Voyage of the Paper Canoe; a Geographical Journey of 2500 Miles, from Quebeck to the Gulf of Mexico, During the Years 1874– 5

Author: Nathaniel H. Bishop

Chapter XIV. St, Mary’s River and the Suwanee Wilderness.


I now ascended the beautiful St. Mary’s River, which flows from the great Okefenokee Swamp. The state of Georgia was on my right hand, and Florida on my left. Pretty hammocks dotted the marshes, while the country presented peculiar and interesting characteristics. When four miles from Cumberland Sound, the little city of St. Mary’s, situated on the Georgia side of the river, was before me; and I went ashore to make inquiries concerning the route to Okefenokee Swamp.

My object was to get information about the upper St. Mary’s River, from which I proposed to make a portage of thirty-five or forty miles in a westerly direction to the Suwanee River, upon arriving at which I would descend to the Gulf of Mexico. My efforts, both at St. Mary’s and Fernandina, on the Florida side of Cumberland Sound, to obtain any reliable information upon this matter, were unsuccessful. A settlement at Trader’s Hill, about seventy-five miles up the St. Mary’s River, was the geographical limit of local knowledge, while I wished to ascend the river at least one hundred miles beyond that point.

Believing that if I explored the uninhabited sources of the St. Mary’s, I should be compelled to return without finding any settler upon its banks at the proper point of departure for a portage to the Suwanee, it became necessary to abandon all idea of ascending this river. I could not, however, give up the exploration of the route. In this dilemma, a kindly written letter seemed to solve the difficulties. Messrs. Dutton & Rixford, northern gentlemen, who possessed large facilities for the manufacture of resin and turpentine at their new settlements of Dutton, six miles from the St. Mary’s River, and at Rixford, near the Suwanee, kindly proposed that I should take my canoe by railroad from Cumberland Sound to Dutton. From that station Mr. Dutton offered to transport the boat through the wilderness to the St. Mary’s River, which could be from that point easily descended to the sea. The Suwanee River, at Rixford, could be reached by rail, and the voyage would end at its debouchure on the marshy coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Hon. David Yulee, president and one-third owner of the A. G. & W. I. T. C. Railroad, which connects the Atlantic coast at Fernandina with the Gulf coast at Cedar Keys, offered me the free use of his long railroad, for any purpose of exploration, &c., while his son, Mr. C. Wickliffe Yulee, exerted himself to remove all impediments to delay.

These gentlemen, being native Floridians, have done much towards encouraging all legitimate exploration of the peninsula, and have also done something towards putting a check on the outrageous impositions practised on northern agricultural emigrants to Florida, by encouraging the organization of a railroad land-company, which offers a forty-acre homestead for fifty dollars, to be selected out of nearly six hundred thousand acres of land along their highway across the state. A man of comparatively small means can now try the experiment of making a home in the mild climate of Florida, and if he afterwards abandons the enterprise there will have been but a small investment of capital, and consequently little loss.

The turpentine distillery of Dutton was situated in a heavy forest of lofty pines. Major C. K. Dutton furnished a team of mules to haul the Maria Theresa to the St. Mary’s River, the morning after my arrival by rail at Dutton Station. The warm sunshine shot aslant the tall pines as the teamster followed a faintly developed trail towards the swamps. Before noon the flashing waters of the stream were discernible, and a little later, with paddle in hand, I was urging the canoe towards the Atlantic coast. A luxurious growth of trees and shrubs fringed the low, and in some places submerged, river shores. Back, on the higher, sandy soils, the yellow pine forests, in almost primeval grandeur, arose, shutting out all view of the horizon. Low bluffs, with white, sandy beaches of a few rods in extent, offered excellent camping-grounds.

When the Cracker of Okefenokee Swamp is asked why he lives in so desolate a region, with only a few Cattle and hogs for companions, with mosquitoes, fleas, and vermin about him, with alligators, catamounts, and owls on all sides, making night hideous, he usually replies, "Wal, stranger, wood and water is so powerful handy. Sich privileges ain’t met with everywhar."


