Biographical and Provenance Materials


Material Information

Biographical and Provenance Materials
Series Title:
John Lee Williams Papers
Physical Description:
Williams, John Lee, 1775-1856
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Lawyers -- Correspondence -- Florida   ( lcsh )
Historians -- Correspondence -- Florida   ( lcsh )
History -- Sources -- Picolata (Fla.) -- 19th century   ( lcsh )
St Johns -- 12109   ( ceeus )
Escambia -- 12033   ( ceeus )
Leon -- 12073   ( ceeus )


Papers, biographical sketch, correspondence, newspaper clipping. This collection contains miscellaneous papers related to John Lee Williams. The longest item is a 300+ unpublished manuscript, intended to be an expanded and revised edition of his "Territory of Florida" (1837), in which he devotes more space to the Second Seminole War. There are also biographical sketches, minor receipts and deeds, and letters written by John King of Charleston to William's stepson, Washington M. Ives, concerning property in St. Augustine.
Civil engineer, lawyer, Florida pioneer, historian.
Florida". He quit his law practice and gathered quite a reputation as an eccentric who was known for his walks around the dangerous Indian territory around Picolata, but was never harmed. A story of his evasion of a group of Indians who murdered a troupe of actors is included.
Source of Description:
Originally derived from archival-level ALEPH record 028340846 ( OCLC: 50656958 )
Funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) as part of the Pioneer Days in Florida Project

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of Florida
Holding Location:
P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History, Special Collections
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
System ID:

Full Text

Manuscript. John Lee Williams

Unpublished second edition of Territory of Florida with
artwork by John Rogers Vinton and Electus Backus
intended to form the basis of illustrations. This edition
followed out the conclusion of the Second Seminole
War, which was still being fought when the first edition
was published in 1837, and added new information
about south Florida and the Everglades, including a
depiction of Lake Okeechobee. It was still unpublished
at the time of Williams' death in 1856.
A portion of the collection was donated circa 1958 by Edward S. Kelly, great-grandson of John Lee
Williams. A second portion was donated in 2003 by Nancy Meers, great-granddaughter of Williams.

After 150 Years,

a Lost


Comes to Light

by James Cusick
Florida history curator

Pages of the manuscript
that Florida author and
historian John Lee Williams
was hoping to publish into
a second edition book have
finally been reunited after
150 years. Nancy Meers,
Williams' great-granddaugh-
ter, acquired half of the
pages in 1984 and in 2003
began to investigate the
origins which led to the
discovery that the other half
of the pages were housed
in the Smathers Libraries'
P.K Yonge Library of Florida

John Lee Williams published
Territory of Florida in 1837 and it
has enjoyed a mixed reception
from scholars. Williams, a native of
Massachusetts, was trained in law in
New York, resided for a while in
Virginia, and then moved to Florida
just after its transfer from Spain to
the United States. His primary
purpose in coming south was to
restore his health, but he soon
entered into the pioneering spirit of
other settlers, establishing himself
in Pensacola, where he opened a
law office and served as a justice of
the peace.
Florida at this time had two
official capitals Pensacola and St.
Augustine, a legacy from the merging
of East and West Florida into a single
political unit. To resolve the problem
of establishing a permanent capital,
representatives from each of the
colonial capitals (Williams from
Pensacola and Dr. William Simmons
from St. Augustine) were commis-
sioned to choose a new site. This task
gave Williams an opportunity to
explore much of the northern half of
the peninsula. He and Simmons
eventually decided upon Tallahassee,


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in part
because it was
between the
first published
work on
Florida, A
view of West
embracing its

