Before the Atlanta and Saint Andrew Bay Railroad came to Panama City in 1908 there was very little tourism. In the 1800’s, only well-to-do planters in north Florida and south Alabama could afford to send there wives and children to Saint Andrew Bay to seek refuge from the heat of summer. The cool bay breezes were considered very invigorating and the bay waters were thought to be healthful. The earliest community on Saint Andrew Bay in the 1800’s was called Old Town. John Clark, the Revolutionary War hero and the 31st Governor of Georgia was one of the earliest settlers of Old Town. The homes of Old Town sat on the bayside bluff of what is known as Beach Drive in Panama City today.
The trip to the bay from nearby counties was quite arduous as the early roads were very rough going in a horsedrawn wagon. The most notable person to make the difficult trip (on several occasions) to Saint Andrew Bay in the 19th century was the renown author and playwright, Caroline Lee Hentz. Perhaps, second only to Harriet Beecher Stowe in literary acclaim, Mrs. Hentz was among the most highly esteemed authors in the United States, having sold over 93,000 copies of her more than fifteen novels. She was a contemporary of Mrs. Stowe and a personal acquaintance.
Born Caroline Lee Whiting in Lancaster, Massachusetts, in the year 1800. She was the daughter of Colonel John Whiting, a veteran of the Revolutionary War. As a teenager, Caroline wrote short stories and plays. Shortly after her 25th birthday, she married Nicholas Marcellus Hentz. Nicholas Hentz’s family were exiled from France due to his father’s political alliance in the French Revolution. They settled in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Nicholas found employment as a French language instructor in Massachusetts. In 1824, he met and married Caroline Whiting.
In 1826, Hentz became the Chair of Modern Languages at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While in North Carolina, Mrs. Hentz aided in training George Moses Horton, a slave, how to read and write. George Moses Horton was the first slave to have a book published in the south. His book of poetry was published in 1829 and titled, ‘The Hope of Liberty’. Horton did not gain his freedom until 1865.
Mr. and Mrs. Hentz moved to Covington, Kentucky, where Nicholas founded a girls’ school in 1830. While in Covington, Caroline began her novel and playwriting career in earnest. Her fourth effort, ‘De Lara; or, The Moorish Bride’ was a hugely successful play and launched her into the public eye. In 1832, the couple opened a girls’ school in Cincinnati.
The Hentz’s moved from Cincinnati to avoid scandal after Nicholas challenged an amorous fan of Caroline’s to a duel. The Hentz family moved several more times, living in Alabama and Georgia. While in Alabama, Caroline penned several successful novels. Two of her adult children had moved to Marianna, Florida, and in 1852, and convinced Caroline and Nicholas to join them there.
While in Marianna, Caroline began to take sabbaticals on the shore of Saint Andrew Bay. It was during her restful days on the Bayshore that she penned much of her most famous novel, ‘The Planter’s Northern Bride’. Caroline wrote The Planter’s Northern Bride as a rebuttal to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’.
Caroline had made the acquaintance of Harriet Beecher Stowe when she lived in Cincinnati, where they were both members of the Semi-Colon Club. Mrs. Hentz felt that she was better qualified to comment on the institution of slavery because she had lived most of her adult life in the south. The Planter’s Northern Bride painted a far more benign relationship between master and slave than did Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century. Harriet Beecher Stowe was among the most highly esteemed authors of her lifetime. Caroline Lee Hentz was one of her few peers.
The Boston Library named Caroline as one of the top 3 writers of the day. She and the heroines of her stories served as examples to women of that era. She was among the first American women to support her family solely on the proceeds of her publications.
She died in Marianna, Florida, in 1856, at the age of 55. She and her husband are buried in the Saint Lukes Episcopal Cemetery in Marianna. Lake Caroline, in Panama City, is named in her honor.
I feel that, while living at her bayside retreat, Caroline must have enjoyed a pleasant sail to Land’s End to contemplate her novel by the sugary sand and crystal blue gulf waters.