As I glided swiftly down the dark current I peered into the dense woods, hoping to be cheered by the sight of a settler’s cabin; but in all that day’s search not a clearing could be found, nor could I discern rising from the treetops of the solitary forest a little cloud of smoke issuing from the chimney of civilized man. I was alone in the vast wilds through which the beautiful river flowed noiselessly but swiftly to the sea. Thoreau loved a swamp, and so do all lovers of nature, for nowhere else does she so bountifully show her vigorous powers of growth, her varied wealth of botanical wonders. Here the birds resort in flocks when weary of the hot, sandy uplands, for here they find pure water, cool shade, and many a curious glossy berry for their dainty appetites.

As the little Maria Theresa sped onward through the open forest and tangled wild-wood, through wet morass and piny upland, my thoughts dwelt upon the humble life of the Concord naturalist and philosopher. How he would have enjoyed the descent of this wild river from the swamp to the sea! He had left us for purer delights; but I could enjoy his "Walden" as though he still lived, and read of his studies of nature with ever-increasing interest.

Swamps have their peculiar features. Those of the Waccamaw were indeed desolate, while the swamps of the St. Mary’s were full of sunshine for the traveller. Soon after the canoe had commenced her river journey, a sharp sound, like that produced by a man striking the water with a broad, flat stick, reached my ears. As this sound was frequently repeated, and always in advance of my boat, it roused my curiosity. It proved to come from alligators. One after another slipped off the banks, striking the water with their tails as they took refuge in the river from the disturber of their peace. To observe the movements of these reptiles I ran the canoe within two rods of the left shore, and by rapid paddling was enabled to arrive opposite a creature as he entered the water. When thus confronted, the alligator would depress his ugly head, lash the water once with his tail, and dive under the canoe, a most thoroughly alarmed animal. All these alligators were mere babies, very few being over four feet long. Had they been as large as the one which greeted me at Colonel’s Island, I should not have investigated their dispositions, but would have considered discretion the better part of valor, and left them undisturbed in their sun-baths on the banks.

In all my experience with the hundreds of alligators I have seen in the southern rivers and swamps of North America, every one, both large and small, fled at the approach of man. The experience of some of my friends in their acquaintance with American alligators has been of a more serious nature. It is well to exercise care about camping at night close to the water infested with large saurians, as one of these strong fellows could easily seize a sleeping man by the leg and draw him into the river. They do not seem to fear a recumbent or bowed figure, but, like most wild animals, flee before the upright form of man.

Late in the afternoon I passed an island, made by a "cut-off" through a bend of the river, and, according to previous directions, counted fourteen bends or reaches in the river which was to guide me to Stewart’s Ferry, the owner of which lived back in the woods, his cabin not being discernible from the river. Near this spot, which is occasionally visited by lumbermen and pinywoods settlers, I drew my canoe on to a sandy beach one rod in length. A little bluff, five or six feet above the water, furnished me with the broad leaves of the saw-palmetto, a dwarfish sort of palm, which I arranged for a bed. The provision-basket was placed at my head. A little fire of light-wood cheered me for a while, but its bright flame soon attracted winged insects in large numbers. Having made a cup of chocolate, and eaten some of Captain Akin’s chipped beef and crackers, I continued my preparations for the night. Feeling somewhat nervous about large alligators, I covered myself with a piece of painted canvas, which was stiff and strong, and placed the little revolver, my only weapon, under my blanket.

As I fully realized the novelty of my strange position in this desolate region, it was some time before I could compose myself and sleep. It was a night of dreams. Sounds indistinct but numerous troubled my brain, until I was fully roused to wakefulness by horrible visions and doleful cries. The chuck-will’s-widow, which in the south supplies the place of our whippoorwill, repeated his oft-told tale of " chuckwill’s-widow, chuck-will’s-widow," with untiring earnestness. The owls hooted wildly, with a chorus of cries from animals and reptiles not recognizable by me, excepting the snarling voices of the coons fighting in the forest. These last were old acquaintances, however, as they frequently gathered round my camp at night to pick up the remains of supper.

