Today the Okefenokee is primarily a wildlife refuge, but the great swamp has
a long history of being sought out by people attempting to escape from some
real or imagined threat. Isolated, over the years, the Okefenokee became a cultural
sanctuary as well.
It appears that Indians occupied the Okefenokee around 4,000 years ago. The
population reached a peak between around A.D. 500 and A.D. 1200. A band of Timucuans
fled into the center of the Okefenokee as refugees from Spanish Florida during
the 17th century. The Creeks avoided the swamp. One, Hopoithle Tustannugee Thlucco,
moved with his family into the swamp as refugees during the American Revolution.
Their livestock was ravaged by bears and panthers; they sought refuge elsewhere.
Although many Indian families, Creeks and Seminoles, wandered through and around
the swamp during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with one exception,
their names are unknown.
An old Indian named Billy, or "Indian Billy from Ware County," lived
on Billys Island during the early 19th century. He was murdered around 1827.
His murderers, unlike many of the unruly cattle rustlers living along the Georgia-Florida
line, were arrested and jailed. They escaped, but some of them were recaptured
several years later in Florida. This episode was probably the origin of the
legendary Billy Bowlegs in the Okefenokee Swamp. The catchy name led to media
attention which fed local stories about Indians in the swamp. Instead of calling
Indians Indians, people referred to Billy Bowlegs in the swamp.
Documentary sources depict life and work on the Okefenokee frontier during
the 19th and early 20th centuries. Surveyors, soldiers, journalists, scientists,
and other visitors have commented on the life of the people Francis Harper,
a naturalist who with his family spent many years documenting life in the swamp,
called the "Okefinokee Folk."
Several sources are especially useful. The diary and reports of General Charles
R. Floyd and other Army officers during the Second Seminole War provide glimpses
of life around the Okefenokee during the 1830s.
Reports, diaries, and articles by surveyors during the 1850s contain information
on life around the swamp at this time. Two letters and maps of the Mansfield
Torrance survey, when they marked the unsurveyed Ware County lots in the Okefenokee
Swamp in 1850, described the swamp frontier at mid-century.
During the summer of 1854, Alexander A. Allen of Bainbridge, Georgia was commissioned
to meet with Benjamin F. Whitner of Florida and determine the correct location
of the Georgia-Florida boundary. Allen kept a diary of his travels and observations
as he made his way through the plantation lands and culture of Southwest Georgia
to the emerging tourist center and culture at the Suwannee Springs spa in North
Florida. He also recorded his impressions of the Okefenokee lands and the stockminding
folk of the Cracker culture that he found living on the southern fringe of the
The Georgia Legislature authorized an exploration of the Okefenokee in 1856.
Richard Hunter, in charge of the survey, prepared a report in 1857. An assistant,
Miller B. Grant, wrote an illustrated article on the explorers' experiences
for Frank Leslie's New Family Magazine in 1858. Grant's observations of the
people are especially useful.
Charles R. Pendleton's newspaper articles, reminiscing about life around the
Okefenokee in 1860, and his letters written during his exploring expeditions
in 1875, including the Atlanta Constitution exploring expedition, provide some
of the most detailed data on landscape and culture when the area was still a
frontier. These journalists explored the jungles of South Georgia while Henry
M. Stanley explored the jungles of Africa.
Although change was under way by the 1880s, Howell Cobb Jackson, writing as
a special correspondent for the Atlanta Journal, found much of the Cracker culture
intact in 1890 as he made his way around the Okefenokee with the surveyors marking
the boundaries of the lands to be purchased by the Suwanee Canal Company. His
letters to the newspaper are some of the most interesting I have found.
Francis Harper compiled probably the most extensive profile of the Okefenokee
culture in his field notebooks and a manuscript he called "Okefinokee Folk."
Harper's labor of love was edited by Delma Presley and published as a book called
The frontier culture of the Okefenokee was a piney woods Cracker culture.
The people, men and women, possessed and fostered a self-sufficient life style,
a strong sense of independence in thought and behavior, and a commitment to
family relationships and traditions. Their descendants still usually ask "Are
you related to ...?" instead of "What do you do...?" or "Where
do you live...?" Confident in who they were and what they could do, and
in the promise of the future, they produced large families.
