The Wild Okefenokee : A True Murder Tale Of The Great Georgia Swamp
The Law vs. The Wild Wetlands
The two brothers were at home, just sitting down to enjoy an evening meal, when they heard the horses approaching. The house was located on the banks of the Suwanee River, along the edge of the great Okefenokee Swamp. They were glad for a bit of rest after chasing down a man named William P. Caraway. Their quarry was charged with beating his wife almost to death in a domestic dispute.
One of the brothers, Robert N Brady, was the sheriff of Clinch County Georgia. The other brother, Lewis Jackson Brady, had acted as his deputy as they had pursued and eventually captured Caraway after being handed a warrant signed by the governor of Florida. Since the crime had taken place just across the border between the two states, and the suspect had fled into Georgia, the task fell to Robert and Jackson to make the arrest.
After finally catching their prey, the brothers had returned him to Live Oak, Florida, the county seat of Suwannee county where the crime had occurred. At Caraway’s request, the sheriff had taken possession of the arrested man’s horse, rifle, and pistol to hold for him until justice had been served. The Florida officials also requested that Robert hold onto the man's possessions until notified otherwise
Like other settlers in the area, the brothers had not been born in the great swamp. The Bradys had originally lived near present day Atlanta but when Robert bought a wagon with two mules and two horses to pull it, he decided to try his hand at being a traveling vendor. It was this trade which eventually brought him down to the lower part of the state and into contact with the great swamp..
De Soto and the Great Swamp
De Soto's scouts encounter Lake Oconi
Hernando De Soto used his scouts to comb the countryside on either side of his intended direction and garnered knowledge about the Okefenokee from eyewitness reports and from native tribes--in this case, the Oconi, members of the Muskogee Indians--to decide the swamp offered no treasure to be found.
For this reason De Soto didn't waste much time exploring the forbidding wilderness, skirting the edge of it instead.
On early maps the area was considered to be merely a shallow inland sea or ancient cypress covered lake. It was originally listed on the maps as Lake Oconi by early Spanish cartographers.
They also heard tales of giant people living on islands in the deepest part of the wetlands. Some of the tales were found to be very close to the truth as islands were indeed found during the second Seminole War in the 19th century.
When the first Spanish explorers encountered what we now know as the Okefenokee Swamp in the 16th century they considered it a dense cypress laden lake, filled with giant alligators, venomous reptiles, and also hostile natives. On their early maps it was referred to as Lake Oconi, so called because of an Indian tribe by that name living on its perimeter.
These earliest European explorers avoided the mysterious wetlands, not just because they were so difficult to travel through without becoming hopelessly lost, but because they held no treasure the explorers could see. And treasure--namely gold-- was what the Spaniards had come for.
This vast, almost impenetrable morass, the largest peat-based blackwater swamp in the United States and one of the largest in the world, seemed to beckon the hardiest and toughest of men to its confines as lesser individuals had no chance of surviving in its daunting environment.
For thousands of years man had hunted wild game on the high ground and fished the black waters of the wetlands. There was plenty of food and building materials there, but only if one had the courage to enter the mysterious forests and the skill to come back out alive again. And certainly, some never did.
Getting lost in over 700 square miles of confusing waterways and thick primeval woodlands was no picnic. But the appeal of freedom and solitude the great swamp offered was almost irresistible to some adventurous souls, and so they came.
Settling in the Okefenokee Environs
Brothers In Law
Robert had apparently fallen under the spell of the Okefenokee Swamp during his travels to the area as he eventually married a young lady from nearby Berrien county. Around 1859 he convinced his parents to move the rest of the family down to DuPont, a small settlement near Homerville in Clinch County, Georgia.
He opened a store in the small town, successfully operating it until being elected to the office of sheriff of Clinch county. He was commissioned to the office in January 1873. His brother Jackson was there to lend him support and aid in his capacity as a deputy when the need arose. And it often did in this country of harsh realities.
Besides Robert and Jackson there were four other brothers who, along with them, all served on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Three of them reportedly died as result of a measles epidemic while the war raged on.