While I listened, there rose a cry so hideous in its character and so belligerent in its tone, that I trembled with fear upon my palm-leaf mattress. It resembled the bellowing of an infuriated bull, but was louder and more penetrating in its effect. The proximity of this animal was indeed unpleasant, for he had planted himself on the river’s edge, near the little bluff upon which my camp had been constructed. The loud roar was answered by a similar bellow from the other side of the river, and for a long time did these two male alligators keep up their challenging cries, without coming to combat. Numerous wood-mice attacked my provision-basket, and even worked their way through the leaves of my palmetto mattress.

Thus with an endless variety of annoyances the night wore wearily away, but the light of the rising sun did not penetrate the thick fog which enveloped the river until after eight o’clock, when I embarked for a second day’s journey upon the stream, which had now attained a width of five or six rods. Rafts of logs blocked the river as I approached the settlement of Trader’s Hill, and upon a most insecure footing the canoe was dragged over a quarter of a mile of logs, and put into the water on the lower side of the "jam." Crossing several of these log "jams," which covered the entire width of the St. Mary’s, I became weary of the task, and, after the last was reached, determined to go into camp until the next day, when suddenly the voices of men in the woods were heard.

Soon a gentleman, with two raftsmen, appeared and kindly greeted me. They had been notified of my approach at Trader’s Hill by a courier sent from Dutton across the woods, and these men, whose knowledge of wood-craft is wonderful, had timed my movements so correctly that they had arrived just in time to meet me at this point. The two raftsmen rubbed the canoe all over with their hands, and expressed delight at its beautiful finish in their own peculiar vernacular.

"She’s the dog-gonedest thing I ever seed, and jist as putty as a new coffin!" exclaimed one.

"Indeed, she’s the handsomest trick I ever did blink on," said the second.

The two stalwart lumbermen lifted the boat as though she were but a feather, and carried her, jumping from log to log, the whole length of the raft. They then put her gently in the water, and added to their farewell the cheering intelligence that "there’s no more jams nor rafts ’twixt here and the sea, and you can go clar on to New York if you like."

Trader’s Hill, on a very high bluff on the left bank, was soon passed, when the current seemed suddenly to cease, and I felt the first tidal effect of the sea, though many miles from the coast. The tide was flooding. I now laid aside the paddle, and putting the light steel outriggers in their sockets, rapidly rowed down the now broad river until the shadows of night fell upon forest and stream, when the comfortable residence of Mr. Lewis Davis, with his steam saw-mill, came into sight upon Orange Bluff, on the Florida side of the river. Here a kind welcome greeted me from host and hostess, who had dwelt twenty years in this romantic but secluded spot. There were orange-trees forty years old on this property, and all in fine bearing order. There was also a fine sulphur spring near the house.

Mr. Davis stated that, during a residence of twenty years in this charming locality, he had experienced but one attack of chills. He considered the St. Mary’s River, on account of the purity of its waters, one of the healthiest of southern streams. The descent of this beautiful river now became a holiday pastime. Though there were but few signs of the existence of man, the scenery was of a cheering character. A brick-kiln, a few saw-mills, and an abandoned rice-plantation were passed, while the low saltmarshes, extending into the river from the forest-covered upland, gave evidence of the proximity to the sea. Large alligators were frequently seen sunning themselves upon the edges of the banks.

At dusk the town of St. Mary’s, in its wealth of foliage, opened to my view from across the lowlands, and soon after the paper canoe was carefully stored in a building belonging to one of its hospitable citizens, while local authority asserted that I had traversed one hundred and seventy-five miles of the river.

One evening, while enjoying the hospitality of Mr. Silas Fordam, at his beautiful winter home, "Orange Hall," situated in the heart of St. Mary’s, a note, signed by the Hon. J. M. Arnow, mayor of the city, was handed me. Mr. Arnow, in the name of the city government, invited my presence at the Spencer House. Upon arriving at the hotel, a surprise awaited me. The citizens of the place had gathered to welcome the paper canoe and its owner, and to express the kindly feelings they, as southern citizens, held towards their northern friends. The hotel was decorated with flags and floral emblems, one of which expressed, in its ingeniously constructed words, wrought in flowers, "One hundred thousand Welcomes."

