FROM THE SAVANNAH RIVER TO FLORIDA.
ROUTE TO THE SEA ISLANDS OF GEORGIA. -- STORM-BOUND ON GREEN ISLAND. -- OSSABAW ISLAND. -- ST. CATHERINE'S SOUND. -- SAPELO ISLAND. -- THE MUD OF MUD RIVER. -- NIGHT IN A NEGRO CABIN. -- "DE SHOUTINGS" ON DOBOY ISLAND. -- BROUGHTON ISLAND. -- ST. SIMON'S AND JEKYL ISLANDS. -- INTERVIEW WITH AN ALLIGATOR.-- A NIGHT IN JOINTER HAMMOCK. -- CUMBERLAND ISLAND AND ST. MARY'S RIVER. -- FAREWELL TO THE SEA.
Steamers run from Savannah through these interesting interior water-ways to the ports of the St. John's River, Florida, and by taking this route the traveller can escape a most uninteresting railroad journey from Savannah to Jacksonville, where sandy soils and pine forests present an uninviting prospect to the eye. A little dredging, in a few places along the steamboat route, should be done at national cost, to make this a more convenient and expeditious tidal route for vessels.
Leaving Greenwich, Bonaventure, and Thunderbolt behind me on the upland, the canoe entered the great marshy district of the coast along the Wilmington and Skiddaway rivers to Skiddaway Narrows, which is a contracted, crooked watercourse connecting the Skiddaway with the Burnside River. The low lands were made picturesque by hammocks, some of which were cultivated.
In leaving the Burnside for the broad Vernon River, as the canoe approached the sea, one of the sudden tempests which frequently vex these coast-waters arose, and drove me to a hammock in the marshes of Green Island, on the left bank and opposite the mouth of the Little Ogeechee River. Green Island has been well cultivated in the past, but is now only the summer home of Mr. Styles, its owner. Two or three families of negroes inhabited the cabins and looked after the property of the absent proprietor.
I waded to my knees in the mud before the canoe could be landed, and, as it stormed all night, I slept on the floor of the humble cot of the negro Echard Holmes, having first treated the household to crackers and coffee. The negroes gathered from other points to examine the canoe, and, hearing that I was from the north, one grizzly old darky begged me to "carry" his complaints to Washington.
"De goberment," he said, "has been berry good to wees black folks. It gib us our freedom, -- all berry well; but dar is an noder ting wees wants; dat is, wees wants General Grant to make tings stashionary. De storekeeper gibs a poor nigger only one dollar fur bushel corn, sometimes not so much. Den he makes poor nigger gib him tree dollars fur bag hominy, sometimes more'n dat. Wees wants de goberment to make tings stashionary. Make de storekeeper gib black man one dollar and quarter fur de bushel of corn, and make him sell de poor nigger de bag hominy fur much less dan tree dollars. Make all tings stashionary. Den dar's one ting more. Tell de goberment to do fur poor darky 'nodder ting, -- make de ole massa say to me, You's been good slave in ole times, -- berry good slave; now I gib you one, two, tree, five acres of land for yoursef.' Den ole nigger be happy, and massa be happy too; den bof of um bees happy. Hab you a leetle bacca fur dis ole man?"
From the Styles mansion it was but three miles to Ossabaw Sound. Little Don Island and Raccoon Key are in the mouth of the Vernon. Between the two flat islands is a deep passage through which the tides rush with great force; it is called Hell Gate. On the south side of Raccoon Key the Great Ogeechee River pours its strong volume of water into Ossabaw Sound.
I entered the Great Ogeechee through the Don Island passage, and saw sturgeon-fishermen at work with their nets along the shores of Ossabaw, one of the sea islands. Ossabaw Island lies between Ossabaw and St. Catherine's sounds, and is eight miles long and six miles wide. The side towards the sea is firm upland, diversified with glades, while the western portion is principally marshes cut up by numerous creeks. All the sea islands produce the long staple cotton known as sea-island cotton, and before the war a very valuable variety. A few negroes occupy the places abandoned by the proprietor, and eke out a scanty livelihood.
