A Robinson Crusoe in Florida - A story of love found and survival in the Everglades.
A 19th century story retold by Steve Singer
Four explorers had planned to investigate an unexplored area of the Everglades in 1891 supposedly on a hunting and fishing expedition for a few months. They had well prepared themselves with supplies and equipment which they had already sent to Kissimmee. They arrived there soon after and boarded a steamer for Lake Okeechobee. Two days after leaving the steamer, they reached the south shore of the lake which bordered the Everglades. Cutting through the dense undergrowth proved a formidable task, and soon they took turns climbing whatever tall tree they could find every so often so as to get a good look at what lay before them, as down below they could only see a few yards ahead due to all the vegetation. Now I assume they had a compass, but this was the only way to look for any clearings or other potential interesting areas to investigate, and whoever climbed would then point the way to their next destination. I’ve had to do the very same thing exploring in the Bahamas. It was again time for one of them to look for a good way to continue., and after one of them climbed a tall cypress tree, a large hill was spotted in the distance which they then headed for, and even though it looked not that far away, it still took a few days to arrive there. Once reached, they realized that the area must be inhabited as there were cultivated native fruits, footprints in the earth, and other signs of human life. It had been twelve weeks now since they started the expedition, and by climbing the hill, it was the first time they could relax under the full sun and finally dry their damp clothes. The hill itself was circular in shape, being about a mile in diameter. Expecting to soon find some native inhabitants, they were surprised when a white man approached them wearing only local animal skins. As this person only spoke Spanish, three of the party didn’t understand him, but luckily the fourth was a Spaniard from Havana, and soon they all learned of his remarkable story.
The man’s name was Hernandez. He had joined the Cuban insurgents during the rebellion against Spain in 1868, and was on board a vessel off Florida, I’m assuming to run guns and supplies to the insurgents in Cuba, when it was spotted by a Spanish man-of-war, and rather than risk capture, the captain ran her ashore in the Ponce de Leon Bay near the Rogers River, which lies approximately halfway between Cape Romano to the north-east and Flamingo to the south-east, and which is still a relatively uninhabited area. The only survivor was Hernandez, the others all having drowned. If you were to be shipwrecked there today, and had no communication to get help, you may be stranded even now for a very long time.
Finding no signs of life for a day or two, he wandered into the swamps and soon came upon a hut occupied by a Native American girl. Now I doubt either of them spoke the other’s language, but the girl must have taken a liking to him, as she somehow made him understand that it was not safe for him to be there as others of her nation would likely not treat him well and may even kill him if found. She knew of a pathway that would lead them to a safe place, and soon they were on their way. Unfortunately, she got disorientated and they wandered for six more days not knowing where they were, subsisting on native fruits such as berries. Hernandez was quite lucky to have found her though, as she knew how to survive in this unforgiving environment. The Seminole Wars had ended, and many Native Americans predominately of the Seminole Nation, now made the Everglades their home and many still do. They eventually came upon a large hill that looked like a good place to camp. Not wanting to risk trying to leave again in the harsh terrain which they could now survey from the top of the hill, they decided to settle there as man and wife as Hernandez had fallen in love with the woman, had two children together, and remained there for the next twenty-three years until the expedition into the Everglades found them.
Hernandez had no idea what year it was or how long it had been since he was shipwrecked. The party asked if Hernandez wished to leave with them, and he gladly accepted their offer. They provided him and his family with new clothes, and with money provided by the explorers, Hernandez and his family sailed to Cuba where he hoped to find his parents still living there. I don’t know how the story ended, but I hope it was full of happiness for him and his family, a family that would have never existed if not for being shipwrecked on a deserted shore!
I have no way to substantiate this story, but the 19th century periodical that originally ran the story believed it to be true as the four explorers were well known and respected individuals.
Two photos by Steve Singer