Archive for the ‘Colonial North America’ Category

Thomas Nuttall’s Journey through Arkansas during 1819

July 9, 2017

What did landscapes in southeastern North America look like before man modified them?  This question has long fascinated me, and it is the primary focus of my blog.  The Paleo-Indians who first invaded this region about 14,000 years ago left no written records, so the best available source of information are the journals written by early European naturalists including John Lawson and William Bartram.  Though Indians had already impacted the landscape for millennia, southeastern landscapes were  still much closer to the natural state when they saw them than they are today.  Lawson’s New Voyage to the Carolinas and Bartram’s Travels are well known works that I have read so often I’ve almost memorized every passage.  But I just recently discovered a lesser known journal of comparable value–Thomas Nuttall’s Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory during the Year 1819.  I don’t understand why this journal isn’t as famous as the other 2.  I couldn’t even find a map of his route when I searched google.  I don’t know of any professor who has undertaken an exhaustive study of his journal.  It deserves more attention from academia.

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Portrait of Thomas Nuttall, a 19th century naturalist.

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Early map of Arkansas.  Thomas Nuttall mostly traveled by river boats because there were few roads.

Thomas Nuttall was an English citizen and naturalist who lived in the U.S. from 1808-1841.  He went on many plant collecting expeditions including his trip through Arkansas when the region was still mostly wilderness.  Incidentally, at the time of the expedition he lived in Philadelphia and was friends with William Bartram.  He began his journey by traveling on a stage coach for 63 miles before setting out on foot toward Pittsburgh, a town already so polluted  he described it as “filthy” and “smoky.”  He proceeded down the Ohio River on a skiff all the way to the Mississippi River.  The New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 made passage down the Mississippi dangerous because of all the floating logs and snags uprooted by the moving earth.  Nuttall hired river boat guides but they weren’t always reliable.  On 1 occasion his boat was stuck against the current in a bad situation and some passing river pilots offered to help, if he paid them.  They took his money and left without helping.  Eventually, he made it to the Arkansas River and travelled to the interior of the territory through this route, exploring many of the tributaries of the river as well.

Fort Smith, Arkansas is a good-sized town today but was a small military garrison when Thomas Nuttall stayed there.  From here, he joined overland expeditions.  While wandering around looking for novel plant species, he got separated from his expedition and was forced to live with a pioneer family until he arranged to travel with someone familiar with the country.  He joined another overland expedition and explored eastern Oklahoma–Indian territory then.  By the end of his journey he was so stricken with malaria he could barely ride his horse through the untracked wilderness.  Nevertheless, he traveled for over 100 miles while suffering from malaria.  He ended his journey floating down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.

The people Nuttall encountered resembled the rough stereotypical characters from an old western movie.  He met thieving Indians who always wanted to steal his horse.  (The Cherokee and Osage Indians were at war with each other.)  He later learned that 1 of his guides murdered a man and stole the deed to his land.  He was stuck for weeks in a poorly constructed tavern where men gambled and drank whiskey day and night while the cold January winds blew through the huge cracks between the logs of the walls.

Nuttall doesn’t mention food much in his journal, perhaps because it was bad.  The people who lived along the Ohio and Mississippi River subsisted on corn meal mush and milk.  Indians ate lotus seeds, and meat stews made from dried green corn and whatever animals they could catch and throw in the pot.  They also ate boiled corn and pumpkin.  In the woods he lived on poorly made jerky that rotted quickly.

I searched google images in vain to find the kinds of landscapes Nuttall described in his journal.  Probably, the scenes he saw no longer exist or are very rare today.  He saw virgin river bottomland forests consisting of pecan, hackberry, black walnut, ash, sweetgum, swamp chestnut oak, scarlet oak, red oak, honey locust, mimosa, sycamore, and cottonwood with an undergrowth of Texas frogfruit, false daisy, Virginia buttonwood, and grass.  Cottonwoods were the largest trees.  Canebrakes extended for miles on some sides of the rivers, while other sides had sandy bare beaches where members of his party often searched for turtle eggs.  Hackberry and Foresteria shrubs stood as isolated trees in cane brakes.  Acres of nettles grew in 1 bottomland forest along the Verdigris River.   Nuttall found stands of Osage orange trees with trunks 12 inches in diameter growing in grasslands.

Cypress/tupelo swamps existed adjacent to extensive prairies where the grass grew taller than Nuttall’s head.  The prairies were beautiful interspersed with thin fingers of forest alongside streams and covered with wildflowers of many different colors–Indian pinks, azure larkspur, yellow tickseed and Rudbeckia, phlox, false indigo, and blue-eyed grass.

Another interesting natural environment Nuttall often traversed were cedar glades (or cedar prairies as Nuttall referred to them). Cedar glades grow on thin soils and have exposed bedrock.  They are open communities where grass and flowers grow between widely spaced cedar, winged elm, and post oak trees.  Cedar glades alternated with the pine/oak woodland that covered hills.  Shortleaf pine and post oak dominated these ridges.  Indians frequently set fire to these environments.  On 1 day Nuttall couldn’t collect any plant specimens because the land all around him had been burnt over.  Canebrakes, prairies, cedar glades, and oak/pine woodland are all communities dependent upon fire.  Abandoned Indian villages were surrounded by fields of Chickasaw plums and peaches, but a late frost had wiped out most of the fruit the year of Nuttall’s expedition.

Nuttall explored several salt springs.  Some salt springs supported colonies of glasswort (Salicornia sp.), a salt-tolerant species (halophyte) commonly found growing in coastal salt marshes.  Other salt springs were devoid of saltwort.  I wonder how this species colonized inland sites.

Nuttall didn’t see much wildlife until he reached the Mississippi River because hunters had long before decimated game in Pennsylvania and Ohio.  But after he reached the Mississippi River and entered Arkansas, he began to see deer, bear, turkey, geese, ducks, swans, Carolina parakeets, and white pelicans.  Bald eagles nested on the Mississippi River.  On the prairies he saw bison and elk and large herds of feral cattle.  Wild horses were so abundant on 1 prairie it was named “horse prairie.”  Nuttall never saw a collared peccary, but 1 of his guides said they lived nearby.  Nuttall was aware of fossil peccary skulls collected from the Big Bone Fossil Site in Kentucky.  During 1 night Nuttall heard wolves howling, bullfrogs croaking, and whip-poor-wills serenading his campsite.

Nuttall never saw a cougar but a member of 1 of his expeditions recounted an interesting incident.  A cougar killed a deer and rested in a nearby tree.  It killed a wolf that came to scavenge the deer.  Then, it killed a dog that also came to the carcass.  The dog’s owner went looking for his dog and found it alongside the wolf and deer surrounded by cougar paw prints.  That forlorn scene of nature can be found in old journals like this, but not in present day Arkansas.

Reference:

Nuttall, Thomas

Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory during the year 1819

Thomas Palmer 1821

 

Revisiting Lewis and Clark

May 4, 2017

I haven’t written about the Lewis and Clark expedition before because I try to keep my blog focused on southeastern North America and most of their famous route went through the northwest.  However, the diary of their journey is probably as close as we could ever get to a written account of a theoretical trip by western scientists through a Pleistocene wilderness.  So it is worth covering here.  Lewis and Clark saw western North America when it was thinly populated by Indians and a few white traders.  Humans had not yet completely ruined the environment then.

