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Sunday Favorites: The Wilderness Family

The community of Rye was located in the vicinity of present-day Rye Bridge. Named after Erasmus Rye, a Virginian who came to the Manatee River area to fight in the Billy Bowlegs War (aka the Third Seminole War), the community was established from an old fort.
Rye and his wife raised ten children in the Rye Wilderness area which was, at that time, a lush and expansive habitat for bears, panthers and many other wild Florida creatures.

Today, the community of Rye is a mixture of suburban neighborhoods and ranch-style estates, but the original community was actually established from a fort. This fort served as protected housing for a handful of residents that served in a mounted militia and patrolled the area in addition to helping capture Native Americans during the Third Seminole War, according to the book The Singing River by Joe Warner.

When Manatee County was formed from Hillsborough in 1855, the fort became voting precinct #2 which was named ”Rough and Ready“ after General Zackery Taylor (his nickname being ”Old Rough and Ready“). At the time of its creation, the precinct had nine registered voters, Warner states.

Erasmus Rye (1834-1889), was a soldier in the war. He came to the area from Hanover County, Virginia and decided to stay after having dirty dishwater thrown in is face by the girl of this dreams.

Her name was Mary Lucebia Williams. She was the daughter of James Greene Williams, another former soldier who decided to homestead in the area after the threat of Seminole attack had diminished. James, his wife Mary Isibell, and seven children, began some of the first orange groves in the area and started a herd of cattle, superior to the wild piney wood cattle that roamed freely in the wilderness at that time. (Those cattle had been brought over by Spanish conquistadors and bred in the wild for more than 300 years before the first settlers arrived).

Mary Lucebia was one of the older siblings who had been born in the state of Georgia. When she was 12-years-old, she was sent back to Georgia to live with her grandparents and attend school since there were no educational opportunities in the Rye area at that time. When she was 15, she attended class in the Village of Manatee, present-day East Bradenton, and stayed with friends during the school term as the trek to Rye was too far to travel on a daily basis.

When she was 17 she was finishing up the dishes at her family home in Rye when she opened the door to throw out the dishwater. To her surprise there was a man standing at the door that she doused with dirty water. The man of course was her future husband Erasmus. Mortified by the whole ordeal, she apologized profusely while Erasmus daydreamed of making her his bride.

The couple was married Nov. 24, 1861 and immediately moved into his cabin on Gilley Creek. Homesteading the wild wilderness was not as easy as anticipated. Plans to grow a garden were thwarted by wild deer that jumped the fence and ate the saplings before they could produce. A flowing artesian well near the cabin supplied the couple with water however, it had to be carried buckets back and forth in buckets on a daily basis. Despite their difficulty growing vegetables, meat was a non-issue as the woods were filled with game from deer to rabbits to turkey.

One day Erasmus came across an orphaned bear cub and brought him home to Mary to raise. While it was a cute pet at first, it grew into a nuisance. On one occasion Mary was hosting a quilting bee, a common social activity at the time where women would sit around a wooden frame suspended from the ceiling which held the quilt taught so they could sew on it and discuss current events. The back door was open to allow for a breeze. You can imagine the commotion when the bear cub walked in the back door after rolling around in the mud and jumped on the middle of the quilt causing the frame and the bear to fall from the ceiling and land in the floor in a muddy heap as the ladies scrambled out the door screaming!

Mary and Erasmus weren’t married five months before he enlisted in the Confederate Army and left to fight in the War Between the States. Mary’s father also enlisted, leaving with Erasmus. At four months pregnant, Mary was convinced she could live in their wilderness cabin alone and refused to leave the homestead. She relied heavily on her mother and siblings who lived nearby and the family worked together to produce enough food without their patriarchs. After an incident involving a persistent beggar, Mary abandoned her home and went to live with her mother, according to Warner.

Mary’s father James was injured in the chest and sent home June 27, 1862. He was given an honorable discharge and allowed to remain home for the remainder of the war. Her husband on the other hand was captured and held as a prisoner of war for three years. He was finally released April 26, 1865 and forced walk all the way home as he had no money for transportation. When he arrived he saw his 3-year-old daughter, Molly, for the first time.

At this time, James’ health was failing and he divided up his ranch among some of his children and moved. He and his wife left a small grave behind situated on the edge of their property under some large oak trees. It was the grave of their daughter Martha who had been plagued with ill health most of her life. She asked to be buried under the oak trees on her final days. Martha’s grave was first in present-day Rye Cemetery.

Erasmus and Mary settled on the Williams land, approximately 120 acres. They had nine other children after Molly. Erasmus died of a stroke on June 31, 1889 and was the second person buried in Rye Cemetery. He passed before seeing Rye grow into a bustling community named in his honor. His children became an integral part, becoming community leaders and educators. Mary died in September of 1930.

While Erasmus and Mary were really the pioneers of Rye the community today has experienced unprecedented growth, so much so that it barely resembles the plot of wilderness it was when they began their journey together. However green spaces like Rye Wilderness Preserve and other parks around the area can provide a glimpse of the original landscape. With some imagination, you might even picture yourself as a wilderness family as your wandering the trails there.