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Who was the first settler of present day Collier County?

By Craig Woodward

Collier County’s First Permanent Settler – John J. Weeks

Obviously, there were numerous Calusa, Seminole and other Indians who have lived here for centuries, so we need to narrow the question: who was the first permanent white settler of present times, “permanent” meaning someone whose family members still reside in Collier County. The answer is clearly John J. Weeks, who moved to what would later become Collier County in 1862.

Site of the first settler of Collier County John J. Weeks' home, which, at the time, consisted of a simple palmetto shack. The property is the historic homestead of the Brown family and, since then, has been known as the Bruner Place, Sunset Lodge, and is currently the headquarters of Outward Bound. Photo by Craig Woodward

What brought him here? How did he make a living? Where did he live? If you read the last article published in this column regarding the incident at Lostman’s Key, you saw a direct quote from John Weeks about having his crops stolen by an unscrupulous Captain Jocelyn; in relaying that story in 1869, he also mentioned he had already lived in what would become the future Collier County for seven years, meaning he moved here in the middle of the Civil War. Not an easy thing to do as Florida, the third State to secede from the Union, was throughout the war heavily blockaded by the Union navy, a strategy to stop the flow of goods, arms and ammunition coming into the south from the Caribbean.

John Weeks, who had previously fought in the second and third Seminole Indian Wars as well as enlisted in the Mexican War, by the time of the Civil War, said he would “fight any man but not a neighbor.” He was a Union sympathizer living in Confederate Florida, who relocated from north Florida to Key West to avoid the Southern draft. Weeks got employment in the vegetable farms located on the mainland at Cape Sable just north of Key West, a strong Union defensive point. These farms were established to provide sufficient food for a city full of Union military and navy personnel. Two years before the Civil War concluded in 1865, Weeks, then age 41, moved his family and farming operations up the coast. It is not clear why, we can only assume he was looking for more fertile land, and perhaps Cape Sable was getting too congested – for the rest of his life Weeks would choose to live in remote areas.

Sallie Weeks Daniels, the first woman born in Collier County, is seated with her husband Jim Daniels standing to her right holding a fiddle, with their family and friends. Photo from ancestry.com

In 1862, the future Collier County was virtually empty, with only a few Seminole Indians residing in the interior areas, leaving Weeks a choice of anywhere to locate. Did he choose to live on the beach in Naples? No. Did he choose the Caxambas or estates area of Marco? No. He chose a rather obscure place: the entrance to what was known as “Haiti Potato Creek,” a name usually shortened to just “Potato Creek.” It was named for the Cassava plant (also called Yuca) the remnants which were found growing there. Cassava is a starchy plant cultivated throughout the Caribbean and known as the “bread of the tropics.” The presence of the remains of this crop is evidence that this area had been inhabited for years. Potato Creek’s name was later changed to be the Allen River and is currently known as the Barron River in Everglades City. When Weeks chose the spot where the river enters Chokoloskee Bay, it was occupied by two plume hunters, Bill Clay and his partner Powell who were described as “improvement jockeys” as they moved around a lot and each time sold off their squatter’s rights.

John J. Weeks was born in Beaufort S.C. about 1821. When John moved to what is now Everglades City, he was married to his second wife Sarah Mercer (who was part Indian). Sarah brought into their marriage two daughters by her previous marriage, Mary Elizabeth (Lizzie) Raulerson and Martha Jane Raulerson.John and Sarah had two more daughters: Mary Apolonia Weeks (born 1862 in Cape Sable), and Sarah Jane “Sallie” Weeks, who was born in 1865 at the Weeks’ home adjacent to Chokoloskee Bay. In a tragic situation that would change the history of the Weeks family, John’s wife, Sarah Mercer Weeks, died in 1865 during the birth of her daughter Sallie, leaving John to raise the young girls. John buried his wife on the property near their home which was described as being a simple palmetto shack.