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Route of Lewis and Clark expedition.

I recently reread the journal of this expedition, and I was struck by how barbaric some of their practices were.  Though this was considered the Age of Reason, they still retained some medieval methods of problem-solving.  Soldiers who broke the rules were whipped.  One man was sentenced to 25 bareback lashes for poor behavior during a social event the night before they began their journey.  Lewis learned enough “doctoring” to be in charge of treating injuries and sick men.  One of his treatments was blood-letting.  At the time physicians wrongly thought bleeding patients could cure certain ailments.  When George Washington was dying of pneumonia his doctors bled him.  Of course, it didn’t work and he died anyway.

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Lewis and Clark engaged in barbaric practices such as blood-letting as a medical treatment and whipping to ensure obedience from their men.

The expedition traveled by sail up the Missouri River, then crossed the Rocky Mountains and sailed down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean.  When the wind was unfavorable, they attached ropes to the boat, and the men and their horses pulled the boat upstream.  The company depended upon fish and game for a large part of their diet.  It’s interesting to note how the fish composition changed as the expedition traveled up river.  In the lower part of the Missouri River catfish, buffalo fish, and sucker fish were common.  In 1 beaver pond they netted 318 fish including pickerel, bass, perch, and sucker fish, in addition to crayfish which they called “shrimp.”  In another pond by the river they caught 800 fish over half of which were catfish.  As they advanced up the river they began catching trout, sauger, and goldeye.  Salmon were found in the Columbia River.

 

 

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The Lewis and Clark expedition relied heavily on fish and game while they traveled on the Missouri and Columbia Rivers.  1 single catfish they caught was so big it yielded a quart of oil.

The wildlife was spectacular on the tallgrass and short grass prairies.  In the former they saw deer, elk, and feral horses.  Beavers were abundant all along the river.  The short grass prairie supported large mixed herds of bison, pronghorn, elk, mule deer, and white tail deer.  Lewis reported seeing an herd of 10,000 bison.  Big flocks of white pelicans and geese lived on oxbow lakes.  Grizzly bears were a dangerous problem.  They were difficult to kill with the primitive muskets of the day, and the men had numerous near fatal encounters with them. Cougars were present but rarely seen.  By contrast the expedition found little game when they crossed the Rocky Mountains.

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Bison and pronghorn.  The expedition often saw large herds of bison, pronghorns, elk, and mule deer together.

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Scene depicting grizzly chasing a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition into water.  Happened more than once.

The expedition brought flour, salt pork, canned soup, and dried corn with them, but they relied more on fish and game.  During winter and spring the animals they killed were often so poorly nourished the only edible part was the marrow bones.  Italians call this “osso bucco.”  In my opinion osso bucco is a fancy name for a dog bone.  Nevertheless, the men relished the fatty marrow. Game was in better condition during summer and fall.  One bison  or 1 elk and 1 deer or 4 deer could feed the expedition for 1 day. Game was scarce in the Rocky Mountains, and they were forced to eat their horses.  They were literally so hungry they could eat a horse.  The food they ate when they traveled down the Columbia River consisted mostly of dog, salmon, roots, and berries.  Most of the men learned to like dog meat, preferring it over venison.  On the coast they purchased whale blubber Indians had scavenged.  They ate wild fruit in summer and fall–grapes, plums, blackberries, blueberries, salmon berries, service berries, and pawpaws.

The Lewis and Clark expedition is credited with discovering 178 species of plants and 122 species of animals new to western science.  The number of animal species they supposedly discovered is wildly exaggerated.  I’ve seen the list, and it includes subspecies of already known species.  They were the first white people to report prairie dogs.  I counted 69 actual species the Lewis and Clark expedition may have introduced to western science.

I wrote a blog article a few years ago about a ring hunt that took place in Pennsylvania during 1760. (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2014/07/27/the-pennsylvania-mammal-holocaust-of-1760-a-rare-record-of-an-old-fashioned-varmint-drive/ ) Settlers exterminated wildlife in these organized hunts to protect their crops and livestock and starve out the Indians.   One of the animals killed was described as a white bear.  I assumed this was probably an albino black bear or maybe a polar bear that had wandered south.  But I learned members of the Lewis and Clark expedition referred to grizzlies as white bears because some have silver-tipped hairs.  This suggests the white bear killed in Pennsylvania was a grizzly bear that wandered east.  Perhaps, grizzlies occasionally occurred as far east as Pennsylvania during the pre-Colonial era.  Fossil evidence of grizzly bears has been found in Kentucky, but this dates to the Pleistocene.

Shipwrecked on the Florida Coast in 1696

March 10, 2017

During September of 1696 an hurricane wrecked the Reformation on the shore near the present day town of Jupiter, Florida.  The Reformation was a small sailing vessel carrying Jonathan Dickinson and his household along with the crew of mariners.  Dickinson was a Quaker merchant in the process of moving from Jamaica to the new colony of Pennsylvania.  His household included his wife, infant son, 8 African-American slaves, and an Indian servant girl.  They were captured by the hostile Jobeses Indians shortly after salvaging their belongings on the beach.  Spain claimed Florida during this time period, and the Indians were subservient to the Spanish.  Although Spain had signed a peace treaty with England, the Indians never got the message, and they thought they were at war with the British or “Nickaleers” as they called them.  Dickinson’s party considered it wise to pose as Spanish, and this may have saved their lives.  The Indians were suspicious of Dickinson’s true identity but afraid to commit an atrocity against their Spanish masters.  Nevertheless, the Indians stole everything they had, literally stripping the clothes off their backs.  The Indians constantly threatened to kill them and offered little food, giving them 3 meals a week.  Eventually, Dickinson convinced a chief to let them walk north toward St. Augustine.  They traveled naked, exposed to hot days, cold nights and storms; while subsisting on a starvation diet.  After 2 months Spanish soldiers discovered the party and helped them make it the rest of the way to St. Augustine but not before  Dickinson’s cousin (probably weakened by malaria) and 2 of his servants died.  They were well treated by the Spanish who then assisted them to Charleston, South Carolina by providing boats, soldiers, Indian guides, and supplies.  Dickinson kept a journal of this ordeal and later published it.

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An hurricane wrecked the ship carrying Jonathan Dickinson and his family in 1696 near Jupiter, Florida.  The traveled on foot and in canoes from Jupiter to St. Augustine before they received real help.  The Indians they met provided little aid and threatened to kill them.

The Jobeses Indians did not practice agriculture.  Their diet consisted of fish, shellfish, and wild plant foods.  Dried palmetto berries were an important subsistence item, but members of Dickinson’s party had a hard time adjusting to them.  Dickinson described the taste as resembling “rotten blue cheese.”  Despite their starving condition, many in his party spit them out and just couldn’t keep them down.  They did find coco plums and sea grapes more palatable.  Coco plums are a tropical fruit native to south Florida and the West Indies.  The seed is also edible, reportedly tasting like almonds.  Sea grapes are another tropical fruit, though I have seen them as far north as Harbor Island, South Carolina (far outside their official range.)  They are not real grapes–the plant is a member of the buckwheat family.  Dickinson doesn’t mention prickly pears (Opuntia sp.), but this is a common species in the region exploited by the Indians as well.

