Hiking to the ruins of a plantation burned by the Seminoles

Lily pads blooming in a pool of water that
had accumulated in the plantation ruins.

We love hiking and biking around our little beach town south of St. Augustine, Florida. From our many adventures out and about, I was surprised to discover that we have the ruins of two sugar plantations in our immediate area, both of which had been torched by Seminoles during the Second Seminole War.

Elise and I finally had the opportunity to hike through the jungle to tour the ruins of one of them – the Bulow Plantation Ruins in Flagler Beach. (The other is the Mala Compra Plantation Archaeological Site, a few miles north on the A1A.) It was a neat experience in itself, but made infinitely richer by the fact that I have spent the past couple of evenings reading books about the Second Seminole War. Because I had done this reading, I really had a sense of what we were looking at.

We had studied the history of St. Augustine a great deal before purchasing a house in the area. The city of St. Augustine, founded by the Spanish in 1565, is the oldest European settlement within what is now the United States. (Many American children grow up learning about Plymouth Colony in school, when in fact there was a well-established city far to the south. It is a sad testimony to how ethnocentric curriculum is.) But I really had no idea that we were purchasing a house with what are effectively battlefields all around it, and how many American leaders cut their teeth on conflicts in our backyard.

A Little History

The Second Seminole War was sort of like the Afghanistan of the early 19th century. I think this is a useful analogy for several reasons:

(1) The war was an epic money pit and the extent of its required appropriations cemented military political influence in Washington, DC. Appropriations for the war ranged from $30 million to $40 million, which in 1835 was an incredible sum. As you can imagine, the war was popular at first and then… not so much.

(2) The options for the young American government in executing the war were limited because of the behavior of countries that had controlled the area in earlier decades.

(3) It’s hard to talk about either side as heroes because both the Seminoles and the American government deliberately attacked civilians (hence the burned-out plantations around us). The second half of the war was mostly fought using guerrilla tactics. Although many people think of guerrilla warfare as a modern phenomenon (e.g. Vietnam), it is a song as old as time.

(4) The American government had a difficult time negotiating any resolution to the conflict due to the decentralized nature of the Seminole system of governance (not unlike the tribal nature of folks in the Middle East) and corruption among the agents tasked with carrying out such negotiations (not unlike modern military contractors). The federal government would issue allotments to agents to take to tribal leaders in the hopes of brokering peace. These agents would sell what they were supposed to give to the Seminoles and pocket the money. Then they’d tell political leadership in DC that the Seminoles did not want peace.

The Seminole Wars started when the United States government acquired the land that is now Florida following the War of 1812. It became formal United States policy to remove the Native Americans in the region to what is now Oklahoma. Among the “Five Civilized Tribes” in the region (essentially the tribes that practiced something akin to modern agriculture), only the Seminoles chose to fight the US government outright over their claims to the land. The Cherokee – who in terms of culture, were as sophisticated as any European country – attempted to fight the government in courts and failed. Some members of the Seminoles made a trip out to Oklahoma and decided that the land out there was more fertile than Florida, and would be ideal for growing crops and raising livestock. They were attacked by other Seminoles for this. It was a mess.

Unlike the other Native American groups, the Seminoles had not been living in Florida for very long before the conflict with Americans. (The others had been living in the region for centuries, at least.) The Seminoles were the descendants of other tribes in the Gulf region and Georgia, who began to move south into Florida and develop a distinct culture around the same time the Spanish were conquering the land.

The Seminoles did not have some monolithic view of Europeans. They grokked the varied and nebulous political and economic motives of the specific nations they encountered. They were allies with the British during the American Revolution (so the animosity between them and the US was well-established). In fact, the British were the official arms dealers of many Native American tribes before and after the American Revolution, as the Native Americans were a useful source of internal political resistance (and thus military and economic headaches) for the young country.

The Spanish were another story. The Spanish had been so successful at looting gold from the New World that they created hyperinflation in their own country and devalued their own currency with their immense spoils. Because of this, the Spanish were not able to invest much effort in nation-building in their Florida territory. Apart from their port cities like St. Augustine, the Spanish pretty much ignored the rest of the land. Sure, they’d send scouts and explorers around, but they weren’t constructing any more cities. This also meant the Spanish left the Seminoles to do whatever they pleased.

The Seminoles liked their laissez-faire arrangement with the Spanish. The Americans did not like this arrangement at all. The Seminoles would routinely raid and plunder the plantations in Georgia and then run back into Spanish Florida, where they would experience zero consequences. Remember, at this time in the nation’s development, these plantations were thoroughly rural, out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere, essentially self-sufficient little cities owned by some wealthy landowner and slaveholder. It was like attacking a castle in medieval Scotland, but less fortified.

To make things even worse for the folks the Georgia, the Seminoles welcomed runaway slaves into their tribes. Many of the “Black Seminoles,” as they are called, retained practices and beliefs from Africa, but melded them with the practices and beliefs of the Seminoles. Suffice it to say, many Southerners hated the Seminoles and their exploits achieved an almost mythological status in pro-slavery publications.

