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Swamp Crackers : Early Settlers of the Okefenokee Swamp
The Colony of George
Many U.S. states have been dubbed “The State of Adventure” in one advertising campaign or another over the years. But Georgia can truthfully claim it to be so because of its long history and its varied geographical features. It has mountains, seashores, islands, and vast stretches of wilderness with forests and swamps.
The people who settled Southern Georgia, both the coastal and interior areas, were a brave and resolute group. Their legacy has much to be admired by those of us who descended from these wonderful immigrants. It takes all kinds of people to settle a new continent. The people who are the subject of this article, the “Swamp Crackers,” settled an area shunned by the rest of the world. But that was okay by them, they wanted it that way.
Scottish soldiers and their families helped settle Georgia
Scottish Fighters Save The British Colony
After landing in Florida, the Spaniards explored the southern and middle areas of Georgia. But they settled in Florida, founding St. Augustine as the first North American city. Savannah became the first buffer between the British and Spanish settlements. It was founded in 1733 with Darien (originally New Inverness) being founded two years later in 1735. James Oglethorpe founded both ports as a jumping off spot to attack and curtail Spanish expansion from Florida and the French from the Alabama territories.
He chose Scottish troops and their families to settle Darien because of their fighting and colonization abilities. He chose well, for they saved the day for James Oglethorpe when British subjects fled from the invading Spanish troops on St. Simons Island. The Scots were brutal and experienced warriors who fought wildly, allowing Oglethorpe’s troops to rally and repel the Spanish attack. After the “Battle of Bloody Marsh” on St. Simons Island, the Spanish lost any incentive to dislodge the British from the New World.
Because the Gaelic Scots wore dress similar to the Native Americans, such as kilts and soft leather boots, and also had some of the same family values, the Scots seemed to get along fine with the Indians of the area. They learned how to survive and live off of the land much as the Indians did. The settlers discovered an easy life (compared to what they were used to in their own native lands) with food and land aplenty.
This ancestral longing for land eventually caused many of the immigrants to move further inland. Along with the Scots and Brits, other ethnic groups, such as Irish and even African Americans (escaped slaves for the most part) began settling the interior of the state early on. But some areas of Southern Georgia and Northern Florida were not so easily cleared for agricultural use or urban development. These areas consisted of vast swamps and wetlands. Bays and peat swamps dot the area with the largest of these being the Okefenokee Swamp near Waycross Georgia.
The Lure Of The Okefenokee
Boastful but deserving
The Okefenokee Swamp is the largest black water peat swamp in the U.S. and is one of the seven wonders of Georgia. Over 600 square miles of water filled basins and shallow grass prairies mingle with higher area of land which were once ancient dunes or barrier islands during the Pleistocene era.
When the ocean retreated, the shallow basin remained, becoming the source for the St. Mary’s and Suwanee rivers. But even this great morass was called home to some of Georgia’s hardiest and happiest souls. At one time they were called “Swamp Crackers.”
The word Cracker is thought to have originated from the Elizabethan word crack and the Gaelic word craic, meaning to boast or brag. With the swamps being settled by English, Scottish, and Irish descendents, it is probable the term represented the boisterous woodsmen who exhibited such independence of thought and deed.
Although sometimes used in a derogatory manner, the word “cracker” is often used as a term of pride in one’s ancestry, as well it should be. Although they didn’t possess a high degree of formal education, they survived and throve among the giant cypress trees and palmetto fronded islands and high ground.
The swamps furnished almost everything they needed to raise large families and feed them well.
Food and Clothing in the Swamps
Cracker Dwellings and Swamp Survival
Because of the rot resistance of cypress and yellow pine heartwood, the simple buildings constructed by the swamp crackers needed very little paint or repairs. The silvery gray of bleached wood blended in perfectly with the surrounding forests and swamps. The furniture was utile and strong, usually one room contained all that was needed in the way of tables, chairs and beds for the large families raised by most settlers.
These settlers grew enough cotton for the women to spin and fabricate into clothing for the family. A patch of corn furnished them with meal used in baking cornbread, a staple of their diet. The corn also furnished them with whiskey for drinking and medication. Potatoes and yams ere grown and stored to last the relatively short and mild winters. Sugar cane grew well in the sandy soil of the high ground furnishing the sweetening for all manner of foods and drinks.
