An epic tale of survival

Survivors of the Reformation were captured by Indians similar to these depicted in Jacksonville Public Library’s mural Ribault’s Landing by Lee Adams. RICK CRARY PHOTO

Journal describes brutal capture, rescue of British castaways from coastal Indians


Of all the ships that foundered off the Treasure Coast through the centuries, the one remembered best is the Reformation. After it ran aground on Jupiter Island 320 years ago, a survivor wrote a book that became an early American classic: God’s Protecting Providence. We know it better today as Jonathan Dickinson’s Journal. An 11,500-acre state park in Hobe Sound was named in honor of the author, but it was an elderly evangelist’s story that made the shipwreck famous. Robert Barrow’s quest to survive Florida’s unforgiving wilderness captured a bygone public’s attention.

For a couple of centuries after the discovery of Florida, the Treasure Coast was little more than a shadowy land of danger, a place where unlucky travelers shipwrecked and disappeared forever. Sailing ships were no match for random gale-force storms with surging waves, and to travel the ocean’s superhighway ― the Gulf Stream ― was to roll the dice and face a chance of dying on the reefs.

The risk of drowning was very real, but making it to shore could be much worse. Stone Age natives, whose palm-thatched towns and villages lined the coast, were said to be bloodthirsty barbarians. According to a Spanish colonial governor’s report in 1574, the Indians sacrificed shipwreck victims and used their severed heads in pagan ceremonies.

By 1696, when the Reformation wrecked, a series of Spanish governors had tempered the brutality of native inhabitants. Scavenging tribes like the Ais, Santaluces, Jeagas and Jobeses on the Treasure Coast craved the Spaniard’s tobacco, which was infinitely superior to weeds they found in the woods. To feed their smoking habit, natives traded ambergris and information about shipwrecks in their territory.

Castaways of Spanish descent had decent odds of living to reach St. Augustine, a skeletal outpost that barely sustained a company of hard-luck soldiers. But the natives did not afford the privileges of survival to Englishmen, whose terrifying buccaneers had preyed on Spanish treasure ships for decades. For English-speaking travelers, South Florida’s primitive coast was still widely held to be a land of cannibals with a taste for English flesh.

A month before reaching the Treasure Coast, the Reformation set sail from Port Royal, Jamaica ― the pirate capital of the Caribbean. It was an especially dangerous time to be at sea and not just because of hurricane season. The War of the Grand Alliance raging in Europe had spread to the New World, where the Sun King of France turned his navy loose to wreak havoc on rival empires. With only a minimal knowledge of Spanish, Treasure Coast Indians could not have understood the arcana of world politics. They didn’t know that the latest war had temporarily turned Englishmen and Spaniards into unlikely allies.

It was a late September storm that ravished the Reformation and tossed it into the reef-filled shallows off Jupiter Island. Below deck in the midnight darkness, two dozen passengers and crew felt the schooner strike bottom and bust its timbers. Water rushed in and soon everyone was floating inside the boat.

Dickinson’s baby must have been crying in his wife Mary’s arms, and surely panic gripped the young couple and their ten slaves. But the Journal does not capture their anguish. All we know from Dickinson’s account is that heavy waves kept crashing overhead, and the boat ran fast aground. Fifteen unbearable minutes passed without the air pocket filling with water, and then someone finally lit a candle.

Amid the rocking and crunching that came with each volley of waves, they debated what to do. Dickinson, the wealthy 33-year-old merchant who hired the ship, had as much say as the captain, Joseph Kirle. Should everyone swim for land? The mariners couldn’t see the shore, but it had to be there, somewhere beyond the thunderous crash of seas. Or was it safer to squeeze out every last second inside the cracking schooner, until she broke apart completely? They decided to stay put, and as hours passed, the tide slowly lowered and water drained out of the ship.

Daylight brought subsiding winds. The boat was on the beach. That might have been cause for celebration, but everyone was expecting the natives to soon find them. And it wasn’t long before bands of nearly naked Indians arrived, bearing Spanish knives and grabbing them by their heads. For an agonizing span of time, the castaways awaited a chieftain’s decision regarding decapitation. He seemed to be debating whether his captives were English or Spanish. Except for one mariner, Solomon Cresson, none of the castaways spoke more than a few phrases of Spanish. Yet, as a ruse to gain favor and stay alive, all claimed allegiance to Spain. All except for Robert Barrow.

Shipwreck and capture were only the opening scenes of an epic struggle that would stretch out over months, when some would not survive. Dickinson’s book came out three years later, in 1699. Unlike the fictional account of Robinson Crusoe, which wouldn’t be published for 20 more years, God’s Protecting Providence was chock-full of real-life action. Nevertheless, the first edition did not do well. Booksellers needed to come up with a great sales angle, so they focused on the only bona fide 17th century celebrity on the passenger list: Robert Barrow.

