The unexpected is often more enjoyable than the planned course. Several months ago while working on a project unrelated to family history, I stumbled across the following article published in Raleigh, North Carolina’s News and Observer in June 1886. The location of Green Turtle Cay caught my attention.
A Scientific Expedition
INVESTIGATIONS BY JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY SCIENTISTS IN THE BAHAMAS
A few weeks ago Dr. W. K. Brooks, of the John Hopkins University, and a number of scientists sailed from Baltimore for the Bahama islands for the purpose of making scientific investigations in the flora and fauna of the tropics. The following letter has been received at the university from one of the party, descriptive of the headquarters:
GREEN TURTLE CAY, BAHAMA ISLANDS, June 7 – The unusual advantages which this island offers to biology study are at once apparent. The novel scenes of the richness of the fauna and flora on sea and land, the foreign and primitive ways of the people, afford the most striking contrast to all we have been accustomed to at home. In coming from the North to a country like this, where not only the people in their life and habits belong to another world, but every plant and animal one meets is new or unfamiliar, it is difficult to comprehend the whole from the vast sum of details. Notwithstanding the length of the cruise, few of the party suffered from seasickness, and the monotony was relieved by numerous events of interest, such as shark-fishing, the capture of Portuguese man-of-war, trolling for bluefish and collecting in the Gulf stream. We obtained some interesting fish and crustacean from the floating sargassum or “Gulf weed.”
After leaving Portsmouth, N.C. Tuesday, the 25th, we lost sight of land until the following Sunday morning, when the long-sought coral islands, which were beginning to assume a decidedly mythical character, at last took shape and became actual objects on the horizon. They appeared at first as a dark green line, which a nearer view resolved into great numbers of rocks and small reefs or cays proper, the largest of which are covered with a dense tropical growth and bordered by overhanging cliffs of gray coral rock, against which the white suf is continually dashed, or by long sandy beaches or pulverized coral, bleached to a chalky whiteness in the sun. The mainland of Abaco may be seen from outside as a faint blue band, either at the inlets between the cays or over the lower rocks. Inside the reed the island is approached to within two or three miles; so that its forests of yellow pine, the huts scattered along the shore, and pineapple fields which might be mistaken for clearings in the woods, are readily seen.
The white, calcareous sand which form beaches on most of the islands is distributed over the ocean bed both outside the cays and between them and the mainland, producing on the water a most remarkable and memorable effect. The color of these entire sounds and channels, extending as far as the eye can reach, varies with the altitude of the sun from the richest emerald through innumerable tints to a transparent greenish white. The people call this “white water,” and the depth is singularly deceptive, since the details of the bottom can be clearly discerned in eight to ten fathoms.
Green Turtle Cay is distinguished from many others like it only in having a better harbor and a small settlement. The town is marked by groups of tall cocoanut palms, which may be seen a long way off, and beneath them, thickly clustered together on the beach, are the black, picturesque huts of the negroes. These are thatched with palm, which is fastened down by poles laid on the roof. They have one or two common rooms, without glass windows or chimneys. The cooking is done out of doors in stone ovens or fireplaces. The houses of the white settlers are small wooden structures, of which the one we occupy is a fair sample. It has two stories of four small rooms each. We use the largest room up stairs as a laboratory. You can form an idea of the size of our house and the street opposite when I tell you we could easily jump from the plaza of the second story into our neighbor’s yard across the way. The small size of the streets, which are scarcely wide enough to allow a good-sized team to pass, strikes one as very odd. They are of the gray coral rock, and in the nest part of the settlement are swept scrupulously clean. There are no horses or cows on the island. There is no market, but there are a few small stores, at which sundry articles may be had at a high price. We had much trouble in finding a cook stove, there being only a very few in town. There is no drugstore or physician in the place, and in consequence Dr. Mills has had more patients than he wished. I am told there are about 600 people in the town, about equally divided, I should think, between blacks and whites. The people as a rule do only so much work as is necessary to supply them with food, which is not much. Nothing is cultivated, strictly speaking, on this clay, but imported fruits and vegetables are simply allowed to grow and take their chances with everything else. The thin soil is apparently rich enough for all.
