The Story of Jonathan Dickinson

The year was 1696. Jonathan Dickinson was a Quaker merchant from Jamaica. By August, he had made the decision to settle his family in Philadelphia, a promising city in the New World. Having recently survived a horrific earthquake that destroyed much of Jamaica’s chief port city, Dickinson would soon find himself on an adventure that would prove even more harrowing.

The day was August 23rd. Twenty-five people boarded the Reformation, a tri-masted barkentine. Its destination was Philadelphia via the straits of Cuba and Florida. The ship’s manifest included a captain (Kirle), eight mariners, a Quaker missionary (Robert Barrow), and the fifteen members of Dickinson’s party: Dickinson, his wife, his infant son, a kinsman named Benjamin Allen (exact relationship unknown), and eleven slaves.

The bark set sail that day with a convoy led by the Royal Navy frigate HMS Hampshire. The first few days were uneventful and pleasant. However, trouble began before the week was over. Having unintentionally separated from the convoy and its protective frigate, the Reformation soon drifted alone. Then, days later, more trouble ensued. The captain broke his leg the same day a young slave girl died from an unknown illness.

But that was just the beginning of the difficulties that the ship’s crew and her passengers would face. During the night of September 24th  (exactly 316 years ago) a great storm, believed to be a hurricane, sent the ship into a reef off the coast of (modern-day) Jupiter, Florida.

Fortunately, all survived the shipwreck, making it ashore without incident; however, several were sick, including the Dickinson’s baby.  To make matters worse, the party was soon discovered by the Jobe Indians, who were terribly threatening in both appearance and action. The travelers had heard tales of cannibals along the Florida shore, and they were certain that the Indians would be their undoing.

Rev. Barrow called for his fellow castaways to place their faith in God. Most of the party did so, at least to the extent that they responded peacefully to the natives’ threats. The Indians, meanwhile, surmised that the shipwrecked party were English, calling them “Nickaleer”.  Some of those among the shipwrecked began speaking Spanish to the Jobe’s leader, the Cacique (spelled “Cassekey”). It is believed that this made the Jobe more reluctant to harm the stranded travelers as the Spanish were a powerful presence throughout Florida.

Over the course of the next two months, the survivors of the Reformation would be forced to endure a great deal of hardship. They were stripped naked, starved, and forced to walk most of the two hundred miles of open beach that lay between Jupiter and St. Augustine. In addition, they were threatened, harassed, and routinely mistreated by various tribes, including the Jobe, the Ais, and the Timacuan.

On November 15, nineteen (of the original twenty five) passengers arrived safely in St. Augustine where they were welcomed into the Governor’s House. By this time six had died altogether; a few passed just days before making it to the Spanish city.

Fourteen days later, the survivors left the Florida coast in route to Charles Town (Charleston), South Carolina. On April 1, 1697, Jonathan Dickinson, along with his family and Rev. Barrow, arrived in Philadelphia. Sadly, Barrow died only three days later.

Jonathan Dickinson, however, would go on to become the first mayor of the city of Philadelphia, serving two terms as the city’s leader. But that would not be the Quaker’s legacy. Rather, his journal, which first appeared in 1699 among the Quakers, would become the faithful servant’s gift to future generations. Reprinted at least sixteen times in both England and America with several Dutch and German translations, the journal would experience significant popularity throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

It is not known exactly when Dickinson penned his account of those horrific events; what is known, however, is that by time of his death in 1722, many lives had been touched and many hearts had been stirred by the real life tale of man’s faith and God’s deliverance.     

To learn more about Jonathan Dickinson and his experiences, click here

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