Although Barrow is only scantily mentioned in the pages of Dickinson’s book, a preface by an unidentified contributor focused on him. In the second edition, publishers gave Barrow top billing on the title page. Book sales took off with many editions to follow. Widespread religious publications like The Friend later retold the tale from Barrow’s point of view, filling in missing details. Poor Dickinson was not viewed as the hero of his own account. His role in the epic drama was reduced to the status of an afterthought. To add insult to injury, publishers even spelled Dickinson’s last name wrong on the title pages of more than 14 reprints.

To understand why Barrow had sales appeal, you need to remember that the 1600s were a time when religious controversies held center stage. Many died or were imprisoned for their beliefs. One of the burning issues was whether God spoke solely through ordained authorities. Barrow believed the Lord communicated directly with ordinary believers via an “inner light.” It was a revolutionary notion, and some historians say it was the source of American individualism as we know it today. Barrow picked up the idea in 1652 from George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends ― the Quakers. Barrow helped spread the equalizing message all over the British Isles. Many times he was imprisoned for civil disobedience, which made the news, of course. That is how he earned his fame.

By the 1690s, Barrow was old, weary and ready to retire. During his many years of preaching, a measure of religious toleration had come about, in part as a result of the Puritans’ execution of Quakers in Boston Common. The hanging of the so-called Boston Martyrs shocked the consciences of British authorities in London. Laws were eventually passed, giving religious freedom to most Protestants in England’s realm. Barrow prospered, and he could have settled down comfortably in the stunning Lake District of northern England with his beloved wife, Margaret. But being God-driven, he could not rest.

Seeds of dissension were reportedly taking root among inconstant believers in the young Quaker colony of Pennsylvania. George Fox, the powerful Quaker leader, had died at Barrow’s side. So, who better than Barrow to calm the unsettled flock across the ocean? Although he sensed he would never see his wife or England again, he had to go on one last mission trip. That is how he ended up wrecking on the Treasure Coast.

Barrow had spent a year preaching in Pennsylvania, where he spoke to crowds at more than 300 events. For good measure, he visited the faithful in Bermuda, Antigua and finally Jamaica. The pirate realm needed proselytizing, too. That’s where he caught a tropical illness and nearly died. After four months of feverish suffering, he boarded the Reformation for one final visit to Philadelphia. He was sailing in a convoy that provided protection from the French navy, but weather soon separated the ships. As seas grew unsettled, dangers began to increase. Then came the roaring winds, the wreck and capture by native heathens.

It was the chieftain of Hoe-Bay, or the “Casseekey” as Dickinson called him, who first decided to let Barrow and the others live. Hoe-bay is the origin of the name Hobe Sound. The Casseekey took the castaways to his town, a ramshackle conglomeration of huts that stood beside an inlet. The natives stole the castaways’ hats, shirts, shoes and stockings, along with most of their other possessions, but they were allowed to keep their pants. They witnessed howling ceremonies underneath the moon, and when bonfires blazed they were sure they were going to be cooked. Culture shock and anxiety prevented them from eating what was offered them for days.

It was on the third day of captivity that Robert Barrow gave publishers the theme they used for Dickinson’s book for a period of more than 150 years. He had just finished preaching from the third chapter of the Book of Revelations: “Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world….” That’s when Dickinson said that Barrow “ended with a most fervent prayer desiring of the Lord that whereas He had suffered us to be cast amongst a barbarous and heathenish people, if that it was His blessed will, he would preserve and deliver us from amongst them, ‘that our names might not be buried in oblivion.’ ”

Old and deathly sick as Barrow was, his one desire became to survive the terrible wilderness and make it more than 1,000 miles back to Philadelphia, where he could die among friends. In an era still clinging mightily to swords of religious intolerance, Dickinson’s little book became an answer to the question of whether God might hear the prayers of Quakers, too. The suspense for early readers was whether the dying evangelist would make it all the way.

After days of pleading, the Casseekey of Hoe-Bay allowed the castaways to take a few of their things and head out barefooted for St. Augustine. Their lifeboat couldn’t hold everyone, and eventually they all had to walk. It was not long before old Barrow’s feet had holes the size of his thumb. The ache of a thirsty trek up the barrier islands was torturous to Mary Dickinson, too. And the Reformation’s captain had broken his leg, so he had to use his slave, Ben, as a crutch. The journey was slow going. Natives along the way threatened to shoot them full of arrows, but none obstructed their exodus completely, until they reached the territory of the Ais (pronounced eyes).

