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Florida Continues to Flow Down History's River

November 1, 2019 - 6:00am
The Ribault Monument
The Ribault Monument

Situated on the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve and overlooking the St. Johns River, the view from the Ribault Monument is one of Jacksonville’s hidden gems. From that point on St. Johns Bluff, you have a commanding view of the river with a nice panorama of human activity, marshlands, trees and the open sky.

You’re close enough to the Atlantic to enjoy the breezes and even pick up hints of the smell of saltwater in the air. Having been coming to the monument for three and a half decades to enjoy the view, I still find myself surprised, especially when one of the barges or even a cruise ship sails by. 

Standing there, you can’t escape history’s ebb. The monument is a replica of a stone column that French explorer Jean Ribault placed along the St. Johns River in 1562. Ribault returned three years later to help the struggling Huguenot colony established in Florida and was captured and killed along the banks of the Matanzas River by the Spanish after he refused to renounce his Protestant faith. When the Daughters of the American Revolution created the Ribault Monument, the group praised the French explorers for helping bring Protestantism to America, a pretty telling point in the 1920s, not long after Florida elected Sidney Catts whose opposition to Catholicism was one of the main features of his gubernatorial campaign. 

The preserve is one of the main legacies of Charlie Bennett, the longest-serving congressman in Florida’s history. Bennett is probably best known for never missing a roll call vote during his 44 years in Congress and for helping put “In God We Trust” on our currency. He was also an amateur historian who helped preserve Florida’s history through establishing  Fort Caroline National Memorial and, later, the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. Bennett also wrote a series of books covering the Sunshine State’s history, ranging from the colonial periods to the early republic and biographies of French explorers, Scottish rogues and American generals whose lives were entwined with Florida. 

I first met Bennett in 1993 when I was a senior at Wolfson High School and he had just retired from Congress and was teaching at Jacksonville University. I had purchased Bennett’s and Donald Lennon’s biography of Major General Robert Howe who commanded American forces in the South during the early stages of the Revolution and who led unsuccessful efforts to take East Florida from the British. Bennett and Lennon made Howe come alive despite his obscurity. They captured Howe’s humanity: his friendliness, his womanizing, his humor, his love of Shakespeare and his pomposity. It was something of a revelation for a kid who loved history but generally stuck to the textbooks and saw the Founding Fathers as a collection of stoics, more like demigods than actual human beings. 

Bennett offered new perspectives for me while at the same time offering powerful reminders of how important history is to Florida and to the nation. As the state’s population constantly turns over and new towns seem to spring out of nowhere, it’s easy to lose sight of history. It’s a problem here in Florida and across the nation. 

As he so often did, Roger Sherman, one of the most important Founding Fathers despite his current obscurity, showed great wisdom when he pointed to one of the reasons how a republic could collapse. “Sad will be the day when the American people forget their traditions and their history, and no longer remember that the country they love, the institutions they cherish, and the freedom they hope to preserve, were born from the throes of armed resistance to tyranny, and nursed in the rugged arms of fearless men,” Sherman wrote. 

Even among the Founding Fathers, Sherman, the only man to sign the Continental Association, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, held a special place. Thomas Jefferson praised Sherman as “a man who has never said a foolish thing in his life” while Fisher Ames mused “if I am absent, during the discussion of a subject, and consequently know not on which side to vote, I always look at Roger Sherman, for I am sure if I vote with him I shall vote right.” 

Well, Sherman was over the target with how important traditions and historic knowledge are to the American experiment in republican government. It’s something I tried to keep in mind at Sunshine State News throughout the past decade, even as the sun sets on the site. Too often Florida’s history has been bulldozed over to make way for new condos, theme parks and strip malls. It’s unfortunate. Not only is Florida the prettiest of 50 sisters, she is also the oldest, a point that the Viva Florida campaign tried to make in 2013 to mark the 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce de Leon’s expedition. 

History’s fingerprints are all on the Sunshine State and you can see some of its traces in Native American mounds, Spanish forts, Catholic missions, weathered churches, plantation homes and slave cabins, Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields, prisons, blues clubs, hotels, ballparks, schools, town halls, sugar mill ruins, old stores and restaurants, college buildings, town halls, libraries and museums  all across Florida.

History continues to shape all of us even as we seem more than ever to live in an eternal now. The daily political battles and social media outrages are forgotten only days later as we move on to the next big topic. We need to understand the past--which was not always pretty--more than ever but too many historians are writing for each other instead of for the public. History is too important to leave in the hands of academic bureaucrats hoping for tenure and the chattering class. 

Simply put, history belongs to all of us and it’s up to us to share it, preserve it and, hopefully, learn from it. In my own small way, I was glad to be able to share some of my knowledge of Florida’s past and the people who shaped it during my years at Sunshine State News. I’m thankful to my editor and mentor Nancy Smith for her patience and support over the years and allowing me the freedom to dwell on Seminole War monuments and the signers of the Declaration of Independence imprisoned in St. Augustine. I’m grateful to my parents for nourishing my interest in history and to Congressman Bennett and my teachers at Wolfson, particularly Janet Coburn and the late Frances Brewster, for inspiring my love of Florida’s past. Most of all, I am thankful to my readers for their time and interest and for often sharing their own insights and stories on Florida’s history. 

While Sunshine State News might be wrapping up, history continues to flow much like my beloved St. Johns River. Thanks for sharing this part of the journey with me and I hope to see you over at Florida Daily. 

Kevin Derby can be reached at kevin.derby@floridadaily.com 

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