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The Gulf: The Making of An American Sea by Jack E. Davis

My Personal Summary

This book is about the history of the Gulf of Mexico.

Book Notes

  • Oceans cover seventy-one percent of the globe, yet historians chose to write about major events, figures, and wars, and great cities and nation-states. As is still true today, seas were typically looked upon as merely corridors for exchange and exploration, and, most often, as passive backdrop.
  • Unlike the Atlantic, which has some forty-three countries sharing its shores, or the Pacific, nearly a hemisphere in itself, the Gulf is not an international sea of the same extent. Only three countries flank its shores, with the US occupying half its coastline miles.
  • The Gulf Stream is a warm and massively powerful current that travels up the Florida east coast to North Carolina before swinging out across the Atlantic toward Europe. Essentially a river within the sea, the Stream pushes nearly four billion cubic feet of water per second, more than all the world’s rivers combined, up to 5.6 miles per hour.
    The Gulf of Mexico is one of the largest estuarine regions in the world, with more than two hundred estuaries (more than one-quarter of all North American estuaries) occupying nearly eight million acres around its shores.
  • In the late 1800’s, archeologists discovered mounds that contained tools of the Calusa tribe from the 1500’s, a tribe that lived on the gulf shores of Florida. The tribe didn’t need to rely on agriculture because they had an abundance of seafood available to them that could be caught using nets and spears. This explains why they wet so physically imposing – they ate well.
  • In 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon discovered modern day Florida, naming it La Florida in recognition of the Easter season, known in Spain as Pascua Florida, “feast of flowers.” Present-day Floridians prefer to think of the Spaniard as coming upon a land that spoke to him with the colors, fragrance, and, indeed, flowers of subtropical exuberance.
  • A Calusa tribesman killed Juan Ponce de Leon in 1521 when he returned to Florida by shooting him in the leg with a dart that contained poison from the Apple of a Manchineel tree, a common tree that grew in the region.
  • Estuaries are the bustling urban centers of oceans—cities that never sleep—and Tampa Bay is the Big Apple of the Gulf’s east coast. Fish are like the hordes at a market or souk.
  • People who had failed to exploit their surrounding abundance for commercial purposes were artless and lazy, in the judgment of the Spaniards, who therefore felt justified in taking the God-given gifts of nature and enslaving heathens to aid their quest. It seemed the Indios lived simply—half-naked and impoverished—as idle subordinates to nature, and in failing to dominate it, they had become as wild as it. They were savages born of a savage land. For a time, they could be useful to the Spanish as guides, slaves, and providers of food. Otherwise, like thorny underbrush, the Spanish wanted them cleared out of the way.
  • The Apalachee, Tocobaga, and Calusa in Florida, Karankawa in Texas, Mobilian in Alabama, Biloxi in Mississippi, Houma in Louisiana, and all other Gulf aborigines stood up to Spanish swords and missionaries for more than two hundred years. But they could not resist the diseases, and their once-powerful chiefdoms collapsed.
  • The French officially designated the settlement New Orleans, after Philippe II, Duke of Orléans. Bienville moved the capital there in 1723, convinced it would withstand both invading forces and hurricanes.
  • Squeezed by British Carolinians pushing west and Gulf coasters pushing north, defaulting their land to British creditors, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee, and others moved down into the Florida peninsula in search of food and skins. The British lumped them into an undifferentiated collective they called Seminole.
  • Americans were still learning the geography of the Gulf three and a half centuries after Europeans got their first inkling of its existence. The Spanish found the Gulf, the French made its connection to the Mississippi, and the British began charting it. Finally, after Americans assumed control in the nineteenth century, after Joseph Smith Harris descended the Sachem’s mast and the smoke of war cleared, coast surveyors captured the Gulf in geographic detail—where it lapped against sand beaches, slipped into reedy marshes, and snuck behind islands up in coves, bayous, and bays. America’s sea.
