Atlantis, El Dorado, etc. These are popular lost cities as part of legends. Some of these lost cities disappearances were said to be caused by usually strong natural disasters. For example, a huge earthquake was said to sink Atlantis to the bottom of the ocean.
However, what people are not so acquainted with is Gulf County’s, in particularly Port St Joe’s, perplexing history in the 1800s and how some of the events that took place almost 200 years ago still effect Gulf County today. We are referring to a real place that has come to be called The Lost City—St. Joseph.
The Largest City in Florida—For Real?!
In 1838, St. Joseph, now called Port St. Joe, was the largest city in Florida with some 12,000 people—Port St. Joe was larger in 1838 than today even 179 years later! Wealthy businessmen from Apalachicola moved to establish St. Joseph. Unlike Apalachicola, since a major river did not empty into St. Joseph Bay, these men built a railroad to support the economy. In fact, Port St. Joe was home to the first railroad in Florida.
In 1838, because of its prominence, Florida’s constitution was drafted, not at the capital of Florida-Tallahassee, but in Port St. Joe. Six years later, Florida officially became the 27th state. The city had wealth, a beautiful environment, magnificent homes, thriving businesses, etc. How could it get any better?
When Yellow Was The New Black
As soon as Port St. Joe began to bask in its success and prominence, an unexpected turn of events followed. The economy sank. In just a few years the population dropped from 12,000 in 1838 to around 5,000-6,000 in 1841.
Then, in 1841, Yellow Fever blanketed the city. The illness spared no one—rich, poor, white, black, men, women, farmer, politician, child, elder, etc. After Yellow Fever struck in 1841, Port St. Joe was left with a population of only about 400 or so in 1842. While humans at this time in history seemed to thrive off of separating each other based on race, gender, etc, nature, via Yellow Fever, powerfully demonstrated and reminded everyone that all humans are equal.
Bet You Didn’t Know: To this day, Port St. Joe currently maintains segregated cemeteries—Forest Hill is used for black people and Holly Hill used for white people. Though, technically and legally, anyone today can purchase a lot in either cemetery—in practice physically, socially and culturally, the cemeteries do not mix races. The practice of segregation at death is very much alive…no pun intended.
There is also a historical cemetery in Port St. Joe that was designated for those who died due to the grievous Yellow Fever.
To make matters worse, in the Fall of 1841, a fire ravaged the town and forest in St. Joseph.
Hurricane and “Tidal Wave”
In 1844, a hurricane swept through Port St. Joe. This devastated what was remaining of the city. After this, Port St. Joe basically became non-existent. The storm surge was so powerful, that many people describe what happened as a “tidal wave”.
Natural Disasters or Divine Retribution?
Though most people today would say that Port St. Joe was the victim of an unprecedented sequence of natural events with no divine hand attached to it, to many in the 1800s, the intense and unusual series of events that resulted in the demise of Port St. Joe was on the level of Biblical proportions—as if God was pushing the city for corruption of all kinds. As a wealthy port city, it encompassed all the vices that come with that designation. St. Joseph was known as “sin city”. Clergymen from around the country preached that God had destroyed the city.
A Chicago newspaperman wrote: “The sun shone brightly over the wrecked ambitious work of man. Death’s Angel, the hurricane, had completed the work begun by its brother, Pestilence (yellow fever), and buried beneath the sands of the sea, or swept to the four winds of Heaven, all that remained of the proud young city of St. Joseph.” (George Mortimer West in his story published in 1922 entitled, “Old St. Jo.”)
Port St. Joe now stands as a popular small town in which scores of people travel through, especially going to Cape San Blas, FL. It has bounced back in many ways, in particularly with respect to tourism. While it in no way is close to the largest city in Florida, it maintains unique charm that large cities cannot touch.
It is hoped that history will not repeat itself when it comes to the previous series of natural disasters that destroyed The Lost City.
Pirates at St. Marks, Florida! for the story of the attack on the General Parkhill.
The Revenue Service, predecessor of today’s U.S. Coast Guard, then had two revenue cutters at St. Marks. These vessels were operating in conjunction with the U.S. Army to suppress trading with the Creek and Seminole warriors who were fighting against the United States in the Panhandle and Big Bend regions of Florida. The Second Seminole War was in its third year and the military was no closer to finding and capturing these Native American parties than it had been when the war started.
