By Bob Davidsson
The Hillsboro River was a small stream with a long history as a natural boundary between native American tribes, and years later as the border between Palm Beach and Broward counties after the waterway was converted into a Lake Okeechobee flood control canal.
The legacy of its namesake, Wills Hill (1718-93), the Viscount and later Earl of Hillsborough from 1742 until his death, looms large on geographic maps of Florida. The Hillsboro River and Hillsboro Inlet, a few miles to its south in Broward County, are named in his honor. So are Hillsborough County and the Hillsborough River on the west coast.
During Florida's British Colonial Period (1763-83) the Indian River (Rio de Ais) also appeared on maps as the South Hillsborough River for more than 20 years. The list of place names is quite impressive for a British politician and Ulster Irish peer who never set foot in America.
So, who was Wills Hill and why is he so honored in the State of Florida?
Hill was born into a family of minor nobility in England. He was the son of Trevor Hill, the first Viscount Hillsborough. Hillsborough town and castle in Ulster were named for its leading family. Wills Hill inherited his father's title of Viscount Hillsborough in 1742 and became Earl of Hillsborough in 1751. His peerage as the First Marquis of Downshire was granted in 1789.
He was a career politician who served in Parliament, and was appointed First Lord of the Royal Council of Trade and Foreign Plantations from 1763 to 1767. He also served as the British Secretary of State for the American Colonies from 1768-72, and Secretary of State for the Southern Colonies(1779-82) during the American Revolution.
Hill was an associate and political ally of Richard Grenville, the Second Earl Temple, and his younger brother, Prime Minister George Grenville (1763-65). The Prime Minister sponsored his appointment to the Council of Trade.
As British Secretary of State, in turn, Hill approved land grants to the Grenville brothers in Brevard County and the Jupiter (Grenville) Inlet plantation. Hillsborough's own land grant in South Florida was undeveloped and reverted to Spain during the Second Spanish Colonial Period in 1783.
It was a British civil engineer named Charles Blacker Vignoles (1793-1875) who is credited with naming South Florida's Hillsboro River in honor of the Earl of Hillsborough. When Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821, the town of St. Augustine hired Vignoles as the city engineer.*
Vignoles published a book in 1823 entitled "Observations on the Floridas" in which a stream called Hillsboro River appeared on a map for the first time. The name was gradually accepted during the 19th century.
His 1823 map shows a river with many twists and turns flowing from northwest to southeast before ending at the coast. Vignoles compiled and drew his "Map of Florida" from "various actual surveys and observations," according to his book.
Natural History of the Hillsboro River
Prior to the year 1911, the Hillsboro River was a freshwater stream originating in the marshlands of western Boca Raton. It meandered through what is today Deerfield Beach and Boca Raton until emptying into the coastal channel now known as the Intracoastal Waterway.
Early settlers reported the banks of the river were covered with dense vines and saw palmettos. It was shaded by wild fig trees, cabbage palms and stands of pine trees. It was a shallow stream which varied in depth depending on the season.
The 1891 edition of "The Handbook of Florida" provides a description of the Hillsboro River and connecting waterways as it would have been seen by early pioneers. The text was published just 20 years before the river was dredged and became a canal.
"From Lake Worth Inlet south for 30 miles to Hillsboro Inlet the beach is unbroken," the handbook reports. "About halfway, however, is the Orange House of Refuge (at Delray Beach) where shelter, food and water may be obtained."
"Five miles south of this the headwaters of the Hillsboro River unite a few hundred yards from the beach, forming a little lake about three feet deep," the report continues. "One-half mile further is Lake Wyman, four or five feet deep, and with a connecting channel navigable for small boats to Lake Boca Ratone or the Hillsboro River."
Pioneers living along the south bank of the river in a community then known as "Hillsboro" were amazed by the abundance of wildlife. The numerous deer viewed near the river became the inspiration for Broward County's northernmost community - Deerfield Beach.