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Coco plums (Chrisobalanus icaco).  This was 1 of the “berries” Jonathan Dickinson and family had to eat to survive.  They found these more palatable than Carolina palmetto berries.

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Palmetto berries were an important staple item in the Indian diet on the east coast of Florida.  The shipwrecked crew had a hard time tolerating them, even though they were starving.

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Sea grapes (Cocoloba uvifera).  This species is not closely related to real grapes but are in the buckwheat family.  These were also more palatable for the shipwrecked crew than palmetto berries.

The storm surge of the hurricane that wrecked the ship stranded fish for a mile on the beach.  Dickinson’s party gathered as many as they could before they spoiled.  After this, they depended upon the Indians for fish and clams.  Some of the Indians were excellent spear fishers in the surf, and others caught them from canoes at night, using torch lights that attracted the fish.  Dickinson doesn’t specify what kind of fish the Indians gave them with the exception of 1 entry which mentions drum, probably red drum (Scianops ocellatus).  This is the species nearly wiped out by the blackened redfish craze of the 1980s.

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Red drum.  Although they often ate fish on their journey, this is the only species specifically mentioned in Jonathan Dickinson’s journal.

Dickinson’s party didn’t come across cultivated fields until they almost reached St. Augustine.  Here, they found a field of “pompions.”  Pumpkins don’t grow well in Florida.  Instead, these were probably a variety of winter squash.  The Indians who lived north of St. Augustine on the Georgia and South Carolina coast did practice agriculture.  On Dickinson’s journey from St. Augustine to Charleston they were well supplied with corn, beans (which he mistakenly calls “peas”), squash, and unspecified herbs.  They were even able to procure garlic and hot pepper to season the corn and beans.

Dickinson barely mentions the wildlife they encountered.  He saw bear tracks “and the marks of other beasts” in the sand near an inlet.  When they traveled by sail between St. Augustine and Charleston, they often stopped for the night or a few days on the sea islands.  Deer and wild hogs abounded on these islands and their Indian guides hunted them and provided meat for everybody.  There were plenty of rabbits on 1 island but they didn’t stay long enough to hunt them.

Dickinson’s party had to traverse many natural communities between their shipwreck and Charleston such as beach, scrub pine, pine flatwoods and savannah, maritime forests, cypress swamps, mangroves, salt marshes, and ocean inlets.  Florida named a state park in honor of Jonathan Dickinson near the site of their shipwreck, and many of these natural communities are represented there.

Reference:

Dickinson, Jonathan

Jonathan Dickinson’s Journal or God’s Protecting Providence

Florida Classics Library 1985

The Nature of Trials of the Earth by Mary Hamilton

August 10, 2016

One of the last great stands of wilderness in eastern North America existed along the Mississippi River during the late 19th century.  Loggers ruined this environment between 1880-1910, but in Mary Hamilton’s autobiography, Trials of the Earth, she described the awesome nature of this region.  Though her book focuses on her personal life and all the tragedies and hardships her family endured, I collected all of the interesting tidbits of natural history that she wrote about.

A fascinating book about the pioneer life of a woman in Mississippi and Arkansas during the turn of the 19th century.

In 1896 Mary Hamilton, along with her 2 young children and her brother and sister, followed her husband to a logging camp on Concordia Island, Mississippi.  The island was bound by a chute of the Mississippi River and the main channel.  Her husband was a supervisor at the camp, and he was too busy to bring her himself.  Instead, he marked a wagon trail through the wilderness, and a guide (actually an inexperienced teenaged boy) helped her find the camp where she eventually worked as a cook for 30 lumberjacks.  She was accustomed to this work, having boarded over 100 lumberjacks at a previous camp.

The family settled in a big white tent.  The island consisted of a dense forest of large mature oak, sweetgum, hackberry, and tulip trees with a thick undergrowth of bamboo cane that grew all the way to the lower limbs of the tall trees.  (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/canebrakes-are-forlorn-landscapes/)  Closer to the river, the forest thinned out, probably because of frequent flooding, and enormous sycamores and cottonwoods grew here.

The lumberjacks felled the trees and lashed them together in rafts to be tugged down the river to sawmills.  Some species of trees float, while others sink, so the lumberjacks had to lash “floaters” with “sinkers.”  Sweetgum and oak sink and had to be lashed to cottonwood, ash, or cypress.

Some species of trees sink, while others float.  Lumberjacks had to lash logs from “floaters” with logs from “sinkers” when they sent them downstream to the mills.

This is how people with wagons crossed rivers before bridges were built.  People who owned the ferry charged for its usage.

Mary’s younger brother was an accident prone Gomer Pyle type, and her husband was afraid he would hurt himself or somebody else, if they put him to work as a lumberjack.  Therefore, they assigned him the task of hunting and fishing to supplement their supplies.  It was difficult to supply this camp with food.  During times of high water, wagons couldn’t reach the camp, and supply wagons occasionally got lost in the wilderness and never arrived.  Sometimes the man in charge of the supply wagon ignored the grocery list and bought candy and cakes instead of the staples they needed.  So hunting was useful.  Deer and black squirrels were abundant.  Apparently, the black phase of the fox squirrel (Scirius niger) was the only species of squirrel on this island.  This surprises me because gray squirrels (Scirius carolinensis) prefer the kind of dense forest Mary describes.  In the south fox squirrels generally prefer more open woodlands.

Black phase of the fox squirrel.

One day Mary’s brother encountered a mother bear playing with her cubs.  He threw down his gun and ran for his life, yelling “there’s a dozen lions after me.”  Bears were plentiful on the island, and the lumberjacks’ diet here included bruin along with local beef and pork (wild hogs ran wild everywhere) and corned beef from New Orleans.  Animals took advantage of the lumber camp as a source of food as well.  A bear stole a quarter of a beef left to hang outside one night.  Raccoons, opossums, and bobcats fought over the camp garbage every night, and Mary heard panthers screaming and wolves howling nightly.  Later, when her family moved to an homestead on the nearby Sunflower River she insisted her husband shine the lantern on her when she went outside to bring in the laundry every night  because she heard a panther screaming regularly on both sides of the river.  People didn’t know much about panthers and wolves then and were very afraid of them. Mary didn’t consider all nature unpleasant.  She liked to hear the birds and frogs in the spring, and one day she collected 5 gallons of blackberries the size of Guinea hen eggs.  The rich delta soil produced berries larger than modern cultivated ones sold in farmer’s markets.

Mary’s husband built a “freshwater shrimp” trap for her brother.  The trap worked and captured bags of “shrimp” everyday, but her brother didn’t know “shrimp” meant crawfish.  He always threw away the crawfish until he was informed of his ignorance.