On his map in 1769, Samuel Savery, a Royal surveyor, noted that these lands were "Low Pine Barrens and Cypress Ponds - only fit for Cattle Range." Savery's note was prophetic. The lands in and around the Okefenokee came to be perceived to be worthless bog. The surrounding piney woods were used as a vast cattle range for the following two centuries. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the forests east of the swamp also sheltered roving bands of renegades, rustlers, revolutionaries, and banditti, but their interest was in Spanish lands and Seminole cattle in Florida, not in the Okefenokee.
The earliest white settler documented who was associated with the Okefenokee
was Israel Barber. He moved to the Georgia Bend (the tip of Georgia, created
by the St. Marys River, which dips into Florida) in 1807. He was interviewed
by members of the Georgia-Florida Boundary Survey in 1831. Barber said he was
familiar with the recesses of the southeastern corner of the Okefenokee because
of his "habit of hunting gaters and herding cattle and hogs throughout
the country." He died in 1833.
The Creek Indian Lands in South Georgia were acquired by the State of Georgia
in 1802 and 1818. The lands were surveyed into 490-acre rectangular lots. They
were organized as Wayne County in 1805 and Appling and Irwin counties in 1820.
But few families moved to the Okefenokee area. Most of the Okefenokee Swamp
was not surveyed because of the impenetrable vegetation. Nothing was known about
During the 1830s the Second Seminole War in Florida spilled over into Georgia. A band of Indians sought sanctuary from army patrols in the recesses of the Okefenokee in 1838. The warriors soon turned to plunder and kill families living on Okefenokee rim. Widely scattered settlers fled in panic to Center Village and Trader's Hill (about three miles southwest of Folkston) for refuge.
A ring of forts was constructed around the swamp during the summer of 1838.
In the fall of 1838, General Charles R. Floyd launched a series of search and
destroy operations to kill or drive the Indians from the swamp. A lucrative
military-agricultural complex developed around the Okefenokee between 1839 and
1842. Militia units were mobilized to investigate "Indian sign" time
after time between 1839 and 1842, but found no Indians. The Federal government
finally refused to pay for the mobilizations. In 1842, the Georgia Legislature
ended the war by refusing to pay for any more militia expenses.
The area was very sparsely settled during this period. The census taker recorded
29 families living in the Georgia Bend area in 1840. Following an Indian raid
from Florida, he wrote to the Governor that most members of three families had
been killed and they should be removed from the census.
Life on the frontier during this time was described by John C. Murray, 82,
in an interview in 1897. He moved to the Okefenokee frontier with his father
in 1833. He served as a soldier in the Indian War and in the Civil War. He recalled
the following about life during the early years:
Mansfield Torrance and one of his surveyors, probably William Nichols, wrote long letters to the Columbus and Milledgevile newspapers in 1850. The writers, who wrote mainly about the plants and animals, included the following notes on life around the swamp at this time. They observed the difficulty in clearing palmetto lands, but went on to note the following:
... but little land is cultivated; the chief productive wealth of the country is beef cattle. As stock is the chief wealth, agricultural pursuits are subservient to it. Enough corn and cotton is raised for home consumption. The black seed cotton is exclusively cultivated, and is ginned with hand roller gins fixed by uprights into a common stool. It is turned with one hand and fed with the other.
Sugar grows well and is cultivated for domestic supply.
Small grain does poorly, except rice. [But] I saw but two patches of rice and both were planted in Cyprus ponds, well ditched and drained.
The gardens, like they are all over Georgia, with but few exception, are below mediocrity.
Four years later, Alexander Allen visited and took testimony from several families living along the upper St. Marys River. Allen was a University of Georgia graduate who grew up in Cotton Plantation Up-Country Georgia. He compiled the following observations and impressions of the Cracker culture in 1854:
Mr. [Tarlton] Johns kindly invited us to dine with him which of course we did. Here we met Mr. George Johns 68 years of age healthy old man. a large stock owner & gathers his own cattle. he is father to Tarlton Johns. ... The old Gentleman is loquacious & fond of rough jokes. Tarlton & family are fair specimens of pine country simplicity. goodhearted people but know very little of the world The dinner consisted of coffee without milk or shugar, corn bread venison bacon & beans.
The people appear very kind. mostly hunters & stock minders & owners.
