TAMPA — At the start of September 1848, the Jackson family was living comfortably in Tampa, then a village with a population of around 200.
That changed when the hurricane known as “The Great Gale of ‘48″ made landfall in Tampa Bay on Sept. 25 of that year.
“I had the pleasantest situation on the Hillsborough River, a good house and well furnished,” patriarch Robert Jackson wrote to his sister, Mary F. Richmond of New Jersey, in a letter dated Oct. 9, 1848. “But it pleased the Almighty not to allow me to enjoy it.”
Robert Jackson’s letter, recently discovered by his great-great-grandson David Barclay in a box of family memorabilia, provides new insight into that hurricane, one of two to make landfall in Tampa Bay, with the other being in 1921.
“My ancestor’s letter is a reminder from the past about the power of these storms,” Barclay said.
Barclay, who lives in Largo, is donating it to the Tampa Bay History Center.
“Having any accounts from that long ago is really important,” said the Tampa Bay History Center’s Rodney Kite-Powell. “Things like old letters and journals give us that firsthand account and we don’t have a lot of them from back then.”
Another firsthand tale of that storm comes from Robert Jackson’s wife, Nancy, who published an oral history in the early 1900s.
“Now that we have both sides,” Kite-Powell said, “we have a more detailed narrative.”
Nancy Jackson moved to Tampa with her family, the Collers, in the 1820s, Barclay said. They purchased land in the area now known as Hyde Park and raised and sold vegetables to the nearby U.S. Army’s Fort Brooke outpost, which was then located outside of Tampa’s boundaries, where Water Street is today.
Robert and Nancy Jackson married in 1836 at Fort Brooke, where they lived, according to news archives.
A year later, Robert Jackson, a doctor, was wounded during the Second Seminole War’s Battle of Okeechobee.
In 1838, he asked to be relieved of military duty and the Collers split their family land among their daughters and their husbands.
“Robert and Nancy Jackson erected their first home on the bayfront near the mouth of Spanish Town Creek,” which was a Tampa fishing community, the Tampa Tribune wrote in 1947. “They planted a large tract of land and Dr. Jackson was elected judge of the probate court — they prospered and were happy.”
Tampa was on the rise, too.
“In 1848 … Tampa faced a bright future,” historian Cantor Brown wrote in a Sunland Tribune article in 1998. “A number of additional families, some of relatively substantial means, established residence. New stores appeared to cater to the military and to frontier settlers.”
Then came the hurricane, believed to have made landfall in modern-day Clearwater with sustained winds of up to 130 mph, making it a Category 3 or 4 by today’s standards.
“The hurricane of 1848 swept down upon Tampa Bay with a fury that lay beyond the ability of human beings to resist,” Brown wrote. “Within a matter of a few hours, a promising frontier community had found itself prostrate before the force of nature.”
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In Tampa, nearly every building along the water was destroyed.
Fort Brooke was completely under water and only four or five buildings there were left standing.
Over on Egmont Key, the lighthouse keeper placed his family in a boat that he then secured to palmettos. They survived.
“Tampa was no more,” Juliet Axtell, wife of the Fort Brooke chaplain, wrote of the storm in a letter.
Nancy Jackson’s oral history says that her husband had been sick, so he evacuated with four of the children to higher ground. She remained at home with the youngest even as the storm raged because she “had not yet noticed how imminent was her danger.”
As the flooding worsened and Nancy Jackson witnessed a “tidal wave of alarming proportions,” she made it safely out of their home just before it “was struck by the heavy timbers ... and knocked off its foundation and sent whirling into the raging waves like a spinning top and in an incredibly short time was out of sight down by the bay,” reads her narrative.
It’s considered one of the storm’s more harrowing experiences.
Robert Jackson’s letter now fills in what happened to the family next:
“The Gale of the 25th September destroyed everything that I had, not leaving me a bed or blanket to lay upon nor a chair to sit upon. We saved no clothing except that which we had on our backs. I had a fine field of potatoes and rice but the salt water destroyed the whole. My wife and younger child (having five) have been very sick, occasioned by exposure ... We are staying in a shed room which is very disagreeable as there is 12 others with us who are all Spaniards.”
Barclay said that he suspects “that the Spaniards were probably Cuban fishermen in Spanish Town Creek.”
The Jacksons later built a new home on Platt Street next to where the Publix is located today, Barclay said, possibly with help from family.
“If you wish to assist me, you have never done a more charitable action in your life,” Robert Jackson wrote to his sister. “And I am sure that you will have the prayers of my wife and family ... I am in a great deal of distress. Other persons here have lost so much that they cannot help one another but little. My wife and children send their love to you and hope you will not forget them.”