Get Your Hands Dirty
The Failed Utopia
By Theresa Ann White
The village of Charlotta in British East Florida was founded by a wealthy Englishman with a vision of an "Ideal society." The settlers of this experiment were street walkers and paupers who wanted the simpler things: life, liberty and a patch of land without palmettos.
Florida was in transition in the early eighteenth century. The province flew a new flag with the colors of England replacing those of the Spanish banner. British nobility were pouring in, prompted by huge grants of land by the English crown, who planned a plantation economy for their new possession. At this time, an English gentleman of wealth and rank would cast ashore and leave his imprint upon this peninsula. It was 1764 and the man was Denys Rolle. He came from Devonshire, England, having left a seat in Parliament and the security of family status for his vision of an "Ideal society."
With thousands of acres of prime land waiting for cultivation and a population with no option other than settlement, the potential for success was almost unlimited. But Rolle's puritanical nature and his choice of citizens would ultimately doom his dream. He peopled his utopia with the castaways of English life - street walkers and pickpockets and paupers. When these folks came to the lower St. Johns River in the country of East Florida, they were looking for a fresh start. Their expectations were not grand ones, certainly not on the scale of a utopian vision. It was their misfortune to cast their collective fate with a man who was blind to the simple matters of life and common sense ways of living.
Even though blessed with an introduction from King George III and a land grant, it wasn't until after years of maneuvering, scouting and submitting grievances that Rolle deposited his crop of colonists on Florida soil. He intended to grow a prosperous village of workers who would absolve their debt to society by the sweat of their brows and the dictates of his vigorous leadership.
Just what Rolle meant by "ideal" remains cloudy. Perhaps the term was nothing more than a useful slogan to guarantee his 80,000 acres of land. Maybe he was convinced that his settlement would be unique in some fashion, set apart from the other pockets of mainly white, Protestant humanity peopling England's new possession. Or Rolle might have been deluding himself, enriching his less than modest ego: here was a dreamland he personally crafted. He was both Mr. Deep Pockets and the Prime Mover.
The ragamuffin crew who broke ground or rather, unearthed the ancient shell mittens of this Florida settlement were of assorted ages and dramas. But Rolle's utopian cast had a single constant: they were poor. In this, they resembled the debtors who had populated Oglethorpe's Georgia thirty years before. The caretaker of this collective, while sufficiently rich in the material realm, was amply impoverished in spirit. True to the traits of a megalomaniac, Rolle focused on his desires and showed meager concern for the welfare of those he imported from the mother country. Naturally, conflicts soon arose. The villagers angrily walked away in search of fairness from the nearest court of justice in St. Augustine. For Rolle had neglected to offer them suitable enticements - things as simple as a roof over their head and a plate of nourishing food at the end of a long and grueling day of work. Although they were forced to return to his stewardship, in the end, Rolle had to replace his original "settlers" with outright slaves. Charlotta's foundation was a brittle one: it did not survive the motion of colonial evolution or the basic harshness of pioneer living. But mostly, Denys Rolle was not the kind of person who engendered loyalty or any similar warm-blooded trait.
the power of stubbornness and wealth
Rolle's Florida pursuit came after dropping several ventures with other gentlemen in Georgia. None of those enterprises worked because Rolle flipped his thumb at the diplomatic necessity of compromise. This nonproductive trait would subsequently alienate a most equable Florida governor, a Scot named James Grant, and certain other gentry living in Florida. Rolle was high-handed and irascible. He regularly employed coercion to force through his various and oftentimes impractical designs and, when his overarching will was met by the opposing strength of another, his response ran the gamut from that of persecuted victim to ignobly abused blue blood. Add to these characteristics an inclination that is best defined as stupidity, the fact that Rolle made a go of it at all in Florida is testimony to the power of stubbornness and wealth.