Pages from the manuscript are included in Portraits of Florida: rare items from the
collections of the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History, on display in the Smathers
Library exhibit area through September 15
Page 4 c*.' Chapter One

topography, etc. came out in 1827.
Shortly afterwards he moved from the
panhandle and took up residence at
Picolata on the St. Johns River, where
he began to compose a history and
guide to the territory as a whole. An
intense interest in Florida's wilderness
always permeated his being.
Among Williams' acquaintances
were the historian Charles Goodrich,
the essayist and writer Washington
Irving, and the naturalist John James
While living at Picolata, Williams
gradually finished what is considered
his most important work, The territory
of Florida: or, Sketches of
the topography, civil
and natural history,
of the country, the
climate, and the
Indian tribes, from ,
thefirst discovery to
the present time, with
a map. Written in i H
1837, Territory
sold well enough to justify a second
printing in 1839 yet often garnered
little respect from subsequent writers
and historians. "A mere compilation,
dry and difficult to wade through'
was the comment of Daniel Brinton
(born in 1837, the same year that
Territory came out).
Williams himself was well aware of
Territory's shortcomings, though some
were beyond his control. The Seminole
War was at its midway point when he
published the book, and he had to
leave off his account of the war with-
out a definitive conclusion. His knowl-
edge of Florida was limited to his own
travels and those of his sources, and
he therefore had little to say about the
southern reaches of the peninsula.
Hoping to amend these problems, he
spent the last twenty years of his life
conducting research and interviews

for an expanded version of Territory.

Unfortunately, he was never able to
find a publisher.
"When John Lee Williams died in
1856 he supposedly had in prepara-
tion a revised history of Florida"'
noted Ray Eldred Held in his 1955
dissertation on the historiography of
the state. "If it would have shown as
much improvement over the 1837
publication as the latter had shown
over [A View of West Florida], it is
especially unfortunate that the work
was not finished and published."
Ironically, just about the time Held
wrote these words, the manuscript to
which he referred was about to resur-
face. Sometime in 1958, a substantial
portion of Williams' revised Territory
(approximately 100
leaves ofhandwrit-
ten text) was Iw amya
donated to the P.K. ii
Yonge Library of lpieo3 3
Florida History. It pointsh
included a full opae,.s an
account of the evn no
Second Seminole
War, plus various
other changes and akehrifI
additions. Library
records do not
clearly document the provenience of
this manuscript, but it probably came
as a gift from Edward S. Kelly of
Atlanta, Georgia, a great-grandson of
John Lee Williams.
Even this collection of papers was
not complete, however, and the saga of
Williams' unpublished book only
came to a conclusion this year, when
another descendant, Nancy Meers of
Georgia, brought the missing part of
the manuscript to the University of
Meers had been safeguarding a
sheaf of Williams' papers ever since
1984, when she first came across them
in a rather unexpected way at the

home of a great aunt. Sharing her



aunt's interest in tracing the family
tree, she often visited her, and recalls
clearly the occasion when she first saw
the manuscript for Territory.
"I was at my aunt's apartment and
she was taking out bits and pieces of
family history, and at one point she
took out a folder of papers and said,
'Oh, I don't even know what this is,'
and tossed it in the trash. But it looked
extremely old and I asked her if I
could have it."
Meers took the folder home, but
paid little attention to it, because she
was more interested in other materials
that her aunt had given to her.
Eventually, she looked through the
folder and realized it was the work of
her great-grandfa-
ther John Lee
a artment Williams. "I knew
r- flt bits wand Williamswasean
and* nd at author but not

oausct a wa foalafddpoitbo
much about him."
O, I do' A few years
Si, atlater, though,

-IseBu it rmie ni 03we
II iMeers took the

olUnivrsd I fFoia n aesuh
w*th h Imanuscript to an
'd h antiquarian book
fair in Atlanta
where, she says, it
elicited tremendous interest. Book
dealers immediately made offers to
buy it from her, offers which contin-
ued for years. Unwilling to sell (I
really felt it was a family possession,
and not just mine"), she locked the
manuscript away in a safe deposit box
at her bank.
There it remained until 2003 when
Meers began to investigate the origins
of the manuscript. She knew of the
Williams papers housed at the
University of Florida, and came south,
with her manuscript, to compare it
with the holdings in the P.K. Yonge
Only then did it become clear that

