Okefenokee Swamp's Black-Water History



The Black-Water Country: Okefenokee Swamp

Housing The Famous Billy's Island, Is Rich In History And Isolation And Has Been A Home To Many Throughout The Centuries

White Ibis At Billy's Lake [Photo Credit: Josh Snead]

“I literally just came from seeing some.  In fact I am looking at one right now,” says Josh Snead when asked about how often he sees alligators.  Snead goes on, “I went on a paddle this morning.  We saw about 30-40 alligators and it is a cool morning.  You see hundreds each trip when it is warmer.”  Snead is an Interpretive Ranger at Stephen C. Foster State Park in Georgia.  The park is on the Okefenokee Swamp.  Though the park is only about 120 acres, it is an access point to the 700 square mile park and it’s most famous island - Billy’s Island.  

The name “Billy’s Island” has a bit of a legendary history.  Some claim that it came from the famous Native American chief - Chief Billy Bowlegs - of the Seminole Indian wars.  Others claim there was a man named “Indian Billy” that lived there in the early 1800s and was murdered by some cattleman.  That aside, the most famous residents of the island, which then and now is only accessible by boat, were the Lee’s.  James Lee started living a self-sufficient lifestyle with his family in the 1860s.  His family had “livestock and crops” and they “hunted, fished, and had everything they needed,” Snead says.  

As is the case in most American stories, modern technology comes in and completely uproots, literally in this case, the frontier way of life.  In 1907, a logging company moved in and introduced modern society to this contented family.  In the next two decades, the company would clear “425 million board feet, the vast majority being old growth cypress trees,” Snead says, “all the while setting up a movie theater, a cafe, a whole little town on Billy’s Island to support the operation.”   Snead offers the insight, “we are in a whirlwind with the advent of cellphones and the internet.  Think about what it was like being the Lee’s.  You are living with nature, utilizing its resources and all of a sudden this company brings other people from other places and destroys your way of life.”  As most adaptable families do, sons and grandsons of James Lee worked for the logging company, helping the swamp-foreigners to navigate and survive in the hostile environment of the swamp.

Alligators At Mixon's Hammock [Photo Credit:Josh Snead]
Barred Owl Spotten At Okefenokee Swamp [Courtesy/Josh Snead]

When the logging company left, so did the town and the rest of civilization.  As with all things in the swamp- the water, roots, and mud overtook the town and all that remains of its past is some “rusty fences and a few gravestones,” Snead says. Descendants of the Lee’s still remain in the area, along with other swamp families.  

Today, Billy’s Island, along with most the swamp, is the way it has been for thousands of years - a black water reservoir, filled with islands, black bears, alligators, waterways and little remnants of the people who try to survive there.  As it is, what most would call, an undesirable place to live, there have always been outsiders and people seeking refuge from whatever is haunting or hunting them.  Escaped slaves have passed through as it is a great place to hide, though Snead doubts that there were any escaped slave settlements like the Maroon communities in Virginia due to it “still being very deep south and there hasn’t been that much evidence that amounts to that.”  The Native Americans - the Seminole tribes- have made the swamp home at various times throughout history, most recently in an effort to escape forced exile in the 1800s.  The swamp is so vast and foreign to someone who is not from the area that the general in charge of eradicating the Natives, General Rinaldo Floyd, eventually built a “fortress around the swamp,” Snead says, “and when they entered the swamp to find the final Seminoles living there, there is not much evidence to support the Seminoles were still there, instead already forced to Oklahoma or down south to the Everglades.”

Cypress Trees Near Suwanee River Still [Courtesy/Okefenokee Swamp]
Fragment Water Lily [Photo Credit: Josh Snead]

Surely a place so rich in history and isolation has its share of ghost stories.  There are various reports of mystical hazes, ghosts, bigfoot and alien abductions that are easy to find and hard to substantiate, but there are two interesting stories that come out of the swamp that, at least, comes from reliable resources.  Snead says that William Bartram, the great American Naturalist, relates a story he heard from the “Creek, who were living in the area.”  Bartram said that the Creek warriors met the “people of the sun,” beautiful maidens who were said to live on an island in the middle of the swamp.  The more dramatic versions include alligator-infested waters, maidens who nurse settlers back to health on a mystical-haze filled island, and things of that nature.  

The other story is relatively recent and returns us to Billy’s Island.  In 1996, a former park ranger from New York was visiting the swamp and disappeared.  A search party looked for him for several days and weeks.  Then, 41 days later, the ranger was leaning against a tree with tattered clothes and bug bites everywhere on Billy’s Island.  He claimed he got lost and survived on what the island gave him.  Some folks are skeptical of his story, due to Billy’s Island only being 4 miles long by 2 miles wide and there was no evidence of him trying to get help, however the facts of him being discovered 41 days after disappearing are true and the story was widely published at the time of it happening.  

All the historical richness and vastness of the swamp is at the fingertips of Stephen C. Foster State Park.  They have all sorts of activities - star-watching (and alligator watching!) at night, canoeing, hiking, movies, and more.  And what about the alligators?  Should one be afraid?  “They are actually pretty docile reptiles.  They don’t attack unless provoked and you usually just paddle right by them, “ Snead says.  And he should know - he sees hundreds of them a day and perhaps is looking at one right now.  

Andrew Malo

A graduate of Northeastern Illinois University in Education, Andrew has taught for the past decade in Chicago, New Mexico, and Japan.  He  enjoys tinkering with trucks and motorcycles, woodworking, reading and computer programming.  

Stephen J. Foster State Park

Make Sure To Stay At:

Stephen J. Foster State Park,  the primary entrance to the legendary Okefenokee Swamp—one of Georgia's seven natural wonders. Spanish moss-laced trees reflect off the black swamp waters, while cypress knees rise upward from the glass-like surface.

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