The mayor and his friends received me upon the veranda of the hotel with kind words of welcome. Bright lights glimmered at this moment through the long avenue of trees, and music arose upon the night air. It was a torchlight procession coming from the river, bearing upon a framework structure, from which hung Chinese lanterns and wreaths of laurel, the little paper canoe. The Base-ball Club of the city, dressed in their handsome uniform, carried the "Maria Theresa," while the sailors from the lumber fleet in the river, with the flags of several nationalities, brought up the rear.

When the procession arrived in front of the hotel, three hearty cheers were given by the people, and the mayor read the city’s address of welcome to me; to which I made reply, not only in behalf of myself, but of all those of my countrymen who desired the establishment of a pure and good government in every portion of our dear land.

Mayor Arnow presented me with an engrossed copy of his speech of welcome, in which he invited all industrious northerners to come to his native city, promising that city ordinances should be passed to encourage the erection of manufactories, &c., by northern capital and northern labor. After the address, the wife of the mayor presented me with two memorial banners, in the name of the ladies of the city. These were made for the occasion, and being the handiwork of the ladies themselves, were highly appreciated by the recipient. When these graceful tributes had been received, each lady and child present deposited a bouquet of flowers, grown in the gardens of St. Mary’s, in my little craft, till it contained about four hundred of these refined expressions of the good-will of these kind people. Not only did the native population of the town vie with each other to accord the lonely voyager a true southern welcome, but Mr. A. Curtis, an English gentleman, who, becoming fascinated with the fine climate of this part of Georgia, had settled here, did all he could to show his appreciation of canoe-travelling, and superintended the marine display and flag corps of the procession.

I left St. Mary’s with a strange longing to return to its interesting environs, and to study here the climatology of southern Georgia, for, strange to say, cases of local "fever and chills" have never originated in the city. It is reached from Savannah by the inside steamboat route, or by rail, to Fernandina, with which it is connected by a steamboat ferry eight miles in length. Speculation not having yet affected the low valuation placed upon property around St. Mary’s, northern men can obtain winter homes in this attractive town at a very low cost. This city is a port of entry. Mr. Joseph Shepard, a most faithful government officer, has filled the position of collector of customs for several years.

As vessels of considerable tonnage can ascend the St. Mary’s River from the sea on a full tide to the wharves of the city, its citizens prophesy a future growth and development for the place when a river and canal route across the peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico shall have been completed. For many years Colonel Raiford has been elaborating his plan "for elongating the western and southern inland system of navigation to harbors of the Atlantic Ocean." He proposes to unite the natural watercourses of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico by short canals, so that barges drawing seven feet of water, and freighted with the produce of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, may pass from New Orleans eastward to the southern ports of the Atlantic States. The great peninsula of Florida would be crossed by these vessels from the Suwanee to the St. Mary’s River by means of a canal cut through the Okefenokee Swamp, and this route would save several hundred miles of navigation upon open ocean waters. The dangerous coral reefs of the Florida and Bahama shores would be avoided, and a land-locked channel of thirty thousand miles of navigable watercourses would be united in one system.

Lieutenant-Colonel Q. A. Gilmore’s report on "Water Line for Transportation from the Mouth of the St. Mary’s River, on the Atlantic Coast, through Okefenokee Swamp and the State of Florida to the Gulf of Mexico," in which the able inquirer discusses this water route, has recently been published. I traversed a portion of this route in 1875-6, from the head of the Ohio River to New Orleans, and along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico to Cedar Keys, in a cedar duck-boat; and as the results of my observations may some day be made public, I will at this time refer the reader, if he be interested in the important enterprise, to the Congressional reports which describe the feasibility of the plan.

Another portage by rail was made in order to complete my journey to the Gulf of Mexico, and Rixford, near the Suwanee River, was reached via the A. G. & W. I. T. C. Railroad to Baldwin, thence over the J. P. & M. Railroad to Live Oak, where another railroad from the north connects, and along which, a few miles from Live Oak, Messrs. Dutton & Rixford had recently established their turpentine and resin works.