There are many deer in the forests of Ossabaw Island. One of its late proprietors informed me that there must be at least ten thousand wild hogs there, as they have been multiplying for many years, and but few were shot by the negroes. The domestic hog becomes a very shy animal if left to himself for two or three years. The hunter may search for him without a dog almost in vain, though the woods may contain large numbers of these creatures.
The weather was now delightful, and had I possessed a light tent I would not have sought shelter at night in a human habitation anywhere along the route. The malaria which arises from fresh-water sinks in many of the sea islands during the summer months, did not now make camping-out dangerous to the health. Crossing the Great Ogeechee above Middle Marsh Island, I followed the river to the creek called Florida Passage, through which I reached Bear River, with its wide and long reaches, and descended it to St. Catherine's Sound.
Now the sea opened to full view as the canoe crossed the tidal ocean gateway two miles to North Newport River. When four miles up the Newport I entered Johnson's Creek, which flows from North to South Newport rivers. By means of the creek and the South Newport River, my little craft was navigated down to the southern end of St. Catherine's Island to the sound of the same name, and here another inlet was crossed at sunset, and High Point of Sapelo Island was reached.
From among the green trees of the high bluff a mansion, which exhibited the taste of its builder, rose imposingly. This was, however, but one of the many edifices that are tombs of buried hopes. The proprietor, a northern gentleman, after the war purchased one-third of Sapelo Island for fifty-five thousand dollars in gold. He attempted, as many other enterprising northerners had done, to give the late slave a chance to prove his worth as a freedman to the world.
"Pay the negro wages; treat him as you would treat a white man, and he will reward your confidence with industry and gratitude." So thought and so acted the large-hearted northern colonel. He built a large mansion, engaged his freedmen, paid them for their work, and treated them like men. The result was ruin, and simply because he had not paused to consider that the negro had not been born a freedman, and that the demoralization of slavery was still upon him. Beside which facts we must also place certain ethnological and moral principles which exist in the pure negro type, and which are entirely overlooked by those philanthropic persons who have rarely, if ever, seen a full-blooded negro, but affect to understand him through his half-white brother, the mulatto.
Mud River opened its wide mouth before me as I left the inlet, but the tide was very low, and Mud River is a sticking-point in the passage of the Florida steamers. It became so dark that I was obliged to get near the shore to make a landing. My attempt was made opposite a negro's house which was on a bluff but the water had receded into the very narrow channel of Mud River, and I was soon stuck fast on a flat. Getting overboard, I sank to my knees in the soft mud. I called for help, and was answered by a tall darky, who, with a double-barrelled gun, left his house and stood in a threatening manner on the shore. I appealed for help, and said I wished to go ashore. "Den cum de best way you can," he answered in a surly manner. "What duz you want 'bout here, any way? What duz you want on Choc'late Plantation, anyhow?"
I explained to this ugly black that I was a northern man, travelling to see the country, and wished to camp near his house for protection, and promised, if he would aid me to land, that I would convince him of my honest purpose by showing him the contents of my canoe, and would prove to him that I was no enemy to the colored man. I told him of the maps, the letters, and the blankets which were in the little canoe now so fast in the mud, and what a loss it would be if some marauder, passing on the next high tide, should steal my boat.
The fellow slowly lowered his gun, which had been held in a threatening position, and said:
"Nobody knows his friends in dese times. I'se had a boat stealed by some white man, and spose you was cumin to steal sumting else. Dese folks on de riber can't be trussed. Dey steals ebryting. Heaps o' bad white men 'bout nowadnys sens de war. Steals a nigger's chickens, boats, and ebryting dey lays hands on. Up at de big house on High Pint (norfen gemmin built him, and den got gusted wid cotton-planting and went home) de white folks goes and steals all de cheers and beds, and ebryting out ob de house. Sens de war all rascals."
