Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Okefenokee Swamp - "The Land of the Trembling Earth" in Georgia & Florida

Okefenokee Swamp
One of the five largest swamps in the world, the Okefenokee Swamp covers 438,000 acres in Georgia and Florida. It is on the tentative list to become a World Heritage Site.

There are three main entrances to the Okefenokee and each is a gateway to a mysterious and beautiful region that is rich in both natural and cultural history. Stephen C. Foster State Park near Fargo serves as the western gate, Suwannee Canal Recreation Area near Folkston is the eastern and Okefenokee Swamp Park near Waycross is the northern.

The origins of the word "Okefenokee" are as mysterious as the big swamp itself. One long popular legend holds that the name is a Creek Indian word meaning "Land of the Trembling Earth." There is probably a lot of truth to the legend. In the Hitchiti language of the Lower Creeks, the word Econfinoka translates literally to "trembling earth." Econfinoka sounds very similar to Okefenokee when pronounced out loud.

"Land of the Trembling Earth"
The Chehaw Indians of South Georgia spoke the Hitchiti language and a chief of Chehaw named Tustenuggee Hadjo gave U.S. Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins this explanation in 1796. Hawkins spelled the word "Akinfinocau" and said it meant "quivering earth."  He also pointed out that a similar word in the Choctaw language that he spelled "Okefinacau" meant "quivering water." While the latter looks closer to the modern spelling, the Choctaw did not live in Georgia so the name is probably of Lower Creek origin.

Hawkins paraphrased the chief in his journal:

Alligator in the Okefenokee Swamp
...He had seen most of the border of the Okefinacau, and once attempted with some young lads to pursue a bear he had wounded; they went in several hours, and were compelled to return. The whole earth trembled under them, and at several places, where the surface was pressed with the foot, water would spout out. One of his lads sunk in so deep that he called for help, and they took him out. There are some large cypress, but the growth mostly dwarf. Some of the Tallassee people had been in much farther than he had; they saw some ponds, many aligators, turtles and snakes, particularly a small snake with a button at the end of the tail like the rattlesnake; they saw a considerable number of them, and some times 20 or 30 in one view, coiled up on the small grassy nobs; two of these people were killed with the bites of them. He knew of one man who attempted a settlement near this swamp, but he gave it up because the tygers killed his hogs, cattle and sometimes horses. - Benjamin Hawkins, 1796.

The "tygers" referred to in the chief's account were panthers. 

The chief's description of how the "whole earth trembled under them" is based on reality. The Okefenokee Swamp is formed in a vast shallow bowl, the bottom of which has accumulated layers of peat over the centuries. Trees take root in this peat bog and it is actually possible to make them shake by jumping up on the ground. 

To learn more about the Okefenokee, please visit our new Okefenokee Swamp section at

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