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GeographyCamp Life in Florida
It is a singular fact that for a part of the year at least three-fourths of Florida is under water. After such an introduction my readers will perhaps think that I have chosen a very unattractive subject, for they can scarcely see what there is that can possibly be interesting in swamps, even though they are vast, and teeming with an exuberant growth of vegetation, or in sluggish rivers, if they do abound in all classes of animal life. Had I nothing to write about, however, excepting the sub-merged sections, I trust I could find something even there which would interest and perhaps instruct my readers. But it must be remembered that the State of which I am speaking contains nearly as much land as is occupied by New England, and that notwithstanding three-fourths of it is under water, the number of square miles which are never flooded considerably exceed the area of Massachusetts. This country has also considerable value, and the United States was aware of this fact, for in 1819 $15,000,000 were paid to Spain for relinquishing her claims. Although the Government has doubtless committed many errors, this purchase cannot be considered as one of them. For, aside from the question of the protection afforded to our southern borders, this peninsula is certainly a desirable acquisition to the Union.
The water, which covers so much of Florida, is both detrimental and beneficial to the inhabitants. Much arable land is rendered worthless from this cause, but it is by means of the numerous rivers and bayous that the settlers gain ready access to the interior. The St. Johns is the largest river in the State, and forms the principal thoroughfare to the numerous little towns, which are situated on its banks. As the region through which this river flows contains as many inhabitants as any other portion of the State, I will endeavor to convey some idea of this section by describing what I have seen while making several trips up this stream. I say up, but as the St. Johns rises nearly two hundred miles south of its outlet, this term will perhaps give an erroneous idea, for this is the only river in the United States that flows directly north, and as the peninsula lies north and south, this stream runs parallel with the coast as far as Jacksonville; then winding directly east flows into the Atlantic ocean, within twenty-five miles of the northern boundary of the State, thus traversing in its course nearly two-thirds of the entire length of Florida.
Jacksonville is the largest city in the State, and although of recent growth compared with other towns contains about 10,000 inhabitants, and is the centre of trade. Several lines of small river steamers form the means of communication with the interior.
I found myself on one of these little steamers early one December morning, gliding over the sun-lit waters. The river for about a hundred miles is very wide, being a succession of lakes, on which account the Indians named the stream "Welaka," which in their language signifies the river of lakes. These lakes vary from two ten miles in width, and as the boat kept in the middle, we could see but little of the shores, excepting when we called at various towns. The small size of these villages surprised me much, for I had long been familiar with their names on the maps, and although some of them have been settled for about three hundred years, at the time of my first visit, in 1868, they contained but three or four houses. Of course, in the days when the Spaniards occupied Florida these places were much larger, being important military posts, and formed the homes of many inhabitants. They have deteriorated much since, but are now growing slowly; how slowly may be seen by the fact that after an absence of four years I again visited this section and found that some villages had added only one or two houses to their number, while others remained as I had previously seen them. I have used the term houses in speaking of the inhabited structures along the upper St. Johns, but shanties would perhaps convey a better idea of their appearance. It will be a source of much wonder why the steamers touched at such places, but it must be understood that they are with a few exceptions representatives of the towns in East Florida, and contained postoffices. We stopped then to leave the mail, and frequently to take on wood, or occasionally found a passenger waiting. And odd passengers they were too, many of them genuine Florida crackers."
At a wooding-up station where there was but one dwelling, a queer looking specimen of humanity came on board in the shape of a long, lank individual, clad in homespun. In one hand he carried an old-fashioned rifle, and with the other led a fine looking horse, upon which was strapped a large saddle, with a saddlebag and an axe-handle hanging on either side. This singular being had a powder-horn suspended from his brawny neck, and his matted black hair hung down to his shoulders, while his unkempt board reached nearly to his waist. A pair of sinister eyes looked out from under the shaggy brows, which were shaded by a slouched hat. He was evidently a hunter by profession. At one of these stopping places we dropped a little dried-up man, whose countenance indicated an uncertain age. He might have been twenty or even fifty, for he was evidently one of the Rip Van Winkle type of men who can lie down and sleep an age or two in the wilderness without trouble. From this sleep they will arise half awake, and again plod through the world, no more or less musty-looking or dried up than before. Such men, even while in infancy, have scarcely enough flesh to cover their bones. As they grow older this little expands, until a certain age, when it hardens; then old Time may shake his glass over their heads without producing the slightest effect, or hack at them with his rusty scythe in vain—lthey look not an hour older. Such was the bodily appearance of the man whom we dropped at this place. He was clad in a very dirty suit of homespun cotton cloth, while a satchel of the same material hung at his side. His not very prepossessing face was shaded by an old palmetto hat, from beneath which his long flaxen hair hung in tangled skeins. His stockingless feet, thrust into a pair of broad-soled shoes, proclaimed him a cracker of the lowest class.
The steamers move slowly against the current, so that in twenty-four hours we had accomplished but one hundred miles of our journey, and on the following morning we were crossing Lake George, This is a very large expanse of water, about ten miles in diameter. At the southern extremity the river suddenly narrows, so that it is but a few rods across. Here the scenery changes entirely. The stately live-oaks and Pines of the tropical-looking more northern St. Johns give place to the tropical palmetto and the graceful foliaged sweet bay. Vegetation is also much more advanced, and as the steamer almost brushed against the luxuriant foliage, we could catch the odors of thousands of flowering shrubs growing in the dense forest which lay on either side. It was indeed a scene of surpassing loveliness, to which I can scarcely do justice. One must stand, as I stood that morning, with every sense rapt in profound admiration of the beautiful panorama that was passing before the eyes, and with the south wind, laden with those delightful odors, blowing gently across the face, to thoroughly appreciate it. For every turn of the now winding river disclosed new beauties for enjoyment.