It was a wearisome and dangerous job for me to navigate the canoe over the soft, slippery mud to the firm shore, as there were unfathomed places in the flats which might ingulf or entomb me at any step; but the task was completed, and I stood face to face with the now half tranquillized negro. Before removing the mud that hung upon me to the waist in heavy clods, I showed the darky my chart-case, and explained the object of my mission. He was very intelligent, and, after asking a few questions, said to his son:
"Take dis gun to de house;" and then turning to me, continued: "Dis is de sort ob man I'se am. I'se knows how to treat a friend like a white man, and I'se can fight wid my knife or my fist or my gun anybody who 'poses on me. Now I'se knows you is a gemmin I'se won't treat you like a nigger. Gib you best I'se got. Cum to de house."
When inside of the house of this resolute black, every attention was paid to my comfort. The cargo of the paper canoe was piled up in one corner of the room. The wife and children sat before the bright fire and listened to the story of my cruise. I doctored the sick pickaninny of my host, and made the family a pot of strong coffee. This negro could read, but he asked me to address a label he wished to attach to a bag of Sea-Island cotton of one hundred and sixty pounds' weight, which he had raised, and was to ship by the steamboat Lizzie Baker to a mercantile house in Savannah.
As I rested upon my blankets, which were spread upon the floor of the only comfortable room in the house, at intervals during the night the large form of the black stole softly in and bent over me to see if I were well covered up, and he as noiselessly piled live-oak sticks upon the dying embers to dry up the dampness which rose from the river.
He brought me a basin of cold water in the morning, and not possessing a towel clean enough for a white man, he insisted that I should use his wife's newly starched calico apron to wipe my face and hands upon. When I offered him money for the night's accommodation and the excellent oyster breakfast that his wife prepared for me, he said: "You may gib my wife whateber pleases you for her cooking, but nuffin for de food or de lodgings. I'se no nigger, ef I is a cullud man."
It was now Saturday, and as I rowed through the marsh thoroughfare called New Tea Kettle Creek, which connects Mud River with Doboy Sound near the southern end of Sapelo Island, I calculated the chances of finding a resting-place for Sunday. If I went up to the mainland through North and Darien rivers to the town of Darien, my past experience taught me that instead of enjoying rest I would become a forced exhibiter of the paper canoe to crowds of people. To avoid this, I determined to pass the day in the first hammock that would afford shelter and fire-wood; but as the canoe entered Doboy Sound, which, with its inlet, separates Sapelo from the almost treeless Wolf Island, the wind rose with such violence that I was driven to take refuge upon Doboy Island, a small marshy territory, the few firm acres of which were occupied by the settlement and steam saw-mill of Messrs. Hiltons, Foster & Gibson, a northern lumber firm.
Foreign and American vessels were anchored under the lee of protecting marshes, awaiting their cargoes of sawed deals and hewn timber; while rafts of logs, which had been borne upon the currents of the Altamaha and other streams from the far interior regions of pine forests, were collected here and manufactured into lumber.
One of the proprietors, a northern gentleman, occupied with his family a very comfortable cottage near the store and steam saw-mill. As the Doboy people had learned of the approach of the paper canoe from southern newspapers, the little craft was identified as soon as it touched the low shores of the island.
I could not find any kind of hotel or lodging-place in this settlement of Yankees, Canadians, and negroes, and was about to leave it in search of some lone hammock, when a mechanic kindly offered me the floor of an unfinished room in an unfinished house, in which I passed my Sunday trying to rest, and obtaining my meals at a restaurant kept by a negro.
A member of the Spaulding family, the owners of a part of Sapelo Island, called upon me, and seeing me in such inhospitable quarters, with fleas in hundreds invading my blankets, urged me to return with him to his island domain, where he might have an opportunity to make me comfortable. The kind gentleman little knew how hardened I had become to such annoyances as hard floors and the active flea. Such inconveniences had been robbed of their discomforts by the kind voices of welcome which, with few exceptions, came from every southern gentleman whose territory had been invaded by the paper canoe.
