Seldom Told Tales
John G. Webb: The Pioneer Who Went South
By Stewart Pollock ’54
In the summer of 2001, when the College was renovating the Elihu Root House on College Hill, a workman discovered a letter dated July 9, 1850, to Anson J. Upson from John G. Webb. In the letter, Webb recommended his cousin for admission to the College to Upson.
Upson was a professor of literature and public speaking and would eventually become a Hamilton trustee and the namesake of a distinguished faculty chair. But who was John Webb? And why should we care about him?
A graduate of the class of 1844, Webb is today an unknown entity on College Hill. Travel south to the west coast of Florida, however, and Webb is revered as a leading pioneer, someone who helped settle and civilize a wild frontier.
Born in Adams, N.Y., in March 1824, Webb entered Hamilton in 1841 as one of 28 sophomores, having demonstrated that his knowledge of English, Greek and Latin grammar was sufficient for him to skip his freshman year. In addition to tuition of $21, he paid $7 for that “advanced standing.”
Webb enjoyed his three years on the Hill, where he was a member of Sigma Phi. Among other courses, he studied chemistry, which would stand him in good stead throughout his life. On Oct. 17, 1843, he wrote to his uncle, Alpheus S. Greene, a physician in Watertown, N.Y.:
Hamilton College is I think very fast gaining ground. A larger number than usual entered this term, and they are a very firm lot of young men, better looking and better acting than any new recruits that came on since I have been here. Our faculty is a good one, and its members are well qualified for their various duties.
After graduating, Webb began a varied and challenging career. Initially, he taught mathematics and natural science at the Utica Academy, but Webb found teaching to be “hard work” with meager compensation. That, plus his growing family — he and wife Eliza Graves Webb, whom he had married Christmas Eve 1845, would raise five children — led him to leave teaching in 1848 and turn to a combined career as a chemist or druggist in Utica and a farmer in Waterville. An advertisement from that time announces that he and his partner were “Druggists and Grocers,” selling, among other things,” 90 percent alcohol and burning fluid,” “wines and liquors for medicinal use,” “garden and field seeds” and Fairbanks Scales.
The Webbs head south
Eliza Webb suffered from asthma, and her doctor recommended that the Webbs move to a warmer climate. Influencing their decision was the Homestead Act of 1862, which entitled a person to 160 acres of federal land after living on the land and producing a cash crop for five years. Instead of going west, as so many settlers did, after the Civil War the Webbs headed south to Florida, which was largely a wilderness.
In February 1867, John and Eliza, their five children, plus Eliza’s father and sister, Emily, set sail from ice-bound New York City on the hundred-ton schooner The Sarah Helen. They took a Bible, furniture, farm tools and a pen of chickens. After paying $375 for the family’s fare, Webb headed for an unknown destination and future with $1,200 in his pocket.
The trip was rough and long. The Webbs landed in Key West and started working their way up the west coast of Florida. On Sept. 10, 1867, more than half a year after embarking from New York, the Webbs settled on a peninsula that they called “Spanish Point.” Their first home was a temporary two-room shelter of palmetto leaves. From lumber rafted down the Manatee River, Webb later built a more permanent home with two chimneys.
(In 1882, Webb would receive a land grant for 144 acres. Over time, he gave away or sold portions of the land, and Mrs. Potter Palmer ultimately acquired much of the land. In 1980, the Palmer family conveyed 30 acres to the Gulf Coast Heritage Association, creating Historic Spanish Point.)
As a matter of survival, Webb immediately started to hack out a living. To feed his family, he planted a garden of tomatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and watermelons. Wild deer, which plagued the garden, became venison. The bay yielded mullet, oysters and sea turtle eggs. Spanish Point, however, was not a Garden of Eden. The Webbs contended with and killed panthers, bobcats, rattlesnakes and alligators.
The Webbs’ first cash crop was sugar cane. In 1868, however, a harsh freeze killed the cane. In desperation, Webb and his son William built a small wooden mill with pine rollers and live oak cogs to grind the cane into syrup. Later, he built a steam-driven mill and produced Webb’s Maple Syrup.
Hard-earned success, then disaster
Although the family was surviving, isolation was an abiding problem. Spanish Point was inaccessible by road, and the Webbs’ nearest neighbor, William Whittaker, was 14 miles up the coast. In a letter of Sept. 8, 1872, Eliza wrote to her sister Nell of the need for a boat to take their produce to market: “Last year we had about two thousand head of cabbages. If we could have sent them to Key West should have realized a handsome sum on them. They sell for from ten to seventy-five cents a head.”
Several years later, when their youngest daughter, Virginia, married Frank Guptil, a boat builder from Maine, the Webbs finally had their boat, The Vision. Webb also used that name on the crates of oranges that he shipped north. By 1881, Webb had 30 bearing trees.
