Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 74/June 1909/Okefinokee Swamp

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 74‎ | June 1909



OKEFINOKEE Swamp, which covers about 700 square miles of territory on the southern borders of Georgia, is one of the least known areas of its size in the eastern United States. Its existence has indeed been known to white men ever since the eighteenth century, but very few persons capable of giving an intelligent account of it have ever explored it.



The earliest description of this swamp which we have is that of William Bartram. He never saw it himself, but passed near it in the spring of 1773, and seems to have gathered considerable information about it from the Indians and traders. In his celebrated volume of "Travels," published in 1791, we find the following description, which is such a curious mixture of truth and legend, and withal of so much historic interest, that it is worth quoting verbatim:

The river St. Mary has its source from a vast lake, or marsh, called Ouaquaphenogaw, which lies between Flint and Oakmulge rivers, and occupies a space of near three hundred miles in circuit. This vast accumulation of waters, in the wet season, appears as a lake, and contains some large islands or knolls, of rich high land; one of which the present generation of Creeks[1] represent to be a most blissful spot of the earth; they say it is inhabited by a peculiar race of Indians, whose women are incomparably beautiful; they also tell you that this terrestrial paradise has been seen by some of their enterprising hunters, when in pursuit of game, who being lost in inextricable swamps and bogs, and on the point of perishing, were unexpectedly relieved by a company of beautiful women, whom they call daughters of the sun, who kindly gave them such provisions as they had with them, which were chiefly fruit, oranges, dates, &c., and some com cakes, and then enjoined them to fly for safety to their own country; for that their husbands were fierce men, and cruel to strangers: they further say, that these hunters had a view of their settlements, situated on the elevated banks of an island, or promontory, in a beautiful lake; but that in their endeavors to approach it they were involved in perpetual labyrinths, like inchanted land, still as they imagined they had just gained it, it seemed to fly before them, alternately appearing and disappearing. They resolved, at length, to leave the delusive pursuit, and to return; which after a number of inexpressible difficulties, they effected. When they reported their adventures to their countrymen, their young warriors were enflamed with an irresistable desire to invade, and make a conquest of, so charming a country; but all their attempts have hitherto proved abortive, never having been able again to find that enchanting spot, nor even any road or pathway to it; yet they frequently meet with certain signs of its being inhabited, as the building of canoes, footsteps of men, &c. . . .

It is, however, certain that there is a vast lake, or drowned swamp,[2] well known, and often visited both by white and Indian hunters, and on its environs the most valuable hunting grounds in Florida, well worth contending for, by those powers whose territories border upon it. From this great source of rivers,[3] St. Mary arises, and meanders through a vast plain and pine forest, near an hundred and fifty miles to the ocean, with which it communicates, between the points of Amelia and Talbert[4] islands; the waters flow deep and gently down from its source to the sea.

About this time the swamp began to appear on maps, though often located far from its true position, and with the name spelled in a wonderful variety of ways. On old maps of Georgia preserved in the Library of Congi'ess the following variations in spelling can be found: Ekanfinaka (1790), Akenfonogo (1796), Eokenfonooka (1810), Oquafanoka (1818), Oke-fin-o-cau (1818) and Okefinoke (1831). The last agrees pretty well with the pronunciation used by people living in the immediate vicinity at the present time, who commonly speak of the swamp as "the Okefinoke" (leaving the e's silent or nearly so). The name is said to be derived from Indian words meaning "trembling earth," alluding of course to the boggy nature of the swamp.

After Bartram nothing of importance seems to have been learned about this swamp for three quarters of a century. Dr. William Baldwin, the botanist, who resided at the nearest seaport, St. Mary's, from 1813 to 1814, wrote to his friend Dr. Muhlenberg, of Pennsylvania, on February 26, 1814, of having Just been on a short botanical tour which "extended to within about twelve miles of the celebrated Okefanoka Swamp, at the head of St. Mary's River, but he seems never to have approached it any closer than that. The description in Eev. George White's valuable "Statistics of the State of Georgia," published in 1849, is copied from Bartram, the principal difference being that the name of the swamp is there spelled Okefinocau. The boundaries of the area, however, are located more accurately on White's map than on some of later date. In "Historical Collections of Georgia," by the same author, published in 1855, is a shorter description of the swamp, from the same source, and the name of it is spelled "E-cun-fi-no-cau."

Probably the first white men, other than hunters, to explore the Okefinokee were Gen. John Floyd and his soldiers, who are said to have crossed it in pursuit of Indians during the first Seminole War, in the second decade of the nineteenth century. One of the islands in the swamp now bears the name of this general.

