Thursday, January 5, 2017

Many of Florida's archaeological sites were damaged due to Hurricane Matthew.  With the help of our Heritage Monitoring Scouts (HMS Florida), FPAN is in the process of assessing the extent of the damage.  However, sometimes we discover that Matthew has befriended us by unearthing something from the past!  So was the case when we assessed Spengler Island.
Spengler is a small island located in the San Sebastian River in St. Augustine, FL.  There are many stories that float around this small, pine covered island.  Locals swear that Spengler was once home to a sanatorium (a place to quarantine and care for the contagious), but there is no archaeological evidence that supports this belief.   No broken medicine bottles or anything associated with a hospital has ever been uncovered on the island.
Historic aerial view of Whitney Mansion prior to burning
Could the sanatorium story have come from the memories of a large home that once stood on the island and burned in the 1920's?   John F. Whitney (grandson of Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin) purchased Spengler Island in the 1870's and proceeded to build a home only the wealthy could afford.   Whitney had friends in high places:  Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, Thomas Edison, and P.T. Barnam to name few.  It's known that after the president's assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln was an over-night guest at the Whitney mansion at least once.
Mary Todd Lincoln
As we approached the island by kayak we saw no sign of the former grandeur, only the evidence of more recent habitation.   Wet sleeping bags and modern day garbage were the initial finds to greet us.

After the fire and passing of many decades, nothing of the Whitney home is left above ground.   St. Johns County did an archaeological survey in 2010  where test pits revealed the footers (foundation) of the mansion.  We never would have located the house location without a former 2010 survey crew member guiding us through the thick brush (thank you Eric Giles!)

What was only revealed through excavation in 2010...

was now exposed from downed trees due to Hurricane Matthew...

Brick and coquina footers, along with pottery and glass pieces from the era, had been churned up by the hurricane.   Not a treasure from Mary Todd Lincoln's stay, but a treasure for an archaeologist!

Once again, the visit to this site reaffirmed the necessity of the HMS program and the importance of keeping an eye on our cultural heritage - for better or for worse!

Text by FPAN Staff: Robbie Boggs
Photos by: Robbie Boggs,, St. John's County

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