A few days later (July 6), Allen camped at the home of George Combs:
The people are perfectly destitute of any of the modesties of more refined society. We find them here as elsewhere bare-footed both men & women. Nurse their children in your presence without the least sense of impropriety. There are at this house 4 young babies & I have not seen a house not even filled with children. The population must therefore increase rapidly
The country is infested with gnats, flies, fleas & all other insects.
On July 8, at Mr. Kennedy's house, Allen wrote:
At this house as at others a gang of strapping lazy fellows are loitering with nothing to do or nothing that they would do. This whole population is lazy & indolent as far as I have seen. A crowd of lazy fellows have met at Kenedy's to shoot for beef.
On July 16, they went to the Cruise [Crews] house on the southern fringe of
the Okefenokee "to get the clothes we had washed. Mrs. Cruise very much
distressed. Cruise had gone to a whiskey burner & most probably drunk and
he had not returned. A big strapping girl boasts of her cotton picking."
Following Richard Hunter's survey of the Okefenokee from 1856 to 1857, Miller B. Grant, his 17 year old surveyor, described a typical Okefenokee frontier homestead and its inhabitants as follows:
A mere hut, log or otherwise, with one similar near by in most instances, ordinarily used as a cooking and eating room - these suffice for their simple views of comfort. I once saw a man and his wife with seventeen children herded together, without thought of change, in one of these shanties. Many of them depend for subsistence, several months of the year, on the spoils of hunting, wild fruits and berries in a great measure, so few acres of land do they choose to plant. If they have cattle (and many of them own and pride themselves in the fact of large herds of cattle), to milk or make butter from them would be as wild a theory to them as to bid us to get cheese from the moon, so entirely out of their calculations is such a mode of proceeding. They assign, when questioned, as a reason for inhabiting that section of the country, that there are lots of lightwood knots, and water "is powerful handy."
Grant also added: "[Yet] there does not exist - for their means and style
of life - a more open-hearted or hospitable set of people in the world."
Hunter's surveyors entered Cowhouse Island and camped at the homestead of a "Mr. Short," apparently a composite character constructed by M.B. Grant. Grant wrote:
This gentleman was of the genus Cracker, and a rare specimen of a man not to be outwitted, standing six feet in his wide brogans, stockingless; and the homespun pants might seem to have clung to his lower limbs since boyhood.... All of the [Crackers] ordinarily wear cloth of their own weaving; in some parts of the country a brownish yellow is the prevailing color, as I was told they liked it "to favor the soil."
When the young surveyors arrived, Mr. Short's three daughters, in their late
20s and 30s, changed into their "store clothes," yellow calico. Mr.
Short's daughters were not impressed by the visitors or their saxehorn. The
women stated that they preferred their neighbor, Stag Morris's, fiddle. One
of the daughters reported: "I reckon he kills more bars, makes more bitters
and drinks more whiskey, nor ere a man round here, unless it's the old man."
The surveyors attended a Christmas dance or "hop" at the log cabin
home of a "Mr. Brown" on the edge of the swamp northwest of Trader's
Hill. The dance was managed by a "first fiddle of the company." According
to Grant, he was: "the arbiter of good manners, as well as wit and jester.
He kept up a sort of ding-dong tune, a ring-dong-diddle, a ring-dang-do, a ring-dong-diddle,
a ring-dang-do." Grant noted that the tune "apparently inspired those
in whose ears...it was sweet music." Grant was impressed again by the independence
and power of the womenfolk. one mother, forcing Grant to dance with her daughter,
bragged that her daughters could "roll as many logs, dig as many taters,
and dance as long as ere a man in this country."
In contrast to the plantation societies of the Georgia coast and the up-country, the Okefenokee frontier developed as a hunting-stockminding society. Some of the major economic, and social, events of the year were the spring wiregrass burns and cattle roundups, the winter drives to the cowhouses, and periodically, the bear hunts to protect the razorback hogs. Charles R. Pendleton, who grew up on the northern rim of the Okefenokee, recalled the cattle-drive experience in an article in 1900. He wrote:
Forty years ago [in 1860] the Millers, the Hilliards, the McDonalds and other residents of Ware County owned large herds of cattle which browsed on the tender wiregrass on the "burns" during spring and summer. But for winter keeping they were driven to the Okefenokee Swamp where they fed on the canebreaks and other herbs and grasses which were protected from the frost by the dense overgrowth. When the first evidences of rising sap [in the trees] in March heralded the approaching spring, strips of woodland on the borders of the great swamp would be fired and burned over. It was said that the piney woods cow could scent one of these burns ten miles, and ere the tender shoots begin to peek through the ashy carpet left by the forest fire, the cattle would come in great herds out of the swamp to forage on the new-born grass. Driving parties would be organized, and after several days campaign the cattle would be rounded up at a given point, divided according to mark and brand, and driven to their respective summer ranges about the homes of their owners.