In the winter of 1856-7, Col. E. L. Hunter, an engineer, employed by the state of Georgia, ran a line of levels around the swamp to ascertain the practicability of draining it, and found its edges to range from about 110 to 126 feet above sea-level. This survey is said to have cost the state $3,260. His report to the governor, accompanied by a map, was filed away and almost forgotten, until unearthed in 1875 by Col. E. Y. Clarke, at that time editor of the Atlanta Constitution.

During the latter part of the Civil War, a number of deserters from the Confederate army found a safe retreat in the Okefinokee, and they are said to have lived for some time on an island (or perhaps a peninsula?) in the southeastern part of the swamp, which is known to this day as Soldier Camp Island.

Paul Fountain, an English traveler, claims to have been the first naturalist to visit this region. In his book, "Great Deserts and Forests of North America," published in 1901, he devotes 23 pages to it, and says among other things: "The Okefinoke has not, I think, been often penetrated; it certainly had not at the time I visited it in 1871 and 1876." Judging from the way he uses the name, he must have been pretty close to the place, but the chances are that he never saw the real Okefinokee Swamp at all. About half of his chapter on it consists of general remarks on snakes and other reptiles, and the remainder purports to be a description of the swamp; but this description differs considerably from those of all other explorers, and would apply much better to the swamp of the Suwannee River, which flows out of Okefinokee toward the southwest. Even with this interpretation, however, his remarks about the insalubrity of the region seem to be considerably overdrawn.

The first expedition for the systematic exploration of the Okefinokee wilderness was organized in the fall of 1875, by the Atlanta Constitution in cooperation with the state geological survey. The members of this expedition were the State Geologist, Dr. George Little, his assistants, E. H. Loughridge and C. A. Locke, Col. E. Y. Clarke and Mr. E. E. Hyde, of Atlanta, Col. C. E. Pendleton, of the Valdosta Times (now editor of the Macon Telegraph), two or three gentlemen living near the swamp, and a cook, guide and laborers. The "Constitution Expedition" remained in and around the swamp for six weeks, in November and December, 1875. A brief account of their work appeared in the report of the state geologist for that year, and a more extended description in Janes's "Handbook of Georgia," published by the state agricultural department in 1876. A few timber specimens secured by this expedition, together with several from other parts of Georgia, formed part of the state's exhibit at the Paris exposition in 1878, and a list of them in a pamphlet describing this exhibit seems to be the first authentic botanical information about the swamp ever published. The descriptions of this region in Dr. Loughridge's report on cotton production of Georgia, in the sixth volume of the Tenth Census, are derived from the author's connection with the same expedition.

Several years later, at a time when public interest in everything pertaining to the Okefinokee was heightened by circumstances to be mentioned below, Mr. Louis Pendleton, brother of Col. C. E. Pendleton, combined the historical incident of the deserters with his brother's experiences in the swamp into a story quite true to life, entitled "In the Okefenokee," which was published in six chapters in the Youth's Companion in August and September, 1894. (In the same paper a year later there appeared a short story entitled "Life in the Okefenokee," which must have been written by some one who had never seen the swamp.)

Until the last decade of the nineteenth century the greater part of Okefinokee Swamp was included in the public lands of Georgia, never having been claimed by private parties. In 1889 the legislature decided to dispose of the state's remaining interest in it, and in March, 1890, it was sold for 2612 cents an acre to a syndicate organized for the purpose, headed by Capt. Henry Jackson, of Atlanta, and styled the Suwanee[5] Canal Company. This company's purchase from the state amounted to about 380 square miles, and the remainder of the area was gradually acquired from private parties who held it. The object of this company was primarily to convert the timber in the swamp into cash, and the necessary surveys having been made, work began in the fall of 1891. From Camp Cornelia (named after Capt. Jackson's daughter), near the middle of the eastern margin of the swamp, a canal about 45 feet wide and 6 feet deep was gradually cut by dredges, working day and night by the aid of electric search-lights, and progressing toward the middle of the swamp (see map) at the rate of about three miles a year. At the same time an enormous ditch was dug from the same place to the nearest point on the St. Mary's River, about six miles away, by which it was intended first to float logs out to the river and finally to drain the swamp. This ditch was practically completed by 1894, but the company then found it more feasible to erect a sawmill at Camp Cornelia and ship the sawn lumber, by a railroad constructed for the purpose, to Polkston on the Savannah, Florida & Western Railway (now Atlantic Coast Line) and Bull Head Bluff on the Satilla River.