There was but one place of worship on the island, and that was under the charge of the negroes. Accepting the invitation of a nephew of the resident New England proprietor of Doboy Island to attend "de shoutings," we set out on Sunday evening for the temporary place of negro worship. A negro girl, decked with ribbons, called across the street to a young colored delinquent: "You no goes to de shoutings, Sam! Why fur? You neber hears me shout, honey, and dey do say I shouts so pretty. Cum 'long wid me now."
A few blacks had collected in the small shanty and the preacher, an old freedman, was about to read a hymn as we entered. At first the singing was low and monotonous, but it gradually swelled to a high pitch as the negroes became excited. Praying followed the singing. Then the black preacher set aside "de shouting" part of the service for what he considered more important interests, and discoursed upon things spiritual and temporal in this wise:
"Now I'se got someting to tell all' of yese berry 'portant." Here two young blacks got up to leave the room, but were rudely stopped by a negro putting his back against the door. "No, no," chuckled the preacher, "yese don't git off dat a-way. I'se prepared fur de ockasun. Nobody gits out ob dis room till I'se had my say. Jes you set down dar. Now I'se goin' to do one ting, and it's dis: I'se goin' to spread de Gospel all ober dis yere island of Doboy. Now's de time; talked long 'nuf, too long, 'bout buildin' de church. Whar's yere pride? whar is it? Got none! Look at dis room for a church! Look at dis pulpit -- one flour-barrel wid one candle stickin' out ob a bottle! Dat's yere pulpit. Got no pride! Shamed o' yeresefs! Here white men comes way from New York to hear de Gospel in dis yere room wid flour-barrel fur pulpit, and empty bottle fur candlestick. No more talk now. All go to work. De mill pebple will gib us lumber fur de new church; odders mus' gib money. Tell ebbry cullud pusson on de island to cum on Tuesday and carry lumber, and gib ebbry one what he can, -- one dollar apiece, or ten cents if got no more. De white gemmins we knows whar to find when we wants dar money, but de cullud ones is berry slippery when de hat am passed round."
At the termination of the preacher's exhortation, I proposed to my companion that I should present the minister with a dollar for his new church, but, with a look of dismay, he replied: "Oh, don't give it to the preacher. Hand it to that other negro sitting near him. We never trust the preacher with money; he always spends the church-money. We only trust him for preaching."
Monday, March 1st, opened fair, but the wind arose when the canoe reached Three Mile Cut, which connects the Darien with Altamaha River. I went through this narrow steamboat passage, and being prevented by the wind from entering the wide Altamaha, returned to the Darien River and ascended it to General's Cut, which, with Butler River, affords a passage to the Altamaha River. Before entering General's Cut, mistaking a large, half submerged alligator for a log on a mud bank, the canoe nearly touched the saurian before he was roused from his nap to retire into the water. General's Cut penetrates a rice plantation opposite the town of Darien, to Butler's Island, the estate of the late Pierce Butler, at its southern end. Rice-planting, since the war, had not proved a very profitable business to the present proprietors, who deserve much praise for the efforts they have made to educate their freedmen. A profitable crop of oranges is gathered some seasons from the groves upon Butler's Island.
From the mouth of General's Cut down Butler River to the Altamaha was but a short row. The latter stream would have taken me to Altamaha Sound, to avoid which I passed through Wood's Cut into the South Altamaha River, and proceeded through the lowland rice-plantations towards St. Simon's Island, which is by the sea. About the middle of the afternoon, when close to Broughton Island, where the South Altamaha presented a wide area to the strong head-wind which was sending little waves over my canoe, a white plantation-house, under the veranda of which an elderly gentleman was sitting, attracted my attention. Here was what seemed to be the last camping-ground on a route of several miles to St. Simon's Island.
If the wind continued to blow from the same quarter, the canoe could not cross Buttermilk Sound that night; so I went ashore to inquire if there were any hammocks in the marshes by the river-banks between the plantation and the sound.
