Dr. John Boynton Abercrombie

Pinellas Pioneer

(an unpublished biographical sketch by Marguerite Blocker Bartlett)

 

            The port of Tampa had seen many unusual ships and cargoes before 1883, but none more strange than the schooner that sailed across Tampa Bay on April 4 and came into port carrying: Dr. Abercrombie, his wife, Susan, their six daughters, ranging in age from fifteen years down to one year, a Negro couple to take care of the family, a cow, to furnish milk for the children and a coop of chickens, hopefully, to lay eggs for the voyage.

            The schooner had been built to order by the doctor at Natchez, had been sailed down the Mississippi River, stopping in New Orleans to lay on supplies, then was sailed across the Gulf, encountering a storm, which probably upset the cow and the chickens, and finally came safely into port.  The group stayed in Tampa a few days, then sailed back across the Bay to Pinellas, where they settled.

            The forty-three-year old doctor had been advised to leave Mississippi for a warmer climate because of an asthmatic condition.  At this late date, proclaimed as a very healthy spot.  In 1883, the 100 to 150 settlers were clustered around Big Bayou and Maximo, and the little town was called a fishing village.  But, we do know that his arrival was important to the community and that St. Petersburg profited by his choice.

            Dr. Abercrombie’s grandfather was a rector in the First Episcopal Church of Philadelphia for many years, we do not know when the family moved to Mississippi, but we do know that son John was born March 10, 1840 in Adams County Mississippi; and we know that his father was a surgeon in Bowie’s famous expedition that went to Texas in the Texan War of Independence.

            According to the National Archives records, Dr. Abercrombie, at the age of twenty-one, enlisted in the army as a private, May 15, 1861, in Captain James Somerville’s Fourth Regiment of Tennessee Volunteers, at Fort Pillow, Tennessee.  This fort was constructed on the north-east shore of the Mississippi River, about forty miles north of Memphis in the spring of 1862, under the direction of General Pillow.  But it was dismantled and abandoned in May and occupied by the Federals in June.  The Fourth Regiment had been organized for State Service, May 15, 1861.  It was transferred to service of the Confederate States in August, 1861, was reorganized April 25, 1862 and consolidated with five other regiments of Tennessee Infantry, but mustered separately.  They were paroled at Greensboro, North Carolina, May 1, 1865.  Dr. Abercrombie was wounded at Chickamauga in the right shoulder and in the left shoulder in the battle of Franklin, Tennessee.  He carried two bullets in his body for the remainder of his life.  His obituary states that after the surrender, he walked all the way to his home, carrying a bullet lodged in his lung, which physicians were never able to recover.  The obituary also says that “After the doctor’s graduation as a physician, he was assistant surgeon of the Shelby Grays and served with that well-known organization throughout the war.

            He married Susan M. Cary, July 10, 1867 in Shelby County, Tennessee.  Six children were born to them – all daughters- May, Elizabeth, Susan, Eleanor, Josephine and Celeste – and, all beautiful.  Old timers in St. Petersburg remember them as having lovely complexions and as being gracious and charming to everyone.

            We have been unable to learn where or when the doctor received his medical degree or training.  His pension record states that he resided in Desha County Arkansas, immediately after the war; but it gave no reason for this move.  After he settled in Mississippi, he is said to have owned one of the largest plantations in the state.  During the great yellow fever epidemic in 1878 and 1879 he spent the time in Memphis and rendered valuable service there.

            Soon after Dr. Abercrombie arrived in Pinellas, he purchased 120 acres of land north of Salt Lake (now Lake Maggiore), extending north to Lakeview Avenue.  His selection for his home was a beautiful piece of timber land.  He cleared and fenced enough to set out a grove of fruit trees and to have space around the comfortable house for his family.  It was a large, two-story house, with dormer windows and wide verandas.  Walter Fuller, in his “History of St. Petersburg” states that the acreage centered on Sixteenth Street South 9by today’s plat) in heavy timberland, and that the doctor “was attracted by the sylvan beauty of the area, built a fine house, enhanced the natural charm by wise and skilled landscaping.  He had a lively and attractive wife and daughters and the home promptly became a center and a point of culture which distinctly enhanced what had been a rugged, pioneering atmosphere.”

            Meantime, he practiced medicine, John A. Bethell, in his “History of Pinellas,” says of him, “He was known throughout the section as the family doctor, which term was very appropriately applied, as at that time he was the only physician settled here.  He has been a friend to the needy, always sympathizing with the afflicted.  He had prescribed for and furnished medicine often where patients were not able to pay for them.  No one ever asked a favor of him that was not granted if in his power to do so.  This grand old man has a host of friends and few if any enemies.”  Mr. Fuller also says, “He was the first professional doctor to practice in this area----The doctor soon had a wide practice, treating all the sick with no attention paid to their ability or non-ability to pay.  His family was beloved by the entire community.”

            In April of 1887, Dr. and Mrs. Abercrombie donated land for the settlement’s first church, St. Bartholomew’s Protestant Episcopal Church.  It was located on what is today Lakeview Avenue and Nineteenth Street.  A later donation was land adjoining the church to be used as a grave yard.  This church and cemetery are the oldest in Pinellas County.  Many years later, their daughter Josephine and her husband, David A. Watt, gave several acres of land to the City of St. Petersburg to be used as a park, with the restriction that it be kept in its natural state.  It is Abercrombie Park on Boca Ciega Bay.

            We do not know when Dr. Abercrombie moved his family from their country home into town, but it was sometime before May 31, 1901.  On that date, he advertised in the professional card section of the St. Petersburg Times ----“Dr. Abercrombie, Practicing Physician.  Residence corner 3rd Street and 5th Avenue.  Office at residence.  Phone 18.”  The Fifth Avenue he cites is today’s First Avenue North, because of a later re-platting of the city.  The number of the house was 101 Third Street North and Celeste continued to live there, after her widowed mother died in 1917, until about 1921.

            The doctor was a naturalist of wide experience and, therefore, fond of all kinds of plant life.  His home had so many shrubs and trees around it that the children called it a jungle.  One of the members of Dixie Chapter recalls that when she was a child, she and her brother went to see the doctor every Saturday morning with a jelly glass of flies they had caught, for which he paid them a nickel.  He fed the flies to his spiders he was using in scientific experiments.  After the feeding, they sat enthralled while he talked of his exciting experiences.

            Another member of Dixie Chapter, now deceased, had Dr. Abercrombie attend her at the birth of her children.  One of whom is a present member of the chapter.

            This beloved man died January 22, 1912 at the age of seventy-two.  His wife, Susan and five of his daughters are buried beside him in St. Bartholomew’s Cemetery.  The sixth daughter, Elisabeth Seabrook, is buried in England, where she died; but a monument in her memory was placed here in the family plot.  Two large crosses mark the graves of the doctor and his wife.  The inscription on hers reads, “Blessed are the Pure in Heart for they shall see God” and on his, “A Strength to the needy in his Distress.”[i]

 

 

 

 

 



[i] References:

John A. Bethell’s History of Pinellas

Walter Fuller’s History of St. Petersburg

Karl Grismer’s History of St. Petersburg

National Archives – War Records

Confederate Pension Record – Tallahassee

Reminiscences – Nell Talley Lang and Marguerite Blocker Bartlett