Like other pioneer homesteads which would follow, the property chosen by John J. Weeks met the requirements of having high, dry land (usually an old shell mound), having accessibility by boat (as water travel was the only means available), and having rich soil for farming. Ample fresh water was key and available by traveling up the river beyond the point where it was brackish. This small, isolated family lived a difficult life raising vegetables and fruits (bananas, sugar cane, pumpkins and cow peas) and by burning buttonwood (a relative of the mangrove family) to make charcoal to sell in the Key West market. According to their family history, John Weeks was against the killing of mother birds for their plumes and, thus, did not participate in one of the few lucrative jobs available at the time. Captains Nicholas or his brother Adolphus Santini, then living in Cayo Costa, picked up Weeks’ produce and sailed it south to Key West to sell.

Life started changing for the Weeks family when the former Mayor of Key West and one of its most prominent citizens, William S. Allen, attempted to grow castor beans commercially in Sanibel Island, his plan being to press them to make castor oil (Allen and his brother owned a pharmacy in Key West). When that venture proved to be a failure, on a return trip to Key West in 1869, Allen sailed into Chokoloskee Bay looking for fresh water and met John Weeks and three of his daughters: Lizzie, who would have been around age 10, Apolonia age 7 and Sallie around age 5 (John’s second stepdaughter Martha’s whereabouts are not known but she may have gone back to the Raulerson family near Tampa). John Weeks relayed to Allen the story of the death of his wife in childbirth, how long he had lived in this location and told about his encounter with the evil Captain Jocelyn.

Allen immediately saw an opportunity to farm the opposite bank of Potato Creek and left the tools and supplies with Weeks that he had brought back from Sanibel. By 1873, Allen had a home on Potato Creek, which was renamed the Allen River; the Allen home later evolved into the current Everglades City Rod & Gun Club.  William S. Allen is credited with being the town’s founder. Allen’s connections in Key West brought more settlers to the Chokoloskee Bay area as well as laborers to work his farm.

In what today would be considered unusual, on March 18, 1878, in Key West, John Weeks, around age 57, married for the third time; his bride was his step-daughter, Lizzie Raulerson, who would have been around 20 at the time. The family had been baptized in 1876 as Catholics in Key West; John and Lizzie would have seven children who would survive them.

John and Lizzie would move around quite a lot during their marriage, back to Cape Sable where some of their children were born, to Chokoloskee Island (where John, as the first settler on the Island sold his squatters rights to the Santini brothers), to an island that would later be part of Isles of Capri, and to northern Rookery Bay where a cut thru the present day Keewaydin Island, was named “John’s Pass” after John J. Weeks (the Pass has since filled in).

But by 1900 the Weeks family were living and farming on Horr’s Island at the Blue Hill Plantation on the eastern end of the Island (named after “Blue Hill,” an old Indian mound) when John, age 79, died in June of that year. The 1900 census done by John F. Horr (who grew pineapples on the same island,) shows John and Lizzie had seven children living at home: three girls and four boys ranging in ages from 5 to 19 years old, the boys all listed as “farm laborers.” In 2000, one of John’s great, great grandsons looked for his grave on Horr’s Island, but was never able to find it.

The Rest of the Story…

After John’s death, Lizzie married twice more; first to Andrew Barnes from Grocery Place (see the prior article on this remote settlement at coastalbreezenews.com) and they had one daughter. Later, Lizzie married for the last time to Richard (Dick) Sawyer. They had no children, but Dick’s son, Preston Sawyer knew Lizzie Sawyer as his step-mother. Preston Sawyer’s life is extensively outlined in his book the “Caxambas Kid.” For many years Elizabeth (Lizzie) Raulerson Weeks Barnes Sawyer lived in Old Marco and was simply known as “Grandma Sawyer.” She died in 1939, and is buried in an unmarked grave at the Marco Cemetery. Also buried there is a husband, children and many of her relatives.