He also noted:
These early spring round-ups were interesting occasions for the boys and young men. Each little herd as they divided up for winter had its own male leader which at the spring gathering on the burns was ready and anxious to dispute with all comers the right to lord it over the ridge. The fights were frequent and furious and were greatly enjoyed by the younger set in the drive.
Pendleton also explained:
The "Big Cowhouse" and the "Little Cowhouse" [Chesser
Island] are islands in the Okefenokee Swamp. They were so named because certain
cattle breeders in Ware and Charlton Counties sheltered their cattle in them
in winter as far back as the forties [1840s] and fifties [1850s].
Bear and deer were hunted with dogs, usually from horseback. Several members
of the family, often members from several families participated in the hunts.
Killing a deer or a bear was often a rite of passage for the young men in these
families. It remains so today. Dogs were members of the family. The good bear
dog or coon dog was highly valued, and their prowess was the subject of much
Churches and schools were rare on the Okefenokee frontier. Instead, the frontier
folk came together for revivals and match-making at summer camp meetings. Only
a few places, like Sardis Primitive Baptist Church on Spanish Creek, date prior
to the 1870s.
Howell Cobb Jackson described his experience in a frontier church in a letter to the Atlanta Journal in 1890:
The church at Fort Mudge is called the "Pilgrim's Hope," possibly because the pilgrims who worship at this shrine are always hoping for many things which they never get. As a specimen of modern architecture it can scarcely be called imposing. Its ventilation is perfect, and is attained by the means of large cracks through the log walls. Indeed, the entire house is constructed of logs, with abundance of space between them for fresh air and for viewing the surrounding country. We found some fifty or more pilgrims assembled, and two preachers favored us with discourses - the Rev. Richard Lee and Rev. Moses Thrift. If the faith of these pilgrims be measured by the time they spend at their devotions, they all deserve a high place, for services commenced at a little before twelve and wound up a little after four. Each of the ministers opened by saying he had preached out and had nothing to say; yet each occupied about two hours to get rid of that nothing.
The Rev. Moses Thrift devoted a considerable portion of his time to the
matters of "Infant Baptism" and "Sunday schools." These
he denounced vigorously and warmly. He had the orthodox Baptist drawl at the
end of every two or three words, which was doubtless very pleasant to the brethren,
but which made his utterances so indistinct that I could understand but a very
small part of what he said.
The men and women were separated during the services, and everything was
conducted in a very democratic way. Men, women and children would go out and
return as often as they desired, the sleepy slept, and the thirsty made repeated
trips to the water bucket. Generally, however, the behavior of the congregation
was devout, and there were beyond doubt many good people present. [But] the
exercises were entirely too long and wearied out everybody.
Jackson also commented on the character of Okefenokee folk in 1890. He was especially impressed by their hospitality and their large families. Following a 25 mile walk on the first day of the survey, he was exhausted when he reached the St. Marys River near Ellicott's Mound. He wrote:
[here I] met the eye of a certain sympathetic widow who lives on the river, who not only invited [me] to supper, but offered [me] what was infinitely more precious - a feather bed. The house was small, the family [pretty large], there were only eleven children and several of them married, but by judicious arrangement, some little scrounging, room was found for all, and I never slept sounder in my life.
Jackson went on:
And now for a few words about the people. Here you see the Georgia cracker uncontaminated and in all of his original perfection. They are generally very poor and very simple, but I can say from personal experience that a kinder, or more hospitable people do not live. Their very errors really seem to arise more from ignorance than from
Many of the houses contain only one room, are built with logs and thatched with clay, and in this room all of the family, including visitors, are stowed away at night, somewhat after the fashion of sardines in a box, but all inconvenience and discomfort disappear when one sees the old-fashioned Georgia kindness with which the owner dispenses his hospitality.