While this work was going on Capt. Jackson visited the Okefinokee about once a month, sometimes staying a week or more at a time, and exploring it pretty thoroughly. He is said to have had a more extensive knowledge of it than any other man living. As a result of his activity a good deal of information about this interesting place was spread before the public, in newspapers and otherwise. The best accessible description of Okefinokee Swamp, in Nesbitt's "Georgia, her Resources and Possibilities," published by the Georgia agricultural department in 1896, is based on his observations. Most of the above history of the operations of the Suwanee Canal Company is taken from this book, and is given in considerable detail here because the book seems to be quite rare. An abridged description can be found in Stevens & Wright's "Georgia, Historical and Industrial," a similar but much larger book published by the same department in 1901, and in Bulletin No. 5 of the Geological Survey of Georgia, by S. W. McCallie. After the death in 1895 of Capt. Jackson, its president and most active member, the canal company suspended operations. The ten or twelve miles of canal and five or six miles of drainage ditch began to fill up with vegetation, the steamboats and dredges mostly sunk or were burned, the sawmill fell to decay, and the rails of the logging road were taken up. The property then passed into the hands of some northern lumbermen, who it is said are still planning to exploit the economic resources of the swamp, though there was no visible evidence of their work at the time of the writer's visit a few years later.

To return to the progress of exploration of the Okefinokee; Dr. Filibert Roth, at that time connected with the Division of Forestry of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, seems to have made a brief visit to the swamp in the spring of 1897. Incidental references to the two commonest trees of the swamp, cypress and slash pine, were published by him soon afterwards in Bulletin 13 (revised) and Circular 19 of the Division of Forestry.

In August, 1902, the writer, in the course of botanical explorations in south Georgia, spent two days in the swamp, and considerably more time in the surrounding country. In the swamp he was accompanied by Mr. P. L. Ricker, of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, and a native guide. We traversed the whole length of the old canal in a small boat, and made a side trip on foot through the bogs to an island about two miles off the canal. Together we took about forty photographs, including all those used to illustrate this article. Brief notes on this expedition have been published in several scientific journals, but nothing like a complete description of the vegetation of the swamp has yet been attempted.

During the winter and spring of 1905-6 a party from the Bureau of Soils of the U. S. Department of Agriculture examined the soils around Waycross, and in their report, published in April, 1907, is a pretty fair description of the northern end of Okefinokee Swamp.

Having outlined the sources of our knowledge of this interesting region, it may now be described from a geographical standpoint.



Okefinokee Swamp lies almost entirely in Ware and Charlton counties, Georgia, about fifty miles from the coast and 115 feet above sea level. (It will be noticed that in its elevation and distance from the

PSM V74 D605 Southeastern georgia and the okefenokee swamp.png

Map of the southeastern Corner of Georgia, showing the location of Okefinokee Swamp and the ridge east of it. Compiled from county maps in the Secretary of State's office in Atlanta, a map drawn for the Suwannee Canal Company in 1897; U. S. Coast Survey chart No. 157, 1901: field notes of the author, 1902-1904; Rand, McNally & Co.'s map of Georgia, 1906. and the U. S. Department of Agriculture soil map of the Waycross area, 1907.

The abandoned railroads are shown principally because they are convenient highways for exploring the almost trackless pine-barrens on foot. The location of the islands and other details within the swamp are not given here because too little is known about them at present.

coast it differs considerably from the two other great swamps of eastern North America, namely. Dismal Swamp and the Everglades.) The surrounding country belongs to the flat pine-barren region of the coastal plain, and is notable for the lack of diversity in its topography. Except in the vicinity of some of the creeks and rivers, the ground has scarcely any slope, and the channels of the smaller streams are ill-defined. At almost any point on a railroad within thirty or forty miles of the swamp one can see the rails stretching away in a straight line farther than the eye can reach, in one or both directions. The longest stretch of straight track in Georgia, from a few miles southwest of Waycross to a few miles beyond Valdosta, sixty miles in all, crosses the head-waters of the Okefinokee.

The geology of this flat pine-barren region is comparatively simple. The surface is a few inches or a few feet of Columbia sand, and under that is the clay, loam or coarse sand of the Altamaha Grit or Grand Gulf formation to a depth of three or four hundred feet. None of these formations are fossiliferous, but they are believed to be quite recent, probably of Pliocene or later age. Under them is a limestone believed to be Miocene', and below that presumably all the older coastal plain formations in succession. There is every reason to believe that the whole swamp is underlaid by the same formations, from the Columbia down.

