Archive for the ‘Colonial North America’ Category

John J. Audubon’s Trip Down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers During 1820/1821

April 20, 2022

It’s hard to imagine how rich in wildlife the woods, fields, and streams of North America used to be. This is why I enjoy reading the journals of early explorers and settlers who described these forlorn scenes of nature. They saw more wildlife in a day than most modern people see in a year both in numbers and diversity. Audubon kept a journal of his trip down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, a journey that lasted from October 12, 1820 to January 7, 1821, and it is an extensive account, documenting the former abundance of wildlife in the region. Audubon had suffered business reversals when his once prosperous store went bankrupt, and he decided to travel to New Orleans where he could make money by drawing portraits of rich people and by giving art lessons. He was also working on an illustrated book of birds he hoped to sell in England. He left his family in Cincinnati, and he expected to be gone for 7 months. He traveled on a flat boat with an 18 year old young man, a boat captain, and a hunting dog named Dash that he alternatively referred to as “the bitch” or “the slut.”

J.J. Audubon and his dog. Although his name is attached to a modern conservation society, he killed as many birds as he could shoot.

Audubon and his young companion stopped to hunt every morning. Audubon carried a primitive shotgun known then as a fowling piece, and he shot just about every animal he saw. Unlike the organization that today uses his name, Audubon was not at all concerned about conservation. In his later years he did lament the reduction in game populations, but then he’d kill as many birds as he could shoot. A typical day of his journey was the first when he and his companion killed 30 “partridges” (probably quail), 27 squirrels, 1 woodcock, 1 barn owl, and 1 turkey vulture. After the morning hunt, he would draw 1 of the dead birds as the boat drifted downstream. Then he would pluck and clean the bird and throw it on the embers of the fire for his supper. Grebes were fishy, but he pronounced red-breasted thrushes (robins) to be fat and delicious. Birds that are now extinct were common during the early 19th century. Audubon often saw ivory-billed woodpeckers, and he stated they were more abundant along some parts of the river than pileated woodpeckers and flickers. He once shot 10 Carolina parakeets and fed them to his dog to see if they were poisonous. This seems strange, but Audubon often engaged in sadistic “scientific” experiments. He wrongly came to the conclusion parakeets were not poisonous when his dog didn’t get sick. He didn’t know the flesh of parakeets only became poisonous after they ate certain species of toxic plants. Audubon also wrongly thought immature bald eagles were a different species of eagle, and in another sadistic experiment he once nailed the foot of an eagle to the bottom of the boat, so he could draw it while it was alive. He claimed bald eagles were a new species and named it the bird of Washington after the first President.

Alexander’s painting of a bald eagle (top) and Audubon’s painting of a bald eagle (below). Some think Audubon simply plagiarized Alexander’s painting and falsely claimed his was based on a freshly killed eagle.

Species of birds still extant today were much more abundant and widespread during Audubon’s time. He saw a flock of 100 white pelicans on a sandbar in the Ohio River. White pelicans are not often seen on the Ohio River today. He also saw enormous flocks of thousands of ducks, geese, and blackbirds. Swans, herons, and sandhill cranes were a common sight. In addition to daily hunting, Audubon always set a line out for fish. On 1 occasion he caught a 64-pound catfish, likely a blue catfish–a new species for him. I’m sure the offal from all the birds he killed made excellent catfish bait. Big flocks of sea gulls followed the boat and fed upon the dead bird and fish parts he threw overboard. Once, his hunting led to fish and bird…he shot a merganser with a 9-inch-long sucker fish in its throat. Nearly extinct habitats were abundant then as well. They floated down parts of the river bordered by many miles of bamboo cane tangled with smilax vines. Canebrakes are very rare today.

Audubon saw a flock of 100 white pelicans on a sandbar in the Ohio River. According to range maps, this species no longer regularly occurs on the Ohio River.

Audubon reached New Orleans on January 7th. Gulls, fish crows, and robins were the most common winter birds here. Later in the season, the robins left, but tree swallows arrived to become 1 of the most common birds around the city. On his 2nd day in New Orleans, someone picked his pocket, but he was almost broke anyway. He made his living painting people’s portraits and giving art lessons. A notable incident while he was living in New Orleans was when he witnessed local hunters destroy a flock of 144,000 migrating golden plovers. Eventually, Audubon got a job tutoring the daughter of a rich plantation owner. (Audubon was unapologetically pro-slavery.) He taught her art, dancing, and math for $60 a month plus room and board. The plantation was located on Bayou Sara, and Audubon hunted daily in a nearby cypress swamp where he frequently saw prothonotary warblers, yellow-throated warblers, water thrushes, Mississippi kites, ivory-billed woodpeckers, and alligators. The women in the household where he tutored gradually cooled to him, and he quit. I wonder if they were expecting more romance from the married tutor. The lady of the house didn’t want to pay him, but the man did anyway. The private journal ends when Audubon returns to New Orleans, following his tutoring gig. Years later, Audubon did become successful selling his illustrated books about North American birds and mammals.


