DOWN UPON THE SUWANEE RIVER.
THE RICH FOLIAGE OF THE RIVER. -- COLUMBUS. -- ROLINS' BLUFF. OLD TOWN HAMMOCK. -- A HUNTER KILLED BY A PANTHER, DANGEROUS SERPENTS. -- CLAY LANDING. THE MARSHES OP THE COAST, -- BRADFORD'S ISLAND. -- MY LAST CAMP. -- THE VOYAGE ENDED.
The Suwanee, which was swollen by some recent rains in Okefenokee Swamp, was a wild, dark, turbulent current, which went coursing through the woods on its tortuous route with great rapidity. The luxurious foliage of the river-banks was remarkable. Maples were in blossom, beech-trees in bloom, while the buckeye was covered with its heavy festoons of red flowers. Pines, willows, cotton-wood, two kinds of hickory, water-oak, live-oak, sweet-gum, magnolia, the red and white bay-tree, a few red cedars, and haw-bushes, with many species not known to me, made up a rich wall of verdure on either side, as I sped along with a light heart to Columbus, where my compagnons de voyage were to meet me. Wood-ducks and egrets, in small flocks, inhabited the forest. The limestone banks of the river were not visible, as the water was eighteen feet above its low summer level.
I now passed under the railroad bridge which connects Live Oak with Savannah. After a steady row of some hours, my progress was checked by a great boom, stretched across the river to catch the logs which floated down from the upper country. I was obliged to disembark and haul the canoe around this obstacle, when, after passing a few clearings, the long bridge of the J. P. & M. Railroad came into view, stretching across the now wide river from one wilderness to the other. On the left bank was all that remained of the once flourishing town of Columbus, consisting now of a store, kept by Mr. Allen, and a few buildings. Before the railroad was built, Columbus possessed a population of five hundred souls, and it was reached, during favorable stages of water, by light-draught steamboats from Cedar Keys, on the Gulf of Mexico. The building of railroads in the south has diverted trade from one locality to another, and many towns, once prosperous, have gone to decay.
The steam saw-mills and village of Ellaville were located on the river-bank opposite Columbus, and this lumber establishment is the only place of importance between it and Cedar Keys. This far-famed river, to which the heart of the minstrel's darky "is turning eber," is, in fact, almost without the "one little hut among de bushes," for it is a wild and lonely stream. Even in the most prosperous times there were but few plantations upon its shores. Wild animals roam its great forests, and vile reptiles infest the dense swamps. It is a country well fitted for the hunter and lumberman, for the naturalist or canoeist; but the majority of people would, I am sure, rather hear of it poured forth in song from the sweet lips of Christina Nilsson, than to be themselves "way down upon the Suwanee Ribber."
On Monday, March 22d, Messrs. Nason, Purviance, and Henderson joined me. The party had obtained a northern-built shad-boat, which had been brought by rail from Savannah. It was sloop-rigged, and was decked forward, so that the enthusiastic tourists possessed a weatherproof covering for their provisions and blankets. With the strong current of the river, a pair of long oars, and a sail to be used when favorable winds blew, the party in the shad-boat could make easy and rapid progress towards the Gulf, while my lightly dancing craft needed scarcely a touch of the oar to send her forward.
On Tuesday, the 23d, we left Columbus, while a crowd of people assembled to see us off; many of them seeming to consider this simple and delightful way of travelling too dangerous to be attempted. The smooth but swift current rolled on its course like a sea of molten glass, as the soft sunlight trembled through the foliage and shimmered over its broad surface.
Our boats glided safely over the rapids, which for a mile and a half impede the navigation of the river during the summer months, but which were now made safe by the great depth of water caused by the freshet. The weather was charming, and our little party, fully alive to all the beautiful surroundings, woke many an echo with sounds meant to be sweet. Of course the good old song was not forgotten. Our best voice sang:
"Way down up-on de Suwanee Rib-ber, Far, far away, Dere's whar my heart is turn-ing eb-ber, Dere's whar de old folks stay. All up and down de whole creation Sadly I roam, Still longing for de old plantation, And for de old folks at home.
"All round de little farm I wander'd When I was young; Den many happy days I squan-der'd - Many de songs I sung. When I was playing wid my brud-der, Hap-py was I. O! take me to my kind old mud-der, Dere let me live and die!
"One little hut among de bushes, - One dat I love, - Still sadly to my mem'ry rushes, No matter where I rove. When will I see de bees a-hum-ming All round de comb? When will I hear de ban-jo tum-ming Down in my good old home?"