Meers' manuscript and the handwrit-

ten papers at the Yonge library were
two halves of the same work the
pages, so long separated, had identi-
cal stains and tears along their mar-
gins. Williams apparently was still at
work on Territoryat the time of his
death, for the reunited manuscript
consists of three distinct but slightly
different opening sections for the
book, each between 30 and 40 leaves
long, followed by several hundred
pages from the 1837 publication with
slight emendations, and then the long
account of the Seminole Indians and
the Seminole War that Williams' used
to conclude the piece. The materials
donated by Meers also included
Williams' "Preface to the Second
Edition" and his dedication to
General Thomas S. Jesup, commander
of U.S. forces in Florida at the time of
the controversial seizure of Osceola
and other Seminole leaders under a
flag of truce.
Meers has donated her manuscript
to the library as the gift of the
Burtchaell and Jones families who,
along with the Kellys, are direct
descendants of the author. Plans are
already in the works to bring
Williams' dream of a second edition
of Territory to reality by editing and
publishing the work in conjunction
with an introductory biography
about the author. C%,

O'Sullivan, Maurice, and Jack C. Lane
(editors) The Florida Reader, Visions of
Paradise from 1530 to the Present. Pineapple
Press, Sarasota, 1991, p. 76

Held, Ray Eldred. Spanish Florida in American
Historiography, 1821-1921. Ph.D. dissertation,
University of Florida, Gainesville, 1955.

Burtchaell, Mattie. "John Lee Williams." Paper
presented to the Historical Society of

Jacksonville, May 11, 1942.
Chapter One C* Page 5

Original sketches by John Rogers Vinton were to be the basis for the prints to illustrate the second
edition of John Lee Williams Territory of Florida.

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Indian Mound near Fort Taylor Upper St. Johns

The Marion at Silver Springs

Light House at Key Biscayne

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A comparison of sketches of the light house at Key Biscayne and the Indian Mound near Fort Taylor by John Rogers Vinton.

As providedto Jacob Rhett Motte (Series 1, Mark Boyd Collection, Special Collections, University of Miami).

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As provided to John Lee Williams (Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection, P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History, UF).

, .. . .

Electus Backus (Florida Historical Map Collection, UF)

Preface, Second Edition (John Lee Williams Papers, UF)


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A ~s$ AtcYs ii

Title: Mark F. Boyd collection, 1493-1953 ,Request
ID: ASM0037
Repository: University of Miami Special Collections
Created by: Boyd, Mark F. (1889-1968)
Show Biographical Note

Three original pencil drawings by John Rogers Vinton, a United States army captain, include "Osceola at
Lake Monroe during Armistice May 1837," a "Light House at Key Biscayne," and an "Indian Mound at
Fort Taylor, St. John's River, Florida." A letter from Vinton to Captain J. Rhette Motte, dated 1840,
describes the three sketches in the series. "The first is a view of the country around Fort Taylor on the
upper St. Johns, embracing an Indian mound there on top of which, our troups built a small block house.
The second...the Lighthouse at Key Biscayne in which several persons were besieged by the Indians,
...the third is the
sketch of the Old Barracks at St. Augustine, the former nunnery..."(box 1, folder 23) Other SERIES I
photographs document the destruction of Miami and Miami Beach resulting from the 1926 hurricane.




From the order given above you will note tnat I am the Great-Grandson of
John Lee Williamis.

MarthaMackey Ives Williams was a native of Charleston. He uncle wrote the
instor of the Mhasonic. Order which is well known to members of that

Her first husband, a i.r Ives was a trader. To them was born two boys,
Washington Lackey Ives and Edward R. lives. Mr. Ives, Sr. was beset upon by
bandits and was murdered, and the widow and two sons lived together until she
met John Lee Williams.

I.r. Williams had moved from Pensacola to St. Augustine, where he engaged in
the practice of law with a 1r.. Carr. He also continued his great interest in
nature study, arnd subsequently moved to Picolatta, were he was Post-master.

It was here that the two daughters of John and Martha Williams were born. rhe
eldest, iMaria fackey Williams later married William Daly Burtchaell, who had
come to this country from his native Ireland. They lived first at Lake City
and then moved to Cuthbert Georgia, and later to Norcross, Georgia, where they
resided at time of her death. Ivr. Burtchaell was a railroad contractor and was
the builder of the Plant System and other roads in Flrida. He built the line
from Cuthbert to Tallahassee.