Many families settled and prospered on the Okefenokee rim during the 19th
and early 20th century. The Chessers and the Lees lived on islands in the Swamp.
They took pride in their ability to live independently and happily in places
most people found uninhabitable. Obediah Barber lived on the northern rim of
the swamp for six decades. He became a legendary swamp figure in his lifetime
- and a symbol of the Okefenokee frontiersman.
The Chesser family lived on an island on the eastern edge of the Okefenokee
Swamp beginning around 1858. William T. Chesser was the first to move to the
swamp. His grandsons Harry and Tom, were some of the last people to leave the
Okefenokee. Tom Chesser and his family moved to town in 1958.
The Chesser men were widely known for their hunting and fishing skills in
the Okefenokee Swamp. The Chesser's lived by subsistence farming, hunting, and
stockminding. William T. Chesser relied very little on goods and markets in
other places. Nevertheless, he traded at the stores at nearby Trader's Hill,
15 miles away, as early as 1858-59, purchasing ammunition, cloth, ribbon, shirts,
etc. By 1873, he was also selling vegetables and syrup here.
As new jobs developed around the Okefenokee, even the family members that
remained on the island took advantage of these opportunities and worked at local
sawmills, turpentine stills, and some worked for the Suwanee Canal Company during
the 1890s. Others left to work for the Hebard Cypress Company or other lumber
companies when they began to log the timber in the Okefenokee between 1910 and
1942. But the Chesser tradition of self-reliance and independence survived in
the minds and hearts of the Chesser descendants and other Okefenokee families
who knew and loved life in the great swamp.
Today this frontier tradition is preserved in the Tom Chesser Homestead on
Chesser Island, a living museum in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
Charles R. Pendleton, editor of the Valdosta (GA) Times visited Chesser Island in 1875. The island was called the "Little Cowhouse" or "Chesser's Cowhouse" at that time. Pendleton asked Mr. Chesser about life on the island. Mr. Chesser replied:
I have always got along. You see I can kill deer, bear, turkey, ducks, geese - can go to Seago [Seagrove] and catch as many fish as I want; besides, as you can see, I have lots of chickens, hogs, and cattle. I get wild honey, too, occasionally, but it is not so plentiful now as it was once. You see the 'serters [Civil War deserters] in the war times cleaned the bees out.
Pendleton went on to record the hunting skill of Mr. Chesser's sons. They usually used their bows and arrows for fishing, but they "showed off" for the explorers:
Our party made their encampment in front of Mr. Chesser's gate, and after a survey of the island, settled to rest for the night. After we had supped on hardtack and potatoes (the latter furnished by Mr. C.) and such other articles of diet as is common to the life we were leading, one of the old man's boys came out and said that he had "roosted" two coveys of partridges, and that if one of us would go with him and another with his brother to hold the lightwood torch they would kill the birds with arrows. The writer and Prof. Locke readily volunteered. The boys had collected some "fat" splinters which made a blazing light, and when the writer and his man approached the spot where the birds had been seen to go to roost, the marksmen advanced cautiously a few steps and beckoned to the writer to stop. He saw them squatting in the grass and he drew his arrows one at a time from the quiver and in seven shots he had killed as many birds - shooting six of the number through the head. When he picked them up he said, "I shoots 'em through the head to keep from spiling the meat."
But on Chesser Island, as elsewhere, life was more than bread and meat. It
was often a matter of life and death. Mr. Chesser commented that sickness was
rare on the island, but he went on to eloquently recall the death of his son
and his wife. His little boy was bitten by a rattlesnake. Wistfully he said:
"He died in twenty-four hours. He was kinder pet with the old 'oman, and
she commenced to grievin' and pinin' and soon she went away like a pond drying
up in the summer, when there was no rain. That is all the sickness I've had."
The Chesser tradition persisted well into the 20th century.
Francis Harper made his first visit to the Chessers on July 12, 1921 after crossing the Swamp from Billys Island with Harry Chesser. He wrote in his diary:
[I found] A primitive and attractive wilderness home, log-built, with separate kitchen and wash-house, barn and cane mill (uncovered). Two or three hounds. About 7 of the 11 children, including Harry, now at home. Eat hominey, tomatoes, peas (field), cane syrup, light biscuits.
