Gulf of Mexico: Central Force in the Story of Florida

By: Jack E. Davis, FORUM magazine, FloridaHumanities.org

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Just try and imagine Florida, its history and people, without the Gulf's sunset colors, its birds and fish, its storms and the unceasing succession of life.

Somewhere at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico lie the historical records of Spanish West Florida. They were lost in 1818 soon after Gen. Andrew Jackson invaded Pensacola. Local Spanish officials responded to the invasion by fleeing to Havana on board the schooner Peggy. En route, they were intercepted by French corsairs, who learned the Peggy carried chests brimming not with gold and jewels, but with the public records of the Spanish province. To exorcise their frustration, the pirates heaved the chests overboard.

This tale of historical archives lost to a seabed repository reflects a truth seldom considered: The Gulf of Mexico is a central force in the story of Florida. Rarely is this idea explored in history books and classrooms, and that's unfortunate. We cannot fully know Florida until we understand the Gulf as an elemental power to which people respond, much as they respond to ancestral cues or lessons learned. Put another way, nature has the capacity to shape human history, and in Florida the Gulf is nature supreme.

Yet, despite its power, its real and active presence, the Gulf retains a particular subtlety. As oceans go, it is not terribly big, the ninth largest in the world, to be exact. Fewer than 1,000 miles of ebbing and flowing sea separate Florida and Mexico. The drive from Pensacola to Key West is farther than the Gulf's north-to-south reach, which extends from barrier islands along the U.S. coastal rim to the Caribbean and Atlantic shores of Cuba.

Rather officiously, the International Hydrographic Organization has designated the Gulf as part of the Atlantic Ocean. This reduction to mere appendage obscures important differences, however. Gallon for gallon, the Atlantic cannot compete with the estuarine capacity of the Gulf, one of the world's great hatcheries of finfish, shellfish and shrimp. By disposition, the Atlantic is often gray and disagreeable, whereas the Gulf is inclined to a cordial, blue-green serenity. The Atlantic is less “place” than entity, stolidly expansive and disengaged. The Gulf is manifestly the opposite. It draws you in. Humbly, it calls you to partake in its essential self, to dangle bare feet off the edge of a sun-faded dock; to peer down at fish that, like window shoppers, scrutinize the dock's every piling; to look up as a brown pelican in a death drop crashes down upon an unsuspecting offering.

None of this is to say that the Gulf is superior to the Atlantic or free of mood swings. Its warm, shallow waters, for example, naturally attract hurricanes that hurtle angrily in from the mother ocean. The argument here is that the Gulf is nothing less than a wonder in itself.

The Calusa of precolonial times understood this. They accepted the Gulf's ancient power and reaped prodigious benefits in return. Theirs was a flourishing civilization, with complex social and political systems and deep stakes in the wind-blown, water-washed coast of southwest Florida. Yet, remarkably, they were not farmers. Most sedentary peoples depended on agriculture to feed a permanently settled population. The Calusa harvested most of what they ate from estuaries. So perennially rich in protein was their diet of pigfish, pinfish, catfish, mollusks, crustaceans, sea turtles, rays and sharks that they stood a foot or more taller than the Spanish.

Still, as mighty as the Calusa had been, they were defenseless against invading diseases from Europe, brought across the Atlantic and in through the Gulf. Eventually, they succumbed to conquest. Nature, not superior weaponry, had sealed their fate.

In the form of an ocean stream fed by Gulf currents, nature also facilitated the transfer of New World wealth to the monarchy and cathedrals of the Calusas' conquerors. Spanish explorers spent 16 years kicking around the Florida Straits before discovering the Gulf. They named it the “Spanish Sea,” and it became the pathway to new conquests, including gold and silver plundered from natives and mines in Mexico and South America. From its western shores, the Spanish Sea carried heavily laden galleons to the Gulf Stream, which, like a water carousel flung them back to Europe.