The bachelor proprietor of Broughton Island, Captain Richard A. Akin, posted me as to the route to St. Simon's Island, but insisted that the canoe traveller should share his comfortable quarters until the next day; and when the next day came round, and the warm sun and smooth current of the wide Altamaha invited me to continue the voyage, the hospitable rice-planter thought the weather not settled enough for me to venture down to the sound. In fact, he held me a rather willing captive for several days, and then let me off on the condition that I should return at some future time, and spend a month with him in examining the sea islands and game resources of the vicinity.
Captain Akin was a successful rice-planter on the new system of employing freedmen on wages, but while he protected the ignorant blacks in all their newly-found rights, he was a thorough disciplinarian. The negroes seemed to like their employer, and stuck to him with greater tenacity than they did to those planters who allowed them to do as they pleased. The result of lax treatment with these people is always a failure of crops. The rivers and swamps near Broughton Island abound in fine fishes and terrapin, while the marshes and flats of the sea islands afford excellent opportunities for the sportsman to try his skill upon the feathered tribe.
On Monday, March 9th, the Maria Theresa left Broughton Island well provisioned with the stores the generous captain had pressed upon my acceptance. The atmosphere was softened by balmy breezes, and the bright sunlight played with the shadows of the clouds upon the wide marshes, which were now growing green with the warmth of returning spring. The fish sprang from the water as I touched it with my light oars.
St. Simon's Island, -- where Mr. Pierce Butler once cultivated sea-island cotton, and to which he took his English bride, Miss Kemble, -- with its almost abandoned plantation, was reached before ten o'clock. Frederica River carried me along the whole length of the island to St. Simon's Sound. When midway the island, I paused to survey what remains of the old town of Frederica, of which but few vestiges can be discovered. History informs us that Frederica was the first town built by the English in Georgia, and was founded by General Oglethorpe, who began and established the colony.
The fortress was regular and beautiful, and was the largest, most regular, and perhaps most costly of any in North America of British construction. Pursuing my journey southward, the canoe entered the exposed area of St. Simon's Sound, which, with its ocean inlet, was easily crossed to the wild and picturesque Jekyl Island, upon which the two bachelor brothers Dubignon live and hunt the deer, enjoying the free life of lords of the forest. Their old family mansion, once a haven of hospitality, where the northern tourist and shipwrecked sailor shared alike the good things of this life with the kind host, was used for a target by a gunboat during the late war, and is now in ruins.
Here, twenty years ago, at midnight, the slave-yacht "Wanderer" landed her cargo of African negroes, the capital for the enterprise being supplied by three southern gentlemen, and the execution of the work being intrusted, under carefully drawn contracts, to Boston parties.
The calm weather greatly facilitated my progress, and had I not missed Jekyl Creek, which is the steamboat thoroughfare through the marshes to Jekyl and St. Andrew's Sound, that whole day's experience would have been a most happy one. The mouth of Jekyl Creek was a narrow entrance, and being off in the sound, I passed it as I approached the lowlands, which were skirted until a passage at Cedar Hammock through the marsh was found, some distance from the one I was seeking. Into this I entered, and winding about for some time over its tortuous course, at a late hour in the afternoon the canoe emerged into a broad watercourse, down which I could look across Jekyl Sound to the sea.
This broad stream was Jointer Creek, and I ascended it to find a spot of high ground upon which to camp. It was now low water, and the surface of the marshes was three or four feet above my head. After much anxious searching, and a great deal of rowing against the last of the ebb, a forest of pines and palmetto-trees was reached on Colonel's Island, at a point about four miles -- across the marshes and Brunswick River -- from the interesting old town of Brunswick, Georgia.