Audubon, J.J.

Audubon: Writings and Drawings

Literary Classics 1999

Halley, M.

“Audubon’s Bird of Washington: Unravelling the Fraud that Launched The Birds of America

Bulletin of the British Ornithologists Club 110-141 2020

Oil Trough, Arkansas

June 10, 2021

Bear lard was the most common kind of cooking fat sold and used in New Orleans from its founding until the middle of the 19th century when bears became scarce. A village in northeastern Arkansas bares the name Oil Trough because this is where pioneer French hunters used to render bear lard into cooking oil before sending it down the river in wooden troughs to New Orleans. Oil Trough was located in an area where there was a dense population of black bears. The habitats were ideal for maintaining an unusually large population of bears. Oil Trough sits along the rich bottomlands of the White River. Before lumber companies discovered it, the bottomlands supported huge oaks and hickories that grew to 9 feet in diameter. Most notable were sassafras trees. Normally, this species is a small shrub, but here it grew to 5 feet in diameter. Pawpaw trees produced so much fruit that even the wild hogs got tired of eating them. These bottomlands were not like the dense 2nd growth forests of today. Instead, the grand centuries-old trees were widely spaced with grass, grape vines, and berry bushes growing between the giant trees. Indians often set fire to the woods, and the thermal pruning resulted in an open parkland type of environment where all kinds of animals and plants flourished. Bears fattened up on the acorns, fruits, and grass. The bears also found refuge in the dense bamboo canebrakes that covered many square miles up and down the White River bottomlands. Bears could hide from hunters in these thickets. Bears also found ideal denning sites in the rock shelters and caves of the cliffs alongside the White River.

Location of Oil Trough, Arkansas.

The white cliffs along the White River provide rock shelters and caves for bears to den in. The water was more clear than in the Mississippi River, one of its outlets.

The many square miles of canebrakes alongside the White River also provided cover for bears.

Bears were so abundant near Oil Trough, Arkansas that bear lard from this area was the main source of cooking fat for New Orleans until well into the 19th century.

Pioneers preferred the cooking qualities of bear fat. John Lawson, author of a New Voyage to the Carolinas, the first American natural history book, wrote bear fat was preferred over all other oils when frying fish. One can find videos on youtube of bear hunters frying catfish in bear grease.


Gerstacker, Fredrich

Wild Sports: Rambling and Hunting Trips Through the U.S. of North America

Stackpole Books 2004

Also see the Encyclopedia of Arkansas available online

Thomas Ashe’s Journey through Pennsylvania and Down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers during 1806

February 7, 2020

An Englishman by the name of Thomas Ashe visited the United States during 1806 and wrote about his experience in a book that was published during 1808 and is available for free online (See: ).  His account of the natural history, people, and early American towns fascinates me.

He began his journey in eastern Pennsylvania and traveled over some mountains.  One night, darkness overcame him before he could reach the next settlement, and he was forced to stop on the trail because he was afraid he or his horse might walk off a cliff.  Animals kept him awake all night.  First, a bobcat noisily toyed and killed an opossum next to his camp.  Then whip-or-wills, owls, and wolves serenaded him.

Ashe was already too late to see live bison, though all of the overland trails followed former bison migration routes.  He talked to 1 old-timer who told him that he made the mistake of building his log cabin on a bison trail.  When the bison came through, they rubbed themselves on his cabin and eventually pushed all the logs apart and destroyed it.  The next year he killed more than 600 and when the rest of the herd saw the carnage they never returned to the area.  Deer and elk were still abundant in some areas Ashe visited but not all.  Bear were so common that a bear skin rug sold for $1.  Ashe shot and killed a bear for no reason, though he instantly regretted it.  Wild hogs roamed the forest for acorns and roots.  Settlers didn’t want them near their cabins because they attracted predators.