This extraordinary ocean current, which dramatically changed cross-Atlantic travel, is rarely mentioned in connection with the Gulf of Mexico, though the Gulf's warm waters and loop currents act as its wellspring.       

Conquest was not always profitable; it was, however, always challenging. The Gulf did little to encourage the European occupation of Florida. Its mangrove-tangled shoreline, behind which natives stood steadfast, frustrated one Spanish expedition after another. Similarly, the Gulf fare that nourished the statuesque Calusa provided scant comfort to would-be colonists. Many Spaniards could not stomach seafood. When distressed and starving, they would slaughter and eat their horses rather than touch a crab or oyster. That's exactly what the men of the red-bearded, one-eyed Pánfilo de Narváez did at Apalachee Bay after an aborted conquest of Florida. Once the Spanish finally established a foothold on the peninsula 37 years later, they all but ignored the Gulf in favor of exploiting products of the land – food crops, cattle, timber, cotton and indigo. The British followed their lead, and unwisely so. Neither power enjoyed a self-sustaining economy in Florida.

Not so for the Americans. Shortly after they acquired Florida, fishing wharfs in the Northeast buzzed with stories of the Gulf's potential. Stirred by possibilities, a seafaring family out of New London, Conn., set sail for Florida in 1835. A hurricane took one of their ships, but Leonard Destin, who was blown into the Gulf after losing his father and brother in the storm, was nevertheless impressed by what calmer seas revealed – fish aplenty. He made landfall in northwest Florida at a sandy point lapped by emerald-green water, built a house and eventually launched a successful commercial fishing operation. Word got out about the area's equally good recreational fishing, and the town of Destin came to harbor one of the country's largest deep-sea charter fleets. It got a nickname, too: "The World's Luckiest Fishing Village."

The Gulf's endowments were as vital as ever when the Georgia-born lyricist Sidney Lanier traveled to Florida 40 years after Destin's eventful voyage. Like his predecessor, Lanier was awestruck. “The most marvelous stories are told,” he wrote, “of the hosts of fish, even to the stoppage of vessels that have sailed into shoals of them.” In later years, experts calculated that the Gulf yields more than the combined fisheries of the U.S. East Coast. Apalachicola Bay and St. George Sound – nursery to plump oysters rated the best by chefs from New Orleans to New York – form one of the most productive marine ecosystems in North America. In 2009, it was a major contributor to the state's $6 billion commercial- and sport-fishing industry, which employed up to 60,000 people. Offshore of the five Gulf states, anglers that year landed 173 million seatrout, snapper, red drum and other fish.

Starting in the early 1800s, the cornucopia spawned fishing communities up and down Florida's west coast. Their wharfs were crowded with sway-bellied trawlers that, with slouching nets suspended astern, lumbered out to sea on endless parade. Group charter boats of a similar anatomy joined them, their hopeful passengers standing shoulder-to-shoulder with hooks baited and ready for action. And luck was theirs. Countless big-fish stories were told, and most were true.

The beginning of major league baseball's spring training can be traced to a nine-foot, 500-pound shark caught off Pinellas Point in September 1913 by Robert Hedges, owner of the St. Louis Browns. Excited by future game-fishing prospects, he took his team to St. Petersburg the next spring to train.

Good fishing attracts all kinds of people. In Florida, voices from Italy, Greece, Cuba, the Bahamas, Ireland, New England, the Deep South, Vietnam, Mexico and Honduras could be heard over the years on commercial boats and wharfs and in boat yards and processing houses. A game fish gave Tarpon Springs its name, but Gulf sponges turned it into a Greek-American city. Up at Apalachicola, the son of a German immigrant was the first to use the pasteurization process to pack oysters. After the Civil War, the sporting fight of tarpon and king mackerel off Fort Myers lured some of the state's first rod-and-reel tourists, wealthy men and women from the Northeast and Europe. Their hired guides and boat captains, like independent fisherfolk everywhere, exhibited the instincts of business managers and the physical agility of working people.

