Human History of the Okefenokee Swamp
The Okefenokee Swamp covers nearly 700 square miles, almost all of which is in Georgia. It has a long history as a wilderness, a public common, and a refuge. Since 1937 most of the Okefenokee has been a National Wildlife Refuge. It was designated a National Wilderness Area in 1974.
Indians occupied the Okefenokee during the late Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian periods of Georgia prehistory. The major occupations were during the Weeden Island and Savannah periods, around A.D. 500 and 1200. Sand mounds were constructed in the swamp during this period.
Spanish records between 1602 and 1768 refer to Okefenokee as Laguna de Oconi (Lake Oconi). At least two Timucuan villages and Spanish missions were located in or near the swamp between 1620 and 1656. William Bartram's Creek legend of princesses of the sun on an island in the center of the swamp is probably rooted in stories of the Timucuan settlements.
The Okefenokee was a Creek hunting ground in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Hopoithle Tustunnuggee Thlucco and his family moved into the swamp during the American Revolution, seeking refuge from involvement in the conflict.
The Second Seminole War in Florida extended into the Okefenokee briefly in 1836 and for most of 1838. Roads and forts were built around the perimeter of the swamp, and Georgia militia and U.S. army troops patrolled intensively and burned a Seminole village on an island they subsequently renamed Floyds Island, for Charles Rinaldo Floyd. The Seminole band abandoned the swamp in 1838, but skirmishes continued to occur along the Georgia-Florida boundary as late as 1840.
A few white families settled on the southeastern edge of the Okefenokee as early as 1805.
Although sailing vessels visited Traders Hill, less than ten miles outside the Okefenokee, by the first decade of the nineteenth century and steamboats plied the St. Marys River by the 1830s, there was little change in the Okefenokee landscape and livelihood until the railroads reached the rim of the great swamp.
The Georgia legislature in 1889 authorized Governor John B. Gordon to sell the Okefenokee property. The Suwanee Canal Company purchased the property on January 1, 1891. The company attempted to drain the swamp from 1891 until 1893.
Learning from the mistakes of the Suwanee Canal Company, the Hebard Lumber Company carefully studied the timber of the swamp and decided to employ railroads to harvest cypress. They leased the property to the Hebard Cypress Company, which built a large sawmill near Waycross and constructed a railroad to the northwestern rim of the swamp in 1909-10. Over the next fifteen years the company systematically built railroads across the swamp and logged the cypress trees of the northern and western Okefenokee.
Other companies, especially the Americus Manufacturing Company, conducted railroad logging operations in the swamp between 1910 and 1926. The big companies ceased operations in 1926-27. Individuals and small companies gleaned the remaining stands of cypress and pine during the late 1920s; Johnson and Sons Lumber Company may have logged as late as 1942.
Daniel Hebard built a hunting cabin in the hammock on Floyds Island in 1925. Family and friends camped on the island during the following decade, usually hunting ducks. Billy Spaulding lived in a hut on the island, serving as caretaker.
During this period writers and naturalists were also permitted to camp in the cabin on Floyds Island Hammock. Many articles extolling the wonders of the Okefenokee wilderness were published in newspapers, magazines, and books. A number of writers urged that the swamp be purchased as a refuge.
The Okefenokee Society was organized in 1918 in Waycross. Members of the society petitioned the federal government to purchase the Hebard property as a biological preserve. But the society died with its founder, J. F. Wilson, in 1921. The Georgia Society of Naturalists took up the crusade in 1929. Their efforts, supported by those of organizations and individuals, were successful.
Georgia Coastal Flatwoods Upland Game Project
While conservation organizations promoted the purchase of the Hebard property as a refuge, other development plans were afoot. Some organizations promoted schemes to build a ship canal across the swamp; others pushed for the construction of a scenic highway. The federal government purchased about 40,000 acres of cut-over and burned-over lands on the northeast side of the swamp in 1935. Workers with the Georgia Coastal Flatwoods Upland Game Project planted trees and grass and developed parks, but the project was primarily a WPA jobs program. The federal government turned the project over to the state of Georgia in 1938 and sold the land to the state much later, probably in 1955. Dixon Memorial Forest Wildlife Management Area and two state parks, Laura S. Walker State Park and Okefenokee Swamp Park, were developed on this tract.
Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge
The federal government purchased the Hebard Lumber Company property in 1937. U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge (now the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge) by executive order the same year.
For the first several decades the staff at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge devoted much of their time to maintaining roads and facilities and protecting wildlife from poachers. Since around 1950 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has focused on managing the habitat for wildlife, especially fire management and protecting and fostering endangered and threatened wildlife species. Recreation
Fluctuations of water levels, even minute changes, have a significant effect on the Okefenokee ecosystem. After the drought and wildfires of 1954-55, the federal government constructed an earthen dam, the Suwannee River Sill, on the western side of the swamp to maintain water levels during drought. It was not effective. Plans to breach the sill are being implemented.
Camp Stephen Foster was established in 1948 as a private concession within the refuge. The state of Georgia acquired the concession as Stephen C. Foster State Park in 1954. In 1974, 353,981 acres of the refuge were included in the National Wilderness System. A Wilderness Canoe Trail system was instituted in the 1970s. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, an international convention that promotes the preservation of waterfowl habitat, recognized the Okefenokee as a wetland of international importance in 1986.
Francis Harper and Delma E. Presley, Okefinokee Album (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981).
Lois B. Mays, Settlers of the Okefenokee: Seven Biographical Sketches (Folkston, Ga.: Privately printed, 1975).
Megan Kate Nelson, Trembling Earth: A Cultural History of the Okefenokee Swamp (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005).
"The Okefenokee Swamp," Georgia Wildlife: Natural Georgia Series 6, no. 1 (September 1997).
C. T. Trowell, Okefenokee: Profiles of the Past, OWL Special Publication, no. 1 (1998).
C. T. Trowell, South Georgia College
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