Ashe bought a 40 foot long Kentucky boat complete with roof, chimney, and chicken coop; and he brought along 2 servants and a dog.  He boated down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and explored some tributaries.  Occasionally, he anchored his boat and took some overland forays.  In Louisiana he bought some ducks and put them in his chicken coop, but a large alligator stopped the boat, seized the chicken coop in its jaws, carried it to shore, smashed it, and ate the ducks.  Ashe claims the alligator was 20 feet long, but I’m sure that was an overestimate.  He killed another “20 foot long” alligator with 3 shots and kept 2 juveniles as pets to take back to England.

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A Kentucky boat.  They had flat bottoms.  Snags and rapids made boat travel difficult during the 19th century.

Ashe saw 30 species of snakes and over 180 species of birds.  The richest forest he saw was near Dayton, Ohio–it consisted of sugar maple, sycamore, mulberry, oaks, walnut, butternut, aspen, basswood, ironwood, ash, sweetgum, chestnut, hickory, cherry, horse chestnut, honey locust, magnolia, elm, crabapple, sassafras, pawpaw, plum, crabapple, dogwood, grape, and wild cotton.  Past Dayton were a chain of beautiful prairies with geraniums and passion flowers.  The topsoil in some areas he visited was an astonishing 30 feet deep.  The soil was too rich for wheat, causing it to grow tall and make little seed.  Settlers told him they had to grow corn 7 years in a row on a plot before it was exhausted enough to produce a wheat harvest.  Ashe also came across salt springs which attracted game, and places where petroleum flowed near the surface.  People then didn’t know the future value of this resource and thought it might be medicinal.

At this early date developers had yet to level or bury Indian mounds and abandoned villages.  Ashe was critical of the locals for pilfering through old Indian gravesites and mounds, yet he did it too.  At 1 site he went through hundreds of graves searching for gold.  All he found was fools gold.  He explored a cave in Indiana that sported hieroglyphics.  These possibly represented Pleistocene mammals–elephant (mammoth or mastodon?), wild boar (peccary?), and sloth. I’ve never found a report of this in the scientific literature.  Ashe got lost in the cave and fired his gun, so his companions could locate him.  This aroused all the owls and bats in the cave.  The cave was the former haunt of a gang that robbed and killed hundreds of river travelers.  It was also the site of a battle between Indians and settlers, resulting in hundreds of deaths as well, and there were piles of human and animal skeletons all about.  Ashe did find fossil bones at several sites, including a mammoth tusk.  1 site was known as “bone valley.”

It’s interesting to read Ashe describe modern day large cities the way they were during their infancy.  Pittsburgh was a town of 400 houses, 2000 people, and 40 stores where beef sold for 3 cents a pound.  Most residents were Irish.  Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia) had 250 homes along with saw mills and flour mills.  St. Louis was a town of Cajuns where the women worked, the children played, and the men performed music all day.  Every house had a band with a guitar player, fiddler, and lead singer.

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Earliest known painting of Pittsburgh, circa 1804.  

When Ashe traveled through the wilderness between towns there was usually an inn within a day’s journey.  An inn meant a log cabin where cornbread, bacon, and whiskey were served–not necessarily in that order.  Lodging was 25 cents a night and meals were the same.  Back then, a dollar was a coin and to make change the dollar was literally cut into quarters, dimes, and nickels.  The culture in some of the frontier towns was rough.  In Wheeling the entire town closed up shop for the rest of the day when there was an horse race or cock fight.  Fighting between men was popular too.  Ashe witnessed 2 men fighting in a “rough and tumble” bout.  They were given a choice of fighting with rules but they chose “rough and tumble” which meant anything goes.  While a crowd of people bet on the outcome, the 2 men fought a brutal battle, and the smaller more skillful man “won” by permanently blinding the larger man.  He suffered an ear completely torn off.  At a bar in town later that night 2 naked black men played banjos while people drank, gambled, and danced.  The noise was so loud Ashe couldn’t hear the banjos.  Towns settled by Irish were mostly like this.  Towns settled by transplanted New Englanders were more orderly and the town fathers outlawed gambling, fighting, and horse racing.

The first cabin Ashe stopped at on his journey served passenger pigeon, cornbread, and coffee made from burned wild peas.  He ate wild game often when traveling through the wilderness.  For example he shot 12 ducks, 1 turkey, and a deer in 1 afternoon.  Boating down the river gave him constant access to a variety of fish including catfish, bass, bream, sturgeon, shad, pickerel, and paddlefish.  He visited a French settlement at Gallipolis where 1 man produced 400 gallons of peach brandy per year for barter.  He shared a feast with them, and his biscuits were the first wheat flour they’d had in months.  They gave him cornbread, cheese, milk, and fruit.  The kids at Gallipolis kept an array of pets–piebald and albino deer, Carolina parakeets, blue jays, wood ducks, woodchucks, opossums, and even a bear.  Some of these doubled as a food source.  One meal Ashe enjoyed was turtle steaks.  During this meal he was serenaded by a flock of Carolina parakeets–what a forlorn nature scene.  Ashe met a man on the road in Kentucky and followed him to his home.  His wife served hot toddies, bacon, squirrel soup, and hominy.  Though the man had been away from home for months, Ashe noted he showed absolutely no affection for his wife or children and didn’t even talk to them.  Divorce wasn’t much of an option then.

