Life in the Okefenokee Swamp

Overview

Over the years the Okefenokee Swamp's distinct ecosystem has been the subject of legends, tall tales, novels, and even a Hollywood film. The diverse flora and fauna found over the approximately 700 square miles of Georgia's southeast corner draw hundreds of thousands of tourists each year to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. While only birds, mammals, and reptiles now reside in North America's largest swamp, the Okefenokee has a long human history that gives the region its rich cultural legacy. Though today the swamp is a federally protected wildlife refuge, visitors may tour the land that once provided sustenance to Indians, escaped slaves, and Western European immigrants, or "crackers."

Natural History

More than sixty-five million years ago, the land that comprises the Okefenokee was beneath the sea. Over time sediment deposits and offshore wave action created a depression that ultimately formed the basin for the swamp. Despite the negative effects of past industrialization, preservation efforts have kept the swampland largely intact and now support an ecosystem rich in biodiversity. The absence of roads helps to maintain the integrity of the swamp ecosystem; canoe trails are the primary routes of travel through the swamp.

The Okefenokee is home to more than 400 species of vertebrates, including more than 200 varieties of birds and more than 60 kinds of reptiles. Cypress swamps, winding waterways, and floating peat mats are a major part of the Okefenokee's habitat mosaic. Wet and dry prairies, swamps dominated by shrubs, and forests of blackgum and bay trees intersperse the array of other habitats. 

Flora and Fauna

Because of the Okefenokee's rich blend of habitats, grasses, sedges, and ferns thrive in drier areas and water lilies, pickerel weed, and yellow-eyed grass are found in wetter sites. The low-nutrient and acidic conditions have created ideal habitats for carnivorous plants, which attract, capture, and digest animals to compensate.

Virtually all species of wading birds and waterfowl native to the Southeast can be found in the Okefenokee in some season. Wood storks, blue herons, and white ibises are common sightings. The terrestrial and aquatic portions of the swamp also support about thirty species of native mammals, including black bears, white-tailed deer, bobcats, gray foxes, opossums, raccoons,  otters, minks, and beavers.

After birds, reptiles make up the most diverse group of vertebrates. American alligators and five species of venomous snakes are indigenous to the swamp, the most obvious and ecologically dominant being the alligator. The Okefenokee is also home to three dozen kinds of amphibians and a diverse assemblage of freshwater fishes that represent fourteen different families.

Human History

Indians occupied the Okefenokee during the late periods of Georgia prehistory, particularly around A.D. 500 and 1200.  At least two Timucuan villages and Spanish missions were located in or near the swamp between 1620 and 1656, and during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the swamp was a hunting ground for Creek Indians. 

A few white families settled on the southeastern edge of the Okefenokee as early as 1805, and after the land lottery of 1820, even more pioneers called the swamp home. There was little change in the Okefenokee landscape until the mid-nineteenth century, when railroads reached the rim of the great swamp. Easy access to transportation and an abundance of natural resources promoted industrialization, which brought jobs at sawmills, turpentine stills, and on the railroads. By 1900 the old-growth longleaf pine forest that encircled the swamp was a forest of stumps.

In 1918 preservation efforts sought to protect the swamp from human interference. The Georgia Society of Naturalists took up the crusade in 1929, and in 1937 the federal government purchased the 292,979-acre property, forcing human inhabitants to relocate in order to protect the swamp's ecosystem and wildlife. Today, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge comprises 402,000 acres.

Culture and Folklife

The Okefenokee Swamp and environs are a distinctive folk region, shaped by Celtic ethnicity, Primitive Baptist religion, and geographic isolation. Indian peoples occupied the "land of the trembling earth" through the early 1800s, when most Indians were forcibly removed from the region. Because of its unique landscape and secluded location, the swamp was an ideal hiding spot for the few remaining Native Americans and later provided a haven for escaped slaves, deserters of the Civil War, and others seeking concealment. Many traditional folk narratives involve themes of refuge and secrecy, while others are concerned with hunting, fishing, or human encounters with the natural world. 

Although the Okefenokee Swamp Wildlife Refuge is no longer home to human inhabitants, tourists may visit several different historic sites to eat a traditional, home-cooked meal or learn such folk traditions as soap-making, quilting, or palmetto broom making. Much of the swamp's cultural heritage was preserved by Francis Harper, who from 1912 to 1951 documented the folk speech, tales, music, customs, home remedies, and beliefs of European Americans living in and around the Okefenokee.

Today, those living near the Okefenokee remember its cultural history by recalling the folklore and traditions that originated in and around its distinct ecosystem. Stories about such folk arts as "pole boat" making, colorful characters of the past, and memories of growing up on one of the "islands" in the Okefenokee still abound in the region.

Explore the Collection
  • Overview
  • Natural History
  • Flora and Fauna
  • Human History
  • Culture and Folklife
Further Reading
Megan Kate Nelson, Trembling Earth: A Cultural History of the Okefenokee Swamp (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005).
Cite This Article
Editors, NGE Staff. "Life in the Okefenokee Swamp." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 26 March 2014. Web. 31 July 2014.
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