We all joined in the chorus at the end of each verse:
"All de world am sad and dreary Eb-ry-whar I roam. O, darkies, how my heart grows weary, Far from do old folks at home."
We soon entered forests primeval which were quiet, save for the sound of the axe of the log-thief; for timber-stealing is a profession which reaches its greatest perfection on the Florida state lands and United States naval reserves. Uncle Sam's territory is being constantly plundered to supply the steam saw-mills of private individuals in Florida. Several of the party told interesting stories of the way in which log-thieves managed to steal from the government legally.
"There," said one, "is X, who runs his mill on the largest tract of pine timber Uncle Sam has got. He once bought a few acres' claim adjacent to a fine naval reserve. He was not, of course, able to discover the boundary line which separated his little tract from the rich government reserve, so he kept a large force of men cutting down Uncle Sam's immense pines, and, hauling them to the Suwanee, floated them to his mill. This thing went on for some time, till the government agent made his appearance and demanded a settlement.
"The wholesale timber-thief now showed a fair face, and very frankly explained that he supposed he had been cutting logs from his own territory, but quite recently he had discovered that he had really been trespassing on the property of his much-loved country, and as he was truly a loyal citizen, he desired to make restitution, and was now ready to settle.
"The government agent was astonished at the seeming candor of the man, who so worked upon his sympathy that he promised to be as easy upon him as the law allowed. The agent settled upon a valuation of fifty cents an acre for all the territory that had been cut over. 'And now,' said he, 'how many acres of land have you "logged" since you put your lumbermen into the forest?'
"Mr. X declared himself unable to answer this question, but generously offered to permit the agent to put down any number of acres he thought would represent a fair thing between a kind government and one of its unfortunate citizens. Intending to do his duty faithfully, the officer settled upon two thousand acres as having been trespassed upon; but to his astonishment the incomprehensible offender stoutly affirmed that he had logged fully five thousand acres, and at once settled the matter in full by paying twenty-five hundred dollars, taking a receipt for the same.
"When this enterprising business-man visited Jacksonville, his friends rallied him upon confessing judgment to government for three thousand acres of timber more than had been claimed by the agent. This true patriot winked as he replied:
"'It is true I hold a receipt from the government for the timber on five thousand acres at the very low rate of fifty cents an acre. As I have not yet cut logs from more than one-fifth of the tract, I intend to work off the timber on the other four thousand acres at my leisure, and no power can stop me now I have the government receipt to show it's paid for.'"
The sloop and the canoe had left Columbus a little before noon, and at six P. M. we passed Charles' Ferry, where the old St. Augustine and Tallahassee forest road crosses the river. At this lonely place an old man, now dead, owned a subterranean spring, which he called "Mediterranean passage." This spring is powerful enough to run a rickety, "up-and-down" saw-mill. The great height of the water allowed me to paddle into the mill with my canoe.
At half past seven o'clock a deserted log cabin at Barrington's Ferry offered us shelter for the night. The whole of the next day we rowed through the same immense forests, finding no more cultivated land than during our first day's voyage. We landed at a log cabin in a small clearing to purchase eggs of a poor woman, whose husband had shot her brother a few days before. As the wife's brother had visited the cabin with the intention of killing the husband, the woman seemed to think the murdered man had "got his desarts," and, as a coroner's jury had returned a verdict of "justifiable homicide," the affair was considered settled.
Below this cabin we came to Island No. 1, where rapids trouble boatmen in the summer months. Now we glided gently but swiftly over the deep current. The few inhabitants we met along the banks of the Suwanee seemed to carry with them an air of repose while awake. To rouse them from mid-day slumbers we would call loudly as we passed a cabin in the woods, and after considerable delay a man would appear at the door, rubbing his eyes as though the genial sunlight was oppressive to his vision. It was indeed a quiet, restful region, this great wilderness of the Suwanee.
We passed Mrs. Goodman's farm and log buildings on the left bank, just below Island No. 8, before noon, and about this time Major Purviance shot at a large wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), knocking it off a bank into the water. The gobbler got back to land, and led us a fruitless chase into the thicket of saw-palmetto. He knew his ground better than we, for, though wounded, he made good his escape. We stopped a few moments at Troy, which, though dignified in name, consists only of a store and some half dozen buildings.
A few miles below this place, on the left bank of the river, is an uninhabited elevation called Rolins' Bluff, from which a line running north 220 east, twenty-three miles and a half in length, will strike Live Oak. A charter to connect Live Oak with this region of the Suwanee by means of a railroad had just passed the Florida legislature, but had been killed by the veto of the governor. After sunset the boats were secured in safe positions in front of a deserted cabin, round which a luxuriant growth of bitter-orange trees showed what nature could do for this neglected grove. The night air was balmy, and tremulous with insect life, while the alligators in the swamps kept up their bellowings till morning.
