Florida's Vanishing Trail
Introduction to: Florida’s Vanishing Trail
By James Hammond ©
A STEP BACK IN TIME
The time is the 1700s and Florida is wild and unsettled territory, claimed by the Spanish and peopled by migrating bands of Indians. The Indians, largely Creeks from Georgia and Florida, gradually settle in and come to be called “cimmarones” (the “wild” or “untamed” ones) by the Spanish. Cimmaron, the Spanish rootword, implies defiance and love of freedom which well-describes these people. The Cimmarones population had once grown to as many as 100,000 people but constant raiding parties from the northern Creek tribes and diseases contracted following the Yamassee War in 1715 decimate their populations and culture. By 1763, the English take control of the territory from the Spanish. They incite the Indians, whom they call the “Seminoles”, to attack American settlers who are beginning a new migration.
It is against this hostile backdrop that the grandfather of Floridian naturalists, William Bartram, begins his legendary travels penetrating the unexplored interior of Florida from the St. Johns River southward. His work and that of other naturalists that followed him give us a picture of the Florida of the1700s. Bartram and his colleagues diligently record the natural groves of trees that flank Florida’s rivers and their estuaries. Water oaks, black oaks, live oaks, magnolia, hickory, ash, and maple, all in their natural orders, flourish in vast tracks often stretching 20 miles square.1To the north, the visitor’s record huge forests of pine. To the south, they describe pine and bald cypress hammocks rising from the glades, orange and lime trees nestled together in natural groves, and encircling strands of palm trees – some 150 feet high. Royal palms, silver palms, cabbage palms, queen palms - all thrive in the moist warm climate. The expanses of trees offer secure havens for the thousands of species of wildlife. Bird populations burgeon. No farmers have yet cleared land for plantations and no ship builders have arrived to raze the groves. Soon they will come, along with other entrepreneurs ready to tap trees for turpentine and clear-cut whole forests of pine from Pensacola down to the tip of Florida lying seven hundred miles south.
Explorers in the 1700s report thousands of alligators and crocodiles filling every river and stream on Florida’s east coast. These hungry predators line the shores awaiting their abundant prey. The annual mullet run brings great swarms of fish literally swimming into their open jaws, and turning peaceful tributaries into ‘pots of boiling water’ rising 25 feet in the air.2 Fish abound - unlimited schools of tarpon, bass, bream, snook, sheepshead, blue gill, trout, drum, flounder, kingfish, snapper, and a hundred other species. This Florida is clearly a land of abundance with negligible human habitation. Only a few remnants of ancient populations remain in the vast southern territory. Botanists of the period describe the land they cross as great savannahs and huge sheets of water stretching from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay, a shallow ever-flowing sea supplied by a vast underground network of artesian springs and filled with sawgrasses. In later years, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the matriarch of the Everglades, will call this watercourse the (River of Grass). Florida’s water supply - then seemingly endless - rises from a reported 2000 first magnitude springs each capable of producing over one million gallons of water per day.3