The youm- gest daughter, Sarah Pamela was first married to a Capt. Niblack, who
was killed in service, and she later married Willieam Spence Kelly. This marriage
took place in Cuthbert, Georgia, where the widow Niblack was living with her sister.
Mr. Kelly and rk. Buttchaell had been boyhood friends in Ireland. ar. Burtchaell
had attended a school conducted by Charles Kelly, father of William.

The W-asnington i. Ives referred to in the Warranty Deed, and in the letters from
John King, of Charleston, is the step-son of John Lee Williams.

There are still some Ives families living in and around Lake City, who are related
to Washington and Edwaard Ives. I recall meeting Selwyn Ives, who was an Attorney
in Sebring, Florida in 156, and who died about a year later. He and I talked much
about our family connecLions. As-I recall it, his father was a druggist in Lake City

I am giving you this, as someone may wish to make a study of the life of John Lee
Williams, from his arrival in Pensacola until his demise at Picolatta.

2577 Lindffont Circle, NE
Atlanta 5, -eor ,ia


John Lee Williams.

John Lee Williams in middle life cast his fortunes in with

those of the newly acquired territory of Plorida and gathered a-

bundant material for the histories that he wrote in later years.

This gentleman was a nativTe of Salem, 'Massachusetts, where he was

born in 1775., but in early childhood his family moved to the state

of ?Tew York. Both parents were of Welsh decent, and his father was

a lieutenant in the continental army. Being the eldest son, John

was expected by his father, a man of means, to inherit the home-

stead and devote himself to farming. But as he had little love for

the humdrum life on the farm and: desired a better education than

his father proposed: to give him, he quarreled with his father, and

despite the entreaties of his brothers arid the tears of his mother

and his sister Nehitabel, he left home never to return.

He entered Iamiltbn College, where he was given his tuition

in return for instructing the younger boys. After graduating with

honor, he studied law under Judge Breckenridge and was admitted

to the bar, having taught school to support himself while taking

his law course.

Early in life he left 7Tew York. le drifted southward and set-

tled for a time in Virginia, though his practice of law often took

him as far as Cincinnati, where he owned a large tract of land. l-e

married IMiss Mary Irwin, daughter of an Alabama judge, is one

child by this marriage %who. lived to grow up, a son, ran away and

never afterward communicated with him.

After the death of his wife, Mr. Williams moved to Florida.

This was in 1820, just before the. change of flags,. In the same

year he made a survey of the northern gulf coast. In vax4ous ca-

low- a

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pacities he traveled over the territory, each times making careful

notes of his observations.

To Mr. Williams and Dr. TW.'_.Simmons, in 1825, was intrusted.

the task of selecting a site for the capital of Florida; and an

arduous task it proved, as the journals of the two commissioners -

published in the proceedings of the Florida housee of Eepresenti-
tives, 1903 amply prove. Dr. Simmons, with several guides, made

the journey on horseback from St. Augustine to St., Marks in tvwo

weeks arid there awaited his colleague. Mr. Williams, accompanied

by Dr. foster, set sail from Pensacola, Sept.30; and owing to bad

weather and bad management on the part of the skipper, who was

unfamiliar with the coast and had provided himself with an insuf-

ficient supply of provisions, it was not until Oct. ',Y that he

reached St. Marks. From there-the two commissioners went to new

Tallahassee village. Mr. VYilliams in his journal tells how he was

accosted by the Indian chief Neomathala who demanded his business

and his right to invade Indian territory. Mr. V* illiams explained

the authority vested in him and Dr. Simmons by Gov. Duval to se-

lect a site for a council house, and in proof of it, produced; his

commission (now in the hands of his grandchildren). The old chief

then took his guests to his shed and offered them cigars and roast

-ed chestnuts. They spent the night in the village and witnessed

a game of ball played between the young Indian men and maidens, '"

also a rattlesnake dance and wa-purm and' mad dances, all of which

Mr. Williams describes very interestingly. The following morning

the commissioners were allowed, rather reluctantly it is true, to

proceed with their business.

At old Tallahassee an aged Indian gave them an account of the


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capture and destruction of a. Spanish fort, the ruins of which

they had previously examined. In that war the ,amasses, or bone

tribe, allies of the Spaniards, were almost destroyed by their en-

emies, the M 'scogees.

