Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
Southeast Region

History of the Okefenokee Swamp

A Very Special Place
The Okefenokee is a vast bog inside a huge, saucer-shaped depression that was once part of the ocean floor. The swamp now lies 103 to 128 feet above mean sea level. Native Americans named the area "Okefenokee" meaning "Land of the Trembling Earth". Peat deposits, up to 15 feet thick, cover much of the swamp floor. These deposits are so unstable in spots that trees and surrounding bushes tremble by stomping the surface.

The slow-moving waters of the Okefenokee are tea-colored due to the tannic acid released from decaying vegetation. The principal outlet of the swamp, the Suwannee River, originates in the heart of the Okefenokee and drains southwest into the Gulf of Mexico. The swamp’s southeastern drainage to the Atlantic Ocean is the St. Mary’s River, which forms the boundary between Georgia and Florida.

The swamp contains numerous islands and lakes, along with vast areas of non-forested habitat. Prairies cover about 60,000 acres of the swamp. Once forested, these expanses of marsh were created during periods of severe drought when fires burned out vegetation and the top layers of peat. The prairies harbor a variety of wading birds: herons, egrets, ibises, cranes, and bitterns.

The People
Native Americans inhabited Okefenokee Swamp as early as 2500 B.C. Peoples of the Deptford Culture, the Swift Creek Culture and the Weeden Island Culture occupied sites within the Okefenokee. The last tribe to seek sanctuary in the swamp were the Seminoles. Troops led by General Charles R. Floyd during the Second Seminole War, 1838-1842, ended the age of the native americans in the Okefenokee.

The Suwanee Canal Company purchased 238,120 acres of the Okefenokee Swamp from the State of Georgia in 1891 to drain the swamp for rice, sugar cane, and cotton plantations. When this failed, the company began industrial wetland logging as a source of income. Captain Henry Jackson and his crews spent three years digging the Suwannee Canal 11.5 miles into the swamp.

Economic recessions led to the company’s bankruptcy and eventual sale to Charles Hebard in 1901. Logging operations, focusing on the cypress, began in 1909 after a railroad was constructed on the northwest area of the swamp. More than 431 million board feet of timber were removed from the Okefenokee by 1927, when logging operations ceased.

Protected for Wildlife and You
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1936 in order to preserve the 438,000 acre Okefenokee Swamp. Presently, the refuge encompasses approximately 402,000 acres. In 1974, to further ensure the protection of this unique ecosystem, the interior 353,981 acres of the refuge were designated a National Wilderness Area. The swamp remains one of the oldest and most well preserved freshwater areas in America and extends 38 miles north to south and 25 miles east to west.

For basic information about Okefenokee, check out Okefenokee at a Glance.

Last updated: March 2, 2012