- Historic Sites
"The Woods Were Tossing With Jewels”
A Childhood in the Florida Wilderness
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
At Naples we sold the horse and wagon and bought a boat, a sloop with a cabin. Loading our things into this craft, we boldly set sail into the rollicking gulf. Things went well until, just off of Cape Romano, we encountered a squall. We headed out to sea, which frightened my landlubber mother, and I at once sensed her fear. Papa had to shout above the wind and rain so that the boys could hear his orders. When mama and I from inside the cabin heard him yell, “Let her rip,” we thought the end had come. He hastened to see what all the screaming was about and assured us that there was no danger. Just the same, I have always looked back on that event as one of the narrowest escapes I ever had!
We made port at Marco, a landing pier and little else, where we were met by people who knew papa and who gave us a grand welcome. In fact, it seemed that everyone knew papa everywhere we went. He was a small man with immense vitality. His curly red hair was worn longish in the style of the day. His sharp blue eyes were a constant clue to his wit and charm. I was quick to own up to being Jim Martin’s daughter.
We visited a few days at Marco and then sailed south for Everglades City and Chucoluskee, one a landing pier, the other a mud bank. Finally we came to Edgar Watson’s place, a sugar plantation on the Chatham River.
Watson was an infamous outlaw. Every lawman in southern Florida was acquainted with his treachery and cunning. He had secluded himself in this remote area of the Everglades because he was not welcome elsewhere; from time to time he was halfheartedly sought for trial, though few crimes seemed to lead directly to his door. The legend persisted, however. The native whites feared him as you would a rattlesnake, but the Indians and black people were susceptible to his manipulations. Frequently hungry, they would go to work for him, cutting cane. He rarely paid the money agreed upon, and if a worker rebelled, Watson was said to execute him on the spot. I heard that countless human skeletons were left bare in his bayou once when a hurricane blew the water out. The bayou filled the next day, and it was business as usual.
This merciless man had an invalid wife whom he adored. He kept fifty cats for her to pet; of course, I was intrigued with them the day we docked at the sugar plantation. I remember Mr. Watson taking me on his knee and telling me to pick one out for my own. He seemed the kindest of men.
Not without trepidation, papa made arrangements with Watson to bring lumber, roofing, and other materials needed from Fort Myers to build our house, which we would do with our own hands and the help of friends. Like other people in this lost place, we were dependent on Watson’s big boat, which made regular runs to and fro. We felt this dependency even more after we settled and commenced to farm. There was no other way to get our produce to market on a steady basis. The strangle hold Watson had over this section of Florida was not dissimilar to the unscrupulous activities of certain lawmen, other legal crooks, and even governors that our state was to suffer through its history.
We left Watson’s that same day for our destination. This first home was to be a weather-boarded shack on a small island called Gopher Key. It was twenty miles further up the river, then out into an expansive bay and through a creek that wound like a tunnel among the hundreds of islands offshore. Some of these islands were so close together that this creek often was shaded over by mangroves.
It was sundown when we arrived at Gopher Key, where we would stay until the big house was built on a neighboring island. There was the little shack, not the most gracious of living quarters, and there was a murderer for our nearest and only neighbor, about thirty miles away. Nevertheless, we moved in with our folding cots for beds and our canvas seats for chairs. I do remember a crude table, with a long bench to sit on. There was also, and most important, a cookstove.
The island was virtually a hammock. It was covered with thick green growth. There sprung to life, in no time it seems, a splendid garden under the care and interest of our entire family. We had a variety of vegetables on the table each day. These were supplemented with every kind of wild game and seafood. We had fresh venison and wild turkey any time we wanted it. We fished for sheepshead and snapper by rowing a few yards from the house. Daily, right in front of the house, papa fired the shotgun several times from behind the blind he had built on the edge of our stream, and of the thousands of ducks that quacked us awake at dawn he would bring in a dozen or more to be smothered in sage. My mother saved the down we plucked from the ducks that winter, and there was eventually enough to make a feather bed.
On our swimming excursions that winter to the outer islands, we gathered clams for fritters and chowder. The oysters we got along the sides of the clear tidal creeks were as big as a man’s foot.