  • Jefferson paid Napoleon $ 5 million for 800,000 square miles of land reaching to the Rocky Mountains. He paid him double that for New Orleans and the riverine security of America. Although Jefferson never set foot on Gulf shores, a map was enough to show how the sea was a missing letter in the name “American.” It would significantly enlarge the water communication of national commerce and shift the boundary of the country from vulnerable land to protective sea.
  • In 1819, the US acquired Florida, and 770 more miles of Gulf front, for the nominal price of unpaid debts.
  • The U.S. government set up a Coastal Survey unit to map the gulf coast. This was a tough job because the terrain was so uneven and random and also because during the summer months mosquitos ran rampant, carrying malaria and yellow fever. In addition, ocean storms were common and high winds made it impossible for surveyors to work on some days.
  • In the 1860’s, fisherman in the gulf started using ice cut from frozen lakes in the north to ship their fish in ice packs to locations far away that previously wouldn’t have survived the journey without going stale.
  • It was the serendipitous cascade of innovations—gasoline and diesel engines, the otter trawl, refrigeration, frozen food—that changed shrimping and fishing and opened the Gulf to unlimited commercial access.
    Charles Hallock – a patrician, not a sailor—was as responsible as anyone for getting anglers to the Gulf. A rod-and-gun adventurer from the urban canyons of New York City and author of seventeen books and hundreds of magazine articles, he had few equals in promoting outdoor sports. In August 1873, he launched Forest and Stream, with the mission “to inculcate in men and women a love for natural objects.” Innovations in the printing industry had made producing serials more cost-effective, and railroads opened up a wider market for the distribution of magazines—not to mention anglers. An expanding class of leisure takers wanted recommendations on where to go for hook-and-bullet escapades, and when unable to go themselves, they wanted stories to take them there.
  • Tarpon became a popular fish to catch in the gulf because of its beauty and size, which drew fishermen from across the U.S. to the gulf in the early 1900’s. The expansion of railroads and steamships made it easier for people to get to the gulf as well.
  • Someone calculated that for every tarpon taken—389 in 1894—local businesses made $500.
  • During April and May each year, many species of birds migrate from South America, Central America and the West Indies to the shores of Louisiana and Texas, flying for as long as 20 or 30 hours at a time, stopping in the Yucatán Peninsula to rest and refuel by eating tropical insects.
  • A handful of fine mating plumage from snowy egrets earned a commercial hunter the same as an ounce of gold. So it’s little wonder that killing birds for hats amounted to one of the bloodiest crimes committed against wildlife in modern times, equal to the destruction of North American bison and beaver. In those better-known episodic carnages, pelts and hides at least provided warmth to those who demanded them. Even that fabled symbol of forced extinction, the passenger pigeon, blasted out of existence in an eyeblink, ended up in food markets and restaurants. Feathers for hats amounted to nothing more than vanity. Gulf wading birds were a primary target. Had they not come under the protective wing of Audubon groups, women’s clubs, a US president, and the king of Tabasco sauce, representing the birth of conservation on the Gulf, they might have been wiped off the map.
  • Cotton mills and riverboats used alligator oil to lubricate machinery, and the Confederates turned the hide into saddles and boots, and the meat into rations. In McIlhenny’s time, alligators passed into a second life as purses, satchels, and shoes. Teeth, eggs, feet, and baby alligators, live and stuffed, were widely popular novelties of nature.
  • At the height of the slaughter, more bison survived on the Great Plains—eight hundred, tops—than snowys on the Gulf. It seemed the egret was on the verge of becoming a memory and museum piece.
  • As president, Teddy Roosevelt established 51 bird preservations, 11 of them in the Gulf of Mexico.
    On some parts of the Gulf, sand is newly arrived, like that in Louisiana, which comes from the Mississippi River as sediment drawn from the thirty-one states in its watershed. Dirt that some kid kicks up in North Dakota can end up on Louisiana beaches, which, incidentally, bear the unmistakable look of the Big Muddy. The sand is typically dark like soil, and the beach flat, “smooth and hard as asphalt,” said the nineteenth-century Daily Picayune correspondent Martha Field. This is the reason Louisiana never achieved world fame for its beaches. When people began taking an interest in tanning under the sun and walking barefoot in the surf, beaches with softer, foot-massaging, whiter sand appealed most.
