Okefenokee Swamp, Charlton Co., GA
(Small alligator posing at Suwanee Canal, south of Folkston, Charlton Co., GA)
Pages and photos taken by, and copyrighted by,
Tara D. Fields 1999-2001 except for jvf.jpg, which was taken and copyrighted by
James V. Fields 1999-2001.
The Okefenokee Swamp, which means "Land of the Trembling Earth," is a depression in the land covering 438,000 acres. Created approximately 7,000 years ago, the swamp is mainly in Georgia but dips a bit into Florida. The Swamp gives birth to two major rivers, the Suwanne River and the St. Marys River. The Suwanne, which was made famous in song by
Stephen Foster, heads south into Florida while the St. Marys travels east and empties into the Intracoastal waterway. The St. Marys River is known as one of the deepest rivers for its width. In fact, deep-bodied ships use to be
towed to settlements inland. The St. Marys is also the border between Southeast Georgia (Camden and Charlton Counties) and Northeast Florida. The "Trembling Earth" is from the 15+ feet of peat that covers the floor of the swamp. Stomping on what appears to be "solid" ground can result and a rumbling underneath to the point where trees may fall and land sink. Contrary
to popular belief, the swamp is not just gloom, doom, and muck - like in the
photo above. While there are some gloomy areas, and a bit of muck, much of
the area is well lit. Travel through the Swamp can be achieved in relative
safety if some simple, commonsense precautions are made.
Wide-open prairies are spaced throughout the swamp. While not quite as "solid" as a mid-west prairie, these are open areas where tall grass grows but very few trees. The grass rises out of the peat so while the area may look solid there is often several inches to several feet of water.
Some of the waterways are wide and easy to paddle through. Other areas are narrow and nearly inaccessible without some "boat-dragging." The widest areas are in the southeast section where canals were dug.
These canals, sometimes known as "Jackson's Folly", were attempts at draining the
swamp. Unfortunately, the swamp has a mind of its own no matter how they dug the canals the water kept flowing the wrong way! The effort was finally dropped. Railroads, however, were another matter. Enough solid land was available to allow entry of a train that was used to haul logs out of the swamp. The railroad no longer exists. Photo
above: View of Canal.
Indians inhabited the Swamp since about 2500 BC. Tribes included the Depford, the Swift Creek, the Weeden Island, and lastly the Seminoles. The last of the Indians, the few that were left after their numbers were decimated by white-man-introduced-disease, were driven out by
General Charles Rindaldo Floyd of Camden County, Georgia. All that
remains of their 4,500-year reign are burial mounds that dot the earth.
by whites came slowly. Only the hardiest could survive the dangers posed by
such a land. Alligators, snakes, sinkholes, and the swamp's maze-like
constructs were just a few of the hazards settlers had to face. The lure of
the swamp lied in its timber. Pine, Cypress, and other hardwood trees made
settlement of the area desirable. Logging and turpentine were the main
businesses in the area. Hunting for food and profit was also popular. Alligator were tracked to their dens, which lies underground and underwater.
One caught and killed their skins were sold. The magnificent Black Bear was
also hunted and skinned for its fur. While farming for basic needs was
possible on the larger islands that dot the swamp, hunting and fishing were
the main sources of protein.
The swamp acts as a large water purifier.
While the water is dark from tannic acid and low in oxygen from decaying
vegetation, the trees and plants that make up the swamp help to clean the
water before it is sent to the Gulf of Mexico and to the Intracoastal
Waterway. In fact, water from the St. Marys River used to be prized for its
flavor and its ability to stay fresh during long voyages by ship.
In 1937, 396,000 acres of the Okefenokee was declared a National Wildlife
Refuge. The few settlers left in the area were moved out. In 1974, the
vast majority of the interior of the swamp was declared a National
Wilderness Area. Francis Harper
did the most to encourage the preservation of the swamp. After his death,
his wife, Jean Harper, took up the struggle and encouraged Washington
politicians to save the swamp before it was too late. Francis's work was
compiled by his wife and published in the wonderful book, Okefinokee
Album. While declaring the swamp a refuge forced the removal of the
settlers in the 1950's, such as the long-established Lee (Billy's Island) and
Chesser (Chesser Island) families, it was the only way to save the
from deforestation and future attempts at draining.
Few remains of settlements exist today. On Billy's Island, you can see
the remains of an old logging camp and on Chesser Island lies the old homestead.
mWhile the Chesser settlement of the island dates back to the 1850's, this
home was built in 1927.
Alligators are a common sighting during the summer and fall. During the winter they tend
to bury themselves under the peat in their dens. It's a good idea to treat them with the respect they deserve! Most alligators, given the choice, will keep their distance from humans. If you are hiking or canoeing/kayaking, it's wise to stick to the trails. If you find a 'gator nest, do not try to approach it. Momma 'gator won't be far away and they are very protective of their young! Alligators can move very quickly so it's best to give them a wide
berth whenever possible. Do not tease them, try to pet them, chase them, feed them, or swim in their waters.
I encourage anyone who wants to see the supreme beauty of nature to visit the
swamp. From the flowering lilies, to the tall stark cypress, to the golden prairies, and even the
majestic power of the resident alligators, there is wonder and beauty all through the
swamp. Of course, there IS still muck, so wear rubber boots and stay in your boats!
Source Geology and Geography of the Okefenokee Swamp
Okefinokee Album by Delma E. Presley
Other links of interest
Chesser Island Homestead
Carl Mobley's pages on Charlton Co. History and Chesser Genealogy
Okefenokee.com is a fun site to visit!