A Swamp Tour of the American Southeast

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This is the tenth post in the Wetland Wednesday series, edited by Gabrielle McLaren.

Editor’s note: If you would rather follow Sophia’s swamp tour through an ArcGIS StoryMap, you can click this link or scroll down to see it embedded in the post.

In April and May 2022, I packed up my compact car with camping gear, my inflatable kayak, and spare clothes, and drove down the entire Eastern Seaboard and Gulf coast of the United States in search of barrier islands, coastal marshes, and black water swamps. Along the way, I intended to visit historical sites and educational centers to see how stories about environmental, racial, and Indigenous histories are conveyed in the public sphere of the American South. 

My road trip was inspired by the desire to escape into what I had thought was the wildest place in America, the mythologized bald cypress blackwater swamplands. The histories of southeast American wetlands not only suggest that they are resilient to human and natural disasters, but that they are also important sites for human survival. In conducting historical research of these sites, the historian must balance the types of agency that humans exercise versus that of nature itself. This reading of the intersection of environmental, social, and economic histories informs the research that I do. 

In all:, I took 2 ferries, paddled 69 miles, passed through 17 states, visited 4 National Parks and National Seashores, and explored 24 museums and historic centers. Below I share a few of the sites I visited along the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor, which stretched between North Carolina and Florida. You can follow my journey through this ESRI Story Map, which highlights, and immerse yourself in the sounds of Cumberland Island, the Okefenokee Swamp, and Congaree National Park as you read.

Dismal Swamp, NC

With my kayak, I navigated canals that cut into heavily wooded and farmed land managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and National Wildlife Refuge. The canals broke out into Lake Drummond, the open-water center of the swamp that is encircled by drooping, flooded bald cypress and Atlantic white cedar. Archaeologists have found evidence of multi-generational Indigenous and African-descendant communities living as fugitives ー or maroons ー in the Dismal Swamp, escaping slavery and colonial encroachment. The swamp was difficult to navigate and since colonists viewed it as uninhabitable, it was thus a space that offered a level of protection against coerced labour. Between 1760 and 1860, 150 miles of canals and ditches were dug by enslaved people so that logging companies could attain and transport lumber and the drained land could be cultivated. Working under conditions of minimal supervision, these people played an important role in promoting trade networks of goods and information with the marronage communities, transforming the swamplands into an important hub for the Underground Railroad.

Georgetown, SC

While driving down from the Dismal Swamp, NC, I passed by roadside stands where sweetgrass-woven baskets and home-sewn quilts humbly hung over crates of fresh produce, signatures of the Gullah Geechee. The Gullah Geechee are a Creole-speaking people descended from West African rice-growing cultures and enslaved labourers growing rice, indigo, and coastal island cotton. They cultivated the coastal islands for generations in isolation from the wider antebellum society and their culture and lifeways have remained largely unique. I drove along the Waccamaw (meaning “coming and going,” in reference to the tidal flow of waters through this region) peninsula, the ancestral lands of the Sampit, Pee Dee, Winyah, and Waccamaw tribes. This brought me to the Hobcaw Barony, a former rice plantation that has been transitioned to a privately-owned coastal marine ecosystem research reserve, which also promotes critical engagement with its historical involvement in plantation slavery. Touring the lands, you are brought through historically-informed land management sites and the small village where enslaved people had lived, now preserved and interpreted as a memorial. 

Congaree National Park, SC

The Congaree National Park is one of two East Coast national parks in the United States—the Everglades National Park being the second. It is the only remaining old growth bottomland hardwood forest on the East Coast. Even though this site is composed primarily of flooded waterways between the Wateree and the Congaree rivers, the park includes lengthy, winding boardwalks and dozens of miles of paddle trails. 

During the colonial period, in the wake of genocide and forced expulsion of the Congaree people, rice and timber plantations funneled their crops down the rivers and built dikes to control the flow of water. Whereas before the 1800s, the southeastern United States region contained over 52 million acres of floodplain forests,  This was a site for maroon communities, extensive logging, and in the 1970s, came to be protected by the conservationist movement. Unfortunately for me, when I arrived at 7:00 am to begin a multi-day paddle tour, there were hurricane warnings across the park, with the possibility of attending flash floods. Thunder rumbled through the massive tupelo and bald cypress with their sinuous fanning trunk base and smooth-barked knees peaking through lush yellow flowers and black water. 