After breakfast we descended to the mouth of the Santa Fé River, which was on the left bank of the Suwanee. The piny-woods people called it the Santaffy. The wilderness below the Santa Fé is rich in associations of the Seminole Indian war. Many relics have been found, and, among others, on the site of an old Indian town, entombed in a hollow tree, the skeletons of an Indian adult and child, decked with beads, were discovered. Fort Fanning is on the left bank, and Old Town Hammock on the right bank of the Suwanee.
During the Seminole war, the hammock and the neighboring fastnesses became the hiding-places of the persecuted Indians, and so wild and undisturbed is this region, even at this time, that the bear, lynx, and panther take refuge from man in its jungles.
Colonel J. L. F. Cottrell left his native Virginia in 1854, and commenced the cultivation of the virgin soil of Old Town Hammock. Each state has its peculiar mode of dividing its land, and here in Florida this old plantation was in township 10, section 24, range 13. The estate included about two thousand acres of land, of which nearly eleven hundred were under cultivation. The slaves whom the colonel brought from Virginia were now his tenants, and he leased them portions of his arable acres. He considered this locality as healthy as any in the Suwanee country. The old planter's home, with its hospitable doors ever open to the stranger, was embowered in live-oaks and other trees, from the branches of which the graceful festoons of Spanish moss waved in the soft air, telling of a warm, moist atmosphere.
A large screw cotton-press and corn-cribs, with smoke-house and other plantation buildings, were conveniently grouped under the spreading branches of the protecting oaks. The estate produced cotton, corn, sweet potatoes, cattle, hogs, and poultry. Deer sometimes approached the enclosed fields, while the early morning call of the wild turkey came from the thickets of the hammock. In this retired part of Florida, cheered by the society of a devoted wife and four lovely daughters, lived the kind-hearted gentleman who not only pressed on us the comforts of his well-ordered house, but also insisted upon accompanying the paper canoe from his forest home to the sea.
When gathered around the firesides of the backwoods people, the conversation generally runs into hunting stories, Indian reminiscences, and wild tales of what the pioneers suffered while establishing themselves in their forest homes. One event of startling interest had occurred in the Suwanee country a few weeks before the paper canoe entered its confines. Two hunters went by night to the woods to shoot deer by firelight. As they stalked about, with light-wood torches held above their heads, they came upon a herd of deer, which, being bewildered by the glare of the lights, made no attempt to escape. Sticking their torches in the ground, the hunters stretched themselves flat upon the grass, to hide their forms from the animals they hoped to kill at their leisure. One of the men was stationed beneath the branches of a large tree; the other was a few yards distant.
Before the preconcerted signal for discharging their rifles could be given, the sound of a heavy body falling to the ground, and an accompanying smothered shriek, startled the hunter who was farthest from the tree. Starting up in alarm, he flew to the assistance of his friend, whose prostrate form was covered by a large panther, which had pounced upon him from the overhanging limb of the great oak. It had been but the work of an instant for the powerful cougar to break with his strong jaws the neck of the poor backwoodsman.
In this rare case of a panther (Felis concolor) voluntarily attacking man, it will be noted by the student of natural history that the victim was lying upon the ground. Probably the animal would not have left his perch among the branches of the oak, where he was evidently waiting for the approach of the deer, if the upright form of the man had been seen. Go to a southern bayou, which is rarely, if ever, visited by man, and where its saurian inhabitants have never been annoyed by him, -- place your body in a recumbent position on the margin of the lagoon, and wait until some large alligator slowly rises to the surface of the water. He will eye you for a moment with evident curiosity, and will in some cases steadily approach you. When the monster reptile is within two or three rods of your position, rise slowly upon your feet to your full height, and the alligator of the southern states -- the A. Mississippiensis - will, in nine cases out of ten, retire with precipitation.
There are but few wild animals that will attack man willingly when face to face with him; they quail before his erect form. In every case of the animals of North America showing fight to man, which has been investigated by me, the beasts have had no opportunity to escape, or have had their young to defend, or have been wounded by the hunter.
It was nearly ten o'clock A. M. on Friday, March 26th, when our merry party left Old Town hammock. This day was to see the end of the voyage of the paper canoe, for my tiny craft was to arrive at the waters of the great southern sea before midnight. The wife and daughters of our host, like true women of the forest, offered no forebodings at the departure of the head of their household, but wished him, with cheerful looks, a pleasant voyage to the Gulf. The gulf port of Cedar Keys is but a few miles from the mouth of the Suwanee River. The railroad which terminates at Cedar Keys would, with its connection with other routes, carry the members of our party to their several homes.