The Ais were the most powerful tribe on the Treasure Coast, and their capital at that time was a town called Jece. Some historians think it was in the vicinity of Pelican Island in Indian River County. Some say it was farther north. The Ais gave the castaways a cruel reception. They forcibly relieved the weary travelers of their remaining clothing and stole all their other possessions, including a Bible, from which they tore out the pages. After beatings and abuse, the Indians dressed their captives in primitive attire.

For many weeks to come, Barrow and the others had to live like Indians. The men wore skimpy thongs made of plaited palm, decorated on the backside with fluffy horsetails made from silky grass. Young Mrs. Dickinson and the female slaves were fitted with thongs made from raw deerskin. The garb was obviously insufficient protection from the burning sun. As November approached, the windy nights were growing colder. Inside the Indians’ thatched dwellings, heaps of bugs crawled over everyone at will. Clouds of mosquitoes and sand flies tortured them, too.

They tried to subsist on a diet of palmetto berries. At first they spit them out, because, as Dickinson said, they tasted like “rotten cheese steeped in tobacco.” But weeks of hunger must have changed their taste buds, because they later stole a whole bag of berries when they got the chance. Fortunately for the Dickinsons’ baby, Indian women suckled him frequently. The child became the only castaway who was cheerful and healthy. The rest of the group felt pressed beneath biblical afflictions that took them to the edge of human endurance. After weeks of torment, it was a miracle that old Barrow was still alive. Daily he wondered when they might be slaughtered. And then an October hurricane slapped them with a storm surge that nearly drowned them once again.

There were other English castaways being held in the Indian town, marked for execution. They had sailed in the same convoy from Jamaica on a ship named Bristol. Indians observed the way the Dickinson party conversed with them, which made many natives suspect they might be English too. But the old gray-haired Casseekey believed the group from the Reformation were Spanish amigos, as they had claimed. Unbeknownst to the castaways, he sent Indian runners up the coast to report to the governor in St. Augustine. But then the Indians down in Hoe-Bay revealed that the captives were only pretending to be Spaniards. The Casseekey was not pleased to learn he had been tricked. Just in time, however, Spanish soldiers arrived. There were less than a dozen, but that was enough for safe escort out of the area.

The rescue must have seemed like a happy ending, but the worst was yet to come. Unfortunately, the soldiers had little food to share, and it was “more dust and dead weevils than bread.” Worse yet, they brought nothing of substance with which to cover all the naked travelers, and November had arrived with winds and nighttime frost. It was the cold that did the killing. One by one they fell by the side on a 10-day journey up the peninsula. They paddled at first, and then they marched and walked, and some of them crawled as far as they could.

If Dickinson had really written the book with Barrow in mind, he certainly wouldn’t have left him to fend for himself. Of course, the author was much more concerned with seeing his wife and baby survive. Barrow just couldn’t keep up. He fell farther and farther behind until he was out of sight.
The Dickinsons finally arrived at a small Spanish outpost about two day’s distance from St. Augustine. The day had been frigid and the night grew colder with frost. It seemed unlikely that Barrow could still be alive, but he arrived well after dark, his bloody feet leaving marks in the sand.

Barrow lived to see St. Augustine, where its famous fortress, Castillo de San Marcos, had been completed the year before. As a Protestant evangelist in an era of religious hostility, he was surprised how wonderfully the Spanish Roman Catholics treated him. They fed him the best-tasting cornbread he ever had, he reported to his wife in a letter. They clothed him, too. Garments were a scarce commodity, but one of the priests gave him a fine linen shirt.

Barrow grew ever more ill with an intestinal ailment. Probably, he should have remained bedridden in St. Augustine, but instead he traveled 275 more miles to Charleston by canoe. There he spent nearly three months convalescing under the care of an English nurse from his home region. Then at long last, realizing he was incurably ill, he made a two-week passage by schooner to Philadelphia. The Dickinsons traveled with him. When he arrived, the old evangelist was much too sick to disembark, so his Quaker friends came to visit him aboard the ship.

Barrow wished to go ashore, so the gathering of Friends gingerly carried him to the house of a man named Samuel Carpenter. There on his deathbed, he spoke: “The Lord hath answered my desire, for I desired content, and that I might come to this place, to lay my bones amongst you.” According to a Quaker publication, he died on April 4, 1697, uttering his last words: “God is good still.”

History has been quick to forget thousands lost on the Treasure Coast in the centuries of wooden ships. We have even lost their names. But because of yesteryear’s interest in one man’s Via Dolorosa, one ship in a vast fleet of wrecks comes down to us with the names of all onboard preserved. You can find them in Dickinson’s little book. It is still in print today.

See the original article in the print publication

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