A 1791 account: Muscogee in Okefenokee Swamp

By David Pendered

July 24 – In a 1791 account of Muscogee (Creek) mythology, the Okefenokee Swamp is described as a sort of Shangra-La, an inaccessible place of rich resources, beautiful women and fierce warriors.

This story concludes with the entire written description of the Muscogee Nation’s relation with the swamp, as recounted by William Bartram, a Quaker natural scientist, in his expansive 1791 memoir that chronicles his four-year journey through the Southeast, The Travels of William Bartram. This story concludes with a commentary on Bartram’s report by the book editor for this 1958 edition, produced by Yale University.

This 1795 British map spells the swamp just as William Bartram spelled it in his 1791 book. The amber-colored balloon points to the swamp’s location. (Credit: National Museum of American History, David Pendered)

Bartram’s account of the Muscogee Nation’s relation to the swamp has taken on new relevance in light of the latest proposal to extract wealth from the swamp’s environs. Twin Pines Minerals, LLC seeks to dig strip mines outside the southeastern border of the swamp to extract sands that contain titanium, which has multiple industrial uses. Tracts associated with the project exceed 12,000 acres near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, according to a report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps issued an order in June that halted the review of the permit application and compelled the involvement of the Muscogee (Creek) in discussions over the proposal. The civilian administrator who issued the ruling was strongly supported by the Senate, which voted to confirm Mike Conner’s appointment by a vote of 92-3, with his nomination endorsed by the National Audubon Society and a Republican senator who backs the Dakota Access Pipelines.

Twin Pines responded to Conner’s order by filing a federal lawsuit to block the Corps’ action. The latest development is Twin Pines’ motion of July 8, which asks a judge to temporarily halt the Corps from enforcing the order, according to a motion filed in the U.S. District Court’s Southern District, in Waycross.

Bartram traveled near the swamp as the nation was asserting its independence from England.

Bartram identifies the swamp by its name of the era, Ouaquaphenogaw, which also appears on a map produced in 1795 by a London cartographer, H. D. Symonds. Bartram reports the Muscogee (Creeks) portrayed the area as a “terrestrial paradise,” an “enchanting spot” with the “most valuable hunting grounds.” The women are “incomparably beautiful” and describe their husbands as “fierce men, and cruel to strangers.”

Ouaquaphenogaw was a place that, like other utopias, could not be found by the Muscogees who sought it. Their quest always ended with “never having been able to find that enchanting spot nor even any road or pathway to it.”

‘The Travels of William Bartram.’ By William Bartram. (Credit: David Pendered

The book’s full title is in keeping with grandeur afforded travelers of the day: Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, The Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogees, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws; Containing An Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions, Together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians.

The title of the final section is in keeping with the period’s outlook on the native people: “Description of the Character, Customs and Persons of the American Aborigines….”

The Fulton County Library System has a copy available for checkout, the Naturalist Edition edited by Francis Harper and published in 1958 by Yale University Press. The book comes in at 727 pages, plus an afterward comprised of drawings of creatures including alligators and exotic species such as the Wattoola Great Savannah Crane, aka Florida Sandhill Crane, and the Crying Bird, aka Florida Limpkin. Photos dating to Harper’s retracing Bartram’s route in the 1930s show water hyacinth on the Alachua Savanna, in Florida, and rhododendrum growing at the “unparalleled cascade of Falling Creek,” in the Chattahoochee National Forest.

Bartram’s book doesn’t appear to have received direct coverage in recent days. WABE radio reporter Molly Samuel referenced the book, though not the author or title, in her July 6 report on a visit to the Okefenokee by members of the Muscogee Nation, ‘Our homelands are important’: Muscogee Nation works to deepen involvement with Okefenokee Swamp.


Verbatim from “The Travels of William Bartram”

The entire segment on the Okefenokee from The Travels of William Bartram is reprinted under the belief that this complies with fair use of the material. This section appears as one paragraph in the book. It is presented here in bite-size paragraphs that may be easier to read. From pages 17-18:

  • The river St. Mary has its source from a vast lake, or marsh, called Ouaquaphenogaw, which lies between Flint and Oakmulge rivers, and occupies a space of near three hundred miles in circuit.
  • This vast accumulation of waters, in the wet season, appears as a lake, and contains some large islands or knolls, of rich high land; one of which the present generation of the Creeks represent to be a most blissful spot of the earth:

    William Bartram. (Credit: photo of oil on canvas)
  • they say it is inhabited by a peculiar race of Indians, whose women are incomparably beautiful; they also tell you, that this terrestrial paradise has been seen by some of their enterprising hunters, when in pursuit of game, who being lost in inextricable swamps and bogs, and on the point of perishing, were unexpectedly relieved by a company of beautiful women, whom they call daughters of the sun, who kindly gave them such provisions as they had with them, which were chiefly fruit, oranges, dates &c. and some corn cakes, and then enjoined them to fly for safety to their own country; for that their husbands were fierce men, and cruel to strangers:
  • they further say, that these hunters had a view of their settlements, situated on the elevated banks of an island, or promontory, in a beautiful lake; but that in their endeavours to approach it, they were involved in perpetual labryniths and, like inchanted land, still as they imagined they had just gained it, it seems to fly before thme, alternately appearing and disappearing.
  • They resolved, at length, to leave the delusive pursuit, and to return; which, after a number of inexpressible difficulties, they effected. When they reported their adventures to their countrymen, their young warriors were enflamed with an irresistible desire to invade, and make a conquest of, so charming a country; but all these attempts have hitherto proved abortive, never having been able to find that enchanting spot nor even any road or pathway to it; yet they say that they frequently meet with certain signs of its being inhabited, as the building of canoes, footsteps of men, &c.
  • They tell another story concerning the inhabitants of this sequestered country which seems probably enough, which is, that they are the posterity of a fugitive remnant of the ancient Yamases, who escaped massacre after a bloody and decisive conflict between them and tehe Creek nation (who, it is certain, conquered, and nearly exterminated, that once powerful people) and here found an asylum, remote and secure from the fury of their proud conquerors.
  • It is, however, certain that there is a vast lake, or drowned swamp, well known, and often visited both by white and Indian hunters, and on its environs the most valuable hunting grounds in Florida, well worth contending for, by those powers whose territories border on it.
  • From this great source of rivers, St. Mary arises, and meanders through a vast plain and pine forest, near an hundred and fifty miles to the ocean, with which it communicates between the point of Amelia and Talbert islands, the waters flow deep and gently down from its sources to the sea.


Verbatim from Harper’s commentary

Harper offers the following insights on Bartram’s report about the swamp. Again, this section is reproduced verbatim. From pages 339-340:

  • This is the most celebrated early account of Okefinokee Swamp, and it has often been quoted. It is possible that the inhabitants were, as Bartram says, a fugitive remnant of the ancient Yamasees. The St. Mary’s River enter the ocean between Cumberland and Amelia Island – not, as Bartram says, between Amelia and Talbot (Talbert”) Islands.
  • [A segment on the derivation of the name Okefenonkee is omitted here.]
  • The story of the lost tribe of the Okefinokee appealed strongly to later historians and persons of literary instincts. The English poetess, Mrs. Hemans, made it the subject of her poem, The Isle of Founts, which begins:

Son of the stranger! Wouldst thou take

O’er yon blue hils they lonely way,

To reach the still and shining lake

Along whose banks the west-winds play?

Let no vain dreams thy heart beguile,

Oh! Seek thou not the Fountain-Isle.”