At first the brain is confused with the multiplicity of objects that are presented to the gaze. Gradually, however, the eye becomes accustomed to the mass of greater green, and selects objects of greater interest from the whole. From the exuberant growth of creepers and shrubs which line the water's edge, the attention is drawn to the gray, straight trunks of the palmettos, with their stiff fan-like fronds. The dark green of these is relieved by the paler foliage of the sweet gum, while high over all bangs the giant branches of the lofty black walnuts drooped with festoons of Spanish moss. Large bunches of the emblematic mistletoe are brought out in strong relief against the blue sky, with their bright green colors heightened by their more sombre surroundings. An occasional group of the gloomy cypress might be seen among this sea of living green, raising their dark trunks covered with leafless branches from the swampy ground. As we passed onward our attention was attracted by numerous orange groves, which were growing upon shell mounds, with the golden, fruit relieved by the dark green and shining leaves. This scene was rendered intensely interesting by the multitude of birds which swarmed on all sides. Numerous ducks and gallinules swam among the aquatic plants on the river's margin. At one point we saw a group of red and black-headed vultures feeding upon the carcass of some animal. Large numbers of wood ducks started up everywhere, flying but a short distance, then tamely settling down again. Among all this apparently peaceful life the great law of nature, which ordains that her subjects shall live by preying upon one another, was in full force. At every few rods along the river was perched a hawk. They sat silent and apathetic, but were only waiting for the coots and ducks to finish their morning meal of aquatic life before seizing the plumpest of them for breakfast. High overhead the osprey was sailing with motionless wings, in huge circles, gazing with eager eyes upon the fishes below. The ever-watchful bald eagle was perched upon the lofty black walnuts eagle or cypresses, intent upon the motions of the fish-hawk. This magnificent scenery, in which is mingled so much of life and animation, must attract the attention and call forth the admiration of the most casual observer. What, then, must be the sensations of the earnest student of nature? Words fail to express the intense ecstasy that he feels as object after object presents itself to his bewildered gaze. The brain is completely overwhelmed and can simply grasp the mingled mass as it is seen; and in calmer moments arrange each in its proper place.
The sun had now reached a considerable height, and was shining hotly on the water. The captain of the steamer informed us that we might as well be on the look-out for alligators. About a dozen among the passengers produced rifles or shotguns, and we took our stations on the upper dock. As we stood near the wheel-house an old negro, who was steering, exclaimed, "See, dar's one!" at the same time pointing toward a large object. His words were followed by the sharp crack of half a dozen rifles, and as many voices excitedly shouted, "I have killed him." But the loud laugh from some of the experienced hunters, and a broad grin on the black face of the pilot, told these amateurs that they had been sold. Their bullets had merely set free the gases contained in the carcass of a dead alligator.
A short distance beyond this point we saw a flock of about twenty wild turkeys on the river bank. They were beneath some orange trees, and were very tame. As we came in sight of them there as a simultaneous discharge of firearms; but in the excitement of the moment it was entirely without effect. The turkeys scattered right and left, and were soon lost in the thick underbrush. Soon after this the alligators became quite numerous, and the deck of the steamer presented an animated scene, resounding with the sharp crack of rifles. The hideous reptiles were in all positions; some were sleeping on the banks, others half in the water, and some were swimming swiftly about with only their ugly snouts and repulsive-looking eyes visible. Sometimes one would roll over in his death agony, after receiving a single shot. Then the attention of the whole party plants with his head toward us. It was resting on the mud, and one of the party was about to place his foot upon it, when a lively look in the animal's eyes deterred him. Stooping down, he picked up a floating branch and lightly threw it in the reptile's face. The result was somewhat surprising. The huge jaws opened instantly, and the formidable tail came round sweeping the branch into his mouth, where it was crushed and ground to atoms by the rows of sharp teeth. His eyes flashed fire and he rapidly glided forward. Never did magician of Arabian tale conjure up a fiercer looking demon by wave of his wand, than had been raised to life by a motion of the branch. For a moment we were too astonished to move. The huge monster seemed bent on revenge, and in another instant would be upon us. We then saw our danger, and quicker than a flash of light, thought and action came. The next moment the gigantic saurian was made to struggle on his back, with a bullet in his brain. It had entered his right eye, and had been aimed so nicely as not to cut the lids. To make sure of him this time we severed his jugular vein. While performing this not very delicate operation, he thrust out two singular-looking glands from slits in his throat. They were round and resembled a sea-urchin, being covered with minute projections. They were about the size of a nutmeg, and gave out a strong musky odor. We then took his dimensions, and found that he was over ten feet in length, while his body was larger round than a flour barrel. The immense jaws were three feet long, and when stretched open, would readily take in the body of a man. They were armed with rows of sharp white teeth. The tusks of the lower one, when closed, projected out through two holes in the per, which fact proved to us that it was not an alligator, but a true crocodile (Crocodilus acurus). This is the second instance on record of the capture of reptile in the United States.
Hallock, C. (1876) Camp Life in Florida; A Handbook for Sportsmen and Settlers.
Bird's-Eye Glance at Florida (Pgs. 16-25) New York: Forest and Stream Publishing Company.
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