Our Georgia History
The Okefenokee Swamp

Stretching from Waycross, Georgia to the Georgia-Florida border, the Okefenokee Swamp represented the last of the untamed wilderness in Georgia after the War Between the States. Covering more than 700 square miles of territory, this vast land mass was once thought to be uninhabitable and as such was not distributed by Georgia when it was "acquired" from the Creek Nation. Actually, the Okefenokee was inhabitable and had been extensively settled by early cultures of Moundbuilders, both prehistoric and transitional.

Following the decline of the Moundbuilder civilization, the Okefenokee swamp was the border for three Indian Nations, the Mocama (to the north), the Timucua (to the south and east), and the Apalatchee (to the west). Both the Mocama and the Timucua were members of the Creek Confederacy, possibly descendants of the earlier Moundbuilders. First knowledge of the swamp came during Rene Goulaine De Laudonniere's attempted settlement of the Southeastern coast in 1564.

Later, Spanish missionaries and their armed escorts and English from South Carolina both mention the Okefenokee before 1700. The Spanish called the area Lago Oconi, after a nearby Timucan village. The Spanish established two missions, Santiago de Oconi, on the southern side of the Okefenokee near village and San Lorenzo, further east on the St. Marys. During Queen Anne's war the British drove the Spanish from the coastal islands of Georgia, and for a brief time the Native Indians who inhabited the Okefenokee Swamp lost contact with European settlers.

In 1715 the Yemassee Indians were defeated by South Carolina and traveled south to the St. Mary's River. Decimated by European disease and slaughter the Timucua, Hitchiti, and Yemassee formed the Seminole Nation. According to Seminole mythology, the Okefenokee Swamp was once an independent kingdom. William Bartram visited the area in the Spring of 1774, although he did not enter the Okefenokee Swamp, he realized the area must be rich and diverse in flora and fauna. In 1795, in a treaty signed at Traders Hill (Treaty of San Lorenzo or Pinckney's Treaty ), not far from the swamp, Spain and the United States agreed that the boundary of Georgia and Florida would run to the start of the St. Mary's river inside the Okefenokee. Andrew Ellicott established the boundary in 1800, entering the Okefenokee from the west and marking a mound at the headwaters.

The Okefenokee Swamp was soon to become one battleground in an ongoing war between the United States Army and the Seminole Nation. In 1814 the Creek Nation agreed to secede some of the land claimed by the Seminoles to Andrew Jackson. When the Seminoles disputed the claim of the Creek Nation to the land, war erupted. In 1818, Jackson, Winfield Scott and 5,000 troops headed south from Fort Hawkins (Macon, Georgia), to settle the dispute with a war. Osceola fought valiently, but failed the defeat the Army.

A small group of Seminoles led by Billy Bowlegs (Indian name: Bolek) escaped detection by hiding in the Okefenokee Swamp. Over the next twenty years this group grew. It became widely known that Bowleg's Seminole village was a haven for slaves and whites. The Wildes Family massacre occurred on June 22, 1838 on the perimeter of the swamp. It is the last Indian attack in present-day Georgia, and came during the Second Seminole War.

Other spellings of Okefenokee
Ekanfinaka 1790
Akenfonoga 1796
Eckenfinooka 1810
Okefinoka 1813
Oquafanaoka 1818
Oke-fin-a-cau 1818
E-fi-no-cau 1854

In October, 1838 the United States Army attempted to force the Seminoles remaining in the Okefenokee Swamp to submit to a law passed in Washington called the Indian Removal Act of 1830. General John Floyd built a string of forts (one of which was called Fort Mudge) surrounding the swamp to prevent the escape of the Seminoles. General John Floyd engaged the Indians on the outskirts of the Okefenokee Swamp that October. Following the battle, General Charles Floyd (John's son) moved into the swamp in pursuit of the Seminoles. He discovered Floyd's Island, largest in the swamp, which held an Indian village and one Indian. After a couple of skirmishes, Billy Bowleg's Indians escaped Floyd's dragnet and headed south to the Everglades.

