In 1821, Major Charles Wilhelm Bulow found himself the master of all he surveyed, near what is now Flagler Beach, Florida. He ordered his slaves to clear the wilderness, which they did, over 2200 of the 4675 acres belonging to him. Such a task would challenge even the largest earth mover today. Thick, sharp, insect-ridden, the jungle yielded its hold on the land with reluctance. Taming the impenetrable vegetation took tremendous brute force, all done without mechanized equipment.
Wilderness, that’s what it was. There’s no other word for it. The Major hailed from South Carolina, no stranger to slavery. And so he planted all of the crops that required slave labor: rice, cotton, indigo, and sugar cane. Quarryed coquina rock provided building material for many of the buildings, including a two-and-a-half-story house with two kitchens. Forty-six slave cabins fanned out in a semi-circle near the main house.
Bulow’s son, John Joachim Bulow, took over the land when the Major died in 1823, his body buried in the Huguenot cemetery in St. Augustine. By 1831, Florida – this exotic, primitive place – had attracted a number of naturalists, including John James Audubon as he hacked and floated his way across the marshes and the piney woods. He walked up the road to Bulow’s plantation, welcomed by the young master. John Joachim and John James both spoke French fluently. I strain to imagine their conversation, the former the descendant of wealthy South Carolina planters, educated in Paris from the age of five, the latter from Haiti (Saint Dominique), the illegitimate son of a planter and his French lover. Educated in France as well, Audubon ended up in America at the age of 18.
Audubon wrote briefly of his stay with Bulow:
My friend JOHN BULOW, Esq. took me in his barge to visit the Halifax, which is a large inlet, and on which we soon reached an island where the Brown Pelicans had bred for a number of years, but where, to my great disappointment, none were then to be seen. The next morning, being ten or twelve miles farther down the stream, we entered another inlet, where I saw several dozens of these birds perched on the mangroves, and apparently sound asleep. I shot at them from a very short distance, and with my first barrel brought two to the water, but although many of them still remained looking at us, I could not send the contents of my second barrel to them, as the shot had unluckily been introduced into it before the powder. They all flew off one after another, and still worse, as the servants approached those which had fallen upon the water, they also flew away.
Today, destroyed in the Seminole War by 1836, the plantation lies in ruins. Inaccessible due to continued flooding from Hurricane Irma, during my recent visit I saw only the road and coquina stone gate markers. But for the efforts of Florida’s state park system, which manages the property, the wilderness threatens daily to swallow up the plantation, strangling it with green vines, saw palmetto, palms, and pines.
© 2017 C. Bertelsen