The soft, muddy shores of the hammock were in one place enveloped in a thicket of reeds, and here I rested upon my oars to select a convenient landing-place. The rustling of the reeds suddenly attracted my attention. Some animal was crawling through the thicket in the direction of the boat. My eyes became fixed upon the mysterious shaking and waving of the tops of the reeds, and my hearing was strained to detect the cause of the crackling of the dry rushes over which this unseen creature was moving. A moment later my curiosity was satisfied, for there emerged slowly from the covert an alligator nearly as large as my canoe. The brute's head was as long as a barrel; his rough coat of mail was besmeared with mud, and his dull eyes were fixed steadily upon me. I was so surprised and fascinated by the appearance of this huge reptile that I remained immovable in my boat, while he in a deliberate manner entered the water within a few feet of me. The hammock suddenly lost all its inviting aspect, and I pulled away from it faster than I had approached. In the gloom I observed two little hammocks, between Colonel's Island and the Brunswick River, which seemed to be near Jointer's Creek, so I followed the tortuous thoroughfares until I was within a quarter of a mile of one of them.
Pulling my canoe up a narrow creek towards the largest hammock, until the creek ended in the lowland, I was cheered by the sight of a small house in a grove of live-oaks, to reach which I was obliged to abandon my canoe and attempt to cross the soft marsh. The tide was now rising rapidly, and it might be necessary for me to swim some inland creek before I could arrive at the upland.
An oar was driven into the soft mud of the marsh and the canoe tied to it, for I knew that the whole country, with the exception of the hammock near by, would be under water at flood-tide. Floundering through mud and pressing aside the tall, wire-like grass of the lowland, which entangled my feet, frequently leaping natural ditches, and going down with a thud in the mud on the other side, I finally struck the firm ground of the largest Jointer Hammock, when the voice of its owner, Mr. R. F. Williams, sounded most cheerfully in my ears as he exclaimed: "Where did you come from? How did you get across the marsh?"
The unfortunate position of my boat was explained while the family gathered round me, after which we sat down to supper. Mr. Wilhams felt anxious about the cargo of my boat. The coons, he said, "will scent your provisions, and tear everything to pieces in the boat. We must go look after it immediately." To go to the canoe we were obliged to follow a creek which swept past the side of the hammock, opposite to my landing-place, and row two or three miles on Jointer Creek. At nine o'clock we reached the locality where I had abandoned the paper canoe. Everything had changed in appearance; the land was under water; not a landmark remained except the top of the oar, which rose out of the lake-like expanse of water, while near it gracefully floated my little companion. We towed her to the hammock; and after the tedious labor of divesting myself of the marsh mud, which clung to my clothes, had been crowned with success, the comfortable bed furnished by my host gave rest to limbs and nerves which had been severely overtaxed since sun set.
The following day opened cloudy and windy. The ocean inlet of Jekyl and St. Andrew's sounds is three miles wide. From the mouth of Jointer Creek, across these unprotected sounds, to High Point of Cumberland Island, is eight miles. The route from the creek to Cumberland Island was a risky one for so small a boat as the paper canoe while the weather continued unpropitious. After entering the sounds there was but one spot of upland, near the mouth of the Satilla River, that could be used for camping purposes on the vast area of marshes.
During the month of March rainy and windy weather prevail on this coast. I could ill afford to lose any time shut up in Jointer's Hammock by bad weather, as the low regions of Okefenokee Swamp were to be penetrated before the warm season could make the task a disagreeable one. After holding a consultation with Mr. Williams, he contracted to take the canoe and its captain across St. Andrew's Sound to High Point of Cumberland Island that day. His little sloop was soon under way, and though the short, breaking waves of the sound, and the furious blasts of wind, made the navigation of the shoals disagreeable, we landed quietly at Mr. Chubbs' Oriental Hotel, at High Point, soon after noon.
Mr. Martin, the surveyor of the island, welcomed me to Cumberland, and gave me much information pertaining to local matters. The next morning the canoe left the high bluffs of this beautiful sea island so filled with historic associations, and threaded the marshy thoroughfare of Cumberland and Brickhill River to Cumberland Sound. As I approached the mouth of the St. Mary's River, the picturesque ruins of Dungeness towered above the live-oak forest of the southern end of Cumberland Island. It was with regret I turned my back upon that sea, the sounds of which had so long struck upon my ear with their sweet melody. It seemed almost a moan that was borne to me now as the soft waves laved the sides of my graceful craft, as though to give her a last, loving farewell.