Henry Shelton Sanford (1823-1891)
Bel Air Groves
Delegate of the American Geographical Society
African International Association
“Tropical Garden” Research Station
Henry Sanford was born in Woodbury, Connecticut, on June 15, 1823. He was the son of Nehemiah Curtis Sanford and Nancy Bateman Shelton. He graduated from the Episcopal Academy in Cheshire Connecticut in 1839. Sanford then attended Washington College (now Trinity College). During his sophomore year Sanford developed an asthmatic condition that caused his eyesight to deteriorate. This condition forced him to drop out of school and in 1841 he took a recommended sea voyage to Europe. He spent the next eight years travelling, learning several languages, and studying throughout Europe.
In 1847 Sanford began his long distinguished career as a diplomat as an attaché and Secretary of the American Legation at St. Petersburg. For the next 20 years Sanford served in various diplomatic posts in Germany and France, producing in 1853 a scholarly document “The Penal Codes of Europe,” which was included in President Franklin Pierce’s 1853 Report to Congress. In 1857-1860 he made trips to Central and South America on behalf of United States business interests in the Latin American countries of Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Honduras.
In 1861 President Abraham Lincoln appointed him United States Minister to Belgium. This was President Lincoln’s first diplomatic appointment. He devoted much time and money to the promotion of the cause of the Union. His work was primarily focused on countering Confederate operations in Europe. Through the use of private detectives and espionage efforts, important information was obtained and sabotage attempts were conducted on Confederate shipbuilding and contraband shipping operations. Sanford also aided the Union army as a purchaser of foreign munitions and other war material.
In 1864 Sanford married Gertrude Ellen du Pay from Philadelphia and the two had seven children over the next 14 years. In 1868 Sanford began to invest his money in Florida, purchasing 12,547 acres of land in central Florida and founding the town which bears his name. He also established the 100-acre Bel Air Grove which at the time was the largest grove in the state. He then began experimenting with 100 varieties of citrus plantings which led to the production of new quality citrus fruits including the Jaffa, Mediterranean Sweet, and the Villa Francean. Sanford continued to travel throughout the United States and the world. In 1876 he was named acting Delegate of the American Geographical Society to a conference called by King Leopold II of Belgium to organize the African International Association with the purpose of opening up equatorial Africa to civilizing influences. His work with this delegation led to the independent state of the Congo. He would work on behalf of the Congo until his death. He spent much time trying to convince the United States government to invest money in the Congo and worked to abolish the slave trade from that country.
His efforts on overseas matters resulted in his Florida groves failing as a lucrative business. To meet his labor shortages, Sanford brought 100 workers from Sweden, agreeing to pay for their passage after one year of labor. His workers eventually formed the settlement called New Uppsala. In 1881 Sanford brought 75 more Swedish workers to his groves under the same arrangement. Sanford then founded the “Tropical Garden” research station which conducted remarkable experiments in plant and fruit growth.
Henry Sanford died on May 21 1891. Today, he is remembered as a diplomat, investor in the New South, central figure in the formation of the Congo, anti-slavery activist, founder of Sanford, Florida, and contributor to Florida’s nineteenth century citrus industry.