Immediately east of the Okefinokee is one of the most interesting topographic features of the region, which would scarcely be noticeable but for the general flatness of the country. It is a broad low ridge, exactly parallel with the coast and just about forty miles distant from it. This ridge has been traced by the writer from a few miles west of Jesup southward into the great bend of the St. Mary's River, and about thirty miles into Florida, where it is known as the "Trail Ridge," and happens to coincide in part with the Atlantic and Gulf divide and with the eastern boundary of Baker and Bradford counties, though still maintaining its parallelism with the Atlantic coast. It is not an important divide in Georgia, though no streams intersect it between the St.

PSM V74 D606 Abandoned drainage ditch near camp cornelia.png

Abandoned Drainage Ditch near Camp Cornelia.

Mary's and the Altamaha except the Satilla and Little Satilla Rivers.

At Camp Cornelia, where the old drainage ditch of the Suwanee Canal Company cuts through it, this remarkable ridge is about two miles wide and only about forty feet high; and it probably keeps practically the same dimensions for many miles north and south. Its slopes are so gentle as to be scarcely noticeable to a person passing over it, but when viewed from a point a few miles away on one of the straight railroads which cross it it stands out quite conspicuously.

PSM V74 D607 Interior of jacksons bay.png

Interior of Jackson's Bay.

Trail Ridge, or Okefinokee Ridge, as the Georgia end of it might be called, does not belong to the class of cuestas or inland-facing escarpments which can be seen in many places in the upper half of the coastal plain, for it slopes equally on both sides and has no stream hugging its inland edge as far as known. Moreover, it is too smooth and too straight to have been formed by erosion. The most reasonable explanation of it would seem to be that it marks a comparatively recent slight flexure of the earth's crust, formed during one of the oscillations which the coastal plain experienced several times during its making. There seems to be a similar though smaller ridge about fifteen miles east of it, but so little is known about that that it could not be mapped at the present time. Mount Pleasant and Waynesville, near the boundary between Wayne and Glynn Counties, are located on the latter ridge, and along its summit was one of the principal roads from Savannah to East Florida a century ago, followed by Bartram and other travelers.

The internal structure of the Okefinokee Ridge is not its least interesting feature. In the big ditch at Camp Cornelia, as well as at the crossings of four railroads (three of them shown on the map and one a little farther north), there occurs beneath a few feet of white sand a chocolate-colored or almost black material of unknown depth, known locally as "hardpan." No analysis of the hardpan is available, but when pulverized in the fingers it feels like nothing but sand. Its dark color is doubtless due to vegetable matter, with a little cement of iron oxide or bog iron ore, which makes it so hard in the mass that dynamite

PSM V74 D608 Outer edge of jacksons bay.png

Jackson's Bay (outer edge).

was used in removing it, it is said. No recognizable organic remains were noticed in it, but a faint horizontal stratification could be detected. The aspect of the hardpan is so similar to that of the subsoil of existing salt marshes that its origin is not hard to guess.

Although this peculiar formation may not be confined to the Okefinokee Ridge, its extent is evidently limited; for in railroad cuts around Waycross and Folkston and in Camden County and elsewhere the ordinary reddish Pliocene loam can be seen near the surface, without any signs of the black hardpan. The hardpan was doubtless formed in some prehistoric swamp or marsh occupying a somewhat larger area than Okefinokee does now—perhaps the "Suwannee Strait" of geologists,[6] which is supposed to have separated Florida from the mainland in Miocene times. It seems to have no effect on the vegetation above it, which is Just like that of the ordinary flat pine-barrens underlaid by the loam.

Assuming the foregoing theories to be true, we can now trace the probable development of Okefinokee Swamp. When the ridge was thrown up across the shallow trough which had been Suwannee Strait it naturally created a basin behind it, which must have quickly filled with water, forming a large shallow lake. This lake then began to fill with vegetation, as many other shallow lakes and ponds in temperate regions are doing, and gradually took on the aspect it has to-day, which will be described more in detail below, under the head of vegetation. A glance at the map will show how the waters are dammed up by the ridge, the straight eastern border contrasting with the very irregular western border of the swamp.

The drainage of the region presents some peculiar features. Okefinokee Swamp is approximately on the watershed between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. In dry weather the Suwannee River seems to be its only outlet, but at other times some of the water may be discharged into the Atlantic through the St. Mary's. Being about on a watershed, the drainage area of the swamp is rather small, including only a few hundred square miles outside of the swamp itself. Its tributaries are practically confined to Ware County, on the northwest, and none of them exceed twenty miles in length. As the swamp is a few hundred feet vertically and a good many miles horizontally from any limestone, subterranean inlets and outlets are out of the question.[7] The color of the water in the swamp and in all the streams in the vicinity shows it to be entirely free from lime as well as from mud.

