Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson’s army was out of food and on the verge of starvation as it continued its march down the Apalachicola River 200 years ago today. It was Friday the 13th.
This article is part of our continuing series that marks the 200th anniversary of the First Seminole War. Please click here to access the entire timeline of stories.
Alum Bluff soars high above the river just north of today’s city of Bristol. Geologists believe that it is the largest exposed section of the earth’s crust in all of Florida. The Nature Conservancy, which now owns and manages the bluff, considers it to be an ecological wonderland. Some residents of the surrounding area even maintain that it is the spot where humanity itself was created.
Andrew Jackson and his men reached Alum Bluff 200 years ago today on March 13, 1818. On the river below was the long-awaited keelboat bringing provisions to save the army. “God favoured my exertions,” Jackson wrote to his wife Rachel at home in Tennessee. “We have experienced bad roads, high waters, & constant rain, with the dreary prospects of great scarcity of provisions,” he told her, “the supplies ordered from New Orleans, having been detained by adverse winds.” [I]
The keelboat was the Support, a large vessel built at Fort Scott during the winter of 1817-1818. She was capable of carrying up to 300 barrels of cargo. Lt. Col. Matthew Arbuckle had sent her down to Apalachicola Bay under the command of Capt. George Vashon after a dispatch from Lt. Richard M. Sands reached the fort. Sands was aboard the supply sloop Phebe Ann, which had arrived in the bay with desperately needed supplies for the army. It was in anticipation of the Support’s upriver return that Jackson had marched his men out from Fort Scott with only three-days’ rations.
Lt. John Banks of the Georgia militia wrote a vivid description of the moment when the lead elements of the army crested Alum Bluff and saw the Support in the river below:
…On Friday, the 13th, while marching down the river about 12 o’clock P.M., we met the boats laden with provisions; a most joyful meeting it was. Things assumed a new aspect, every countenance seemed animated which was before marked with discontent and despair. Starvation which had stared us in the face was changed to plenty (for the present). When the news was proclaimed that the boats were in sight the army halted. I seated myself under a black-jack bush, and with a most devouring appetite, consumed the little remnant of provisions that I had reserved as a dernier resort. [II]
Gen. Jackson ordered his men to make camp for the night and issued them a full extra ration of food. It was the first time they had enjoyed a full meal since leaving Fort Early twelve days earlier.
The army topographer, Capt. Hugh Young, described the nine miles covered by the army as it marched from what is now Torreya State Park to Alum Bluff. His account provides one of the first written descriptions of the ecologically sensitive steephead ravines that are found in the bluffs that extend down the east side of the Apalachicola River:
…For this distance, the road runs round the head of several small branches of the Apalachicola which suddenly emerge from deep indentations in the high pine flat forming the ridge if it may be called, between the Apalachicola waters and those of Okloknee and New River…The river is here two hundred and ten yards wide with a deep cane brake on the west side. [III]
Young called the natural landmark “Provision Bluff” from the fact that the army met the supply boat there. The name never caught on, though, and the feature has been called Alum Bluff since within a few years of the First Seminole War.
Most of the soldiers in Jackson’s army had yet to see even a single enemy warrior. That changed on the night of March 13th when the sentries captured a “hostile Indian.” The name of the man was not given but he was undoubtedly one of the 200 warriors reported to be on the river under the Prophet Josiah Francis to scout the movements of the whites. [IV]
The men were able to rest a few extra hours atop Alum Bluff that day. They took in the spectacular view and watched the sunset. The same view that they enjoyed can be seen today thanks to the Nature Conservancy. The Garden of Eden Trail offers a strenuous but beautiful hike out to the rim of the bluff.
The name of the trail pays tribute to a locally popular theory that Alum Bluff was once part of the actual Garden of Eden. The idea was advanced in the mid-20th century by Rev. E.E. Callaway of Bristol. His study of the Bible led him to believe that the Apalachicola River matched all of the characteristics given in the Book of Genesis for the garden in which God placed Adam and Eve at the beginning of time.
Adding strength to Rev. Callaway’s theory is the fact that one of the rarest trees in the world, the Florida torreya, only grows in the unique environment of the upper Apalachicola. The Torreya, according to local legend, was the gopherwood from which Noah built the ark.
Convinced that they had found the Biblical garden, Callaway and his supporters even erected signs on the bluff pointing out such places as the spot where they believed that Adam met Eve. The signs are no longer there but the spectacular scenery remains.
When the Nature Conservancy acquired the property as part of its Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve initiative, it paid tribute to the community tradition by naming its new Alum Bluff hiking path the Garden of Eden Trail. It is open to the public daily and is accessed via Garden of Eden Road off SR-12 on the north side of Bristol, Florida. The map below will help you find the trail and you can learn more about it by visiting Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve.
[I] Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson to Rachel Jackson, March –, 1818.
[II] Lt. John Banks, Diary of John Banks, 1936.
[III] Capt. Hugh Young, “A Topographical Memoir of East and West Florida with Itineraries of General Jackson, 1818,” The Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Jan., 1935), pp. 138-139.
[IV] Lt. John Banks, Diary of John Banks, 1936.