A British map published in 1823, but based on earlier charts by George Gauld, shows a lighthouse at West Pass on St. George Island (see arrow on bottom map on Figure 1.). No lighthouse was built there in the Territory of Florida until 1833. Today’s Chasing Shadows question is, if you have information concerning an earlier British or Spanish lighthouse at West Pass, please call the Times at 653-8868 or James Hargrove at email@example.com.
No true surveys of the Gulf Coast were done for the first 250 years after Ponce de Leon first landed in Florida. The navigators who first charted the coast carried only astrolabes to estimate latitude, compasses to establish bearings, and lead lines to test water depth. Longitude was estimated by the aptly named process of “dead reckoning,” and errors of 100 miles were common.
To compound the problem of coastal navigation, few European mapmakers had ever seen the coasts they attempted to map. For example, Apalachicola Bay is barely recognizable on the 1755 map of López and Cruz (see top map, Figure 1). St. Marks is shown on the peninsula in the Big Bend area, and the entire chain of barrier islands is called Dog Islands (Islas de Perros). Note that the name encompassed modern St. George Island.
British surveys, 1763-83
Maps of Apalachicola Bay remained very crude until the British arrived in 1763. Without good maps, a coast could not be defended, so the British sent a Scotsman named George Gauld to conduct true surveys of the area from Pensacola to St. Marks. Gauld carried survey chains and theodolites for sighting, instruments for celestial observations, and also one of the John Harrison’s earliest chronometers for calculating longitude.
Instead of copying other mapmakers’ work from afar, Gauld spent 17 years drawing up maps based on his own surveys. A talented artist, Gauld’s portrait of British ships in Pensacola Harbor shows the survey ships he used (see Figure 2). Although Gauld died before most of his maps were published, the Admiralty made his charts available to ship captains and navigators.
In 1766-67, Gauld spent over two months surveying the coast near St. Marks with military engineer Lt. Philip Pittman. They sailed to the fort on a boat from Gauld’s survey ship, the HMS Levant. That winter, Gauld began drawing a map showing the coast from Pensacola to Cape San Blas. While on his way to Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor in 1770, the surveyor took soundings over the dangerous shoals of Cape San Blas and marked his readings by triangulating to reference points on land. Although Gauld died in 1782, a London publisher named William Faden published his charts in An Account of the Surveys of Florida… with Directions for Sailing (1790).
British publishers combined Gauld’s surveys and memoirs with others by Bernard Romans, Thomas Hutchins, and Elias Durnford to generate the most detailed picture of the Gulf Coast ever available (See bottom map, Figure 1) By 1775, London mapmakers began naming St. George Island and Dog Island separately. For the first time since Ponce de Leon discovered Florida, the coast and barrier islands were represented with recognizable shapes. However, the maps were still limited as navigational aids because none of the British surveyors sounded the shallow areas inside the barrier islands.
Southern Boundary Commission, 1796-1803
One of the first Americans to make maps of the Florida Panhandle was Andrew Ellicott, the chief surveyor of the Southern Boundary Commission, who was appointed by President George Washington. Ellicott met with Spanish representatives near the Mississippi and in Pensacola to establish a boundary line at the 31o N latitude boundary between Alabama and Spanish Florida after the 1795 Treaty of San Lorenzo that defined the boundary. A detachment of U.S. soldiers helped protect the surveyors from hostile Creek Indians, and the U.S. Indian Agent, Benjamin Hawkins, was made a member of the Boundary Commission to help placate the southern tribes. Although Ellicott did not personally survey the coast, he mapped it accurately based on charts from British and Spanish surveyors when he returned to Washington to write his report in 1803.
Naming St. Vincent Island
If settlers in the area ever named what is now called St. Vincent Island, their name never appeared on a European map before 1815. The entire barrier island chain on the coast of Franklin County was called either St. George’s or Dog Islands for most of the 18th century, and no cartographers of the time named St. Vincent Island separately. This situation did not change until the second Spanish occupation of Florida from 1783-1821.
In 1799, Spanish captain Dionisio Galiano in the ship, San Fulgencio, prepared a map that called St. Vincent’s Isla San Dionisio (Denis in English usage; see arrow on top map on Figure 3) His map is a perfect copy of Gauld’s work with names written in Spanish. Galiano may have named the island after himself, which seems likely. It is also possible that former residents of the area had named the island for Captain Don Dioniz of Fort San José, who had a residence in the area that was mentioned by Father Pierre Charlevoix in 1722. Galiano’s map named St. George Isla San Jorge, and noted that it was also called the Island of Vipers! Snakes were abundant on the unsettled island.
In 1811, Vicente Pintado, the geographer of Spanish West Florida, drafted a chart that also called the island San Dionisio. His accurate surveys of the coast would be used in several lawsuits regarding Spanish land grants such as the Forbes Purchase after the United States acquired the territory of Florida. However, in 1815, Pintado changed the name to San Vicente (St. Vincent in English) on an engraved map that shortly became available to American settlers. This is the first map that accurately shows the shape of St. Vincent Island see arrow on bottom map on Figure 3. Pintado, following Captain Dionisio’s example, may have named the island after himself, or he may have been honoring West Florida Governor Vicente Folch. His map also shows a British camp on St. Vincent’s from the War of 1812.
Several other local names first appeared on Pintado’s maps and were simply translated into English. For example, his maps called Cat Point Punta del Gato, and Alligator Harbor was Puerto de Cayman. Pintado may have learned these names from the people living around St. Marks during the three weeks he stayed in the area.
In this way, maps of the Forgotten Coast changed from the inaccurate depictions of the 18th century to highly accurate, surveyed charts with depth soundings that could actually aid navigation. As the 19th century began in the new American territory of Florida, all the islands and bays along the coast had been given their modern names. In 1816, Ferdinand Hassler was appointed to head the first coastal survey of the United States. When the U.S. Navy began to survey the Gulf Coast in the 1820’s in order to improve coastal navigation, surveyors such as Lt. William H. Swift could rely on accurate maps based on the newly published maps from the earlier British and Spanish work.