The courses of the Satilla and St. Mary's Rivers in the neighborhood of the swamp are rather peculiar. Each after passing through the Okefinokee Ridge turns and flows parallel to the coast for about thirty miles, in the trough between the two low ridges mentioned, and then resumes its eastward course to the sea. The circuitous channels of these rivers must have been formed at the time of the Columbia submergence of the coastal plain if not before, for in such a flat sandy country there is practically no erosion going on at the present time, and such phenomena as stream-capture are unknown.



A pretty accurate estimate of the climate of the Okefinokee can be obtained by taking the averages of the figures for Waycross, Ga., and Macclenny, Fla., which lie on opposite sides of the swamp and at about the same distance from the Atlantic coast. Summed up by seasons, the average temperature and total rainfall are as follows:

Seasons Spring
Temperature (degrees Fahrenheit) 68.4 81.6 69.3 52.3 67.9
Rainfall (inches) 10.0 19.5 9.8 10.7 50.0

Frost usually occurs in four or five months of every year, but snow is rare. The maximum temperature here, as nearly everywhere in the eastern United States outside of the mountains, is about 100°. It is noteworthy that nearly two fifths of the total annual rainfall comes in the three summer months, as seems to be the case all over the southern half of Georgia. August is the wettest month, with about 7 inches of rain, and November the driest, with a little less than 3. The total annual amount happens to be a little less than the average for either Georgia, Florida or Alabama.


Vegetation of the Swamp

The various aspects of different parts of Okefinokee Swamp seem to depend almost entirely on the distance of the sandy bottom

PSM V74 D610 Bugaboo island.png

Bugaboo Island.

below or above the water level. Areas where the sand rises above the water constitute the islands. There are about half a dozen of these, Floyd's Billy's, Mitchell's, Black Jack, Honey and Bugaboo, with areas ranging from about one to ten square miles. The largest islands are naturally highest and driest, and are said to bear a fine growth of long-leaf pine (Pinus palustris), and perhaps some oaks and hickories. The only island which Mr. Ricker and the writer were able to reach (on account of the low stage of water prevailing at the time of our visit, the rainfall that month having been only about half the normal for August) was Bugaboo Island, one of the smallest. Its surface seems to be elevated only a foot or two above the surrounding swamp, and its edges slope off so gradually that one can not tell within several rods just where swamp ends and island begins. Nine tenths or more of the trees on this island are slash pine (Pinus Elliottii), a species common in low or flat pine-barrens all over southeastern Georgia. The rest of the trees are mostly black pine (Pinus scrotina), and the undergrowth

PSM V74 D611 Sphagnum bog with pines and ferns.png

Sphagnum Bog with Pines and Ferns.

consists of saw-palmettos (Serenoa) and several other low evergreen bushes, much as on the neighboring mainland. There is almost no grass on the island, probably on account of the rarity of fires, which outside of the swamp keep the bushes in some measure suppressed.

Bugaboo Island (and probably most of the others) is surrounded by sphagnous bogs, which resemble the northern tamarack and cedar swamps in many ways. The trees in the bogs are conifers, one evergreen, the slash pine already mentioned, and one deciduous, the cypress (Taxodium imbricarium); analogous to the evergreen spruce and deciduous tamarack of the northern bogs. (The white cedar or juniper, Chamæcyparis, the only water-loving conifer common to the glaciated region and coastal plain, is not certainly known to grow in Okefinokee, but the chances are that it grows there just as it does in Dismal Swamp and many of the swamps of Florida.) Beneath the trees, which grow rather openly, the vegetation consists of heath-like shrubs, ferns (mostly of one species, Woodwardia Virginica), sedges, sundews, pitcher-plants, etc. The pitcher-plants (Sarracenia minor and S. psittacina) grow two or three times as large in Okefinokee as they do anywhere else. The leaves of S. minor, which had never been known to grow more than a foot tall in the pine-barrens, often attain a height of over three feet in the swamp. The ground in these bogs is everywhere covered with a dense soft carpet of sphagnum.

Where the swamp muck has reached a depth of three or four feet the pines can no longer exist, and the cypress grows much more densely than it does in the bogs, constituting the bulk of the vegetation. Such places are known locally as "bays." There the long moss (Tillandsia usneoides) drapes every tree, though it never grows as luxuriantly as in calcareous or alluvial regions in the same latitude. The shrubs, herbs and mosses in the bays are much the same as in the bogs already described, though considerably less abundant. One shrub deserves special mention on account of its peculiar habit. It is Pieris phillyreifolia, a handsome little evergreen of the heath family, confined to Georgia, Florida and Alabama. It sometimes stands erect, two or three feet tall, but usually it starts at the base of a cypress tree, and its stems insinuate themselves between the inner and outer layers of the bark of the tree, gradually working upward to a height of thirty or forty feet from the ground, and sending out branches with leaves and flowers every few feet. Growing in this way the shrub might easily be taken for a parasite, but its stems can always be traced down to the ground, and they bear no rootlets and never penetrate to the living part of the bark. As far as known this manner of climbing has no parallel in the whole vegetable kingdom.