On the mainland of Abaco, however, the pineapple is cultivated on a large scale. Cocoanuts, bananas, sapodillas, are grown on the Cay and are all now in season. The cocoanut, in fact, is in flower and fruit the year round. Oranges, lemons, limes, soursops, pawpaws, figs are also to be had here in small quantity later in the season, but none are shipped to market. The sapodilla is a fruit I have never seen in Baltimore. It resembled a round rusty apple or potato, and is filled with a brown juicy pulp, which is quite sweet and contains six or eight large black seeds. It is not marketable , as it has to ripen on the tree to be good, and does not last long. They are cheap. At Nassau I was told they could be bought for a shilling (12 cents) a hundred. No fruit I have yet seen equals the pineapple. The average price of a good pineapple is four cents.
This island is covered with a low tropical growth of shrubs and climbing plants, conspicuous among which are numerous cacti, palms, and most interesting of all, the American aloe, whose giant sword-shaped leaves and huge flower stalk form a prominent feature in the landscape.
The heat has been rather oppressive, but Dr. Brooks says he likes it. My thermometer has registered 84 degrees Fahr. right along until this morning, when it dropped to 76 degrees, owing to a very heavy thunder-storm we had in the night. Excepting this, we have had very little rain since landing.
The place is commended by every one as being very healthy; far more so than Nassau.
William Keith Brooks was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1848 and died near Baltimore, Maryland in 1908. As professor of Zoology at the Johns Hopkins University, Brooks formed the Chesapeake Zoological Laboratory in 1878. Over the next the next twenty years, he organized expeditions to Virginia, North Carolina, Jamaica and the Bahamas to study zoology, botany and geology.
Doctor Brooks expected all of his graduate students to spend a season or more at this laboratory. He rightly estimated this as the most valuable experience a student of zoology could have, for in this way the student became acquainted with animals under natural conditions.
On May 1, 1886, one such expedition left Baltimore in a small schooner with Brooks as the pilot. The following is taken from a report by Professor Brooks on The Zoological Work of the Johns Hopkins University, 1878-86, published in the Johns Hopkins University Circulars, Vol. 6, No. 54:
During the season 0f 1886 the zoological students of the University were stationed at three widely separated points of the seacoast. A party of seven under my direction visited the Bahama Islands, two were at Beaufort, and one occupied the University table at the station of the U. S. Fish Commission at Woods Hole. The party which visited the Bahamas consisted of seven persons, and our expedition occupied two months, about half of this being consumed by the journey. The season which is most suitable for our work ends in July, and we had hoped to reach the Islands in time for ten or twelve weeks of work there, but the difficulty which I experienced in my attempts to obtain a proper vessel delayed us in Baltimore, and as we met with many delays after we started, we were nearly three weeks in reaching our destination. We stopped at Beaufort to ship our laboratory outfit and furniture, but the vessel, a schooner of 49 tons, was so small that all the available space was needed for our accommodation, and we were forced to leave part of our outfit behind at Beaufort. We reached our destination, Green Turtle Key, on June 2nd, and remained there until July 1st. The fauna proved to be so rich and varied and so easily accessible that we were able to do good work, notwithstanding the shortness of our stay and the very primitive character of our laboratory. This was a small dwelling house which we rented. It was not very well adapted for our purposes, and we occupied as lodgings the rooms which we used as work rooms.
These snippets provide a teasing glimpse into island life prior the turn of the century. What lured Brooks and his team from Maryland to Green Turtle Cay? What other journals exist that document this expedition? Whose New England style cottage provided shelter and served as Brooks’ makeshift laboratory? Puzzle pieces to uncover.
During the 1886 summer of this expedition, my paternal great-grandparents resided at Green Turtle Cay: John Aquila Lowe (1859-1925), then 28 years, and Wesley Curry (1865-abt 1941), 21 years. Most likely they met and gave assistance to these scientists.