The two cutters set out from St. Marks to find the pirates, their crews reinforced by detachments of U.S. soldiers from the military post there. The vessels turned west through St. George Sound and it was not long before they spotted some of the pirates. The officers had donned civilian dress to hide their identities and were able to convince two of the pirates to come aboard:
…The day was calm, and feeling sure of the pirates, all hands went down to dinner, leaving two negro men on deck with them, who it is supposed gave the pirates information of the pursuit and enabled them to escape. When the officers came on deck they found our boat and her crew of murderers at least two miles to windward of them, making for the shore, and a light wind had sprung up which prevented the schooner from giving chase to them. – (Letter from Capt. John Barney, March 6, 1839).
Waterfront of Apalachicola, where the pirates stopped on their way to Cape San Blas.
The pirates headed west to Apalachicola, where their boat was spotted a day or two later. They appear to have come ashore, either for supplies or pleasure, before continuing their way west to Cape San Blas. There they unexpectedly came upon a completely different set of pirates:
…We have since then received information that they joined another set of pirates off Cape San Blas, who had also mutinied on board a brig at St. Josephs, killed the second mate, stole the boat and went on board and took possession of a fast sailing sloop, after driving the people belonging to her on shore, and ran away with her. At Cape San Blas they fell in with our beauties, who immediately joined them, and they have no doubt determined to carry on the trade of piracy to its fullest extent, as they were well armed. They were attacked by a pursuit whom they beat off. – (Letter from Capt. John Barney, March 6, 1839).
The Revenue cutters sailed west for Cape San Blas looking for the pirates and the fast sloop taken in the second bloody attack at St. Joseph. This historic seaport once stood on the site of today’s Port St. Joe, Florida. It is unknown whether the pirates coordinated the attacks off St. Marks and in St. Joseph Bay.
The historic cemetery is virtually all that remains of the famed “Lost City” of St. Joseph, Florida. The two men killed nearby by the pirates may have been buried here.
The U.S. crews soon came up with the pirates at a “creek” near St. Joseph:
…Two cutters were in search of them, together with the government and civil officers of the territory.
The cutters, it is supposed, drove them in near to St. Josephs, where they were attacked and all of them made prisoners by four constables and a posse of citizens. The place where they were captured was a low marshy spot, and a heavy growth of wood, on the wrong side of a creek to the nearest place where they could be taken and kept with safety, and the party were obliged to cross the creek, in order to keep clear of the Indians who are prowling about in all directions. – (Letter from Capt. John Barney, March 9, 1839).
The ongoing Seminole war also interfered with communications between St. Joseph and St. Marks. Barney reported that couriers of mails, newspapers and other intelligence had a very difficult time getting through due to the presence of warriors throughout the region.
Trapped up the unnamed creek, two of the officers took one of the pirates, a man named Joe Stirk, to look for a boat to be used to ferry the entire party across. Stirk used this as an opportunity to gain the trust of the officers so he could attempt a daring escape:
Cape San Blas has been a landmark to sailors of the Florida coast for hundreds of years.
…Stirk watched his opportunity, knocked one of the officers down, and compelled the other to runaway. He then returned to his fellow-murderers in the wood, and unseen by the persons having charge of them, cut their lashings and released them. The pirates then fell upon their keepers, killed two of them, and compelled the rest to run for their lives. – (Letter from Capt. John Barney, March 9, 1839).
The captured pirates having gained their freedom took a fast schooner somewhere near the mouth of St. Joseph Bay. They sailed it around to rejoin the sloop off Cape San Blas and both vessels soon set off on a “piratical cruise.”
The pirates had carried out at least three bloody attacks on the coast between St. Marks and St. Joseph. Several men had been killed and others were left badly wounded. They also had possession of two fast vessels, cash, goods, supplies and other booty. The open water of the Gulf of Mexico was before them.
Captain Wilson and his first mate, however, had not seen the last of the pirates. Their next meeting would be one of the strangest chances of fate in the history of piracy.