St. Helena and Hilton Head Islands, SC

Following the end of the Civil War and Emancipation of the later half of the nineteenth century, many of the plantation-owned coastal lands and islands were set aside for formerly enslaved Gullah Geechee people under Special Field Order 15. They have since passed down these lands through Heirs Property rights, meaning that whole families and communities have ownership-in-common rights to these lands and often do not have formal land deeds. 

As climate change brings ever-more devastating hurricanes to the East Coast, the Gullah Geechee, along with First Nations and other commonly-owned lands in rural regions, risk losing their homes and their lifeways. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which provides assistance to hurricane-stricken communities, does not extend its jurisdiction to Heirs properties. During the 2016 Hurricane Matthew, over 18,000 claims for assistance were requested, a majority of them were from heirs property owners. Thus, many properties were abandoned. Afterwards, many of these sites were grabbed by developers when ownership could not be proven. This is a continuing problem today and these islands bear witness to modern-day land dispossession, wetland drainage projects, and capital encroachment.

Vernonburg, GA

I came to Vernonburg to visit the Pin Point Heritage Museum, the site of the former A.S. Varn & Son Oyster and Crab Factory. The site is at the head of the salt marsh lands of the Ossabaw & Skidaway Islands, a region inhabited by many Gullah Geechee families. Much like the other Heirs lands of these southern coastal sea islands, this region was largely viewed as uninhabitable by wealthier people and existed beyond the reach of infrastructure projects such as bridges and paved roads. Along with being a refuge of these African settlement communities, salt marshes are the wombs of the ocean, offering safety to breeding fish populations and sea birds to mature, where oysters play an important role in filtering these waters. The oyster and crab factory ran between 1926-1985. While it was owned by a white business man, Gullah Geechee people made up the factory’s workers. The site preserves the history of the methods of fishing and processing that this factory used while centering the techniques and lifeways of the people who worked there. Importantly, it is run by Gullah Geechee residents and is embedded in Heirs property land. 

Okefenokee Swamp, GA

This is the largest blackwater swamp in North America and feeds the Suwannee and the St. Mary rivers. The swamp is the ancestral land of the Oconi and it is commonly believed that “okefenokee” means “land of trembling earth” or “bubbling water” in Hitchiti, a Seminole language, referring to the buoyant peat lands that make up much of the swamp. Following the same historical trend, the Okefenokee was both a refuge to maroon communities and was subject to 19th century drainage projects, with the construction of the Suwannee Canal and extensive logging. But such projects were ultimately abandoned, leaving the massive expanse of flooded old growth forest that exists today. My visit consisted of a three night kayak trip through the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Raised wooden platforms offered sites to pitch a tent and submerged trail posts marked the twisting paths through water lilies, peat bogs, and flooded old growth hardwood forests. I quickly became familiar with paddling alongside cautious alligators, past beds of carnivorous plants, and to the whooping sounds of three-foot tall sandhill cranes. 

Cumberland Island, GA

My last stop along the Gullah Geechee corridor was Cumberland Island, just north of the Florida border. Instead of taking a ferry from St. Mary, I parked at the Crooked River State Park and kayaked along the East River to the island. At sunrise, the East River was flat and dolphins circled the dock where I launched. After a few miles of paddling, I reached the island. After stowing my kayak, I hiked into the inland woods. Cumberland Island, only around 56 square miles, contains three major ecosystems. The west coast is host to large networks of salt marshes. Inland, the island is covered in palmetto and the only remaining old growth live oak forest. On the east coast there is a belt of long white sand beaches, home to one of the most important breeding grounds for sea turtles in the world. The remnants of peoples’ homes and former plantations dot the island. The history of this island is testament to the complicated narratives around land management, ecosystem conservation, and cultural heritage. 

The most striking takeaways for me were that, contrary to common assumptions, there is a wealth of public history sites in the coastal south that grapple with this country’s violent and complicated history. Secondly, these sites emphasized how wetlands are important ecosystems for considering the history of racial capitalism, genocide, and climate disaster. In addition to centering the voices of enslaved people in interpretations of plantations, outdoors education often highlighted how slavery and Indigenous dispossession are entangled in histories of land-use, environmental degradation, and conservation. 

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Sophia Richter

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