Two unrelated men named Jenkins played key roles in founding the early settlement that became Apalachicola.
Major Charles I. Jenkins, one of three territorial customs collectors, was the first non-military employee of the federal government on the Apalachicola River. As a representative of the Treasury Department, his responsibility was to provide revenue for the government in the era before income tax.
The other man, steamboat captain John Jenkins, navigated the first steam-powered side-wheeler to the Coweta waterfalls in Georgia in 1827-28. Because David White had replaced Major Jenkins at the Apalachicola district in 1826, it is unlikely the two Jenkins men ever met.
Very few portraits of the founders of Apalachicola exist, but a framed daguerreotype of Capt. John Jenkins was recently located. He was only 27 years old when he made the first steamboat run upriver to Columbus, and the image shows a handsome man with a direct gaze.
These two Jenkins men are sometimes confused even by historians, and it is worthwhile explaining what is known about these two founding families.
In 1822, President James Monroe created a customs district that stretched from Cape Florida in the Keys to the Apalachicola River, and named Mark Harden from North Carolina as the first collector of customs. Harden set up an office at St. Marks, which Spanish and British governors had used as a fort and trading post. Monroe also appointed Major Charles I. Jenkins, of South Carolina, as surveyor and collector at the adjacent Pensacola customs district.
The next year, Jenkins replaced Harden, and set up his office at the mouth of the Apalachicola River instead of at St. Marks. Collector Jenkins observed that the Apalachicola River could be navigated into Georgia, and places his office at the river’s mouth because “there is a prospect of getting a steamboat in the river and several stores and families being established in this place.”
We know a few settlers soon moved onto land next to the customs office, because in the fall of 1823, John Lee Williams met with the collector on his journey to St. Marks. The territorial legislative council had selected Commissioner Williams to travel from Pensacola to St. Marks, where he would meet Dr. William Simmons in order to select a central site for the territorial government. Williams set out in a small boat and headed east, but found it very difficult to sail against prevailing winds and adverse tides. His journal mentions finding the settlement at the Apalachicola river mouth on Oct. 13, 1823:
“We this day raced against wind and tide to the north of the Apalachicola river, where there were several houses remaining and a small vessel on the stocks – the site of a pine barren with bad water. At one we found Major (Charles) Jenkins, the collector of the port, with whom we dined and spent several agreeable hours, until the tide turned and we proceeded to cross the mouth of the river, but our captain in the dark, keeping too far out, was by the northwest wind driven into St. George’s channel, and we were shaken to a jelly before we struck the island where we found a harbor at 12 o’clock. Fifteen miles.”
In 1825, records suggest it cost more to operate the customs house than was returned in duties. Jenkins was paid $539, a very respectable salary at the time. The Treasury refunded him $1,127 to pay operating expenses. He resigned and moved away in late 1825 because the Treasury Department would not provide a boat for his use to meet arriving ships, and in 1826 he was replaced by David L. White. During this time, square-rigged sailing vessels and steamboats began arriving at the river’s mouth to pick up cotton, tobacco and sugar coming in on flatboats.
In the spring 1827, Capt. John Jenkins arrived in the town that would become Apalachicola on “The Fanny,” an 89-foot sidewheel steamboat. The boat, built in New York, weighed 88 tons and its engines put out no more than 20 horsepower. While ascending the Chattahoochee, Capt. Jenkins ran against a massive dam of fallen trees. The crew managed to cut a 20-foot swath through the jam and proceeded as far as Fort Gaines, Georgia, by the end of July. Then the Fanny had to wait for the winter rains before continuing upstream. On Jan. 28, 1828, she became the first steamboat to arrive at Coweta Falls.
The Georgia legislature had just chartered a town at the waterfalls, prospectively named Columbus, but what Jenkins found was a tiny settlement surrounding Kinard's Tavern and ferry. Several stores traded with the Creek Indians, who had moved their villages to the west side of the river after settlers and military forces encroached on their land. As more boats began to make the trip, the Creeks would cut firewood to sell at landings. Crewmen bought resinous lighterwood in order to heat boilers that generated steam pressure for the engines.
At the end of his first trip, Capt. Jenkins returned to Apalachicola with several hundred bales of cotton, and was followed shortly by a second steamboat. “The Steubenville.” The Fanny was the only steamboat on the river that came from the east coast. Most of the river boats of the time were being manufactured along the Ohio River as far north as Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, and taken down the Mississippi to St. Louis and New Orleans before entering the Gulf coastal trade.
The territorial legislators in 1827 appointed Capt. John Jenkins as one of five trustees when they chartered the town of West Point, which was renamed Apalachicola in 1831. Jenkins brought his wife, Arietta, to the settlement and their son, John W. Jenkins, was born in 1827. He continued operating steamboats to Columbus his entire life, and also worked as a cotton factor. After the Fanny sank near Columbus in 1828, he commanded the Baltimore, the Ellen and the Agnes. However, when the rival town of St. Joseph was formed, Jenkins joined the directors of the St. Joseph & Lake Wimico Canal and Railroad Company. He returned to Apalachicola after St. Joseph was abandoned due to a yellow fever epidemic in 1841.
As steamboat traffic increased up the river, landings were built every few miles. Based on distances between the 60 known landings on the Apalachicola River, it was 140 river miles to the junction of the Flint River, and 360 miles to Columbus. It was illegal to construct any barrier to travel on a navigable river, and no bridges were built until one was erected in 1855 on the Chattahoochee at Eufaula. Instead, the legislators chartered ferry operators at the main landings, and they were instructed to maintain flat-bottomed boats that could carry a loaded wagon and team across the river. As a result, most commercial traffic ran north and south, and steamboats carried most of the mail for the postal service.
In 1832, while still living in Apalachicola, Jenkins’ wife and son died of yellow fever. The boy, then only 5 years old, died in September. A few months later, his mother was buried nearby in the Chestnut Street Cemetery. The distraught husband had a gold memorial locket inscribed and dated “To my wife and child” in their remembrance.
Finally, in 1846, an unspecified illness claimed the life of Capt. John Jenkins, and he two was buried in Chestnut Cemetery. His obituary in the Commercial Advertiser read in part, “He contributed largely in the early formation of trade in the city, and by untiring energy and strict fidelity which ever characterized his business intercourse, won the confidence and respect of all who knew him.”
Capt. Jenkins’ headstone is marked as number 28 on the Apalachicola Area Historical Society’s walking tour, and the memorial stones for Arietta and John W. Jenkins also can be viewed in Chestnut Cemetery.