At Rixford I found myself near the summit, or backbone of Florida, from which the tributaries of the water-shed flow on one side to the Atlantic Ocean, and on the other to the Gulf of Mexico. It was a high region of rolling country, heavily wooded with magnificent pine forests, rich in terebinthine resources. The residence of the proprietor, the store and the distillery, with a few log cabins inhabited by negroes and white employees, made up the establishment of Rixford.

The Crackers and negroes came from long distances to see the paper boat. One afternoon, when a number of people had gathered at Rixford to behold the little craft, I placed it on one of those curious sheets of water of crystal purity called in that region a sink; and though this nameless, mirror-like lakelet did not cover over an acre in extent, the movements of the little craft, when propelled by the double paddle, excited an enthusiasm which is seldom exhibited by the piny-woods people.

As the boat was carefully lifted from the silvery tarn, one woman called out in a loud voice, "Lake Theresa!" and thus, by mutual consent of every one present, did this lakelet of crystal waters receive its name.

The blacks crowded around the canoe, and while feeling its firm texture, and wondering at the long distance it had traversed, expressed themselves in their peculiar and original way. One of their number, known as a "tonguey nigger," volunteered to explain the wonder to the somewhat confused intellects of his companions. To a question from one negro as to "How did dis yere Yankee-man cum all dis fur way in de paper canoe, all hissef lone?" the "educated" negro replied: "It’s all de Lord. No man ken cum so fur in paper boat ef de Lord didn’t help him. De Lord does eberyting. He puts de tings in de Yankee-man’s heads to du um, an’ dey duz um. Dar was de big Franklin up norf, dat made de telegraf. Did ye eber bar tell ob him?"

"Neber, neber!" responded all the negroes.

Then, with a look of supreme contempt for the ignorance of his audience, the orator proceeded: "Dis great Franklin, Cap’n Franklin, he tort he’d kotch de litening and make de telegraf, so he flies a big kite way up to de heabens, an’ he puts de string in de bottle dat hab nufing in it. Den he holds de bottle in one hand, an’ he holds de cork in de udder hand. Down cums de litening and fills de bottle full up, and Cap’n Franklin he dun cork him up mighty quick, and kotched de litening an’ made de telegraf. But it was de Lord — de Lord, not Cap’n Franklin dat did all dis."

It was amusing to watch the varied expression of the negroes, as they listened to this description of the discovery of electricity, and the origin of the telegraph. Their eyes dilated with wonder, and their thick lips parted till the mouth, growing wider and wider, seemed to cover more than its share of the face. The momentary silence was soon broken by a deep gurgle proceeding from a stolid-looking negro, as he exclaimed: "Did he kotch de bottle full ob litening, and cork him up. Golly! I tort he wud hab busted hissef!"

"So he wud! so he wud!" roared the orator, "but ye see ’twas all de Lord — de Lord’s a-doing it."

While in Florida I paid some attention to the negro method of conducting praise meetings, which they very appropriately call "de shoutings." If I give some verbatim reports of the negro’s curious and undignified clerical efforts, it is not done for the purpose of caricaturing him, nor with a desire to make him appear destitute of mental calibre; but rather with the hope that the picture given may draw some sympathy from the liberal churches of the north, which do not forget the African in his native jungle, nor the barbarous islanders of the South Seas. A well-informed Roman Catholic priest told me that he had been disappointed with the progress his powerfully organized church had made in converting the freedmen. Before going among them I had supposed that the simple-minded black, now no longer a slave, would be easily attracted to the impressive ceremonies of the Church of Rome; but after witnessing the activity of their devotions, and observing how anxious they are to take a conspicuous and a leading part in all religious services, it seemed to me that the free black of the south would take more naturally to Methodism than to any other form of Christianity.

The appointment of local preachers would be especially acceptable to the negro, as he would then be permitted to have ministers of his own color, and of his own neighborhood, to lead the meetings; while the Roman Catholic priest would probably treat him more like a child, and would therefore exercise a strong discipline over him.