His initial attempt to ship oranges, however, met with failure. He had packed the oranges in Spanish moss, not knowing that insects were hiding in the moss. Overcoming that and other problems, Webb’s orange grove prospered. A visitor to Historic Spanish Point today can visit the packing house designed by Webb to pack and ship oranges.
The Webbs washed the oranges in salt water, dried them on racks, and sorted them in a three-channel slide, all designed by John Webb. The Webbs also made and sold a popular orange marmalade.
Just when John Webb thought that he could enjoy his earned prosperity, disaster struck. On Dec. 28, 1894, Webb’s career as a citrus grower came to an end. In Florida’s most destructive freeze of the 19th century, the temperature dropped to 18 degrees in nearby Venice. The December freeze, coupled with a later one in February 1895, reduced the oranges shipped from Florida by 95 percent. Nearly 71 years old, Webb was wiped out.
Resort host and public servant
Fortunately, he had not put all his eggs, or oranges, in one basket. Webb also had embarked on two other careers, one as a public official and the other as resort owner. During the Webbs’ first winter in Florida, a Col. Ezekiel Jewett visited them. Col. Jewett enjoyed himself so much that he encouraged the Webbs to invite friends from the North to stay with them. By 1872, John Webb was advertising “Webb’s Winter Resort” in northern newspapers. Webb charged $35 a month for room and meals. Business boomed; by 1881, the Webbs had 20 boarders.
Running a resort hotel, as challenging as it may be in the 21st century, was even more so in the 19th century. To illustrate, in 1888, Emma Gilpin from West Chester, Pa., her husband and 14-year-old son, Vincent, stayed with the Webbs. Vincent became critically ill with dysentery and related problems. Drawing on his knowledge of chemistry acquired at Hamilton and his experience as a druggist, John Webb mixed some remedies. After a month-long siege, Vincent recovered sufficiently to return home.
In addition to running a farm and vacation resort, John Webb also had an active public life. In 1879 he was elected a Manatee County Commissioner and served two terms as chairman. To reach the county seat, Webb rode on horseback. On one return trip, Webb discovered his horse had broken loose. Undaunted, Webb walked the 40 miles from the county seat to Spanish Point.
Although he never went to law school, Webb was appointed a county judge in 1885, a position he held until 1889. Curiously, he was admitted to practice law in the Circuit Court in 1889, the last year of his judgeship. For the rest of his life, John was known as “Judge Webb.”
Webb also petitioned the U.S. government for the establishment of a post office in Osprey. In 1884 the government granted the petition, and John Webb was named postmaster.
A scientist at heart
Notwithstanding the demands on his time as farmer, hotel owner and public official, John Webb remained a scientist at heart. Col. Jewett, a naturalist who had received an honorary doctorate from Hamilton in 1860, described Webb to Spencer Baird, the assistant secretary for the Department of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution, as “a keen observer of nature.” The description was accurate. In 1871, while swinging a grub hoe, Webb discovered a mineralized skull on a midden. Over the years, Webb sent a wide variety of artifacts, including the skull, stone axes, pecten shell ornaments and Native American pottery to the Smithsonian.
Webb’s scientific interest also inspired him to write an article published in the Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission about the cause of fish mortality in the Gulf of Mexico, a topic that remains of concern today.
Through the years, Webb kept in touch with friends in Utica through letters to the Utica Morning Herald and the Hamilton Literary Monthly. In September 1879, the Literary Monthly reported:
John G. Webb ’44, formerly a druggist in Utica, is now settled at Manatee, Florida, and is one of the most active and highly respected citizens of the gulf coast. He is now chairman of the board of county commissioners, and an excellent one. Beginning miles away from any settlers, twelve years ago, with a large family and very little money, he has literally hewed out his fortune.
Following the death of Eliza Webb in June 1884, John married her sister, Emily. On April 8, 1908, John Webb died, followed by Emily in July of that year. He is buried on Spanish Point between the two sisters.
So who was John Webb and why should we care about him? He was a loyal Hamilton graduate who lived a life of integrity, intellectual curiosity and commitment — a life that is a testament to a liberal arts education. He made his mark as a pioneer, public official, farmer, resort operator and scientist. Like so many Hamiltonians, he contributed mightily to his community. If Hamilton ever should be inclined to grant posthumous honorary degrees, the College would do well to so honor John Webb.
Stewart Pollock ’54 has been a lawyer for more than a half-century and served on the New Jersey Supreme Court for 20 years. He received an honorary LL.D. from Hamilton in 1995 and is currently of counsel to Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti in Morristown, N.J. He is grateful to the staff at Historic Spanish Point in Osprey, Fla., to Alumni Review Editor Emeritus Frank Lorenz, and to Janet Snyder Matthews, author of Edge of Wilderness: A Settlement History of Manatee River and Sarasota Bay, for providing valuable research assistance and historical information for this profile.