South of the St. Augustine Inlet, the Matanzas River flowsthrough a series of wide sweeping bends with vast marshes to the west and forested shores tothe east. The marshes are as green as a dragon’s eye, the forests tall and primeval with hugeoaks, grey-bearded with Spanish moss, like old men, their wide shoulders crowding the river.
But sailing south along the Matanzas River, you also sail through time.
Along these shores, archaeologists have found evidence of lives lived more than 4,000years ago. Although what they called themselves has been lost in the long labyrinth of time, fragments of their ceramics remain to remind us of their lives. Later, the great canoes of the Timucua sailed here long before the fall of Rome. With only a little imagination you can see them still in these sweeping turns of the river, women swimming with children, fishermen setting their traps in the river, tall warriors seeking game on the skirts of the river, others building their huge council houses that could hold as many as 1,000 or more people at a time.
Jacques Le Moyne, who accompanied French explorers along the river in 1564, made sketchesof the Timucua as they went about their daily lives. They were a proud, beautiful, statuesque people. Their warriors were called “giants” by the early explorers. Recently, a forensic archaeologist studied the bones from Timucua grave sites and found the men well over six feet tall. The Timucua flourished in their villages along this river for more than fifty generations. Then, in a single generation, they were gone, killed by Spanish steel and the silent slaughter of European diseases.
In the solitudes left by the Timucua, there is an old and elegant Queen Ann mansionstanding along the river. It stands on land where the Timucua planted their beans, squash and pumpkins, where their hunters pursued the panther and ran with the deer. There are a few houses nearby, but it is obvious that this great house with its cupola and turrets and wide encircling verandah, was once alone here, about as alone as any house could be. It was built in 1885 and much of what is known about the mansion’s history was found in a bottle.
In recent years, a bottle was found in a wall that had once contained an elixir called VanBuskirk’s Fragrant Soldent. But now, it contained a note that read: This house is being built by Henry Staunton O’Brien for a winter home for his family. I am his eldest son and I was 12-yearsold last Friday, which was the 12th of May, 1885. He signed the letter Lewis Ogden O’Brien, and went on to say that he was leaving the letter so that people in one hundred years would know who built the house. Remarkably, the letter was found ninety-nine years after it was written.
What happened to the 12-year-old boy who left the letter in a bottle? He went on toHarvard Law, became Assistant District Attorney in New York and a chief trust-buster for Theodore Roosevelt.
As you sail by this place you wonder about the O‘Brien family and the years they lookedout from the cupola and verandah at the river sliding by. What a strange contrast between a Timucua family and the O’Briens. How could two families be more different one from the other. But they must have felt the same sense of place. They listened to the same sounds, heard the whistle calls of the hunting Osprey, the treble voice of the river, the rattle of palms in the wind. They shared the excitement of the rising storm, the taste of sea salt in the wind. No doubt the children of both families swam in the river and watched the same stars in the night sky. Although separated by more than three-hundred years, both families came to these solitudes and stayed to invest their lives along the river. Now we sail through time to the world they knew. And, maybe, from some distant shore, they see us sailing by.
Marshall Riggan has told and written stories for more than half a century, many of whichwere made into movies and television productions. Much of his writing has been about sailing and the sea. His books Sulu Sea and The Last Traveler can be seen at https://www.marshallrigganstoryteller.com