River History

In the 1800s, steamboats made the St. Johns River a popular winter destination for northerners.

In the early 1500s, Spanish seamen called the river, Rio de Corrientes (River of Currents). The French established Fort Caroline on a high bluff overlooking a river they called Riviere de Mai (River of May), because they arrived there on May 1.

In 1565, Spanish soldiers marched north from St. Augustine, captured Fort Caroline and slaughtered the French. The Spanish renamed the river San Mateo, to honor the saint whose feast followed the day they captured the river.

Later, the river was renamed Rio de San Juan after a mission near its mouth named San Juan del Puerto. The English translation of the name Rio de San Juan, St. Johns River, lasted through English, Confederate and American possession of the river. It still remains today.  

By the 1860s, several steamers were making weekly round trips from Charleston and Savannah to Jacksonville and Palatka, and other settlements.

In the 1900s, miles of floodplain were drained to make room for indigo, sugar cane, citrus and other profitable crops. Encroachment through draining of the headwater marshes at the river's southern end was neither planned nor controlled. More than 70 percent of the marsh was claimed for agricultural and urban uses.

In 1954, Congress authorized flood-control works in the southern part of the St. Johns River. To store water and move floodwaters, large reservoirs and canals were designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Soon after England acquired Florida in 1763, King George III sent botanist John Bartram to explore Florida. His son, William Bartram, stayed in Florida and published his book Travels in 1791 . It describes his exploration of the river as far south as Lake Harney.

The Corps' project was halted in the 1974 when the project was deemed unacceptable for environmental reasons.  In 1980, a redesigned project by the St. Johns River Water Management District favored restoring wetlands to hold and release floodwaters and managing water levels to simulate natural marsh conditions. Since the project began, the District has restored more than 150,000 acres of original marsh, an area about the size of Delaware.

Before European involvement in North America, the TIMUCUAN INDIANS called the St. Johns River, Welaka (River of Lakes).   

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