The bright day animated our spirits, as we swept swiftly down the river. The party in the shad-boat, now called "Adventurer," rowed merrily on with song and laughter, while I made an attempt to examine more closely the character of the water-moccasin -- the Trigono cephaluspiscivorus of Lacepede, -- which I had more cause to fear than the alligators of the river. The water-moccasin is about two feet in length, and has a circumference of five or six inches. The tail possesses a horny point about half an inch in length, which is harmless, though the Crackers and negroes stoutly affirm that when it strikes a tree the tree withers and dies, and when it enters the flesh of a man he is poisoned unto death. The color of the reptile is a dirty brown. Never found far from water, it is common in the swamps, and is the terror of the rice-field negroes. The bite of the water-moccasin is exceedingly venomous, and it is considered more poisonous than that of the rattlesnake, which warns man of his approach by sounding his rattle.
The moccasin does not, like the rattlesnake, wait to be attacked, but assumes the offensive whenever opportunity offers, striking with its fangs at every animated object in its vicinity. All other species of snakes flee from its presence. It is found as far north as the Peedee River of South Carolina, and is abundant in all low districts of the southern states. As the Suwanee had overflowed its banks below Old Town Hammock, the snakes had taken to the low limbs of the trees and to the tops of bushes, where they seemed to be sleeping in the warmth of the bright sunlight; but as I glided along the shore a few feet from their aerial beds, they discovered my presence, and dropped sluggishly into the water. It would not be an exaggeration to say that we passed thousands of these dangerous reptiles while descending the Suwanee. Raftsmen told me that when traversing lagoons in their log canoes, if a moccasin is met some distance from land he will frequently enter the canoe for refuge or for rest, and instances have been known where the occupant has been so alarmed as to jump overboard and swim ashore in order to escape from this malignant reptile.
The only place worthy of notice between Old Town Hammock and the gulf marshes is Clay Landing, on the left bank of the river, where Mrs. Tresper formerly lived in a very comfortable house. Clay Landing was used during the Confederate war as a place of deposit for blockade goods. Archer, a railroad station, is but twenty miles distant, and to it over rough roads the contraband imports were hauled by mule teams, after having been landed from the fleet blockade-runner.
As the sun was sinking to rest, and the tree shadows grew long on the wide river's bosom, we tasted the saltness in the air as the briny breezes were wafted to us over the forests from the Gulf of Mexico. After darkness had cast its sombre mantle upon us, we left the "East Pass" entrance to the left, and our boats hurried on the rapidly ebbing tide down the broad "West Pass" into the great marshes of the coast. An hour later we emerged from the dark forest into the smooth savannas. The freshness of the sea-air was exhilarating The stars were shining softly, and the ripple of the tide, the call of the heron, or the whirr of the frightened duck, and the leaping of fishes from the water, were the only sounds nature offered us. It was like entering another world. In these lowlands, near the mouth of the river, there seemed to be but one place above the high-tide level. It was a little hammock, covered by a few trees, called Bradford's Island, and rose like an oasis in the desert. The swift tide hurried along its shores, and a little farther on mingled the waters of the great wilderness with that of the sea.
Our tired party landed on a shelly beach, and burned a grassy area to destroy sand-fleas. This done, some built a large camp-fire, while others spread blankets upon the ground. I drew the faithful sharer of my long voyage near a thicket of prickly-pears, and slept beside it for the last time, never thinking or dreaming that one year later I should approach the mouth of the Suwanee from the west, after a long voyage of twenty-five hundred miles from the bead of the Ohio River, and would again seek shelter on its banks. It was a night of sweet repose. The camp-fire dissipated the damps, and the long row made rest welcome.
A glorious morning broke upon our party as we breakfasted under the shady palms of the island. Behind us rose the compact wall of dark green of the heavy forests, and along the coast, from east to west, as far as the eye could reach, were the brownish-green savanna-like lowlands, against which beat, in soft murmurs, the waves of that sea I had so longed to reach. From out the broad marshes arose low hammocks, green with pines and feathery with palmetto-trees. Clouds of mist were rising, and while I watched them melt away in the warm beams of the morning sun, I thought they were like the dark doubts which curled themselves about me so long ago in the cold St. Lawrence, now all melted by the joy of success. The snowclad north was now behind me. The Maria Theresa danced in the shimmering waters of the great southern sea, and my heart was light, for my voyage was over.