It was this source of game for hunting, and a reliable source of potable water, that attracted native Americans to Hillsboro River centuries before the arrival of Juan Ponce de Leon and Spanish colonists in Florida. The inhabitants living near the Hillsboro River when Ponce de Leon's three naos sailed offshore in April 1513 were members of the Tequesta (or Tekesta) tribe.
The Tequesta were a hunter-gatherer society utilizing both plant and animal resources from the sea and rivers leading into the Everglades. Archaeologists have discovered a Tequesta village site near the Boca Raton Inlet which used resources found in nearby Hillsboro River.
The so-called "Boca Raton Inlet Complex" consisted of three middens made of shell and black earth, and a sand burial mound. By analyzing artifacts from the mound, experts believe the village was occupied from about the year 750 A.D. until the 18th century.
Many inexact colonial maps printed from the 16th to the 18th centuries gave the Boca Raton Inlet and adjacent waterways the generic name of Rio Seco (Dry River). The name generally applies to Lake Boca Raton, the Spanish River to the north and the Hillsboro River to the south. Boca Raton Inlet, located at the mouth of Lake Boca, was often closed by sandbars during the colonial period.
These water sources marked the northern border of the Tequesta. The coastal tribe extended south to the Florida Keys. The tribe is named for its main village of Tekesta, located near Biscayne Bay. North of Highland Beach was the domain of their neighbors, the Jeaga Indians of central and northern Palm Beach County.
Both tribes were weakened by introduced diseases from Europe and Africa, and destroyed by slave raiders during Queen Anne's War, 1702-13. The few survivors were shipped to the safety of Cuba by Spain.
During the 18th century, members of the Lower Creek tribe entered Florida, merged with remnant bands of Indians after Queen Anne's War, to create the new Seminole nation. By the time of the Second Seminole War (1835-42), the tribe was using camps along the Hillsboro River for hunting and fishing.
On Nov. 5, 1841, Captain Richard A. Wade embarked with a force of 60 men in 12 dugout canoes from Fort Lauderdale. His destination was the Hillsboro Inlet and the river system along the future Palm Beach-Broward border.
The expedition's journal states, "We proceeded by inland passage to the northward, coming out in the bay at Hillsborough Inlet, and in such a manner canoes were concealed from view of an Indian, whom I there discovered fishing on the northern point of the inlet."
The frightened Indian was captured and coerced to lead the soldiers to his encampment, about 15 miles to the north on the Hillsboro River. The camp was surrounded and assaulted, resulting in the capture of 20 Seminoles and the deaths of eight, killed while trying to escape.
The final military action in the Second Seminole War was along the Hillsboro River. Navy Lt. John McLaughlin sailed two shallow-draft boats assigned to the "Mosquito Fleet," the "Flirt" and "Wave," to the mouth of the river in May 1842.
Military records report he "gave chase" to two Indians up the Hillsboro River to the head of Snake Creek where "fields of sugar cane, corn and bananas were in cultivation."
President John Tyler ended the war with a cease-fire on May 10, 1842. Tyler's Department of War estimated about 240 Seminoles remained in South Florida, of which only 80 were capable of bearing arms.
It was agriculture that lured settlers to both shores of the Hillsboro River in the late 19th century. Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway crossed the river in 1895, opening new markets for farmers and merchants.
The first wooden plank bridge was built across the Hillsboro River in 1905, linking settlers of the future communities of Boca Raton and Deerfield. It was about this time that some residents and politicians began to view the river and the wetlands that nourished it as an impediment to growth.
The Dredging of the Hillsboro Canal
When the Florida Legislature approved the creation of Palm Beach County in 1909, it was nearly twice its current size. It included northern Broward County, Martin County and the southern third of Okeechobee County.
It was an era when business and agricultural interests were pressuring lawmakers in Tallahassee to drain the Everglades and open more of the rich soil beneath for farming. In response, the Everglades Drainage District was created in 1905.