The fear in those days was not a depleted bounty, but storms. Although hurricanes invite little enthusiasm for accepting nature's providence, few Floridians will deny the capacity of extreme weather to alter the direction of life. Before European contact, storms delivered early warnings of coming cultural change. Amidst the usual confusion of sea algae and driftwood, coastal Indians found the flotsam of wrecked ships, the “gear of foreign dead men,” to borrow words from poet T. S. Eliot. On occasion, that included the dead themselves, oddly clad, bearded men from an unknown land. Similarly odd was Florida's foul-weather gold and silver. It was the only precious metal the Spanish found in this new land, and it had been salvaged by Indians after conquistadors had lost it at sea.

The Spanish lost settlements to storms, too. Pensacola, not St. Augustine, would likely be the oldest city in the United States today if a September hurricane had not broken up the colony of Tristán de Luna y Arellano in 1559. The otherwise intrepid conquistadors avoided northwest Florida for the next 139 years.      

Storms helped write the history of the Americans in Florida, too. During the early territorial period, legislators relocated the capital to the red hills of Tallahassee – with ominous consequences for local Creek Indians – and built a decent road across north Florida. They did so after colleagues had been shipwrecked while sailing around the peninsula between St. Augustine and Pensacola, the alternating sites of the first legislative sessions. Pensacola, it seems, was caught repeatedly in the whirl of such storms. In fact, raging seas that delayed Federal warships prevented the Civil War from igniting ingloriously at Pensacola rather than Fort Sumter.

Whether it delivers us from violence or to it, intense weather is as much a part of the Gulf's vitality as fish and shorebirds. From a safe distance, from a beach chair say, it is impossible not to ponder a dark storm drawn down upon the horizon in a pageantry of thunder and flashing heaven, forks of lightning striking in dramatic accompaniment. And it is no small point to add that the beach from which this observation is made was built with the aid of storms.

A gift of nature duplicated nowhere else in the United States, Gulf beaches have created a leisure economy without equal. With stretches of pure-white sand fronting a nearly unbroken chain of coastal dunes, some the size of buildings, northwest Florida wins the prize for the best beaches. Locals will swear that Hawaiian resorts beautify their waterfronts with sand imported from northwest Florida beaches. (They'll also swear that pirate's treasure is buried in the dunes.) Any Gulf sand that ends up in Hawaii has traveled a fair quarter of the globe. The beaches at Pensacola, Fort Walton and Panama City originated several hundred miles away in the Appalachian Mountains as a finely ground crystal quartz that washed to the shore.

Communities farther down the Gulf Coast offered a different kind of riches – something that naturalist John Muir discovered in 1867. He was not yet the gray-whiskered mountaineer of the Yosemite, but a young man of 29 in search of something – self, answers to life. The Gulf had beckoned him on a thousand-mile walk from Indiana, and he ended up at Cedar Key. Although only 400 people lived there, nature had made theirs the busiest port on the peninsula's west coast. Pine and cedar came out of nearby woodlands; and fish, blue crabs, green turtles and oysters out of the deltaic estuary system of the Suwannee River. Muir spent hours a day for weeks perched on shore, writing in his journal, when the Gulf inspired an insight that secured his future as the father of American conservation. Nature is the “one great unit of creation,” he concluded. It makes human existence possible, yet nature's purpose is not solely for humans. Its purpose is for all.

This insight was not singularly the wisdom of Muir. It was, and is, the manifestation of the Gulf's sure capacity to intrigue the senses. Inescapable and real, its power is revealed to us by what we see, mayhem sometimes, wonder always. All may not exist for the benefit of humans alone, as Muir said. But imagine Florida, its history and people, without the Gulf's sunset colors, its birds and fish, its storms and the unceasing succession of life generated, graciously, by its estuaries. Imagine the human spirit without the Gulf of Mexico.

This article was first published in FORUM, the statewide magazine of the nonprofit Florida Humanities Council.

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