Across the swamp from the Chessers, Jim Lee, and later his son-in-law, Dan
Lee, lived in much greater isolation.
According to family tradition, at least one settler occupied Billys Island
before James "Black Jim" Lee, who possessed a massive black beard.
James J. Lee was living there by the 1860s. According to tradition, he sold
or swapped his claim to the island to "Black Jim" Lee around 1870.
Jim Lee had a well-established farmstead there in September 1875 when Charles
R. Pendleton and George Haines visited the island. Pendleton and Haines returned
a month later with the explorers of the "Constitution Exploring Expedition."
His son-in-law, Daniel Lee, moved to the island and by 1884 Dan Lee and his
wife Nancy considered the island to be their homestead. Jim Lee died in January
In September 1875, Pendleton and his local guide, Ben Yarborough, reached Billys Island, and the farmstead of Mr. James Lee. He wrote:
Mr. Lee is almost independent of the world. The only article that he buys beside ammunition, fishing tackle and farming and mechanical implements are coffee and salt. He raises is own bread, beans, sugar, syrup, beef, potatoes and everything else that he consumes save fish, venison and honey, which he gets in great quantities around him. He tans his leather and makes his own shoes, and his industrious wife and daughters spin and weave and sew up every thread of clothing they wear. He lives on government land, is lord of all he surveys, and is happy in his quiet solitude.
The isolation of Billys Island insulated the Lee Family from the cultural
changes accompanying the railroads during the 1870s and 1880s. Biologists from
Cornell University visited the island during the summer of 1912. They were impressed
by the knowledge and unspoiled contentment of this family living in a frontier
Landing at Billys Island at night after a long trip through the swamp from Cowhouse Island in May 1912, Francis Harper recalled the following in an article in 1915:
We trudged up through the cornfield to Dave's home, in the yard of which we were greeted by the deep-throated bearhounds. The folks within the house arose to receive us, and despite our protests set before us food and drink for our refreshment. So true to tradition is Southern hospitality, even in a wilderness home of logs.
To look about us in the morning, and to observe unobtrusively the manner of life of the only human inhabitants of the remote interior of the Okefinokee, was a novel and extraordinary pleasure. In the lives of these sober, self-sufficient people is reflected the freedom of the wilderness, no less than its solitude and its privations. Thirty years ago the father and mother established a home on Billy's Island; and they and the ever-increasing numbers of the second and third generations have continued to draw a livelihood from the manifold resources of the swamp.
The longleaf pines furnished the timbers of their dwelling; the sandy loam of the clearing produces their annual supply of corn, sweet potatoes, and several smaller crops, such as "pinders" (peanuts) and sugar cane; and in the surrounding woods their cattle and razor-backed hogs find sustenance. But no inconsiderable part of their daily fare is derived directly from the wild life about them. Deer, raccoons, opossums, rabbits, squirrels, fish, soft-shelled "cooters" (turtles), Wild Turkeys, Bob-whites, and many of the larger water birds are secured for the table whenever opportunity offers. The bears, whose depredations in some years prevent a suitable increase in the drove of razorbacks, are hunted with hounds and made to compensate with their own flesh for any deficiency in the supply of home-cured bacon. Not only does the family enjoy the product of the tame bees that swarm in upright sections of the hollow cypress logs about the yard, but the young men gather probably an even greater store of wild honey from "bee-gums" in the swamp. They market the skins of the alligator, the bear, the wildcat, and the otter, and get in trade the few necessities of life with which the Okefinokee itself does not furnish them.
The frontier culture gradually gave way to the new industrial world following
the Civil War. Although steamboats made their way up to Trader's Hill on the
St. Marys River as early as the 1830s, and a steam sawmill was operated at Burnt
Fort on the Satilla River by lumbermen from Maine by the 1830s, it was the railroad
and commercial society that undermined and supplanted the independence and self-sufficient
frontier culture. The Atlantic and Gulf Railroad extended from Savannah to Valdosta
by 1860. The Brunswick and Albany Railroad reached Tebeauville just north of
the swamp just prior to the war, but it was removed and rebuilt in 1870. Both
railroads were constantly in financial difficulty. The railroad that really
altered the landscape and the culture of the Okefenokee was the Waycross and
Jacksonville branch of the Savannah Florida and Western, completed along the
eastern rim of the swamp in April 1881 as the guns blazed at the O.K. Corral
Obediah Barber, who lived on the northern rim of the Okefenokee Swamp, was
a larger-than-life character. Physically, he was a big man. His reputation as
a successful farmer and herder, fearless hunter, daring explorer, and renowned
storyteller lingered long after his death. As often happens, the myth outgrew
Barber was typical and symbolic of the independent, self-sufficient, and self-reliant
frontier folk who settled the Okefenokee and its margins during the mid-19th
century. His life is representative of the persistence of frontier traditions
in some families in the longleaf pine forests prior to the intrusion of the
industrial railroad society that began to transform the people and landscape
of south Georgia between 1860 and 1900.