In Louisiana at a fort on Chickasaw bluff Ashe was honored with a supper of fish, squirrel, venison, bear, fruit, and pecans.  They served wine made from local grapes, and many of the men ended up literally sleeping  under the table, but Ashe made it back to his boat about 2 am, nearly breaking his neck climbing down the bluff.  Nevertheless, this was a welcome diversion of civilization because most of this region until he arrived at New Orleans consisted of uninhabited forests, canebrakes, and bayous.


Ashe, Thomas

Travels in America Performed in 1806

William Savage Company 1808


Florida Cracker Cattle (Bos taurus)

May 23, 2018

Even if there were no historical accounts, modern scientists could determine when European livestock were introduced to the Americas.  Scientists can take cores of sediment, radio-carbon date it, and measure the amount of sporomiella in each dated layer.  Sporomiella is a dung fungus spore found in the excrement of large mammals and is used as a proxy to estimate megafauna populations.  Scientists know when Pleistocene megafauna populations collapsed in some regions based on the amount of sporomiella in sediment, and they also can determine when European livestock were introduced using the same method.  Following the introduction of cows, horses, and pigs; the amount of sporormiella in the environment spiked to levels often equivalent to those of the pre-late Pleistocene extinctions.

Introduced livestock frequently outlasted the initial expeditions that brought them.  Early Spanish explorers of the 16th and 17th centuries perished with regularity in the harsh New World environments, so far from their accustomed European civilization, and some were massacred by Indians, but the cattle, pigs, and horses they brought with them ran wild.  The Europeans and their livestock carried contagious infections that decimated Indian populations with primitive immune systems as well, and feral livestock thrived in environments with low numbers of people.  The husbandry practices of early European settlers facilitated the increase of feral livestock populations.  Busy missionaries and homesteaders let their animals forage in the woods and fields, and the beasts often escaped and joined their free cousins.  Local environmental conditions shaped the evolution of feral livestock, weeding out those not adapted to living wild under each region’s unique conditions.  New breeds were born.

The Florida cracker cattle, also known as the piney woods cattle, rapidly evolved to thrive in the open pine savannahs of Florida and south Georgia.  They are related to the better known Texas longhorn cattle and also descend from cattle brought by the earliest of Spanish explorers.  They were already adapted to the warm climate of Spain, but in Florida the breed evolved tolerance for the humidity and local parasites. The tough cattle readily produced many calves on the low quality grasslands of the region, and their ferocity helped them fend off cougars, wolves, and bears.   Florida cracker cattle may be the “buffalo” that William Oglethorpe, the man who founded the state of Georgia, hunted during the early 18th century.  Colonial Europeans used the term “buffalo” interchangeably for both bison and feral cattle.  William Bartram saw great mixed herds of Florida cracker cattle, horses, and deer when he traveled through Florida in 1776.

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Florida cracker cattle.  They are small–bulls weigh between 800 pounds to 1200 pounds.  Most are brown or partly brown and white but they come in a variety of coat colors.  The name cracker comes from the British settlers, known as crackers, because they cracked whips when they drove livestock on the road.

Florida cracker cattle were the best breed of cattle able to survive in the deep south until Brahman bulls from India were introduced during the 1930s.  Then, scientists invented antibiotics and medicines to treat parasites, and farmers were able to raise more productive breeds of cattle which they crossbred with the native cattle.  The Florida state legislature passed a law in 1949 outlawing free ranging cattle because farmers wanted to prevent the transmission of diseases from wild cattle to their preferred domestic breeds.  The Florida cracker cattle population plummeted.  Now, there is an effort to save the breed.  38 people still raise Florida cracker cattle, and herds are maintained at the Tallahassee Agricultural Complex, Withlacoochee State Park, Lake Kissimmee State Park, Payne’s Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, and Dudley Farm.  Customers who like free-roaming grass fed beef pay top dollar for meat butchered from the breed.

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.


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.

Pronghorn with Bison

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: ) 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.

Image result for map of east florida from Jupiter, Florida

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.


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:  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  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.


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