The Mississippi River shifted direction during their time on Concordia Island.  This caused a near disaster.  The river started eroding the bank overhanging all the rafts of lumber.  The rafts could have become covered in sediment and lost.  They immediately sent for tugboats that hauled the floating rafts and most of the logs were saved.  This event, referred to as “sloughing,” must have been an impressive sight.  Trees fell into the river, and the sediment collapsing made a “boom, boom” sound.

Next, Mary’s family moved to a lumber camp near the Sunflower River, a tributary of the Yazoo.  This region too was all canebrake and woods where panthers screamed and wolves howled every night.  Getting water at this camp was laborious and difficult.  Iron pipes were driven into the ground to reach well water, but oftentimes this was hard water high in magnesium and calcium.  Hard water is safe for drinking but can’t be used for washing dishes or clothes.  Mary softened the water by adding lye made from wood ashes.  The addition of a base binds the calcium and magnesium ions, making the water usable for cleaning.  Too much water became a bigger problem at this camp.  Rainy weather flooded all the surrounding bayous, isolating the camp from civilization, and they ran short of food.  They realized the rising water was going to completely inundate the camp and the wooden clapboard house where they were living.  So Mary’s husband cut a path through a canebrake that led to an Indian mound located above the floodplain, and he built a small boat.  The boat wasn’t big enough for all of them, and he had to make 2 trips to save his wife and 3 children.  Mary waited with her 5 year old daughter and infant son for 6 hours, while her husband carried their other small child to safety and returned.  She spent all this time standing on a chair on the highest ground, holding her baby and comforting her young daughter.  The baby slept the entire time, despite the rain.  She saw a bear, deer, rabbits, mice, and snakes swimming by them, looking for high ground.

Tornadoes often storm up the Mississippi River valley, then turn inland and smash through forest.  Mary describes one such area that was known as “the cyclone,” an area estimated to be at least 36 square miles.  “The cyclone,” located near the present day site of the Parchman State Penitentiary, was an eerie landscape without a single standing tree.  Instead, the ground was littered with fallen timber covered in grapevines, poison oak, and thorny brier bushes.  Ecologists call these environments windthrows.  This windthrow was on rich soil and hosted luxuriant tangles of vegetation, making the area impassable.  Mary tells the story of a well-liked Jewish paymaster who chose to take a shortcut through “the cyclone” rather than travel the 5 mile path around it.  He was bringing the pay to a neighboring lumber camp.  He got lost for 4 days and went half-mad from panic and dehydration.  The thorns tore all his clothing off as he scrambled through the briers.  Search parties failed to find him.  He finally wandered close to the camp, completely naked and incoherent but with the money in his hand.

Mary Hamilton described an area near the present day site of Parchman Penitentiary as “the cyclone.”  It was a windthrow of at least 36 square miles covered in an impenetrable stand of vines, briers, and cane.

Mary worked hard most of her life, but shortly after she married she did enjoy a bit of a vacation in Missouri where she stayed with friends by the Castor River.  Here, she learned how to fish.  She mostly caught bass, but on one early morning before anyone else was awake she caught an eel.  This sent her screaming in terror back to the house.  She was so scared she didn’t let go of the rod and carried the eel to the front door.  Mary wanted to get rid of it, but her husband was from England where eel is considered a delicacy, and he prepared it for supper.  One kind of fish that Mary caught here was referred to as a “white salmon.”  It took a little research, but I determined her “white salmon” was actually a walleye (Sender vitreus).  The old Ozark term for walleye is “jack salmon.” 

Mary caught bass, an eel, and walleye (which she called “white salmon”) in the Castor River.

I’d like to live in a wilderness where panthers scream and wolves howl every night.  And it would be rewarding to live off the land, gardening and raising animals for food.  But I wouldn’t want to do this without modern conveniences.  Mary worked from dawn to past dusk for most of her life.  I envy the wilderness she got to see but not the hard life she endured.

 

 

Landscape Paintings by Philip Juras

July 9, 2015

The kind of natural environments I’d like to see are either extinct or currently exist as tiny remnants.  It’s too hot this time of year to get in a car and drive for hours to visit any of these remnant landscapes.  Instead, I like to relax and open up a book entitled The Southern Frontier: Landscapes Inspired by Bartram’s Travels by Philip Juras.  This artist paints landscapes that were once common across the southeast but now exist as rare relics.  In some cases the environments he portrays no longer exist at all, and he has to base his work on descriptions William Bartram made about his travels through the region in 1775/1776.

My favorite landscape is the open oak savannah of the piedmont region.  I’ve written a series for my blog about my imaginary life in a wilderness located in the Georgia piedmont 36,000 years ago.  I envision my wilderness homestead surrounded by open oak savannah as depicted in the below illustrations.

Old growth oak savannah painted by Philip Juras. Imagine centuries old trees with a grassy understory.

Painting of an old growth oak savannah at Sprewell Bluff.  Imagine bison, horses, and mammoths here as they were during the Pleistocene.

Anthony Shoals on the Broad River.  This is what Piedmont rivers originally looked like.  If I lived near these shoals during the Pleistocene, I’d set fish traps up here.

Depiction of the Kiowee Valley, South Carolina as it was in 1775.  Today, this valley is inundated by a reservoir.  This is so beautifulWhat do I like best about it?  No sign of people.

Evidence from pollen records shows that the abundance of oaks and other hardwoods increased while the abundance of pine decreased during warm interstadials and interglacials.   Broad-leafed trees outcompete pines in climates with greater precipitation, milder temperatures, and higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Conversely, pines predominate over broad-leafed trees in colder windier conditions with lower atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, such as occurred during Ice Age stadials.  Natural fires and the grazing, trampling, and foraging of megafauna kept oak woodlands more open during the Pleistocene than modern day woods.  Later, Indians frequently set fire to the woods, maintaining these primeval oak savannahs.  Light grass fires killed saplings, but mature oaks are fire resistant, and burned grass re-sprouts from underground roots.

I like oak savannahs because this type of environment supports a large population of wildlife, and the open nature allows for easy wildlife viewing.  During the Pleistocene a piedmont oak savannah was home for mammoth, bison, horse, peccaries, tapir, deer, elk (probably not until 15,000 BP), llamas, and bear.  Predators attracted to these prey species included saber-tooth, giant lion, jaguar, cougar, bobcat, dire wolf, and coyote.  Squirrels were even more abundant than they are today, and cottontails thrived in thickets left per chance unburned.  Big flocks of turkeys, passenger pigeons, and hundreds of species of songbirds frequented oak savannah.  Just imagine all the wildlife that could be seen from just a glance out the window of a homestead built in the middle of a Pleistocene piedmont oak savannah.

Philip Juras did find a rare remnant of an oak savannah in western Georgia located in Sprewell Bluff State Park.  When I drive through the countryside, I occasionally see an acre or so with old growth oaks and a grassy understory.  I remember seeing an example of this environment on the other side of the road near the base of Ladds Mountain in Bartow County.  This environment is rare now because men have clear cut and cultivated so much of the original landscape.  When the land is eventually left fallow, it doesn’t come back like it used to be.  Men suppress fires and build roads that act as firebreaks.  The native grasses no longer occur in the seed bank, and the soil has been used and eroded.  The trees grow thick on poor soil without light grass fire tinder.  It’s nothing like it used to be.  Pines predominate in the piedmont today, but circa 1704 John Lawson traveled a day through the North Carolina piedmont without seeing a single pine tree.  Instead, the land was covered by oaks and other hardwoods.