Where the sandy bottom of the swamp lies six feet or more below the average water level no trees can grow, and we have what are known as "prairies." The prairies are all in the eastern half of the swamp, where their aggregate area is perhaps as much as a hundred square miles. In wet weather the water covers them so that one can go almost anywhere in a shallow boat, especially by following the "'gator roads," or trails made by the alligators; but when the water is low the prairies are impassable for boats while still too boggy to walk in. This being the case at the time of our visit we could only view them from the banks of the canal. The bulk of the vegetation in the prairies consists of "maiden cane" (Panicum digitarioides),[8] interspersed with "fireleaf" or "bull-tongue" (Orontium aquaticum), "wampee" or pickerel weed (Pontederia), white water-lilies (Castalia), and numerous other characteristic aquatic plants. There seems to be no sphagnum, perhaps because it will not grow without shade in that latitude. The prairies seem to have no counterpart in Dismal Swamp, but they look very much like some pictures of the Everglades.

The prairies are dotted here and there with small clumps of cypress trees and evergreen vines and bushes, known as "houses," from the fact that hunters sometimes camp in them while in the swamp. These probably represent shallower spots, or incipient bays.

In some of the prairies are considerable bodies of open water, known to the natives as lakes. These doubtless mark the deepest parts of the swamp, not yet filled with vegetation. They are comparatively shallow though, the combined depth of water and muck perhaps nowhere exceeding ten feet.

PSM V74 D613 Chaises prairie.png

Chase's Prairie.


Animal Life

As Okefinokee Swamp has probably never been visited by a zoologist, no reliable account of its fauna can be given here. Bears and deer are still found on the islands, and occasionally stray outside of the swamp. An old hunter living at the north end of the swam]), when interviewed by a correspondent of the Atlanta Constitution in the spring of 1897, estimated that in the forty years he had lived there he had killed about 150 bears, 200 deer, and hundreds of wolves, minks and wildcats. In the summer of 1900 there was an item in the same paper to the effect that a large black bear had been seen at Manor, about ten miles northwest of the swamp, and caused great consternation among the negroes employed in the turpentine orchards there. Early in 1907 a bear was seen several times near Adel, in Berrien County, about sixty miles farther west, and Col. C. E. Pendleton, commenting on it in his paper, the Macon Telegraph, expressed the opinion that it had come out from Okefinokee by way of the swamps of the Suwannee and Withlacoochee rivers. At the time of our visit to the swamp our guide showed us on Bugaboo Island a fresh scar on a pine tree about five feet from the ground, where it had been gnawed or scratched by one of these animals. Other mammals reported from the swamp by the Constitution Expedition and Capt. Jackson, besides those already mentioned, are otters, 'coons, panthers and squirrels. In the line of birds we noticed especially a number of egrets (?), a water-turkey, and the nest of an eagle. Owls, ducks and geese were reported by the Constitution Expedition, white and blue herons and curlews were mentioned by Capt. Jackson, and Gannet Lake and Buzzard Lake, in the southern part of the swamp, probably indicate the occurrence of birds similarly named. The commonest reptiles are alligators, which sometimes attain a length of twelve feet, according to several authorities, but they are now much scarcer than formerly, owing to the depredations of hunters who seek their hides, and we saw only one live one. Snakes are not very numerous, and only one of them (a water-moccasin) was encountered in the two days we were in the swamp. "Yellow-belly terrapins" are also found there, it is said, and are sought after to some extent for their flesh. Fishes mentioned by Capt. Jackson are large-mouth black bass or "trout," weighing six to twelve pounds, and jackfish, up to ten pounds. A small specimen of the latter jumped into our boat one afternoon, and formed part of our next meal. The only insects which gave us any trouble were mosquitoes, and those only at night.



The greater part of the Okefinokee is of course unsuitable for human habitation, but the islands are known to have supported a small if not permanent population. Bartram's fanciful account of the inhabitants must have had some foundation in fact, for it is pretty well established that Indians have lived in the swamp. Billy's Island takes its name from Billy Bowlegs, a Seminole chief, who lived on it early in the nineteenth century, and there made his last stand against the whites under Gen. Floyd. On several of the islands are found low hillocks of sand, which are believed to be Indian mounds, but have apparently never been opened. The occupation of parts of the swamp by deserters during the war has already been mentioned. At the present time a large family of white people is said to be living on one of the islands near the head of the Suwannee River.