.Lr. WTilliams investigated fully the natural resources of the

country, especially its situation, the streams that drain it, the

quality of the soil, and the trees and plants native to it.

Several years later he surveyed the 73elamy road from Picolata

to Tallahassee.
or some years Mr V-illiams lived in St. Augustine, where he

was married in 1829 to Mrs. Martha Mackey Ives, a widow with two

sons. Dy this marriage there were two children, M aria Mackey, af-
terwards Mrs. W..Purtchaell, and Sarah Pamela, now Mrs. W. S.Kelly

of Atlanta, Ga.

In 18 4 lMr. Uilliams moved to Picolataon the St. Johns River.

-:ere he spent the rest of his days and here he wrote his histo-

ries, "William's history y of 7lorida" and "Views of .West Ilorida,."

which are said by landad J. Eeric in his "Memories of F'lorida",to

be the most complete up to the presentvtime.

Mr. Williams, as his children remember him, was tall and

thin, though strong and muscular from much exercise in the open

air; an indomitable will shone through his piercing gray eyes and

his strongly-marked face was surrounded by snow-white hair, which

he wore long according to the fashion of the day.

_e was a man highly educated and' refined, brilliant in con-

versation, with a fund of varied information and a charm of manner

that made him welcome in any circle that he entered. Among his

literary friends were Charles Goodrich, the historian, who sent a

number of books to little Maria Williams at Picolata; Washington

Irving, whom he visited at Sunnyside on the ::udson; and Audubon,


the celebrated naturalist, whom he accompanied through a great

part of 2lorida and aided materially in collecting botanical spec-


M.r. Villiams was fonk of music and played well on the flute.

glowers were his delight. :e- spent much of his time in his garden,

where he taught his children, whose tutor he was, the rudiments

of Botany before they had mastered the alphabet, 7Te also taught

his daughters to swim, and in their r'ambles through the woods,

they learned of him many things not found in books.

.:-e was unconventional, almost eccentric, in the simple life

he led. Often he rose before. dawn, procured food, and went in a

boat up the river to be gone several days, or set out to walk to

St. Augustine, eighteen miles away. Of fear for his personal safe-

ty he seemed to have no conception. Though frequently Indians, un-

friendly to the whites, lurked in the woods through which he

passed unarmed, he was never molested. Even during the Seminole

WIar, when his wife sought safety in'the U.S. barracks at Picolata,

he would slip out and talk with the Indians, then return uncon-

cernedly to the.barracks without arousing suspicion on either side.

Once when he was taking one of his lonely walks to St. Au-

gustine, a company of actors a short distance behind him were at-

tacked. and murdered by a band of Indians. If this did not produce

a tremor in his own breast, it causedexcitement among his friends
and agonized terror in the mind of his wife- but all expostula-
tions and entreaties he listened with a stolid indifference, and

continued his walks as usual. When an Indian belonging to the mur-

derous gang was questioned, he admitted that the Indians had seen

L.r. Williams on the day of the tragedy; and when asked why

they had allowed him to escape the horrible fate of the actors,he
A -. ,,,^.

simply, ":e old squaw; he not fight."

And. so he went his way. This man who would have adorned any

society, who might have accumulated great wealth had he continued

the practice of law, gave up all for a life of seclusion at -Pico-

lata,. then only a landing place for steamers. In this retreat with

the primeval forest at his back, surrounded by hiS beautiful flow-

ers, and facing the broad St. Johns, while he worked on a second

edition of his history, he was described in a St.. Augustine news-

paper as "a venerable gentleman possessing that benignity of coun-

tenance which when naturally belonging to youth, becomes more

striking and winning in age," and further as "a bookworm in his

addictions, but a philosopher in his circumstances, a Christian

in his self-denials,, and a philanthrope in his efforts to impart

knowledge under difficulties."

As he lived he died a recluse. In .85 he was stricken with

paralysis, which mercifully carried, him off in a few days. -:e was

buried in the flower garden that he loved so well, and there he

still lies, though no longer in solitude, for a thriving town has

sprung up where he once took his lonely walks.


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