Since Philip Juras published his book, he’s continued painting landscapes.  He’s traveled to Little St. Simon’s Island, Martha’s Vineyard, and Colombia.  He’s posted these new paintings on his website http://www.philipjuras.com/  Here’s 1 of my favorite new paintings of his.

This is a freshwater wetland known as Goose  Pond on Little St. Simon’s Island.

Escaped Slaves Lived a Primitive Life in the Great Dismal Swamp Wilderness

March 21, 2015

The geological origin of the Great Dismal Swamp is similar to that of the Okefenokee.  Formerly, the Atlantic Ocean extended over both locations.  The Okefenokee region emerged above sea level early during the Pleistocene about 2 million years ago, while the location of what was to become the Great Dismal didn’t emerge above sea level until about 100,000 years ago.  Ocean currents deposited a layer of impermeable clay over both locations, explaining why drainage is so poor.  For most of the Wisconsinian Ice Age pine and spruce forests along with wet meadows and acidic bogs covered most of what’s now the Great Dismal.  Though climate was drier during cold stadials, the cooler temperatures meant a slower evapotranspiration rate, allowing for the existence of wetlands.  There was likely an influx of northern hardwoods during warmer interstadials.  Pollen studies show pine and spruce gave way to beech/hemlock forests about 13,000 calendar years ago, and oak hickory forests dominated during the middle of the Holocene when climate became hot and dry.  But about 4000 years ago, the swamp began to develop its modern characteristics.

A combination of alternating drought, fire, and tropical storms created marshes consisting of high grass, reeds, and bamboo cane covered with tangles of greenbrier and vines.  Impenetrable stands of fire-adapted white cedar grew in some places, and cypress and tupelo forests prevailed in the wettest areas.  The peat from generations of dead grass and reeds added to the impermeability of the soil, but when drought dried the peat, lightning storms ignited it.  The burning of layers of peat actually lowered elevation in places, creating large shallow lakes. The Great Dismal originally encompassed 2000 square miles.  Few ventured into this vast wilderness where thick plant growth stymied the advance of man on foot or horseback.  This made the Great Dismal an ideal hiding place for persecuted Indians, escaped slaves known as Maroons, and white outlaws.

The Great Dismal Swamp originally covered about 2000 square miles between Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound. Most of it was drained and now there are just 200 square miles left.

The  Maroons lived in wattle and daub houses.  They either learned this construction technique from the Indians or they remembered how to make it from when they lived in Africa. Humans have been making dwellings from tree branches and clay for at least 6000 years. How ingenious.

 

A Native American Morrow Mountain point

Indian projectile point believed to have been reworked by escaped slaves known as Maroons.

Dan Sayers supervises archaeological excavations of small islands within the Great Dismal.  He believes islands within the swamp were home for thousands of people between 1700-1865.  The people who lived here had few material possessions and lived such a primitive life that little physical evidence remains.  Their wattle and daub houses, made with woven sticks and muddy clay, have long rotted away, and termites have consumed just about every wood artifact.  Nevertheless, he’s found foundation post holes of their dwellings and digging around the vicinity often yields artifacts, including re-used lead shot, gun flint, glass, and iron nails.  The Maroons were so desperate for tools, they even remade Indian projectile points.  What to us would be a curious artifact was for them an essential tool for survival.

Americans began digging canals in an attempt to drain the swamp in 1823.  (George Washington was 1 of the 12 original American owners of the swamp but he sold his share early on.) Maroons worked on the canals in trade for goods they needed.  The engineers in charge of excavating the canals were not always strict about enslaving every black person they encountered.  Efforts to raid the Maroon hide-outs were futile because the Maroons knew their way around the swamp better than the “lawmen” who always got lost looking for them.

It’s too bad the Maroons were illiterate and left no written record of their experiences in the Great Dismal.  Their experiences would have been of great interest to the naturalist.  J.F.D. Smythe was an English loyalist who hid in the Great Dismal from angry revolutionaries.  He did write about the Maroons in 1790 when he finally made it back to England.  He reported that the runaway slaves lived there for 10-30 years on corn, hogs, and chickens they raised.

I’m sure the Maroons depended heavily upon trapping small mammals, turtles, and fish.  It would have been difficult for them to access firearms and ammunition, so I don’t think they often exploited the abundant bear and deer populations. Instead, animals such as marsh rabbits and snapping turtles served as more attainable sources of protein.  Marsh rabbits lived on the islands with them.  Slaves were known to set fire to fields where marsh rabbits lived.  Rabbits fleeing the fire could be clubbed by the hundreds. Brave waders could catch snapping turtles and catfish by hand.  Catching catfish by hand is called “noodling,” a technique the Maroons probably learned from the Indians.  It’s possible to catch snapping turtles without injury, if the shell is grasped from behind where their jaws can’t reach.

The primitive conditions of living in the Great Dismal were difficult, but it beat living in bondage.  The Great Dismal has been drained and reduced to just 200 square miles, but that’s still enough territory for archaeologists to get lost in.  A fugitive could still potentially hide here, but prisoners probably have a better life than a person eking out a living in this bug-infested environment.  Also, the primitive skills to survive here have been lost in our modern “tech savvy” culture, and I doubt a single inmate in North Carolina or Virginia would last long here.

References:

Levy, Gerald

“The Vegetation of the Great Dismal Swamp: A Review and Overview”

Virginia Journal of Science Winter 1991

Unnamed Author

“Digging up the Secrets of the Great Dismal Swamp”

Popular Archaeology April 2011

The Pennsylvania Mammal Holocaust of 1760–A Rare Record of an Old-Fashioned “Varmint” Drive

July 27, 2014

The old timey pioneers did not appreciate wildlife or wilderness at all.  They saw their environment as a dismal wasteland filled with vermin, a word later Americanized to varmint.  Today, what most consider a beautiful animal was then viewed as a wealth-destroying scourge.  During the 18th century most people didn’t hold large amounts of money in banks but instead measured their wealth in the quantity and quality of the agricultural produce the land they owned produced. There was an economic basis behind their desire to exterminate all competing large mammals because if herds of deer ate their corn or a pack of wolves ripped apart their sheep, they would be financially ruined.  Nevertheless, the methods they used to accomplish this goal of ridding the countryside of varmints seems appalling to modern sensibilities.  One of the methods was known as a ring hunt.  Ring hunts were especially popular in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and settlers used them annually from about 1750-1850.  By the middle of the 19th century, all large wild animals had been completely extirpated from these 2 states.  Ring hunts were popular social events where men got together to enjoy the wonton slaughter of animals.  Few of the participants had any scientific interest in the composition of the animals they killed, and accordingly, the results of most of these murder parties have been forgotten.  However, 1 detailed account has been handed down to us.