Robert, Jackson, and their other surviving brother, Thomas Asa, later returned home to the swamps, apparently even tougher and war hardened than they were before the conflict.
Robert was regarded well by the locals as was apparent by his being elected to the office of sheriff in Clinch County two years before the Caraway incident. He relied on Jackson to help him serve his term and Jackson fulfilled his trust as only a brother could.
Both had reared sizable families near the swamp and were in the prime of their lives with Robert being only 34 years of age and Jackson about 36 years old at this time. From all indications both seemed satisfied with their lives and looked forward to a long peaceful future.
Little did they know their peaceful afternoon would not long remain that way for the 6 horsemen were not coming on a cordial visit. Members of the captured man's family made up the group of riders bearing down on the lonely dwelling.
The Cane Grinding
The reason the two lawmen were alone at this time of day was because a very important social event was taking place at a distant neighbor’s residence. Jackson’s family, along with Robert’s, were attending a cane grinding at a neighbors farm quite a distance from Jackson’s home on the Suwanee River in the southern part of Clinch County.
A cane grinding was one of the few social events in this part of the country, one the young folks especially looked forward to because of the other eligible members of the opposite sex usually in attendance. There would be music and dancing, and of course, good food and drink.
Many families spent the night at the scene because of the long distance traveled to attend the festive event. The areas best fiddle players would often travel quite a distance to compete with and to learn new tunes from their peers. A demi-john of locally made whiskey never failed to appear on the darkened outskirts of the festivities
"A Cane Grinding" - Making Cane Syrup
As the mule turned the great sweep--usually a log with the bark still attached--of the massive cane press, the stalks of green sugarcane were slowly fed between the 2 steel drums and the sweet green juice would flow from a trough into a drum. This juice would then be poured into a great cast iron vat with a hot fire of heart pine burning in the brick surround holding the vat.
The water was evaporated from the juice and any impurities skimmed from the top of the hot liquid until it was ready to be cooled enough to be stored in glass jars for the winter. Cane syrup comprised most of the sugar these folks consumed as white sugar was an expensive and rare commodity to these self-sufficient people.
Perhaps because of the recent arrest of Caraway and the bad feelings invoked among the families and friends of the accused, both Robert and Jackson Brady did not attend the cane grinding with their families. Blood feuds were nothing new to the area as many of the scattered settlers were related to each other by marriage all around the great swamp.
Did the riders know the brothers were at home alone or did it matter to them at the time? There is no way of knowing this for sure at this late date. Besides, it doesn’t make any difference now. Not when almost 140 years has passed by.
Denizens of the Swamp
Secret Islands In The Great Okefenokee
The mysterious Okefenokee had long harbored those seeking to escape notice as it did the Indians when they were forced to give up their lands during the dreaded Trail Of Tears. It took quite a force of men to roust the remnants of the once mighty tribal nation from the depths of the dark and mysterious woodlands.
It was only during this time the islands hidden deep in the heart of the swamp were discovered quite by accident. Those searching for the renegade natives often wondered just how the natives survived in the water filled areas when they themselves had such difficulty traversing it.
But the lucky find of a herd of cows led them to the discovery of what is now called Floyd’s Island, a sizable piece of high ground where the Indians lived high and dry until their secluded island sanctuaries were found.
There are other islands in the swamp, Billy’s Island--named for an Indian Chief, Billy Bowlegs--became the site of a town of over 600 residents in the 1920’s during the great logging days of the Okefenokee. It had a theater, saloon, stores, and even a church, but is a ghost town only visited by tourists today.
Billy's Island had a reputation for rough and ready action because of the loggers who toiled in the vast forests of pine and giant cypress trees. Life was dangerous in the swamp with death always a possibility, as many found out during those harsh times. Any chance for fun and recreation was never overlooked after the long hard days in the swamp. Trouble was never far away.
The Law and the Fugitives
The six men approaching the home of Jackson Brady were all related by marriage in some way or another. Blood ties in the great swamp were of major importance, both as to pride and political aspirations. One of men was James Thomas Padgett, son of James “Tip” Padgett-- recently elected as a state representative and a resident of Echols County Georgia.