Barber was born in Bryan County, Georgia on July 25, 1925. He was the son
of Isaac and Frances Barber and a grandson of Moses Barber. He married Nancy
Stephens of Tattnall County, Georgia and by 1854 the Barbers had two children.
In 1850 Obediah Barber owned a 333-acre farm in Bryan County.
The young family moved to the northeastern edge of the Okefenokee Swamp just
north of Cowhouse Island on the Blackshear Road in 1854. They bought a 490-acre
land lot. Nine more children were born while he lived on this farm. In 1860
Barber cultivated 25 acres; in 1870 he reported 30 acres of improved land. In
1860 he had only two cows; by 1870 he owned 67 head of cattle. In 1860 he owned
130 hogs; he reported 125 hogs in 1870, more than most yeoman farmers of the
area. He also produced Indian corn, oats, sweet potatoes, sugar and syrup, a
bale of cotton, and sold a little wood, probably firewood.
From 1857 until 1870, Barber served as a Justice of the Peace, first in Ware
County, and then in Pierce County when his district was made part of Pierce
County in 1859.
Barber served as a private in the 24th Battalion, Georgia Cavalry, during
the Civil War. In 1862 he served with Capt. T.S. Hopkins' Company of Mounted
Partisan Rangers (Mercer's Partisans) at Camp Fort, Georgia.
In 1870, he sold his farm, resigned his public office, and moved with his
family six miles across the prairies of the northern Okefenokee to a new farm
(a 490-acre land lot) on the northwestern rim of the swamp in Ware County. Here
he built a log cabin, a large herd of cattle and hogs, and a reputation as a
bear hunter. His new farm was located about seven miles due south of the tiny
village of Tebeauville on the Savannah and Gulf Railroad. In 1874 Nancy, Barber's
first wife, died.
Barber married Matilda Tatum in 1875. Between 1875 and 1893, they had nine
children. By the 1880s he was a prosperous country squire. In 1880 Barber owned
1,520 acres, three horses, and four working oxen. He reported 40 acres of improved
land. He had seven children living at home and employed two farm hands, sons
of nearby farmers. He owned 76 head of cattle, 150 hogs, and 34 chickens. By
the 1890s, Barber's reputation as a skilled woodsman and hunter had made him
a living legend.
Obediah Barber was one of the great Okefenokee storytellers. A neighbor, John
Craven, noted that he always "made things funny at any cost of the truth."
But time was taking its toll. Matilda died in 1898.
In December 1898, at the age of 73, Barber married 26-year-old Martha Ann
Kight. Barber suffered a stroke in 1903. A divorce was acquired in 1907. Barber's
health declined, and in October 1907 he was declared a lunatic by a jury. During
the next two years E.O. and J.I. Barber served as guardians. Barber died on
December 28, 1909. Ironically, there was no obituary.
Obediah Barber witnessed the economic and social changes that gradually transformed
the Okefenokee frontier into a railroad society and brought industry and commercial
agriculture to the Okefenokee rim. He saw the character of the endless longleaf
pine-wiregrass forests change as the demand for naval stores and yellow pine
lumber swept the great pines away. He heard stories in the 1890s of logging
in the dense cypress bays in the Okefenokee Swamp by the Suwanee Canal Company,
but he died just prior to the massive railroad logging operations of the Hebard
Barber's, and the Okefenokee frontier spirit lives on, however. The Obediah Barber homestead was listed on the national register of historic places in June 1995. The Homestead, located outside of Waycross and called Obediah's Okefenok, has been restored and a living museum developed, catering to school field trips and family reunions of Okefenokee families.
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