The country around the Okefinokee is rather sparsely settled. The four counties in which the swamp lies, Charlton, Pierce, Ware and Clinch, averaged in 1900 10.2 inhabitants to the square mile, 66 per cent, of whom were white. The population increased 36 per cent, between 1890 and 1900. Deducting the city of Waycross, which contains nearly half the population of Ware County, and is the largest city in the pine-barrens of Georgia, the density of population in 1900 was 8.5 per square mile, the proportion of whites 69 per cent., and the increase since 1890 30 per cent. For the whole state of Georgia the corresponding figures were 37.5 per square mile, 53 per cent, white and 21 per cent, increase.

The principal occupations of the people in these counties, outside of the towns, are stock-raising, lumbering, turpentining, farming, hunting and fishing, approximately in the order named. There seem to be a few "moonshiners" just south of the swamp in Florida. Not more than 10 per cent, of the area of the four counties named, even with the swamp excluded, has been touched by the plow as yet. Until quite recently this flat sandy land was considered as little better than a desert, but its merits are beginning to be appreciated, as is proved by the rapid increase of population in the last decade. The leading crops of this region are corn, sugar-cane, oats, sea-island cotton, sweet potatoes and rice. Sugar-cane syrup is becoming one of the principal agricultural exports, especially north and west of the swamp.


Healthfulness of the Region

Like Dismal Swamp and the Everglades, the vicinity of Okefinokee is remarkably free from climatic or endemic diseases, Fountain's statements to the contrary notwithstanding. Malaria, which in the popular mind is commonly associated with swamps of all kinds, seems to be chiefly confined to alluvial districts, and is therefore not to be expected around Okefinokee, which is strictly a non-alluvial swamp. As many as 200 men were sometimes employed in the swamp by the Suwanee Canal Company, and it is said that there was never a case of malaria among them or their families who lived at Camp Cornelia. No one is known to have ever died in the Okefinokee, from illness, snake-bite, starvation, drowning, or any other cause. On the contrary, instances are recorded of men suffering with rheumatism who have gone in there to work and come out in a few days greatly relieved, if not cured.

The chief drawback—though not a serious one—to life in the swamp is the drinking water. It is of course rather warm in summer, and always full of fine particles of peat, just as in northern cedar-swamps, but nevertheless it is not unwholesome. Its properties are doubtless similar to those of the Dismal Swamp water, which used to be preferred by navigators sailing from Norfolk and vicinity because on account of its slightly antiseptic properties it kept fresh on shipboard longer than any other kind.

The flat pine-barrens around the swamp have many attractions as a residential section, notwithstanding the pessimistic picture of them which Bradford Torrey draws in his article "In the Flat-woods."[9] Burns in 1892[10] admits the healthfulness of this kind of country while granting it no other advantage. In White's Statistics (1849) we read that there were no doctors in Wayne County at that time, because none were needed. The universal surface of sand in this region makes it the cleanest country imaginable, especially in wet weather, and also incidentally obviates the necessity of shoeing horses.

The water from shallow wells near the swamp, especially those which penetrate the "hardpan" of the ridge, is not always agreeable to persons unaccustomed to it, but an abundance of good water can be obtained from artesian wells, which are in successful operation at Waycross, Fargo, Moniac and other places.


Economic Aspects

The greatest material resource of Okefinokee Swamp to-day is of course the cypress timber. This cypress, sometimes distinguished as

PSM V74 D616 Scene on logging canal.png

Scene on Logging Canal.

the pond cypress (Taxodium imbricarium), is not the same as the common cypress of commerce (T. distichum), but its wood is believed to be a little stronger and heavier if anything. The pond cypress of Okefinokee is not surpassed anywhere for quantity and size, this being near' the center of distribution of this species. (The other species seems to center in the lower Mississippi valley.) With conservative methods of exploitation the supply should be practically perpetual. Next to the cypress the most important timber is the pine on the islands, but there is still so much of the same outside of the swamp that this comparatively inaccessible supply has not yet been drawn upon for lumber or turpentine. For the various hardwood species which inhabit the swamp there has been as yet almost no demand, and even in the easily accessible small swamps in the surrounding pine-barrens they have scarcely been touched.

The vast quantities of peat in the swamp will doubtless be useful for fuel at some future time, when coal and wood become considerably scarcer than they are now. Capt. Jackson had some of the swamp muck analyzed and found 85 per cent, of it combustible.