John’s daughter, Mary Apolonia, married twice, once to George Christian, a farm hand of William Allen’s, and then to Richard Hamilton with whom she raised six children in various places in the Ten Thousand Islands. John’s daughter Sallie, who was born at the death of her mother in 1865, married James (Jim) Daniels and had 7 children. At one time Jim Daniels was the crew boss for the clamming industry that was working out of Pavilion Key.

The original Weeks settlement, where the Barron River enters Chokoloskee Bay, was sold in 1883 by the Weeks family to the Browns and is the historical homestead of this family. C.M. Brown subdivided and platted the property, later selling it in 1918 to George Bruner. Near the property is the Brown cemetery, where presumably Sarah Mercer Weeks is also buried. For many years this property was operated as the “Sunset Lodge” and since 1986 has been owned by Outward Bound. This location is not only a well known feature of the entrance to the City of Everglades, but has the unique distinction of being the only property in Collier County which, in 2012, will celebrate 150 years of continuous occupation.

The children of John Weeks went on to marry and have many children of their own. It is impossible in this article to outline the family’s extensive genealogy, but almost all of the pioneer families of Collier County including: the Browns, Whiddens, Hamiltons, Daniels, Dickersons, Nashs, Kirklands, Lowes, Howards and many others can claim the Weeks as relatives.

Many of the Weeks’ extended family are mentioned in the historical book of the Chokoloskee Bay Country –“Killing Mr. Watson,” which is heavily based on facts with some fiction added.   Until recently there was very little else written about the impact of this first pioneer family on our local history. Fortunately, a great granddaughter of John and Lizzie Weeks, Faye Dickerson Brown has just written a book “Weeks Family Connections” about their unique history. I want to thank Faye for her assistance as I was completely lost in researching these “connections” for this article.   For those interested in learning more, I highly recommend her book.

To purchase “Weeks Family Connections” send $20 (includes shipping) to: Faye A. Brown   258 Deer Haven Drive, Blairsville, GA 30512 or from the publisher online at straubpublishing.com


8 comments

  1. Rhonda Brigman

    I’m a fellow writer up in the GA mountains of Faye Dickerson Brown. I attest she has spent many hours upon hours researching her families ties and connections back to the days mentioned herein. You will find her book interesting if you value this area or have your own ‘connections’ to this family too. Her book is a true find for your library! Congratulations Faye as your book has come into fruition.

  2. Julie Weeks Richarme

    As a Florida native, I knew my family had been in the state quite some time, but I had no idea of the role they played. It’s been fascinating to find and read articles like this one.

  3. Richard Hamilton and Mary Appoloina Weeks are my great grandparents,I’m so impressed by the articles!Thank you so much.Also I was born at Marco Island on a lighter at Smokehouse bay. Iris Parker Lillard.

  4. Great article. I am related to John Weeks, he was my great great Grandfather. Alfred Weeks (John Weeks Son) was my Great Grandfather and his Daughter Ruth Weeks Nash Stephens, was my Grandmother. Lee Joseph Nash JR was my Father, all gone now but the memory lives on thanks to People like MR Woodward, and Faye Brown who has done a wonderful job of bringing back to us a history that would have otherwise been lost. I also would like to add that Faye Brown is my cousin, and I am very proud of her. Thank you Faye.

  5. I had to tell you what a great coincidence it was to find your interesting article yesterday. I was doing a Google search
    for an ancestor, George Bruner, who was my great aunt’s husband. I knew that the Bruners lived near the Everglades at one
    time, but didn’t have any details. What a wonderful surprise to find your story! Thank you for writing it. My husband and I
    hope to visit the area some day to see the Weeks home site that was later called the “Bruner Place”.

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed this article – fascinating article, well-written.

  7. Very nice to read real history. Like Chris Kirkland, John Weeks is also my great, great grandfather. It would be nice to find his grave on Horr’s Island. Maybe they could use the equipment used at Shell Island last month.

  8. Chris Kirkland Durfey

    Thanks for the awesome article. I just read Faye’s book and loved it. Very charming style of writing! My great great grandfather is John Weeks. Nice to see the Weeks family acknowledged as the first permanent settlers of Collier County.

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