The Life & Times of Jonathan Dickinson
by John R. Reis


John R. Reis
No Longer Doing Presentations

From a speech given by the author on
September 21, 1996:

Order the book from Florida Classics Library

Today, I'd like to take you on a trip
back 300 years to "the life and times of
Jonathan Dickinson."

Jonathan Dickinson was a colorful character who lived during the late 1600s and early 1700s. His life was filled with much adventure. He miraculously survived many tragedies including a devastating earthquake in Port Royal, Jamaica, a shipwreck off Hobe Sound (Florida) and subsequent capture by Native Americans, and even several Yellow Fever epidemics.

Jonathan's uncle was the personal physician to the King of England. Jonathan's father helped the English (namely; Oliver Cromwell and William Penn's father) take over Jamaica from the Spaniards in 1655. As a reward, he received two plantations in Jamaica, Barton and Pepper. The Dickinson plantations were similar in size to today's Jonathan Dickinson State Park, almost 20 square miles. (That park is located near where his famous shipwreck occurred). Incidentally, the original Dickinson estate appears now to be the property of Appleton Rum of Jamaica.

Image: What did Jonathan Dickinson look like? Who knows, but he might have looked like this man, George Fox, Father of Quakerism, who inspired Jonathan Dickinson and William Penn to become Quakers.

Jonathan was born in Jamaica. He was a merchant by trade and carried out his business from Port Royal. The author has copies of several letters either written by or to him. They mostly contain "merchant talk" -the price of sugar, indigo, mahogany, deer skins, cocoa, and other commodities which were traded between the Caribbean, the American Colonies, and England. Jonathan's letters show how he was not only incredibly intelligent with a great deal of business savvy, but also very well liked among his peers.

Jonathan was a deeply religious Quaker. There are no known paintings or drawings of him. However, he probably would have dressed much like this man, George Fox, the Father of Quakerism.

He might have worn his hair in a similar fashion. I found a letter, though, which was written by a friend commenting on Jonathan's "handsome son having the Dickinson nose". We can only imagine what Jonathan looked like.

At its peak, Port Royal had at least one tavern for every ten inhabitants. Port Royal was then known as the wickedest city on earth.

In 1692, Jonathan narrowly escaped death when an all engulfing earthquake leveled Port Royal, his homeport. It was at this time, that Jonathan decided to establish a branch of the family business in Philadelphia. He was becoming one of the most successful merchants trading with the American Colonies. In today's world, he would be considered an extremely successful export/import dealer. But before his success could materialize, he first had to endure the harrowing trials and tribulations to come.

Not knowing what they would encounter, Jonathan and a group totalling 25 -including his wife, Mary, their six-month old son, Jonathan, Jr., and well-known Quaker missionary, Robert Barrow- set sail from Port Royal on August 23, 1696, for Philadelphia.

Image: Construction records have yet to be found, but perhaps te Reformation, a late 1600's barkentine which wrecked near Hobe Sound, Florida, looked like this.

The unexpected odyssey began when Jonathan's three-masted barkentine, the Reformation, was caught in a calm. Dependant on the wind for swift travel, the Reformation became separated from its twelve sister ships; and then, as the saying goes, "a fierce storm did hit". The wind was extremely violent. It tossed and turned their ship in rough gray waters and pushed them closer to shore. At 1:00 a.m. on September 23, 1696, the Reformation ran hard aground just five miles north of the Loxahatchee River, then known as the River Hobay. (The Loxahatchee River is located in Palm Beach and Martin Counties along Florida's southeast coast).

Jonathan and his party were found by local Native Americans and held captive at a village located on the south side of the Jupiter Inlet at modern-day Dubois Park. (The Jupiter Inlet is where the Loxahatchee River "meets" the Atlantic Ocean). They were not killed because the natives thought they were Spanish. The natives had a dislike for the English and referred to them as Nickaleers.

Image: This sketch of an Indian thatched house (chickee) with a lofted floor likely indicates the type of dwelling in which the Dickinson family was placed during their capture in 1696 at "Hoe-bay".

The mood of the natives changed constantly from friendship to hostility, keeping the crew of the Reformation on edge and fearing for their lives. One native shoved a fistful of sand into baby Jonathan's mouth when they first came ashore. But at another time, a native woman nursed baby Jonathan when his mother no longer had milk. At one point, the natives placed knives to the throats of the Dickinson party-but yet not long after, Jonathan was invited to the Indian chief's hut. There, he dined on boiled fish on a palmetto leaf. At times the natives were rough. At one point, they stripped the survivors of most of their clothes. But later, the natives would sit quietly listening to the Quakers read from the Bible.

Finally, Jonathan and his group were rescued by the Spaniards when soldiers came down from St. Augustine. Although it took several weeks, the survivors mostly walked the 230 miles to St. Augustine, where they recovered. En route, five in Jonathan's party died of exposure. After recovering in St. Augustine, the Spaniards gave them safe passage to Charleston, the southernmost English settlement.

Ironically, six years later, the Governor of Charleston sent several hundred Englishman to St. Augustine and destroyed the entire town. Also, Jonathan was "lucky"; the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine had been completed by 1696. Just a few years earlier, the Spaniards kept all castaways to work on building that fort.

Ultimately, Jonathan made it to Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, he wrote his diary or "journal" of his trip, called God's Protecting Providence. It has been reprinted 25 times in English, German, and Dutch.

Jonathan's journal is an inspiration of survival and faith. People read it as a "bible", giving strength in trying times. His book describes his Florida experience and gives one of the first and most detailed accounts of early Florida. It discusses seventeenth-century plants, animals, and Spanish missions or "churches". More importantly, the journal describes the now-extinct local tribes he encountered along Florida's east coast, including the local Jaega, Ais, and Timucua tribes in central and north Florida, and the Apalachee in the Panhandle.

In Philadelphia, Jonathan's merchant business became very successful. He became one of the richest men in Philadelphia, owning much real estate. He even owned one of the first carriages in the City of Brotherly Love.

Jonathan also had a political career in Philadelphia. He became chief justice and eventually mayor. Before he died in 1722, Jonathan and Mary had four children. Unfortunately, Jonathan's bloodline ended when his grandchildren bore no offspring. However, Jonathan's brother, Caleb, who stayed behind in Jamaica to run the family sugar plantations, had a large family. Today, Caleb's descendants live in England. One of those descendants published a biography of all of the Dickinsons (including Jonathan) from medieval times to this century.

September of last year (1996) was the 300th anniversary of Jonathan's shipwreck, and this year (March) marked the 300th anniversary of his subsequent safe return to Philadelphia...and freedom. Hopefully, this story has increased your awareness of him and our rich colonial history. NOTE: Jonathan Dickinson's Journal, written in 1697, is the earliest record of the Indian cultures in eastern Florida --a very important work. The poem on the previous page synopsizes Dickinson's saga.