Ware County courthouse was the site of the first sale of the land in the Okefenokee in 1852. The following year Daniel Lee entered the swamp and laid claim to Billy's Island (named for the Chief Billy Bowlegs). For fifty years Dan Lee, his wife and family, lived deep in the swamp. In 1854 Doctor George White gave the commonly accepted meaning of the term "Okefenokee," as Ecunnau or "earth" and finocau or "quivering." In today's literature it is still known as the "Land of the Trembling Earth." This is not a reference to earthquakes, but to the unstable earth that would shake from something as light as a footfall. Another early settler was William Chesser, who moved to Chesser Island in 1858 to escape a manslaughter charge.

After the War Between the States, settlers began to claim the land around the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. The State of Georgia still claimed the swamp itself, which it classified as unsurveyed land. In 1871 Obediah Barber, who had lived near the swamp since 1854, established a homesite within the boundaries of the Okefenokee. His homestead, which still stands, is the best preserved of all early settler cabins and is the centerpiece of Obediah's Okefenok. He would live in the swamp for the next 35 years, outliving two of his three wives. When surveys were done people sought Obediah to guide them through the Land of the Trembling Earth. His exploits earned him the title "King of the Okefenokee".

The Atlanta (Daily) Constitution sent a team to explore the swamp in 1875, and both Obediah Barber and Dan Lee became famous. In 1881, with the completion of the Waycross and Florida Railroad (later part of the Savannah, Florida and Western), railroads began to encroach on the Okefenokee. This line passed on the eastern edge of the swamp.

In 1889 the Georgia legislature approved the sale of the remaining land of the swamp. A group of investors headed by Captain Henry Jackson and consisting almost entirely of friends of then governor John B. Gordon, purchased almost 240,000 remaining acres in 1891. They moved huge dredges into the swamp, building the canal at a rate of 44 feet per day. Over the next two years the group constructed 12 miles of canals, but were forced to abandon the swamp because of financial problems, entering receivership in 1897.

Railroads entered the swamp in 1897, with the construction of the Atlantic, Valdosta & Western Railway (called the Jacksonville Short Line). The line was completed the following year. In 1901 Charles Hebard began a logging operation in the Okefenokee. Hebard's company laid a railroad track 35 miles to Billy's Island. It grew to the point of having a church, movie theater and a school for the children of the workers. By 1928, operations were scaled back and soon the village was a ghost town. The cut and leave policies of the lumber company left untold thousands of acres of habitat destroyed. Scaled-down logging operations did continue in the Okefenokee Swamp through 1942.

Francis Harper, who visited the swamp as student at Cornell, wrote in the U. S. Biological Survey, 1917, "It is a refuge for some especially rare or interesting forms of animal life. It is a winter resort for large numbers of migratory waterfowl. It still contains...500 square miles of diversified territory in an absolutely primeval state." Harper liked the Okefenokee Swamp so much that he moved there, building a house on Chesser Island.

A major fire destroyed a significant amount of habitat in 1925. Later fires, in 1931, 1932, 1954 and 1955 also struck the swamp.

In 1931 a proposal was made for the federal government to purchase the Okefenokee Swamp with the intention of preserving the area as a "wild-life" sanctuary. The Special Committee on Conservation of Wild-life Resources visited from March 9 to March 14, 1931. Their conclusion was that the swamp was not of value as a migratory bird refuge, but it would make an "attractive and valuable sanctuary" for indigenous species. The report notes that the habitat of the ivory-billed woodpecker was slated for destruction the following year.

Francis Harper wanted to save the swamp he knew and loved. Jean Sherwood had tutored Franklin Roosevelt's children before she married Francis Harper, so she decided to write her former employer. Her first letter, dated Noverber 25, 1933 implored the President to withhold funds from a canal project slated to cross the Okefenokee. While he deferred, saying the time was not right, the proposal was deemed unfeasible. Jean Harper, however, continued to write President Roosevelt, who created the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge on March 30, 1937 when he issued Executive Order 7593.

Francis and Jean had won the protection of their beloved swamp. Or so they thought. With the swamp under federal management, Harper's farming friends found they could no longer kill bear or bobcats that attacked their animals. Over a short period, many left to seek work outside the Okefenokee.

In 1996 controversy flaired over Dupont's attempt to mine titanium from Trail Ridge. Although not techinically in the protected swamp, it is Trail Ridge that impounds the waters creating the swamp. Environmentalists strongly objected to the mining, and Dupont ended up donating the 16,000 acres to the Georgia Wildlife Foundation, the largest single gift in their history.

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Okefenokee Swamp Timeline

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