Take for instance Rolle's prolonged search for the ideal land granted to him by royal affidavit. Initially it was directed toward a spot "near St. Marks in the Bay of Apalatchi," in the words of the wandering naturalist William Bartram, who came upon the remnants of Rolle's utopia some ten years later. Rolle headed toward St. Marks with guides and hunters in tow. This was in September of 1764. At some point, whether by design or from the battering of high winds, Rolle directed the scouting party away from St. Marks and toward the St. Johns River. Along the path of this uncut and undeveloped waterway, he erected cabins wherever his heart swelled with the beauty of the view. The grand oaks, spreading cypress and grand magnolias that graced the banks of this northward flowing river, larger than his own Thames, were to him harbingers of prosperity. He wanted it all. His expedition lasted five months. Meanwhile, Gov. Grant had closed this portion of the river to other eager settlers while awaiting word from Rolle. When at last the adventurer returned to claim his share on the map of East Florida, the governor's patience was replaced with dignified vexation. Rolle wanted each of the beautiful sites he had marked with a hastily built cabin. It did not matter to him that the locations stretched from one end of the river to the other. Gov. Grant denied his request, pointing out that the land grant was to be one contiguous slice of Florida.
The petulant Rolle resumed his search, this time finding available acreage at a point above today's Palatka. His tract was situated at a bend in the St. Johns River and while most of the acreage was situated on the east bank, a portion jumped the river. The governor would not allow that this river jumping constituted a contiguous stretch and Rolle, now greatly perturbed by the comeuppance of this Scot, took his claim and complaint across the ocean to the Lords of Trade and Plantations in Britain. Anxious to soundproof Rolle and any grievance related to Florida, the officials overturned Gov. Grant and let Rolle have his land.
the pioneers of insurrection
Now Rolle gathered his flock. His colonists were the homeless and the penniless who kept the company of street corners and taverns. Less than a hundred families including a goodly number of prostitutes accompanied him. In 1767, after three years of searching and squabbling and expenditure, the squire Rolle and his settlers set foot on the colony he named Charlotta in honor of the King's spouse. The soundness of this idea, given the nature of its inhabitants was questionable to clear-thinking folks but not to Rolle. (Charlotta would be renamed Charlotia and later Rollestown.)
Charlotta's exact location has been variously identified. However, the present site of San Mateo, where years later a Mrs. Fuller would release her souvenir water hyacinths into the St. Johns River, is the commonly agreed spot. The settlement stretched back from a high river bank that was studded with shells, animal bones and earthen ware of the native Floridians. Bartram said the place was the site of a large habitation of the "aborigines of America." The area was shaded by ash, live oaks, sweet gum, slippery elm and mulberry trees. An underbrush of palmettos grasped the mostly sandy ground. Shelly hillocks of prehistoric burial mounds rose here and there, silent memorial to the first inhabitants.
Rolle's disposition for harebrained and harsh ideas was immediately visible. The colonists were charged with clearing a site for a church to save their souls, before they had opportunity to build shelters with which to protect their bodies. Rolle promised his colony of strumpets and vandals half the produce they could raise, and then put them to work grubbing palmetto roots. Those who disputed the rationale of his commands or otherwise refused to work were punished in the meanest way by withholding provisions for up to two weeks.
Gov. Grant in a letter dated 13 August 1768, described the mood of the settlers at Charlotta: "Disputes and Dissatisfactions at last run so high that they [the colonists] come off in a body and abandon Mr. Rolle and the settlement." They approached the governor and appealed to reason. While Grant empathized with their grievances, he ordered the judges hearing their complaint to rule in favor of Rolle, thus avoiding a precedent in which indentured servants successfully revolted against their master. Meanwhile, Mediterranean-born colonists at New Smyrna, south of St. Augustine, erupted into a violent revolt two weeks later. Their complaints against Dr. Andrew Turnbull, the colonial administrator, echoed those voiced at Charlotta. The new plantation system activated by these two overlords resulted in a harsh and dehumanizing experience for their workers. In less than ten years, the entire collection of British colonies to the north would oust their British overseers, making of Rolle's colonists the pioneers of insurrection.