A man known as Black Jack Shwartz led a ring hunt in Snyder County, Pennsylvania about 1760.  (Shwartz must have been a charismatic leader because he was previously known to have headed a group of volunteer sharpshooters for General Braddock during the French and Indian War.)  Shwartz organized a group of 200 settlers into a ring surrounding about 30 square miles of wilderness near the Mahantengo Creek, a tributary of the Susquehanna River.  The Mahantengo, translated from the local Indian language, means “where we had plenty of meat to eat.”  The name suggests this region was particularly rich in game, although at this early date wilderness still bordered the young city of Philadelphia, and wild animals ranged throughout the state.  The hunters, standing at intervals about 200 yards apart, made bonfires, rang bells, and fired their muskets into the air, while gradually advancing toward a cleared area in the middle of the circle.  They drove all the wild mammals into the clearing, then shot and killed 1200 of them.  Hundreds of animals did escape.  Faced with a choice between a concentration of wolves, cougars, and bears or puny but noisy humans, hundreds of bison, along with some deer and elk, stampeded through the perimeter and broke free.  This probably explains why the ratio of carnivores in the final talley is so unusually high.  The death toll included 198 white-tail deer, 111 bison, 2 elk, 109 wolves, 112 foxes, 41 cougars, 114 bobcats and/or Canadian lynx, 17 black bears, 1 white bear, 12 wolverines, 3 fishers, 3 beavers, 1 otter, and 500 smaller mammals probably consisting of assorted rabbits, squirrels, possums, raccoons, and skunks.  It seems amazing that such a concentration of wildlife lived in just a 30 square mile area, but other written accounts from Kentucky and Oklahoma also claim high numbers of animals in places prior to the advancement of civilization into formerly pristine environments.

Map of Pennsylvania highlighting Snyder County 

Location of Snyder County, Pennsylvania where pioneers wiped out most of the large mammals within a 30 square mile area in a day.  “Varmint” drives such as this were common in the 18th century, explaining how wildlife rapidly disappeared in the east. 

An albino black bear mother.  The white bear killed in Pennsylvania during a “varmint” drive was probably an albino black bear but may have been a polar bear straggler. (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/a-polar-bear-ursus-maritimus-fossil-in-breck-smith-cave-kentucky/)

Photo: Wolverine, Gulo gulo.

Wolverines lived in Pennsylvania til about 1865.  A total of 3 were killed in the 1760 circle hunt.

A few choice cuts of meat and a few hides were taken, but most of the dead animals were placed in a pile as “high as the trees.”  This was set on fire, creating a stench that forced some settlers to leave their cabins, even though they lived 3 miles away.  According to the author of the below reference, a mound, within which bones from this mammal holocaust were interred, still marked the site in 1917.  I wonder whether this mound is still there today.

The local Indians were so furious over this destruction of their food supply that they later ambushed and killed Black Jack Shwartz.  They also murdered 12 settlers.  But these murders did not discourage the settlers.  Instead, the settlers continued to hold annual ring hunts, purposefully aggravating the Indians.  The settlers took joy in poking the Indians in the eye.  They held ring hunts as much to insult the Indians as to eliminate varmints.  Ring hunts helped the settlers starve the Indians, while protecting their crops and livestock. 

The concept of a ring hunt is especially revolting to the modern day naturalist.  There are no National Parks east of the Mississippi that host the variety and numbers of wildlife killed in just the 1 ring hunt for which we have a detailed record.  I wish I could live in a wilderness where wildlife was that abundant, yet other people who did have that opportunity chose to destroy it rather than enjoy it.  How ironic.

Reference:

Shoemaker, H.

Extinct Pennsylvania Animals

Altoona Tribune Press 1917

 

 

 

https://archive.org/stream/extinctpennsylva00shoe#page/n9/mode/2up

 

William Bartram’s Visit to St. Simons Island in 1774

July 10, 2014

I didn’t go to St. Simons Island this summer as I’d initially planned, but I wasn’t disappointed.  I’m sure the island is not as interesting as it was when William Bartram visited it in the spring of 1774.  Bartram stayed for a few days with James Spalding, then the president of the settlement of Frederica and a merchant involved in the Indian trade.  Although a remnant of an old growth maritime forest has been preserved for the modern day naturalist to enjoy, Bartam had the opportunity to see the island when it was mostly undeveloped.  One day, he left Frederica on horseback to survey the island.  Thick groves of live oaks surrounded the town.

500 year old live oak on John’s Island South Carolina.  There may have been quite a few trees of this age on St. Simons Island when Bartram visited in 1774.

Bartram rode through the virgin live oak woods and found a “beautiful green savannah” about 2 square miles in extent.  Long-horned cattle, horses, sheep, and deer fed in this natural pasture.  On the other side of this savannah, he followed an old road that had fallen into disrepair.  The road went through an open woodland of live oaks and longleaf pines spread far enough apart that grass and shrubs could grow in the understory.  The road ended after 5-6 miles when he reached an impenetrable thicket growing on a sandhill.  The thicket was composed of live oak, myrtle, holly, beautyberry, silverbell, alder buckthorn, hoptrees, bully trees, hornbeam, and bignonia.  Several of these species are evergreen and subtropical.  Greenbriar vines covered the thicket, and there was a salt marsh on the other side of the sandhill.  Bartram referred to it as a “salt plains.”

Bartram did find a freshwater creek between the forest and the salt marsh.  Here, he rested and enjoyed the fragrant beauty of diamond frost, morning glory, lycium (a thorny plant in the nightshade family), scarlet sage, and white lily; all of which were blooming in April.

Diamond Frost Euphorbia Diamond frost in the Euphorbia genus.  It is related to the more famous Christmas poinsetta.  This is one of the flowers Bartram saw growing on St. Simons Island.  Actually, it is the leaves that look like flowers. 

Bartram turned south and found the beach where he saw living and dead starfish, corals, jellyfish, snails, whelks, clams, and squid; all washed upon the sand.  He left the uninhabited beach and headed west, coming across 50-60 beehives lined up in a grove of oaks and palms.  He met a farmer and beekeeper who was resting upon a bearskin rug after a morning spent hunting and fishing.  The man gave Bartram venison and honey-sweetened water spiked with brandy.  They had a picnic amidst the mockingbirds, painted buntings, and hummingbrids.  Jasmine, honeysuckle, and azaleas scented the air. 

William Bartram met a farmer and beekeeper on St. Simons Island who was lounging outside on a beer skin rug while drinking brandy mixed with honey and water.  He must have caught the bear raiding his bee hives.

 ©Zachary_Huang 

An apiary.  Beekeepers and bears do not get along.

On his way back to Frederica, Bartram saw many abandoned plantations.  Even Fort Frederica itself, still manned at the time by a small garrison, was falling apart.  Peach, fig, and pomegranate trees grew through the broken walls.  General Oglethorpe had ordered the construction of the fort 60 years earlier, but funds in 1774 were not available to maintain it.

Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island, Georgia.  General Oglethorpe ordered it built circa 1712 to repel any possible invading colonial force such as the Spanish.  By 1774 it was already in ruins.