The guiding document for this project was the State of Florida's "Report on the Drainage of the Everglades, Florida," drafted in 1909, the year Palm Beach County was established, by engineer J.O. Wright. After its publication, Wright was selected to head the Drainage District.
The plan was to dredge a series of water control canals linking Lake Okeechobee to the coastal New, Hillsboro, and St. Lucie rivers, as well as Lake Worth. The outflow canals would direct water from Lake Okeechobee and western farm lands to the coast and help prevent seasonal flooding.
The Hillsboro Canal was selected as one of the Drainage District's primary projects. Work on the 45-mile canal began in 1911 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It became fully operational with new locks by 1914.
The Florida Legislature created the Palm Beach Drainage and Highway District (Laws of Florida No. 7976) in 1919 and granted it the powers to "construct roadways, canals, ditches, drains, dikes, reservoirs and other works of reclamation, improvement, convenience and benefits for land embraced in said district."
The new Hillsboro Canal was "embraced" within the special district's range lines. The Florida Legislature appointed J.L. Holmberg, J.B. Jefferies of Miami, and T.T. Reese of West Palm Beach to the original Board of Supervisors. Today, the South Florida Water Management District maintains the canal.
The Hillsboro River was straightened and became the G-08 canal. The wetlands in western Boca Raton that served as its watershed were drained and replaced by a flow originating in Lake Okeechobee. Farmers were soon growing pole beans, bell peppers and tomatoes west of Boca Raton.
The Hillsboro Canal begins at the Lake Okeechobee S-2 water control station in South Bay. The agricultural community that was established a few miles east of the canal was known as "Hillsboro". In the year 1918, it was incorporated as the new City of Belle Glade.
After discharging from Lake Okeechobee, canal water follows a southeast path to the southern border of the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, then moves parallel to the Loxahatchee Road, until turning due east to the coast at U.S. 441.
When the new Broward County was created in April 1915, the Hillsboro Canal became the dividing line between the two counties. Water control station S-39A directs part of Hillsboro's water into Broward's Conservation Area No. 2 via the L-36 canal.
The remainder of the flow continues east to control station G-56, west of Military Trail, which manages water releases to the Intracoastal Waterway. As the Hillsboro Canal nears U.S. One, its course twists south, then north before the main channel enters the Intracoastal after passing Deerfield Island Park.
Beginning in 2001, canal water also was diverted from the Loxahatchee Refuge to a new Wetland Stormwater Treatment Area (STA-2), and then released into Conservation Area No. 2.
The Hillsboro Canal varies in width from 70 to 160 feet. Its average depth is eight feet. It is noted for the steep coral rock banks along its course. The easternmost 10 miles are navigable by pleasure and fishing boats, but requires dredging to remove silt.
The Florida East Coast Canal (Intracoastal Waterway) from Jacksonville to Biscayne Bay was completed in 1912, a year after work began on the Hillsboro Canal. The two waterways are connected, and for several years Glades farmers hauled their produce by barge down the Hillsboro Canal to coastal markets along the Intracoastal or for transport on the FEC Railway.
Today, the Hillsboro Canal is flanked by farms, housing tracts and parks. Recreational fishing is its main public use, as it was back in the days when it was still a wild river.
Wills Hill's 96-acre Hillsborough Castle and Gardens is today the official residence of the British Royal Family during visits to Northern Ireland. It was acquired from Hill's 20th century heirs in 1922. It is a working government palace and home of the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
(c.) Davidsson, 2017.
*NOTE: "Hillsboro" is the second of two articles about the county's ghost rivers which no longer exist. See additional articles below and archived in Older Posts.
A Rich Historical Heritage
The "Origins & History of the Palm Beaches" digital archive contains 40 original full-text articles profiling the history of Palm Beach County. The archive is a companion site to "Palm Beach County Issues & Views." Both sites are edited by Robert I. Davidsson, author of the book "Indian River: A History of the Ais Indians in Spanish Florida" and related articles about Florida's past. This archive is the winner of the Florida Historical Society's 2020 Hampton Dunn Digital Media Award.