In one of their places of worship, at my request, a New York lady, well skilled in rapid writing and familiar with the negro vernacular, reported verbatim the negro preacher’s sermon. The text was the parable of the ten virgins; and as the preacher went on, he said: "Five ob dem war wise an’ five of dem war foolish. De wise jes gone an’ dun git dar lamps full up ob oil and git rite in and see de bridegoom; an’ de foolish dey sot dem rite down on de stool ob do-noting, an’ dar dey sot till de call cum; den dey run, pick up der ole lamps and try to push door in, but de Lord say to dem, Git out dar! you jes git out dar!’ an’ shut door rite in dar face.

"My brudders and my sisters, yer must fill de lamps wid de gospel an’ de edication ob Moses, fur Moses war a larned man, an’ edication is de mos estaminable blessin’ a pusson kin hab in dis world.

"Hole-on to de gospel! Ef you see dat de flag am tore, get hole somewhar, keep a grabblin until ye git hole ob de stick, an’ nebah gib up de stick, but grabble, grabble till ye die; for dough yer sins be as black as scarlet, dey shall be whit as snow."

The sermon over, the assembled negroes then sung in slow measure:

"Lit-tell chil-ern, you’d bet-tar be-a-lieve -
Lit-tell chil-ern, you’d bet-tar be-a-lieve -
Lit-tell chil-ern, you’d bet-tar be-a-lieve -
I’ll git home to heav-en when I die.

Sweet heav-en am-a-my-am,
Sweet heav-en am-a-my-am,
Sweet heav-en am-a-my-am,
I’ll git home to heav-en when I die.

Lord wish-ed I was in heav-en,
Fur to see my mudder when she enter,
Fur to see her tri-als an’ long white robes:
She’ll shine like cristul in de sun.

Sweet heav-en am-a-my-am,
Sweet heav-en am-a-my-am,
Sweet heav-en am-a-my-am,
I’ll git home to heav-en when I die,"

While visiting a town in Georgia, where the negroes had made some effort to improve their condition, I made a few notes relating to the freedman’s debating society of the place. Affecting high-sounding words, they called their organization, "De Lycenum," and its doings were directed by a committee of two persons, called respectively, "de disputaceous visitor," and "de lachrymal visitor." What particular duties devolved upon the "lachrymal visitor," I could never clearly ascertain. One evening these negroes debated upon the following theme, "Which is de best — when ye are out ob a ting, or when ye hab got it?" which was another form of expressing the old question, "Is there more pleasure in possession than in anticipation?" Another night the colored orators became intensely excited over the query, "Which is de best, Spring Water or Matches?"

The freedmen, for so unfortunate a class, seem to be remarkably well behaved. During several journeys through the southern states I found them usually temperate, and very civil in their intercourse with the whites, though it must be confessed that but few of them can apply themselves steadily and persistently to manual labor, either for themselves or their employers.


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Chicago: Nathaniel H. Bishop, "Chapter XIV. St, Mary’s River and the Suwanee Wilderness.," Voyage of the Paper Canoe; a Geographical Journey of 2500 Miles, from Quebeck to the Gulf of Mexico, During the Years 1874– 5 in Voyage of the Paper Canoe; a Geographical Journey of 2500 Miles, from Quebeck to the Gulf of Mexico, During the Years 1874–5 Original Sources, accessed July 20, 2024,

MLA: Bishop, Nathaniel H. "Chapter XIV. St, Mary’s River and the Suwanee Wilderness." Voyage of the Paper Canoe; a Geographical Journey of 2500 Miles, from Quebeck to the Gulf of Mexico, During the Years 1874– 5, in Voyage of the Paper Canoe; a Geographical Journey of 2500 Miles, from Quebeck to the Gulf of Mexico, During the Years 1874–5, Original Sources. 20 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Bishop, NH, 'Chapter XIV. St, Mary’s River and the Suwanee Wilderness.' in Voyage of the Paper Canoe; a Geographical Journey of 2500 Miles, from Quebeck to the Gulf of Mexico, During the Years 1874– 5. cited in , Voyage of the Paper Canoe; a Geographical Journey of 2500 Miles, from Quebeck to the Gulf of Mexico, During the Years 1874–5. Original Sources, retrieved 20 July 2024, from