I envy the bucolic life of the farmer that Bartram met.  The man had half of St. Simons Island to himself.  For an 18th century existence, this was living in paradise.  Poor city folks in London then were lucky if they had bread.  But this man lived on a beautiful plantation with quite a variety of food available from both land and sea.  On the other hand, he didn’t have air conditioning and television.  And the bikini had yet to be invented.  Today, his plantation has been transmogrified into a landscape of condos built as closely together as possible.  If this farmer could visit the present day for a week, I wonder if he would envy our modern life as I envy his or would he wish to return to his old life.  I wonder…would he trade places with me?

The Nature of 12 Years a Slave

May 21, 2014

Some past Oscar winners are so bad they’re unwatchable, but 12 Years a Slave is a great movie that topped a lot of other really good movies released in 2013.  The setting of the movie is primarily in Louisiana between 1841-1853.  Because this region was frontier wilderness then, the movie inspired me to read the book for insight into the area’s natural history.  Most of this essay will focus on this natural history, but first I want to comment on the literary quality of the book, and an odd misconception of slavery I found while researching this topic.

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northrup, a freed black man, who was kidnapped and forced into slavery for 12 years until he was rescued by his white friend from New York.  Solomon Northrup is credited with authoring the book–it is his story.  But he had an excellent ghost writer by the name of David Wilson.  Though Northrup was not illiterate, he had been forbidden to read or write for 12 years, and there is no way such an unpracticed individual could have produced such a well written book without professional writing help.  Some of the best books I’ve ever read were written by ghost writers.  Ozzie Osboure had an amazing ghost writer for his biography.  Ozzie is admittedly illiterate due to a learning disability.  Moreover, it’s difficult to understand his mumbling speech.  Nevertheless, Ozzie’s ghost writer did a fantastic job capturing his voice, just as Wilson captured Solomon’s voice.

Northrup

Portrait of Solomon Northrup.  When one of his psychopathic slave-owners attacked him with an axe, he fled into a virgin bottomland forest and saw dozens of alligators and hundreds of cottonmouth water moccasins in just 24 hours.

While researching this topic, I came across a stupid blogger who claimed slaves were well off because they had room and board.   This is a surprisingly prevalent revisionist view among some right-wingers. I wonder if any of these right-wingers would be willing to trade room and board for whippings, forced labor, rape, and being separated from their children forever.  What kind of cuckoo land propaganda brainwashes these delusional dumb asses?

Solomon Northrup endured 4 “masters.”  One was a nice guy, though, of course, misguided; two were greedy sadists, and another was an homicidal maniac.  One day, the homicidal maniac tried to kill Solomon with an axe.  Fortunately, Solomon was able to overpower this crazy little dude and choke him unconcious, giving him time to flee into a virgin bottomland swamp. (This scene was not depicted in the movie.) When Tibeats, the name of this psycho, revived, he jumped on his horse and sought the help of professional slave trackers who used a pack of a vicious type of mutt to hunt down slaves.

Virgin bottomland forest of cottonwood and hackberry in Louisiana.  The forest Solomon fled through was swampier than this and had cypress and tupelo giants growing in it.

This  dog is known (if you’ll excuse the ugly adjective) as a nigger hound.  It isn’t actually a hound but rather a cross between an old fashioned working bulldog and a mastiff.  Slave-owners used them to hunt down escaped slaves.

The standard slave hunting dog, known variously as a Cuban bloodhound or nigger hound, was not an hound at all but rather a cross between an old fashioned  American bulldog and a mastiff.  In Louisiana most slaves were easily captured because few knew how to swim, and eventually they’d reach a bayou they could not cross.  The dogs would either tree the slave or trap them against the watery barrier.  Dogs often seriously injured or killed slaves before the trackers could catch up to them. Solomon knew how to swim and successfully escaped the dogs by fleeing deep into the swamp and losing his scent in the numerous watercourses.  He found himself inside a virgin bottomland forest of immense trees consisting of cypress, tupelo, oak, and sycamore.  Tree frogs croaked constantly as Solomon navigated around alligators and cottonmouth water moccasins.  He claimed to have seen over 100 of the latter during 12 hours of daylight.  He traveled all night and eventually found his way back to his old “master” who still owned the deed on him, though he had mortgaged him to Tibeats.  (Slaves were traded in lieu of cash for debts.)  Ford, the nicer “master,” convinced Tibeats to rent Solomon to another plantation-owner instead of punishing him for fending off the axe attack.  Tibeats later sold Solomon to a greedy sadist who whipped slaves almost daily.

Solomon later learned of a trick slaves could use to keep nigger hounds from tracking them, though he never again dared attempt a direct escape.  He knew of an escaped slave that built an hut in the wilderness and lived there for a year before she returned to the plantation.  The plantation dogs refused to track her because when no one was looking, she had intimidated the dogs and showed the dogs she was dominant over them.  Solomon often had to supplement his diet with raccoon or oppossum, and he used a club and the plantation dogs to hunt these critters.  When he was in the woods with the dogs, he’d become dominant over them, so that if he ever tried to escape again, they’d refuse to track him.

The ration Solomon received was miserable–cornmeal, maggoty bacon, and the occasional sweet potato.  With no cooking utensils he had to subsist on unleavened cornbread baked in ashes–in other words…a dog biscuit.  The bacon was often so infested with fly spawn it was not edible.  He built a box fish trap and baited it with corn dough, and this supplied him with most of his daily protein.  He didn’t write what kind of fish he caught, other than they tasted good.  The nearby Allemande Lake is known as the “catfish capitol of the world.”  Solomon likely caught channel, flathead, and blue catfish in his trap.

The area where Solomon slaved for most of his days in captivity is known as Bayou Beouf, named for all the feral longhorn cattle that formerly abounded in this neighborhood. These longhorn cattle were wild descendents of cows the Spanish brought from Europe.  This is a dangerous breed capable of fending off large predators.  There were also planty of feral hogs here.

La Bayou Boeuf was named after all the feral and semi-tame cattle that roamed the region when Americans first settled in this wilderness.  The cattle descended from those brought to Texas from Spain.

When Solomon was first brought to Louisiana he stayed at Ford’s plantation in “The Big Piney Woods.”  This plantation was located in the middle of a longleaf pine savannah–a now rare type of environment that formerly covered most of the southeast’s coastal plain.  While working for Ford, he also encountered Chickasaw Indians, still living in the region.

Tibeats rented Solomon to a man in the process of clearing a forest on his plantation.  To reach this territory, Solomon’s party traveled through a massive canebrake–a huge monotypical stand of bamboo cane, also a now rare environment that formerly was commonplace.  This is how he describes it:

“After passing through Baton Rouge swamp, and just at sunset, turning from the highway, we struck into the “Big Cane Brake.”  We followed an unbeaten track, scarcely wide enough to admit the wagon.  The cane, such as are used for fishing rods, were as thick as they could stand.  A person could not be seen through them the distance of a rod.  The paths of the wild beasts run through them in various directions–the bear and the American tiger abounding in these brakes, and wherever there is a basin of stagnant water, it is full of alligators.”–Solomon Northrup 1853

Apparently, jaguars occurred as far east as Louisiana until as late as 1887 (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/09/26/how-recently-did-the-jaguar-panthera-onca-roam-eastern-north-america/)  Early colonists referred to them as “the American tiger” to distinguish them from a cougar which they called “panther.”

