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A Glimpse of Jacksonville’s Maritime Past

One of the joys of being an historian is discovering old documents that let us see into the past. The past is what happened. History is how we understand and explain the past, and we are constantly understanding it in new ways. Jacksonville is full of stories, which is what makes it such a fascinating place to practice history.

The latest example came about as I was reading a book called “Coasting Captain: Journals of Captain Leonard S. Tawes, Relating His Career in Atlantic Coastwise sailing Craft from 1868-1922,” Robert H. Burgess, Editor (Newport News: The Mariners Museum, 1967). This rare book, given to me years ago by a fellow sailor, is written in the authentic voice of a nineteenth-century mariner rather like the famous Joshua Slocum. Throughout decades aboard his three-masted schooner, the “City of Baltimore,” Captain Tawes often called at Jacksonville. Locals such as Napoleon Bonaparte Broward and his younger brother, Montcalm Broward, were both river steamboat captains with whom Tawes became well acquainted. Another encounter happened in an early 1891 visit, when Tawes arrived in Jacksonville from San Juan, Puerto Rico, at that time still a Spanish colony. When arriving from any foreign port, all vessels, then as now, must declare their entry into the U.S. to the local customs collector.

Let Captain Tawes tell his story:

“I arrived at Mayport, and left the ship there. Took the train and went up to Jacksonville to enter the ship. There was a colored collector there by the name of Lee. I had with me all the necessary papers for entering, but Mr. Lee was the most precise collector I have ever met. He says to me, ‘Captain where is your foreign clearance?’ I said to him, ‘I do not know.’ He says, ‘I cannot enter your vessel until you produce it, and if you fail to produce it, I shall have to fine you $500.’ I said, ‘Mr. Lee, I have entered from foreign ports in about all the custom houses on the coast from Boston to New Orleans, and you are the first collector that has ever asked me for a foreign clearance.’ He said, ‘That is the law.’ He read it to me and said he would have to enforce it.

Leonard Tawes (Photo courtesy 
Eastern Shore Post, October 8, 2020)

“Now, I had to have my vessel entered in 48 hours or I would still be fined $500 in accordance with our marine laws. It looked like this colored collector was going to catch me for a fine . . . I had remembered seeing this Spanish clearance knocking around in the cabin just before I arrived at Mayport. I just barely had time to catch the train and get back to Mayport. When I got there I found the mate had let the vessel drag on shore that day . . . I looked around the cabin that night and to my Joy I found this Spanish clearance. [Then] I worked most of the night getting the vessel off [at] high water. We got her off and anchored her in the stream. I may have rested two hours that night. Got my breakfast next morning, and caught the train in time to go up to Jacksonville and enter [within] the 48 hours that the government allows. I made a point to always keep the foreign clearance ever after . . .”

The customs official to whom Captain Tawes refers was none other than Jacksonville’s own Joseph E. Lee (1849-1920). Lee was a graduate of Howard University’s law school who, in 1873, became Jacksonville’s first African American lawyer. During his early years in Jacksonville, he entered politics and was elected as a Republican member of the state legislature and later the Florida Senate. Even after the end of Reconstruction, Lee’s local political influence continued, as a Duval County Judge and then Clerk of Court. During the administrations of Republican presidents of the U.S., Lee held local offices of the federal government, such as Collector of Customs, which appointment he held during the presidency of Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893).

Joseph E. Lee

Some in Captain Tawes’ position might have judged Mr. Lee as unnecessarily militant, given that other Collectors of Customs followed more lenient policies. Strict enforcement of the law may be read as an indirect solicitation for a bribe. Alternatively, to a white Southerner such as Captain Tawes, in the tense political climate of the post-Reconstruction years, Mr. Lee may have come across as racially provocative. Blacks who held federal government positions in the states of the former Confederacy were a sore subject that some white Southerners found grievously offensive.

Viewed from Mr. Lee’s perspective, the encounter illustrates the delicacy of his situation. As a Black man holding a position of power in a predominantly white political economy, he could afford to show favoritism to no one. Moreover, as a Collector of Customs, his work enforcing federal laws mattered a great deal, as Congress had not yet adopted an income tax. The revenue that went to pay the bills of the United States came mainly from land sales, customs duties and excise taxes.

During this same 1891 visit to Jacksonville, Captain Tawes had more trouble with federal officials, who sought to arrest his cook for striking another sailor. When U.S. Marshals boarded the “City of Baltimore” searching for the accused, named Bert Adams, Captain Tawes hid his crew member and enlisted Captain Montcalm Broward to help the fugitive make good his escape aboard Broward’s steam tugboat, the “Kate Spencer.” In the telling, it is clear that both Broward brothers were colorful, adventuresome souls, sympathetic to fellow mariners and untroubled at the flaunting of federal laws. The Browards’ later careers proved that true.

There is much to learn about Jacksonville from Leonard Tawe’s journals, about business, navigation, sailing, and the lumber trade, in addition to bringing notable figures from our past into sharper focus. Captain Tawes offers brief but vivid glimpses of Jacksonville during the late nineteenth century, when memories of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery were still fresh. From our perspective in 2022, we can see a bit more of how Jacksonville experienced the beginning of the twentieth century, through things such as memorials to the Confederacy.

Alan J. Bliss, Ph.D.
CEO, Jacksonville Historical Society

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