Doubtless the most absorbing economic question with regard to Okefinokee Swamp is whether it will be feasible to drain it. The popular demand for indiscriminate drainage of swamps will apparently never be satisfied as long as Okefinokee continues to exist. The arguments against swamp drainage in general, set forth in a recent article,[11] need not be repeated here, but a few points which apply to this swamp in particular deserve to be mentioned.

As the swamp is about 100 feet higher than the St. Mary's Elver at the other end of the six-mile drainage ditch, it would seem a comparatively simple matter to empty it that way, until it is recalled that the surface of the swamp slopes slightly in the other direction, and most of the water discharges into the Suwannee River. Col. Hunter estimated in 1857 that the swamp could be drained for $1,067,250, but Capt. Jackson, soon after the dredging operations of the Suwanee Canal Company began, expressed the opinion that to drain the swamp thoroughly would require over 300 miles of canals, besides a considerable deepening of the drainage ditch, which is already about 100 feet wide at the top of the ridge.

It was expected that the swamp muck when drained would make a soil of surpassing richness, but experiments made with it where it was thrown up on the banks of the canal gave only negative results. This might have been anticipated from the nature of the surrounding country, which is completely covered with quartz sand, so that the few streams emptying into the swamp carry practically no mineral matter. The sour humus of the swamp might perhaps be dug out and used to advantage on strongly calcareous soils, but there are no such soils within a convenient distance.

A sudden draining of the swamp would be disastrous in several ways. In the first place, it would kill the fish and other aquatic animals, and would probably be detrimental to the health of the surrounding country in other ways. Then it would put an end to the production of cypress timber, for which the swamp seems to be best adapted. Worst of all, fire would soon get in from the surrounding pine forests (which are burned over more or less every year), and consume the muck, timber and all. Several extensive fires have already occurred in the swamp in very dry seasons, it is said, and even at the time of our visit the peaty banks of the canal were smouldering in two or three places.

With game laws properly enforced Okefinokee would be a paradise for the sportsman. Capt. Jackson wrote of it to a friend in the spring of 1892:

There is no healthier or more attractive spot in the world, to one who can stand exposure and fatigue, than this property. If you are anything of a sportsman, I will show you fishing and hunting that has never had a parallel.

The swamp has been and still is much visited by hunters, and their wantonness has greatly decimated the large game, but none of the species have been exterminated yet, and they would probably soon reestablish themselves if given sufficient protection.

From a scenic standpoint alone Okefinokee is well worth visiting at any season of the year. Its almost untrodden islands, its dense moss-garlanded bays, and its broad open prairies, all have their peculiar charms, and must be seen to be appreciated. There is nothing else exactly like it in the world. There is really more reason for preserving Okefinokee than Niagara, for its destruction would benefit but few people in the long run, and the loss to science would be far greater. It would have been much better if this enchanting wilderness had remained in the possession of the state, to be perpetuated as a forest and game preserve for all future generations.

  1. According to Dr. William Baldwin, Bartram confused the Seminoles with the Lower Creeks.
  2. At this point in the German edition (published in Berlin in 1793) the editor, E. A. W. Zimmermann, inserts the following footnote: "Dieser Sumpf ist unstreitig der Ekanfonoka Swamp unter 30° der Breite; er nimmt aber auf Purcel's Karte mehr als Einen Grad ein."
  3. (Bartram's footnote.) "Source of rivers. It is said, that St. llle [Satilla], St. Mary, and the beautiful river. Little St. Juan [Suwannee], which discharges its waters into the bay of Apalachi, at St. Mark's, take their rise from this swamp."
  4. "Talbert" is a mistake. He should have said Cumberland, as Dr. Baldwin pointed out about ninety years ago.
  5. Suwannee is usually spelled with two n's, but in the official designation of this company it had only one.
  6. See Dall, Bull. U. S. Geol. Surv., 84: 111, 121-122, 126, 1892.
  7. Paul Fountain, in his book previously referred to, described a large limestone spring in the "northern part" of Okefinokee, but in all probability this spring was on the Suwannee River somewhere in Florida, where such things are rather common.
  8. The true cane (Arundinaria), which is said to be very abundant in Dismal Swamp, seems to be entirely absent from Okefinokee, as it is from the Everglades.
  9. Atlantic Monthly, December, 1893. Also reprinted in his "Florida Sketchbook," 1894, p. 1.
  10. Bull. 84, U. S. Geol. Surv., p. 82.
  11. Southern Woodlands, 2: 46-67, August, 1908. See also Science, N. S., 28: 525, October 16, 1908; Literary Digest, 37: 890, December 12, 1908.