Brutal: The 20-stone cat sunk its teeth into the eight-foot reptile before dragging it back across the water and into the jungle

Jaguar killing a caiman.  Solomon Northrup and the early Louisiana settlers referred to jaguars as the “American tiger.”  They abounded in an area known as the “Big Canebrake.”

Solomon didn’t mind the hard work of cutting down trees, but the mosquitoes and gnats were intolerable in this virgin swamp forest on the other side of the Big Cane Brake.

We may consider outselves more enlightened than people were in the 19th century, but I’m certain there are just as many greedy sadists and violent psychopaths now as there were then.  The wilderness, however, is gone.  I prefer the wildernes over humanity.

The Land Walt Disney Ruined

May 12, 2014

1,145,956 people live in Orange County, Florida today, making it one of the most crowded colonies of Homo sapiens in the United States.  A satellite view of this county reveals a densely packed network of suburbs surrounding the many lakes that dot this once beautiful piece of real estate.  It appears as if green space has been entirely extinguished here.  Walt Disney is responsible for much of the ungodly mess Orange County has become.  He created Disney world, a shitty tourist trap constructed between 1965-1972.  In my opinion the entertainment value of Disney World is nil, and a blank television screen is preferable to 95% of the series presently aired on Disney-owned ABC network.  I can’t understand how even small children are entertained by the imbecilic cartoon characters created by Disney’s company.  Ironically, the man behind Bambi destroyed more deer habitat than any other business criminal in history.  It disgusts me how the real interesting fauna of Florida has been replaced by artificial anthropomorphized animals.

Map of Florida highlighting Orange County

Orange County, Florida.

Walt Disney with one of his imbecilic cartoon characters.  Real animals are far more interesting than Mickey Mouse.

There were at least 7 different types of natural communities that formerly made up the landscape of Orange County.  In 1774 William Bartram found hardwood hammocks growing on the lake shores and islands within the lakes in north central Florida.  The tree composition consisted of live oak, palm, magnolia, orange, and many other temperate and subtropical species.  Orange trees were not native to Florida but Indians widely planted this fruit from seeds they obtained from early Spanish colonists 200 years earlier.  Large orange groves, abandoned by declining Indian populations, were being invaded by native trees in some places.  Other wild fruit trees included papaya (Carica papaya), tallow plum (Ximenia americana), coco plum (Chrysohailaanos icaco), and pawpaw (Asimina triloba).  Ivy and grape vines covered the hammocks and spectacular flowers such as hibiscus grew in the understory.

Hibiscus coccineus.  Bartram found stalks of this flower growing 12 feet tall.

Silver Glen Springs in Ocala National Forest.  The numerous springs and lakes of Orange County acted as firebreaks protecting hardwood hammocks that would have otherwise been converted to longleaf pine savannah.

Florida has more thunderstorms and lighting strikes than any other region of North America.  Accordingly, lighting ignited wildfires shaped the most common type of environment found in Orange County.  Lakes acted as firebreaks that protected hardwood hammocks, but longleaf pine savannahs predominated on uplands away from water.  Widely spaced pines with grassy understories supported lots of wildlife.  Great herds of bison, feral longhorn cattle, horses, and deer used to roam the savannah along with mighty flocks of cranes and turkeys.  Burrowing owls and caracaras preferred the heavily grazed grasslands where they had a good view of potential threats.  By contrast the now nearly extinct grasshopper sparrow preferred to nest in tufts of bunchgrass perchance left ungrazed.  This species requires large ranges because the type of habitat they need is ephemeral, annually disappearing in some areas and appearing in others.  A slight dip in elevation of only a few inches differentiated 2 similar but distinct natural communites–dry longleaf pine savannah and wet pond pine savannah.  They shared some species of flora and fauna but carried many different species as well.  Crayfish for example preferred the latter.

Sand scrub habitat hosted gopher tortoises, a species Bartram referred to as abundant in 1774 but has probably been extirpated from modern day Orange County.  There are many commensal species that co-occur with the gopher tortoises, including the spectacular indigo snake.

Gopher Tortoise Burrow

Gopher tortoises, now endangered, were formerly abundant on all areas of Florida with sandy soils.

Cypress swamps with 1000 year old specimens grew in low lying areas.  Drought or storm-killed trees attracted the now extinct ivory-billed woodpecker.  This bird required freshly killed trees infested with beetle larva.  Some cypress trees were exceptionally large, and they were covered with Spanish moss.  The myriads of mosquitoes made these swamps a paradise for several species of bats that nested in cypress snags.  Mosquito county was the original name of Orange County.

An 1000 year old, 90 foot tall cypress tree in Louisiana.  Trees this age used to be common in Orange County.

Some low lying areas were treeless marshes where grasses and sedges grew.  This was the habitat of the marsh rabbit and many species also found on the savannahs.

Swamprabbit

Marsh rabbit.  The artificial Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck replaced this real living and breathing animal in Orange County.  Walt Disney, a so-called animal lover, hypocritically destroyed most of the marsh rabbit habitat here.

Modern lakes in Orange County are often polluted from fertilizer runoff.  Gizzard shad are the only species of fish to thrive in these algal blooms.  Formerly, these lakes supported much higher largemouth bass populations that fed alligators and wading birds.  Wintering ducks and geese used to be much more abundant.

Bartram wrote that the most common songbirds in Florida were green jays, loggerhead shrikes, and rufous-sided towhees.  I’m sure the jays he saw were the Florida scrub jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens); rare now but still present in Florida.  Bartram must have been color blind because there is no green on this bird.  Green jays occur no farther north than the Rio Grande, but there was a species of green jay that lived in Florida during warm stages of the Pleistocene.  Bartram is the only person to record the king vulture in Florida–a bird that today is restricted to tropical regions of South America.  He saw them scavenging reptiles unable to escape wild fires.

Bartram saw bears, wolves, and bobcats in Florida.  Bears fed on oranges and wild fruits.  The Florida black bear is the largest subspecies of Ursus americanus, thanks to the year round foraging opportunities that preclude the need for hibernation here.

Rock Springs is a Pleistocene fossil site located in Orange County, Florida.  It yielded a typical Rancholabrean large mammal fauna.  For a list of species found at the site here’s a link to a wikipedia article. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orange_County,_Florida_paleontological_sites).  Rock Springs is a good avifossil site.  The abundant fossils of ducks and wading birds show that wetlands have often been common here.

Orange County was still a sportsman’s paradise in the first half of the 20th century.  Though many of the natural communities had been transformed into citrus orchards and cow pastures, there was still enough green space to make for superior deer and quail hunting, while the black bass fishing remained outstanding.  But the citrus business shifted south following a killing freeze, and pastureland has transmogrified into unending suburbs, and now the land is ruined.

The late George Leonard Herter lamented this ruination.  He enjoyed dining at a long gone local restaurant owned by Peter Miller.  Miller served largemouth bass, dressed, skinned, and boiled whole and covered with dill-flavored mayonaise and a side of garlic-infused sourkraut.  None of the chain restaurants that currently add to the congestion of this suburban nightmare serve a dish this unique.  The unique natural beauty of Orange County is as forlorn a thing as a locally-owned restaurant.