Saltmaking on the Taylor County Coast

 

An estimated 16,000 Floridians fought in the American Civil War, including over a hundred Taylor Countians and future Taylor Countians. Our area contributed far more than just men to the Confederate war effort, however. Taylor County’s swampy coastline and maze-like system of tidal creeks made it an ideal site for producing a key wartime commodity: salt.

Tidal creek and marsh near Adams Beach - perfect territory for saltmaking (1982). Image courtesy of the State Library & Archives of Florida.

Tidal creek and marsh near Adams Beach – perfect territory for saltmaking (1982). Image courtesy of the State Library & Archives of Florida.

Salt may not seem like such a vital product from our point of view in the 21st century, but keep in mind we’re talking about the 1860s. Electric power was in its infancy, and modern refrigerators had yet to be invented. Florida families had to either eat food fresh or preserve it by pickling or salting it. During the Civil War, preserving food became even more critical because it had to be transported in large amounts from the places it was produced to where the soldiers were camped without spoiling. The answer to this problem was salt – and a lot of it.

But where did the salt come from? In the early days of territorial Florida, families got the salt they needed from natural salt licks or by evaporating seawater or water from salt springs. By the 1840s, however, these sources had virtually been replaced by cheap manufactured salt available from the local general store. This supply became unavailable, however, once the war broke out and the Union Navy established a blockade around the Confederate coastline.

"Scott's Great Snake" - a cartoon map illustrating General Winfield Scott's plan to break the Confederacy's ability to make war using a naval blockade. The plan was nicknamed the "Anaconda Plan" (1861). Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“Scott’s Great Snake” – a cartoon map illustrating General Winfield Scott’s plan to break the Confederacy’s ability to make war using a naval blockade. The plan was nicknamed the “Anaconda Plan” (1861). Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Blockade runners managed to bring in a trickle of foreign salt, but demand vastly outran available supplies as the war dragged on. After the Union victory at Vicksburg in July 1863, the Confederacy was cut off from its critical source of beef cattle in Texas. Florida’s beef supply became more important than ever, as did the need for a dependable source of salt.

Floridians experimented with several ways of producing salt, but evaporating seawater proved to be the most satisfactory method. Thousands of men and women from Florida and other parts of the Confederacy flocked to the coastline to set up “salt works.” They produced entire bushels of salt, selling it for as much as $50 a sack! Historian W.T. Cash identifies Gabriel Harden, Jackson Sapp, John Taylor, Randall B. Williams, William H. Sever, James W. Faulkner, John Towles, Wyche and Civil Fulford, William Stanaland, Rufus Stanaland, Thomas Young, Wiley W. Whiddon, John R. Morse and John G. Pettus as a few of the Taylor County natives who were involved with coastal saltmaking.

Each salt works was usually located back from the coast a bit, to minimize harassment from the Union blockaders just offshore. Anyplace with a little elevation and a few trees for cover was a good spot. The saltmakers would obtain their seawater either from one of the nearby tidal creeks or from a hand-dug well near their boiling kettle. The water table was high enough that they wouldn’t have had to dig very far. The water was boiled in a large iron kettle, usually a syrup boiling kettle or some modified vessel. In at least a few cases, steamship boilers were re-purposed for saltmaking. Once the seawater had boiled down to a thick sludge and some of the impurities had been skimmed from the top, it was laid out on boards to dry out and bleach in the sun. It was then put into sacks and sent to the interior to be sold.

The Union blockaders knew this lucrative process was being carried out all over the coastline under their noses. The shallow waters of the Gulf coast made it difficult for their boats to attack directly, but from time to time they sent raiding parties ashore to destroy the salt works and scatter the saltmakers. The largest Union raid on Taylor County’s shoreline came in 1864 when Lieutenant Commander David Harmony of the U.S.S. Tahoma sent Edmund Cottle Weeks and J. Green Koehler to rendezvous with deserters and other refugees from the Confederacy living in the vicinity of the Warrior River (Spring Warrior Creek in modern times). Weeks and eight men from the Tahoma teamed up with 96 refugees to begin attacking the coastal salt works from the northwest, while Koehler and 20 additional men from the ship landed farther down the coast and began working their way back in a sort of pincer strategy.

Portrait of Edmund Cottle Weeks (circa 1861), who had a number of interactions with Taylor Countians during the Civil War. Not only did he supervise the destruction of salt works along the coast - he also later commanded the Second Florida Union Cavalry, which a number of refugees from Taylor County joined in 1864. Image courtesy of the State Library & Archives.

Portrait of Edmund Cottle Weeks (circa 1861), who had a number of interactions with Taylor Countians during the Civil War. Not only did he supervise the destruction of salt works along the coast – he also later commanded the Second Florida Union Cavalry, which a number of refugees from Taylor County joined in 1864. Image courtesy of the State Library & Archives of Florida.

The Union invaders inflicted considerable damage. In his after-action report, Lieutenant Commander Harmony noted that Weeks and Koehler had succeeded in destroying 390 salt kettles, 170 furnaces of brick and stone, 150 pumps, wells, and aqueducts, over 200 buildings, and 6,000 bushels of salt in barrels. They also captured about a thousand head of cattle and one government agent named G.R. Paul. Between this and one additional raid farther west, Harmony believed the Confederacy’s saltmaking ability had been reduced by 2,500 bushels per day.

Despite the raids, saltmaking continued along the Taylor County coast for the remainder of the war, and even in the decades afterward. Evidence of the old salt works is still visible along the coast, especially the platforms for the salt kettles. Many of the small “islands” rising above the marsh contain mounds of dirt, chunks of limestone, and small fragments of iron that have rusted into little more than orange mud. At first glance they don’t look like much, but in reality these are relics of a once-vital industry that employed thousands along Florida’s shoreline.

Likely remnants of a salt kettle platform in the marsh between Dekle Beach and the mouth of Clearwater Creek (2008).

Likely remnants of a salt kettle platform in the marsh between Dekle Beach and the mouth of Clearwater Creek (2008).

Historical marker on the Taylor County Salt Works posted at the intersection of U.S. 19/98/27A and the Beach Road (CR 361). Image courtesy of Waymarking.com.

Historical marker on the Taylor County Salt Works posted at the intersection of U.S. 19/98/27A and the Beach Road (CR 361). Image courtesy of Waymarking.com.

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