I’ve been periodically posting excerpts from a rare book published in 1927 by Frances Harper entitled Mammals of the Okefinokee Swamp. This excerpt is a collection of local accounts about the cougar. It mentions the last known specimen killed by hunters in Georgia in 1925 (until 2007 when a hunter shot a wandering Florida panther near Lagrange). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service has proposed the Okefenokee Swamp as a possible site for re-introduction of the Florida panther, although it’s unclear which subspecies of cougar used to live here. The population that inhabited south Georgia may have been a blend of Florida panther and eastern cougar, the latter of which has been declared extinct. I would like to live where cougars roam, but from one of the accounts below, I can understand why this might make some people nervous. Cougars used to jump on people’s roofs. I don’t think suburban moms would be too crazy about a 150 pound cat standing on top of their house while their kids were playing in the backyard. The below account also uses a racially offensive place name. I chose not to censor it because I favor historical accuracy. Harper used the archaic scientific name, Felis coryi, for cougar. The official scientific name for the cougar today is Puma concolor.
Florida Cougar from Mammals of the Okefinokee Swamp
“When Goldsmith sang of the ‘wild Altamaha Where crouching tigers wait their hapless prey’ his zoogeographical knowledge was not so faulty as some critics have supposed. For to this day the Cougar is almost invariably spoken of as ‘Tiger’ in the Okefinokee region, and doubtless it has been known since colonial times in many other localities in the Southeastern states. There is little to record of it in the present region except the accounts of bygone days, for it is now very nearly if not entirely extinct. Yet it lingered well into the present century, and it is perhaps not beyond the bounds of possibility that some solitary survivor may yet be taken.
James Henderson, one of the oldest of the local hunters, has heard one or two in his time, and spoke of having been ‘backed out by a Tiger one night.’
J.D. Hendrix, a contemporary of Henderson’s saw a ‘Tiger’ that had been killed by Judge Albritton on the Nigger Camp Islands, near the upper end of Cowhouse Island, about 1883. The only one he ever saw alive was on the Big Water, about 1903.
He also spoke of one killed by William Gunter on the Little Okefinokee in 1864. The latter’s wife went down to a spring about 4 p.m, and was followed by a ‘Tiger.’ She ran to the house, and tried to shut the dog out. The ‘Tiger’ jumped on to the house, and walked from one end of the roof to the other. The man meanwhile came back from the woods with an old flintlock. He saw the animal, dropped down to his knees, and shot it off the house. It measured 9 feet from tip to tip.
Harrrison Lee stated that about 1876 his father, Dan Lee, and a companion were pursuing a ‘Tiger’ with dogs on Suwanoochee Creek a few miles above Fargo. While temporarily separated from his companion, he was mistaken for a ‘Tiger’ and seriously wounded with a rifle ball.
It is said that about 1896 a “Tiger’ appeared in the Lees yard on Billy’s Island, and fought with the dogs before running off. It was seen by Avner and Farley Lee.
Allan Chesser has never seen a ‘Tiger’ but has ‘seen where they killed deer and kivered ‘em up…I’ve seen many a deer where they’d been fought by the Tigers. Jest the throat cut. I’ve seen where they’ve jumped on ‘em. No sign er scufflin’ a-tall; just squashed ‘em down ter earth an’ killed ‘em right there. One time one scared me out er goin’ out on the prairie. I stood still a little while an’ watched ‘is tracks fill up with water, an’ I decided ter go on. I didn’t see nothin’ ‘uv ‘im. The bushes wuz thick. That’s ben, I expec’, erbout 18 er 20 years ago. In what is called Buck Prairie, on the north side er Black Jack.’
About 1910 Allen and Sam Chesser saw the tracks of a ‘Tiger’ along their trail from Lake Sego to Chesser’s Island. There was a distance of 4 feet between each track of the hind feet at a walking gait. Its trail was followed to where it had pulled up ferns to make its bed in a prairie ‘house.’ Hair about 6 inches long was found in its bed.
Allen Chesser also reported that three of the animals had been killed by a man named Osteen about 1885 on the eastern edge of the swamp half a dozen miles southeast of Chesser’s Island.
About 1898, while working in the swamp about 3 miles east of Coffee Bay on the canal, Sam Mizell heard a ‘Tiger’ one evening. He said the sound suggested some one ‘hollerin while hoarse,’ and that it ended with a sort of growl. About 1903 he saw tracks where one had killed a deer on Craven’s Hammock. He also found the skeletons of two deer that had been covered up with leaves, bushes, etc., evidentally by a ‘Tiger.’
Leonard Lloyd spoke of having seen the tracks of a ‘Tiger’ crossing the St. Mary’s River near Stanley Branch, above Trader’s Hill in 1901.
In 1916 John Hopkins, superintendent of the Hebard Cypress Company, informed me that seven or eight years previously there was a newspaper report, which he considered authentic, to the effect that a Panther had been killed between Mixon’s Ferry and Moniac, and exhibited in Valdosta.
On or about December 19, 1916, a hog was killed between Mixon’s Ferry and Fargo by some animal which a resident of that section, Sam Jordan, pronounced a ‘Tiger.’ A couple of weeks later Steve Williams was traveling in an automobile along the road between Fargo and Homerville, about 10 miles from the former place, when he saw a ‘Tiger’ cross the road very close in front of the machine. Some hounds had apparently been in pursuit of the animal.
I heard from Samuel Davis a report of one passing along the St. Mary’s River near St. Georgia on July 24, 1921, and ‘hollerin almost like a woman.’ He also stated that ‘one comes through every year.’ On September 16, 1922, I heard from Ben Chesser another rumor of one having been seen recently in the vicinity of St. George.
According to McQueen and Mizell, ‘a large panther was killed a year or so ago (1925?) on the southern edge of the Okefinokee after it had killed an unusual number of grown range cattle.'”