His brother Allen Padgett, had also been implicated along with Caraway, in the beating of Caraway’s wife. Another brother accompanying the group was William Lee, according to a Homerville newspaper printed at the time. Although the state representative "Tip" Padgett was with the men at his residence shortly before the murders occurred, he was not reported to be with them at the time the crimes was committed
The other men were Tip’s son-in-law, George Hunter and George’s brother Wesley,along with William Blount, all of them from roughly the same area and related in some manner. On the way to the Brady residence the riders encountered several local settlers and stated they were going to get Caraway’s horse and guns. Later on they returned and indeed had Caraway’s property as well as threatened going to Live Oak to shoot up the place and release Caraway from the jail.
At this point a young nephew of the Bradys, along with a neighbor, went to the Brady home and found both of the brothers shot multiple times and mangled horribly. Jackson was dead, shot through the heart. Robert Brady was shot 7 times and at first appeared to have his throat cut for good measure, but he was still alive.
It was finally determined that the two victims were not attacked with knives but were severely beaten with pistols instead. One of the bullets which had struck Robert's breast had exited through his throat giving the appearance of a knife slash which caused the erronious reports of knives being used on the two brothers
Robert lived almost 2 months before finally succumbing to his wounds, never again speaking above a whisper, but able to identify both his and Jackson's assailants before his death.
Ever since I was a small child I had heard this story about my great-great-grandfather, Jackson Brady being murdered in the Okefenokee. As family legends often are, some of it was true while other parts were apparently added on as the years passed.
One of the false parts of the family story was that Asa chased down the murderers and killed them one by one. Romantic, but apparently not true. Only after doing much research through newspaper archives and other historical records did I finally get the true story of the horrendous crime.
So far, I have found nothing to show the riders were ever arrested nor convicted of the crime as most appear in later census records and obituaries. Some, however did not live a full and happy life. Tip Padgett was shot dead by his son-in-law George Hunter when he shot Hunter’s dog in 1883 .
George was then allegedly waylaid and killed by Tip’s son Thomas a year later in 1884. Thomas himself was shot with buckshot by another sheriff when attempting to escape custody because of the same family blood fued in 1887, but lived a few years longer. A Tough end for rough men.
I will update this article if I find out anything new about this episode in my continuing research and if the court files on the aftermath of the murders can be discovered.--Randy Godwin
UPDATE : More info on the case
According to information I've recently discovered, it appears the gunmen were a group of lawless related men who eventually increased their number by several more members as they terrorized the area of southern Georgia and northern Florida around the great swamp. They used threats, extortion, and-- as we've observed-- violence, to bully the local residents into submission
At this time there is no evidence these murdering scoundrels were ever brought to task for their horrible crimes of murder and robbery in the Okefenokee area. Strong family and political ties apparently had a hand in keeping these renegades from being punished by the law. Instead they tended to murder each other, with most suffering the same fate they had dealt out to other unfortunate residents around the great swamp.
Many of the remaining members of the Brady family apparently decided to leave the area after the murders because their lives were in peril due to the lack of justice meted out to the murders of their kin. More to come if possible.
More Historic Articles By Randy Godwin
- Rosin In The Blood : The Rutland Tradition Of Old Time Fiddlers
Is musical talent inherited? This article gives evidence that this may indeed be the case. A famous family of "old time fiddlers", the Rutland clan, is examined with music videos to prove the point.
- Fort George Island Florida : The Zephaniah Kingsley Plantation
A fascinating look at an island plantation operated by slaves and owned by several noted early Americans and Spanish operators. Full of historical events and interesting people who made the island more than just a cotton plantation.
- Swamp Crackers : Early Settlers of the Okefenokee Swamp
The people who settled around the great Okefenokee and other southeastern Georgia swamps were a hardy lot. This article discusses those who lived their lives among the wilderness and dark waters of the swamps.
- Georgia's Historic Southern Plantations : Butler Island Rice Plantation
Photos and history of one of Pierce Butlers Georgia plantations near Darien. Fanny Kemble, famous British actress who married Butler's grandson and namesake, lived here a short time.
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