As I said earlier, war with the Seminoles began almost immediately after the US picked up much of Florida territory following the War of 1812. The US government encouraged settlers to move south into Florida, onto land that the Seminoles already regarded as theirs. The First Seminole War was over relatively quickly. The US government committed to providing the Seminoles with wealth and the means to modernize their farming enterprises, and the Seminoles agreed to move onto a reservation in the swampy wastelands of the Florida interior.

Then came President Andrew Jackson. Jackson supported only one policy toward Native Americans, and that was removal. He was not even remotely going to consider the interests of a group that sided with the British in the Revolution and later conflicts. And he was incredibly popular. (Incidentally, it was Jackson who initiated the practice of every new president filling up government appointments with highly partisan loyalists. You can thank him for the “swamp” in DC.) Congress ratified a series of treaties with portions of the Seminoles who were willing to leave for Oklahoma, but extended those treaties to the entire membership of the tribe. Many remaining Seminoles – remember that the Seminoles had a thoroughly decentralized system of government – did not think these leaders represented them or had any authority over them.

The War in Our Backyard

This brings us to the beginning of the Second Seminole War and the burnt-out plantations in our backyard. The Second Seminole War began with the “Dade Massacre,” when Seminoles attacked an unprepared caravan of US troops heading from Tampa to Ocala in the week after Christmas in 1835. It carried over to the plantations along the east coast of Florida.

One of the things I find absolutely fascinating about the Seminole Wars is how little connection to the actual land many of the people involved had. The US was still a relatively new government. The settlers the US was sending into Florida were new to the area. Most of the US army was made of immigrants to the US or militia men shipped southward from other states. And the Seminole themselves were new to Florida, having migrated down there from Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia.

The Mala Compra plantation I mentioned above was owned by General Joseph Hernandez, who was commander of the Florida militia during the Second Seminole War. (“Mala Compra” is Spanish for “bad deal” or “bad bargain.”) Hernandez left his mark all over the St. Augustine area. His parents came to the region from the island of Minorca in the Mediterranean Sea. (If you ever visit St. Augustine, Minorcan clam chowder is all over the menus here.) When the US acquired Florida, Hernandez – a savvy businessman and diplomat – anglicized his name and embraced his new country. He owned a large swath of land south of St. Augustine that included Mala Compra. (Mala Compra is now a wildlife preserve and public space with a ton of impressive mountain bike trails.)

Mala Compra Park

It was Hernandez’s idea to have the military take control of the various plantations in the area as they moved down to fight the Seminoles. “We must occupy the plantations for their own good,” he wrote to Major Benjamin Putnam.”The settlers will be no match when the Seminoles come to kill them and take their livestock.” (See The Wild West in the Deep South: Second Seminole War by Dwayne Walker.)

Indeed, that was the impression many plantation owners had. They abandoned their properties in drove and traveled with their families to lush, wealthy, and urban St. Augustine for protection. They’d leave their overseers and slaves behind to handle the day-to-day operations of the plantations. They were regarded as disposable.

Bulow Plantation

Bulow Ville Plantation, in present-day Flagler Beach, had been built by Major Charles Wilhem Bulow, in 1821. Well, technically, 2,200 of his 4,675 acres were cleared by Bulow’s slaves (he owned over 150 slaves) and they also constructed and operated his mansion and sugar mill. The Bulow Ville Plantation grew sugar cane, cotton, rice, and indigo. Bulow died at age 44 and left the whole operation to his son, John. John increased production, eventually making the plantation into the largest sugar plantation in Florida.

John Bulow kept his plantation running through well-established and lucrative trading with the Seminoles and did not at all support Jackson’s policy on removing the tribes. When US forces arrived at the gates of his plantation, he fired on them. That idea went about as well as you might expect. Bulow was taken prisoner by US forces until they were temporarily done fighting the Seminoles in the area. After he was released, Bulow fled the area like other plantation owners. (He ultimately died at the age of 26.)

The Bulow plantation house before it burned down.

The plantation was situated on a saltwater marsh, where flat-bottomed boats (that could accommodate relatively shallow water) would carry the processed sugar and molasses (a by-product of refining sugar) to Ponce Inlet, where it would be transported to St. Augustine and Savannah (and then to the rest of the world).

You can take a kayak out on Bulow Creek from the location of the plantation ruins. If you want to… there is a very persuasive warning sign about the alligator population there.

After it was abandoned by Bulow, the Seminoles torched the plantation so it would not be of use to US troops. They had done this to many of the plantations they came across. The fire was so massive it could be seen from St. Augustine. It’s somewhat ironic that Bulow’s plantation would be burned down by people he actually had a decent relationship with and defended. But war is war.

Exploring the Bulow Plantation Ruins

All that is left of the plantation today are the coquina walls (a sort of natural cement made from clam shells from 12,000 years ago or earlier) of the mill itself, which have been taken over by the jungle. Since much of the mansion was made of wood, it was destroyed with the exception of its coquina foundation.

This is what remains of the springhouse, a building that used flowing water to keep provisions cool.
(Essentially an early refrigerator.)
This is all that is left of the foundation of the mansion.
You would not know what it was without historical records.

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