Timucuan Preserve: A walk through Willie Browne's woods

When he passed away 50 years ago last month, Willie Browne left Jacksonville one of the greatest gifts in city history: his family's 600 acres of wild, historically significant land. Now known as the Theodore Roosevelt Area and part of the sprawling Timucuan Preserve, Willie's former home is a haven for nature lovers throughout the First Coast.

Browne family cemetery

This small cemetery on the Willie Browne Trail is the final resting place of Willie Browne, his brother Saxon, and his parents Eliza and William Browne II. Originally, the graves were marked only by a flower pot; the family headstone was added later. In an old Southern custom, visitors often leave shells on the graves to demonstrate the family’s continued remembrance.

Also buried in the graveyard are Margaret L. and Samuel P. Guthrie, friends and neighbors of the Brownes, as well as a third grave whose memorial has been lost.

The Browne family grave: Eliza, William II, Willie and Saxon.

“Thank you” note left at the grave of Willie Browne.

Grave of Samuel P. Guthrie, “friend and neighbor.”

Grave of Margaret L. Guthrie, “friend and neighbor”.

Browne cabin site

The one-room cabin where Willie and Saxon Browne lived for decades stood on this site where the current Spanish Pond and Willie Browne Trails cross. Sadly, the aging home was broken into and vandalized repeatedly after Browne’s death in 1970, and by 1995 the roof and floor were destroyed and the structure suffered from fires lit inside it. The Park Service took down the remnants but left the foundation in place, and today a door-shaped marker stands where the cabin’s entrance was located.

Shell mounds

A tree throw reveals a layer of shells from the ancient mound.

For thousands of years, what’s now the Theodore Roosevelt Area was home to Native Americans who took advantage of the river’s abundance of fish and shellfish. On top of the bluff are the remains of an immense 25-acre midden, or shell mound, which native peoples created as a place to discard oyster shells and bones. It was in use from around 500 BC until 100 AD or later, and its makers may have been the ancestors of the Mocama Timucua who lived here at the time of European colonization in the 16th century.

Like many other Native American sites in Northeast Florida, this mound has suffered from years of erosion and development, with most of the top layers of the midden being removed for road building. What remains stands as a reminder of the peoples to whom this land belonged for thousands of years.

Trail up the bluff.

Shells are visible on the trail running over the mound.

Grave of John Nathan Spearing

The most mysterious feature of the Theodore Roosevelt Area is this lone headstone along the trail at the top of the bluff and shell mound. It belongs to John Nathan Spearing, a Confederate veteran who owned the parcel before the Brownes.

Spearing ran a shipyard in what’s now Downtown Jacksonville’s Stadium District, and on February 28, 1862 he enlisted in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Then aged 49 or 50, he was a First Sergeant in the Florida Infantry’s 8th Regiment, Company I. He served for less than three months before being discharged due to disability on May 17.

Spearing and his family built Shell Mount, the house on the bluff where the Brownes later lived until losing it to fire. When he died in 1879, the family buried him near the house. His widow Margaret later sold the property to the Brownes, and the location of the grave was eventually lost due to continued erosion and shell removal on the bluff.

In 1961, Spearing’s granddaughter Mignonette Carter and the United Daughters of the Confederacy purchased the current headstone from the Georgia Marble Company; with the gravesite lost, they placed it in a secluded spot atop the bluff. As with the graves in the Browne Cemetery, visitors often leave oyster shells from the midden on the tombstone.

Mignonette Carter’s purchase request for the headstone. Courtesy of George Healy.

Round Marsh and observation platform

Panoramic view of Round Marsh from the platform

The Roosevelt Area’s trails run west to Colorinda Creek and Round Marsh, a salt marsh named for its unusually circular shape. The Park Service has built an observation platform on the rise just north of Round Marsh, which offers lovely panoramic views of the waterways and a prime spot for birdwatching.

Round Marsh’s shape is so pronounced that many observers believe it may not have been created by the normal movement of the waters. Some have speculated a human origin, perhaps as a rice paddy. In 2012 University of North Florida professor Jay Huebner proposed that the marsh may be the crater of a meteor strike left centuries before. René Goulaine de Laudonnière, the founder of Fort Caroline, wrote of witnessing an especially marvelous and destructive “stroke of lightning” that hit near the fort in 1564. Huebner believes this is consistent with a meteor strike; if his theory is correct, it would be one of only about 1400 witnessed meteor falls in human history.

On August 29 there fell on the fort such a stroke of lightning that I think it more worthy of interest and of being recorded than any unusual thing that has yet come to pass, more strange than historians have ever written about. The fields were at that time all green and half covered with water, and yet the lightning in one instant consumed about 500 acres and burned with such a bright heat that all the birds which lived in the meadows were consumed. This thing continued for three days.

– René Goulaine de Laudonnière, L’histoire Notable de la Floride, translated by Charles Bennett

View of Colorinda Creek.

A crab trap bouy in the water.

Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at wdelaney@moderncities.com.