A small patch of tobacco was essential as many members of the family imbibed of this pungent plant in some fashion or another. The long growing season of north Florida and south Georgia allowed for a fall garden to produce even more food before cold weather began. Wild honey was a treat and an adventure to procure when a bee tree was discovered. The hollow gum trees of the great swamp were perfect for bee hives, much to the delight of both humans and the native black bear population.
The swamps were teeming with all manner of meats for the table. Besides the free range cattle and hogs owned by scattered homesteads, there were deer, rabbits, turkey, bobwhite quail, and many types of waterfowl. The waters of the lakes and swamps contained several species of edible, and tasty, fish and turtles. Alligators were hunted for their hides and for the tender and delicious meat contained in the reptile’s tail. Food was an all important reason for dwelling in the swamps. But it wasn’t the only reason.
Free range livestock and wild animals
Truly Independent Americans
These “Swamp Crackers” lived a life of independence we can only dream about in today’s world. They required very little from anyone outside of their watery wilderness. They would sell enough beef or pork from their herds to buy what little they needed. They would also trade the hides of animals and alligators for salt, lead and gunpowder. The salt was perhaps the only essential item lost over the years, as the art of bow hunting had not been abandoned for the rifle, as it had been in other parts of the south. They were true woodsmen, using a mixture of different cultural knowledge to thrive in an environment considered wastelands to some.
The swamps were also dangerous because of the predators using the area for food supplies too. Panther, black bear, bobcat, fox, and of course the alligator, were fierce hunters of the range cattle and hogs feeding in the woods and high ground in the swamps. The free range chickens, used for both meat and eggs, were also frequently eaten by predators. The rattlesnake and cotton mouthed moccasin took their toll on both livestock and settlers alike. The settler’s livestock were branded and released to fatten on government land until the fall when a general round-up by the owners took place. Many swamp crackers had large herds of cattle and “piney woods rooters” (hogs) which made them quite wealthy in terms of assets “on the hoof.”
There is little doubt this independence of living fostered feelings of contentment in the inhabitants of these wilderness areas. In some cases the swamp crackers thought themselves superior to their visitors because of the easy and enjoyable life they led. Early visitors to the Okefenokee inhabitants considered the men indolent because they worked on no regular schedule, often attending hunts and chases instead of working. But the swamp men got along just fine and enjoyed life while they made their living. Families were deeply loyal and small churches filled the social gaps in their lives. Cane grindings and fish fries were looked forward to, as were revivals and camp meetings. These events were often where the courting process began for the young men and ladies of the swamps.
Change is Inevitable, Even in the Swamp
The Roots of Southern Hospitality
Although uneducated in the finer points of life, these people were noted as being extremely hospitable by many different chroniclers from the early 1800’s, to their eviction from the Okefenokee swamp in the mid 1900’s.
After purchasing a large portion of the swamp, a company went bankrupt trying to cut canals to drain the wetlands so the logs could be transported to the sawmills. Finally, railroad tracks were utilized to solve the problem of traversing the wet areas of the swamp.
A steam powered tram engine, with its accompanying log cars, rode on tracks supported by wood pilings driven deep into the mud and peat beneath the wet areas of the Okefenokee.
This huge operation brought in money from outside of the swamps as locals obtained logging and related jobs. Furnishing food for large groups of working lumberjacks, as well as a place to stay, allowed the swamp crackers other means of making extra income.
The swamp was fairly isolated so a small town, catering to the loggers, sprung up on Billy’s Island in the 1920’s logging era. Churches, saloons,and boarding houses gave the lumberjacks small comfort while working deep in the swamp. But the lumber ran out quicker than expected and the small town was eventually abandoned. Today, Billy’s Island is a historical point of interest to those visiting the State Park.
When the Okefenokee was made into a state park and wilderness area, the children of the resident landowner were not allowed to homestead inside of the parks boundaries. Only a few of these swamp cracker children are still alive to regal us with their tales of the swamps. But the light in their eyes and the wonderment of their remembrances reveal the special lives they led in the watery wilderness of the Okefenokee Swamp.
So if the word “cracker” means boastful, then the name seems rather apt considering the way of life enjoyed by this particular group of historical Americans. These people loved their lives and thought they were lucky for their independent livelihoods. Pride is oft times mistaken for boastfulness, especially by those unfamiliar with their surroundings. So call me a cracker if you like, and I’ll thank you for the compliment.
Great books by Rawlings
Wonderful book about Florida crackers