The Rare 1883 Topographical Survey/Description, St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

1883 topographical map, sheet 1652, of the "South End of Indian River," Colonna. Survey, chief of Party, B.H. Colonna.
1883 topographical map. Sheet #1652: The “South End of Indian River.” Surveyor, Chief of Party, B.H. Colonna.

Imagine setting eyes on the surrounding lands of the beautiful St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon, in virgin form, the year 1883. You are a surveyor, and your job is to create a map, a map showing the topography of  the area. It’s a jungle, the insects are singing, animal life is everywhere, there are even remnants of the Seminole Indians that appear and disappear  cutting back the palmettos so they can see you. There is venison, bear and many kinds of delicious fish. But there are also seven foot rattle snakes and mosquitoes  in the saw grass ponds that will cover your face and make you jump in  the river! Nonetheless, this Eden is a place of beauty.

How did I come upon this survey? Surveyor, Mr. Chappy Young, GCY Inc. of Palm City, has known my family for many years and recently sent me a copy of this original hand written part of the 1883 topographical survey completed by Chief  B.H. Colonna and his men. What an incredible thing to read, a first hand account of this area from over 120 years ago! It is a treasure.

survey cover

I will choose some highlights to quote and some I will summarize.  My excerpts come off a bit choppy but the accounts are still incredible.

The twelve page report is hand written in cursive and documents the “East Coast of Florida from Eden Post Office, or Richards, southward, to Peck’s Lake, including the St Lucie River.”

It begins:

“On the west shore of the Indian River the ground rises from five to eighty feet above the level of ordinary height of the water in Indian River, the higher ridges give quite a pretty landfall when seen from four or five miles off shore, quite outcropping the land, and found between Indian River and the ocean.”

Colonna talks of standing on the highest point of the west side of the Indian River, “Blue Hill,” and “looking westward to see a number of parallel ridges of sand, with intervening saw grass ponds;” he describes the yellowish-white Conchina sands and the roads as marine conglomerates.

“The vegetation is thick,” he writes, and “the many hammocks rise above the flatlands recognized by their palmettos (sable palms), mastics, rubber trees, live oaks, iron wood and crab-wood along with a great variety of other trees.”

The  St Lucie and Indian River Lagoon are filled with life. He describes a great number of coots and ducks on the rivers; as well as quail, partridge, and wild turkeys in the surrounding woods, and many small birds, just about everywhere, daring about. The waters are filled with luxuriant eel grass the favorite food of the manatee which also is abundant. 

He talks of giant sawgrass with blades in the ponds and fresh waters three to ten feet long and very sharp.  And further west soft,  sweet, moist grasses attracting deer.

You can image, Chief Colonna was camping for many months, maybe years with his team; so he  was able to document watching river waters rise 2-3 feet during rainy season, and  the lands being inches deep/sometimes feet deep, in water…

In 1883, the year this survey was taken, the inlet, Gilbert’s Bar, next to today’s Sailfish Point, was closed. He explains, mentioning fish on the reef that I have never heard of… 

Gilbert's Bar 1883

“The old Gilbert’s Bar entrance, now closed, is shown on the sheet. Whenever the salt and fresh waters meet, the mangrove flourishes and such has been the case at Gilbert’s Bar. Once fine oysters grew there and all kinds of fish belonging in these waters were abundant, but sine the inlet closed the oysters have died and the fish are gone except a few  bass and catfish. Just outside and along the old Gilbert’s Bar, (Conchina Reef). There are lots of fish, Barracuda, Pompins, Blue fish, Cavallis, Green Turtles, Mullet, Sea Bass, and a beautiful fish, much resembling our spanish mackerel, but it has more beautiful colors and is very tame. Trolling there I have seen them take the hook and bound  5-10 feet clear of the water.  I had thought the blue-fish game, and the taking of the fins for sport, but one of these beauties far exceeds anything I ever saw for pluck, rapidity of motion and beauty of form and color…”

According to Colonna, the “House of Refuge was the best dwelling on the sheet,” and  “Dr Baker’s house (in today’s Indialucie) was the only place that looked like a home.” This is interesting to me because I grew up there. His account of my former playground:

“In this area the rattle snakes are the largest I have ever seen being from 6-7 feet” but there are not many; alligators are no longer numerous and have become shy; but raccoons and opossums are so thick it is impossible  to raise fowl; “wild cats are 4′ 6″ from tip to tip,” and Black Bears come in June across the lands to comb the beaches for turtle eggs…”

I think I would have had fun living in the area in 1883, but I would have worn boots for sure!

And now the grand finale. On the final page of the handwritten piece, Chief Surveyor, Colonna proclaims:

“The prettiest land on the sheet is the peninsula laying between the St Lucie River and Indian River, from Mount Pleasant  south, to the the point. It is high hammock land with Cochina foundation and covered by a heavy growth of Hard Wood and underbrush with now and then a pine. This country had quite a population in it once, just before the Seminole outbreak and for a times after it, the settles had oranges, lemons, and limes, some of the old trees are sill to be found in the vicinity of Eden P.O. and the limes are very fine but the oranges are bitter and the lemons not bearing..”

