sea began to rise at the end of the last ice age. The hydrological cycle of the arid peninsula was transformed, resulting in rains that fed the surface flow of the St. Johns and its underground springs. Before the arrival of Europeans to Florida, Native American groups, including the Timucua, had called the river home for thousands of years.
6,000 Years Ago
- Some of the earliest pottery ever uncovered in North America was discovered on Tick Island, in the river near DeLeon Springs. The pottery, burials and clay sculptures all show that a fairly complex society existed.
- Spanish seamen first mapped the St. Johns River and called the river Rio de Corrientes, River of Currents.
- The French established the first outpost on the River called Fort Caroline. The French called the river La Riviere du Mai, River of May, because they arrived there on May 1.
- Spanish soldiers marched north from St. Augustine and captured Ft. Caroline. They re-named the river San Mateo to honor a saint whose feast followed the day of the capture. The Spanish renamed the river Rio de San Juan or St. Johns River after a mission that was located near the river's mouth.
- Not long after England acquired Florida King George III sent botanist John Bartram and his son, William, to explore Florida.
- William Bartram wrote of the stretch of the river in what is now the Ocala National Forest. “...blessed land where the gods have amassed into one heap all the flowering plants, birds, fish and other wildlife of two continents in order to turn the rushing streams, the silent lake shores and the awe-abiding woodlands of this mysterious land into a true garden of Eden.”
- William Bartram published his book, Travels, which described his journeys along the St. Johns River.
- Zephaniah Kingsley established plantations along the St. Johns between at Drayton's Island, Laurel Grove (now Orange Park), and Fort George Island. Kingsley was a maritime merchant, shipbuilder, and slave owner who married an African princess, Anna Madgigaine Jai Kingsley, and prided himself on his egalitarian treatment of his slaves.
- Kingsley and other landowners along the St. Johns became involved in the Patriot War, an attempt by expansionists in the United States to take over Florida from the Spanish. In July of 1812, Kingsley hosted a legislative council at Laurel Grove that established the goal of acquiring the East Florida Territory and giving it to the United States. During the Seminole Indian Wars (1836-1841), the river was used to transport troops and supplies for the United States government. Several forts were built along the St. Johns River, including Fort Shannon in Palatka, Fort Kingsbury and Fort Mellon, which were built along Lake Monroe, and Fort Heilman that was built at the forks of Black Creek in 1836.
- The St. Johns River Lighthouse was built and was the third lighthouse built at the entrance to the St. Johns River. Previous lighthouses were built in 1830 and 1833. The lighthouse is located on what is today the Mayport Naval Air Station. During the Civil War, the river was the scene of intense fighting. In 1864, more than twelve ships were sunk in its waters. One of those ships, the Maple Leaf, was sunk just offshore of Mandarin Point in Jacksonville by a Confederate mine. The luxury steamer was pressed into service as a supply ship and contained supplies for three Union regiments. The Maple Leaf was discovered in 1984 by an expedition team under 20 feet of water and 7 feet of mud.
- Harriet Beecher Stowe and her husband establish a winter home in Mandarin along the St. Johns River.
- Stowe published "Palmetto Leaves" that included stories about the river, like the one about her picnic on Julington Creek. One of the most famous schooners in American history, America, was purchased by a Brit, re-named the Memphis, and served as a Confederate blockade-runner during the Civil War. In January of 1862, the Memphis was sunk by her Confederate crew in Dunns Creek near Crescent Lake to keep her from falling into Union hands. The Union Navy found the ship, raised and renamed her America, and used her in the blockade line. Congress appropriated funds in 1879 to build jetties at the mouth of the St. Johns River.
- Mrs. W.F. Fuller obtained samples of the South American plant, the water hyacinth, at the World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans and planted them along the shore of her home on the St. Johns River. Within a decade, the water hyacinths covered an estimated 50 million acres of the river and its tributaries. Left uncontrolled in North American waters, water hyacinths can cover lakes and ponds, starving them of oxygen and thus killing fish and other organisms.
- Seven steamboat lines operated out of Palatka, rivaling Jacksonville as one of the major port cities along the St. Johns River. Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant took farewell voyages on steamboats down the St. Johns, and President Grover Cleveland enjoyed a steamboat trip after attending the Subtropical Exposition in Jacksonville in 1888.
- The famous composer, Frederick Delius, composed Florida Suite inspired by the St. Johns River and his experiences living on an orange plantation (Solano Grove). The second movement of the Suite is titled "By the River."
- Henry Flagler completed construction of the first railroad bridge across the St. Johns, shifting commerce and tourism away from the river.
- The "Great Freezes" destroyed much of the citrus industry in north Florida and a major source of cargo shipped by steamboats to Northern destinations. This ended an era that established the St. Johns River Valley as Florida's first citrus empire.
- Logging was a major economic activity along the St. Johns River. The Wilson Cypress Company in Palatka became one of the largest cypress mills in the world producing 80,000 feet of lumber and 60,000 shingles daily.
- Dredging projects began to deepen the channel of the river to enable deeper draft ships to reach the port of Jacksonville. These dredging projects led to Jacksonville becoming one of the major ports on the East Coast and the establishment of the city-owned Port of Jacksonville in 1915.
- The Fellsmere Tribune announced “the close of the greatest and most complete drainage proposition in Florida.” The Fellsmere Farms Company had begun its massive land development project that planned to drain 118,000 acres of land at the headwaters of the St. Johns River in 1911. By the time the project had ended, 33 miles of levees had been constructed, and 67 miles of canals and 215 miles of drainage ditches had been dug.
- Merrill-Stevens, the largest of eight ship yards in Jacksonville, expanded and built 25 ships in support of the war effort during World War I. From 1900 to 1970, developers drained as much as 300,000 acres of the Upper St. Johns River Basin. More than 70 percent of the marsh was claimed for agricultural and urban uses. In 1988, The St. Johns River Water Management District began one of the largest marsh restoration projects in our country's history in the Upper Basin. As a result, over 150,000 acres of marsh in Indian River and Brevard Counties has been restored.
- The first of seven automobile bridges in Jacksonville over the St. Johns was built. This bridge was originally called the St. Johns River Bridge and later became known as the Acosta Bridge.
- Construction began on the Cross Florida Barge Canal. Construction continued on and off until 1991 when it was officially cancelled and the land became a protected greenbelt: The Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway.
- The first plane landed at the newly constructed Jacksonville Air Station at Black Point on the St. Johns River. Mayport Naval Station opened in 1942 at the mouth of the river adjacent to the village of Mayport. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings book, Cross Creek, was published in 1942 and devoted most of one chapter about the St. Johns River, including: "If I could have, to hold forever, one brief place of time and beauty, I think I might choose the night on the high lonely bank above the St. Johns River."
- During the digging of a canal near Hontoon Island an owl totem was uncovered.
- Pelican and otter totems were discovered while an underwater utility cable was being repaired. These totems are the only North American totems found outside the Pacific Northwest. They had been protected from rot by the river mud.
- The Maple Leaf was designated a National Historic Landmark Shipwreck Site.
- The St. Johns River was designated an American Heritage River by President Clinton. The St. Johns is the only river in Florida and one of only 14 rivers in the entire United States to receive this prestigious national recognition.
- St. Johns Riverkeeper was chartered.
- St. Johns Riverkeeper hired its first Riverkeeper.
After the Civil War, the St. Johns River became a popular tourist destination for northerners who visited to tour the river and its tributaries aboard steamboats. By 1885, seven steamboat lines operated out of Palatka, rivaling Jacksonville as one of the major port cities along the St. Johns River.