The disgruntled settlers were thus forced to return to their tight-fisted overseer, and the former pickpockets, urchins and prostitutes worked fitfully at an agrarian life raising cotton, indigo and sugar. In time, Rolle imported more impoverished and desperate people from England. The settlement of Charlotta staggered along reaching about two hundred white residents. But it retained an aura of impermanence. If the colonists were not running away to Georgia or the Carolina's, they were stealing from neighbors or fighting among themselves. The prostitutes, according to one historian, were afflicted by "diseases of a not genteel nature." The colonials refused reformation and indulged in behaviors bound to inflame Rolle. These ran the gamut from tardiness at work and church to the more serious offenses of public drunkenness, fornication and fisticuffs.
A thousand mean, low, trifling Litigious Disputes
While Rolle was embroiled in changing the behaviors of a lifetime, the good governor was recording that Rolle "has a thousand mean, low, trifling Litigious Disputes with all his Neighbours, and in short with every Body he deals with." A year earlier, Gov. Grant said that "I have the satisfaction to believe that my Endeavors to serve and oblige every Gentleman who has come to settle, or even to look at the Country have succeeded except in the case of Mr. Rolle, tho' I have been at more pains to please and accommodate him than all the rest."
Finally, the governor's exasperation with the affairs of Charlotta were matched by its master. Rolle put aside his messianic fervor and admitted the failure of his Ideal society. He used slaves to work the fields instead of white colonists. Although he gave up on soul-saving, Rolle's business spirit did not waver. In time, he increased the boundaries of Charlotta to the full 80 thousand acres. The settlement exported cotton, indigo and sugar at a profit; chickens, hogs, goats and sheep were successfully raised and sold. Orange juice and turpentine were shipped to England. Rolle took pride in his thousand head of cattle until one of his agents sold them in his absence and pocketed the profit.
Less than ten years after Rolle initiated his settlement at Charlotta, the naturalist William Bartram cruised the St. Johns and stopped long enough to report that, "The remaining old habitations are mouldering to earth except the mansion house, which is a large frame building, of cypress wood, yet in tolerable repair, and inhabited by an overseer and his family." Bartram summed up the endeavor at Charlotta in these words:
But it seems, from an ill-concerted plan in its infant establishment, negligence, or extreme parsimony in sending proper recruits and other necessaries, together with a bad choice of citizens, the settlement by degrees grew weaker, and at length totally fell to the ground. Those of them who escaped the constant contagious fevers, fled the dreaded place, betaking themselves for subsistence to the more fruitful and populous regions of Georgia and Carolina.
Charlotta drowns in the currents of time
In 1778, shortly after Bartram made this report, Rolle invested another sizable chunk of money and restocked the plantation. However, he could not change the currents of time. In 1783, the 20-year English occupation of Florida ended. British colonists had to choose between resettlement or subjection to the Spanish crown, which had already shown its intolerance toward Protestants. Most of the English left. They returned to Europe or settled anew in Nova Scotia, the United States, Jamaica or the Bahamas. Denys Rolle gathered the meager products of his East Florida occupation - household possessions, slaves, livestock and the timbers of dismantled buildings - and loaded them onto a chartered ship. Forever the cock-eyed optimist, Rolle sailed aboard the Peace and Plenty. But fortune would not intervene in his favor. Just two years later, the remains of a second failed Rollestown were found at the island of Exuma in the Bahama Islands.
Denys Rolle and Rollestown, A Pioneer for Utopia by Carita Doggett Corse, Florida Historical Society Quarterly, October 1928.
- Mullet on the Beach: The Minorcans of Florida, 1768-1788 by Patricia C. Griffin, University of North Florida Press, Jacksonville, 1993.
The Settlement of Charlotia (Rolles Town), 1765 by Carl Bohnenberger, Florida Historical Society Quarterly, July 1925.
The St. Johns, A Parade of Diversities by Branch Cabell and A.J. Hanna, Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., New York-Toronto, 1943.
Travels in North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida by William Bartram, Penguin Books, 1988.
- For another glimpse into the early history of Florida, read The Winds of Time, which describes the destruction of the French outpost of Ft. Caroline by the Spanish in 1565.
The Winds of Time
- The author is working on a historical fiction based on a woman who settled in and survived East Florida during its most tumultuous periods. Go to this site for excerpts from the book:
REBECKAH: A 19th Century East Florida Woman
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