 (Mount Pleasant is Francis Langford’s former high river property.) 

So congratulations to Sewall’s Point, the “prettiest” piece of land surveyed in 1883 and still known for her beauty today. All of our area around the Indian River Lagoon and stretching westward is beautiful, a changed but modern Eden. Let’s protect it  for the next 120 years. 


GCY Inc. (

Florida Classic Library has topographical maps: (





3 thoughts on “The Rare 1883 Topographical Survey/Description, St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

  1. I have used that survey in the past. Chappy has a treasure trove of old ones!

    W.E. “Ted” Guy, Jr.

    643 SW Fuge Rd

    Stuart, Fl 34997

    (772) 287-4106 (home)

    (772) 485-1866 (cell/car)

  2. Jacqui,

    I haven’t prepared that “discussion piece” that I promised re. the AAF situation but I will… it IS a work in progress.

    I really hadn’t introduced myself to you since I started to follow your Blog with the focus on the Lagoon situation so here goes…

    I have met your mother and spoken/consulted with her (several times) over the years. She “tracked me down” first about 10 or 12 years ago. This was not to long after we had moved back down here to “take care of” my dad after mom passed. He “needed” the assistance, I had taken an early retirement and we fortunately were in a position to “do that”. Dad had lived where we (now I and my dogs) do now on Indian River Drive about half way between Walton Rd. and Midway Rd. (Actually, I’m fairly certain that a short video you recently posted may have been taken – while you were passing in front of my place.) In any case, I was working with a committee of the Indian River Drive Freeholders – investigating the feasibility of Incorporating the linear neighborhood that is “The Drive” between the Ft Pierce City Limits and the Martin County Line… and for want of a better method of sharing my research, had established a “special section” within my own web site to publish and share it. Your mom came upon some of this work as she was preparing her most recent book that included the Jensen and Rio Communities and the Southern portions of “this area”.

    I’m now almost 70, but have considered Florida “home” since 1961 when we relocated from Connecticut. Dad was one those on the early list for relocation by P&W from their plant in East Hartford to their new Florida Research and Development Center – on the “Bee Line Hwy” (way out in the boonies) West of Riviera Beach. I graduated from Riviera Beach HS in 1963. While in College I worked several summers as a Survey chain man and Instrument man with The Central and Southern Flood Control District (the predecessor-in-name of the South Florida Water Management District). Following Graduation from The Citadel, as a Civil Engineer and Commissioning in the Army – my initial assignment as a newly Commissioned Officer with the Army Corp of Engineers was a two years posting to the South Florida Area Office, Jacksonville District, USACE – Civil Works in Clewiston. During that assignment, I met and wed my wife of 32+ years (who is now passed almost 11 years). I mention this in particular because her family has LONG TERM roots in The Glades in the areas around More Haven and Lake Harbor that go back to the EARLIEST DAYS, pre 1920’s, of drainage for agricultural development of this “Everglades Agricultural Area”. In fact, I have a letter from her Uncle written in 1926 after surviving that hurricanes devastation in the Moore Haven near the headwaters of the Caloosahatchie River and the Western Shores of Lake Okeechobee.

    All this – I’m relating to you in order to establish long standing “bonefides”, if you want to call them that, that establish my love for South Florida and a very healthy respect for the importance of the part that The Florida East Coast Railway has had on Agricultural Development in the Glades and East Coastal Development of all of Florida… as well as an abiding, and very vested personal interest in our current “hot button Issues” … AAF’s Development plans, and the declining health of The Indian River Lagoon.

    I despise “LOUD MOUTHED NIMBY’s” suckering good people into adopting positions on these issues based on false, incomplete, inaccurate, or intentionally misleading information!!

    Links to some of these “works” – published on my web site in roughly 2001 – 2004.

    The Section Index page:

    The Maps Index page:

    The History Articles Index page:

    Three “background” articles that may be of interest as they relate to our current “hot button Issues”

    1893 – 1894 The Ribbon of Steel that Pierce our Backyards: (An expansion of a paper written in 1963)

    “Indian River Ridge” / South Indian River Drive History:

    1895 – 2004 THE DRIVE, That Ribbon of Asphalt through our front yards

    I also found your BLOG post today with excerpts from your copy of the 1893 topographic survey covering the coastal area from the House of Refuge area to Gilberts Bar (more or less) particularily interesting and would LOVE to have a copy of that survey and notes. I do have several articles in my Maps and History lists related to the earliest land survery’s dating to the 1850’s and the earliest deed records for lands along the western edge of the IRL from the Southern Ft. Pierce City Limits to the current Martin County Line.

    I’m writing this while camped at the USACE’s campground at the St. Lucie Lock – perhaps I’ll see you here in the morning.


    1. Rick,
      I so much enjoyed reading your email. So interesting. Too ironic that you know my mother.
      I will look at the links you sent over the weekend and I look forward to seeing you tomorrow at
      the river funeral. Let’s definitely get together and I will give you a copy of the 1883 survey map
      and write up and would like to learn about those your have as well, and of course the train…
      Talk to you soon.(:

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