  • Each drop of rain on the solid aggregate of minerals is a hammer blow, minuscule but mighty over time, chinking rock into granules; and each drop is a transport, parlaying granules down over land to ocean, or to rivers and streams to the sea. Every river that runs or ran to the Gulf was once clouded with mineral sediment, and some, like the Mississippi and the Rio Grande, remain so. Mountains are more than exoskeletal spines on the Earth; their wash is the soil-sand skin that covers it. Their sediment flow is the lake bottom, ocean floor, and seashore. So when you walk on a beach, you walk on mountains. You walk on sea life too. Often mixed in with mineral sand are the pounded-to-dust remains of coral, fossilized marine life, and mollusk shells—the “she sells seashells by the seashore” kind. The beaches of southwest Florida are a mishmash of mineral sand and granulated marine residue, known as carbonate sand. The Florida shelf is up to three-quarters carbonate. Drifts of shell lie on the beach, future sand on top of existing sand.
  • Yellow fever visited summer after summer, none causing as much grief as that of 1853. In the worst yellow-fever epidemic in US history, ten thousand fell ill in New Orleans.
  • No one understood that it was not an invisible, nonexistent pall, but a brazen mosquito, Aedes aegypti, that spread yellow fever, a viral disease, from infected human host to unsuspecting new host. The mosquito and yellow fever both arrived in the Americas from Africa, transported as unintended cargo on Spanish ships delivering slaves, who hosted the virus in their blood.
  • The Gulf’s were busy exchanges, where ships arriving from Central and South America, Cuba, and the Caribbean off-loaded tropical products: mahogany, rubber, rum, coffee, pineapples, bananas—and tropical diseases. New Orleans was a world leader in the importation of illnesses. A single infected sailor in from the tropics on liberty, bound for bars and bordellos, could prostrate the entire city.
  • The same rainwater that swelled crops bred mosquitoes that, tragically, rose like an invading force from the thousands of vases of flowers that family and friends placed at the graves of yellow-fever victims.
  • The lakeside initially remained the more popular and safer vacation spot, but by the 1880s, increasing numbers were leaving the stale confines of Boston, Philadelphia, Newark, and New York on commuter rails for July-through-August weekend day trips to Revere Beach, Rockaway Beach, Coney Island, and the Jersey Shore.
  • Despite the repeated assault of hurricanes, such as the 1919 storm that wreaked this devastation on Corpus Christi, Texas, Americans continued to expand their presence in harm’s way.
  • One of Keim and Muller’s most revealing charts gives 639 as the number of hurricanes stirring up the Atlantic between 1886 and 2005—slightly more than five on a yearly average. One-third of them either tracked into the Gulf or originated there—nearly two a year. Two may not sound like a lot, yet imagine Californians contending with the same number of major earthquakes every year in the span of a few months. Gulf states are struck by hurricanes fifteen percent more often than all other US states combined, and coastal dwellers in the eastern and northern Gulf, from Key West to Galveston, have to batten down their homes and flee danger more often than any other Americans.
  • Worries about flooding, destruction, and death run highest from June 1 to November 30, hurricane season. The worst storms have historically occurred in August and September.
  • The ecological truth is that mangroves are giving trees. Their outlandish roots calm tidal water, take delivery of washing-in sediment, and build a shoreline. Their forests are the provider and protector of life in the estuary. Florida mangroves give residency to 18 mammal, 24 reptile, 181 bird, and 220 fish species,
  • Wherever they wanted more waterfront, they called in a bulldozer and chainsaws to indiscriminately clear mangroves, and a dredge to build the land. During the prosperous decades after World War II, the machine noise of ripping out native growth grew louder as the pace of expansion turned more aggressive.
  • The Florida Reef on the eastern side of the Keys was taking a severe beating from sewage and fertilizer runoff. From the 1980s to 2000, ninety-three percent of elkhorn corals and ninety-eight percent of staghorn corals died. The continental US was killing its only barrier reef, the third largest in the world.
  • “There should be little doubt,” said Rabalais, “about the strong relationships among human activities, nutrient loads and eutrophication, and the demise of a coastal ecosystem.”

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