~This post is written as part of a series recognizing that 2024 is the official “100 year anniversary” of the infamous St Lucie Canal completed in 1924.
Report of Buckingham Smith Esq., On His Reconnoissance of the Everglades 1848
If your’e a history person, or someone who likes to read about the Everglades, you have probably heard the name, “Buckingham Smith.” We learn that the drainage and destruction of the Northern Everglades to drain the Entire Everglades all started with his 1848 reconnoissance and report to the United States Treasury.
Perhaps Smith’s report was the first and major factor, but one can’t read it without noting Smith’s stunning description of the Everglades. Today such words, from someone hellbent on drainage would sound contradictory.
Today, I am transcribing parts of Buckingham Smith’s 1848 report. It was Florida’s Senator, James Westcott who asked the U.S. Department of the Treasury to make this study. Westcott was one of Florida’s first senators when Florida was admitted to the Union in 1845. Smith’s report came out in 1848 and has been reprinted many times. It is world famous. You can access the report partially reprinted in 1911 at the above link.
The link will bring you to Document No. 89 of the U.S. Senates’ 62nd Congress, 1st Session, entitled, Everglades of Florida, Acts, Reports, and Other Papers, State and National, Relating to the Everglades of the State of Florida and their Reclamation, Washington Government Printing Office, 1911. The excepts below are of particular interest from that report.
Transcription page 49, Buckingham Smith Report: (Draining Lake O)
“To reclaim the Everglades and the Atseenahoofa and Halpatiokee Swamps and the lowlands on the margin of the Kissimmee River and its tributaries, and the other rives emptying into Lake Okeechobee, this lake must be tapped by such canals running into the Caloosahatchee on the one side and into the Lochahatchee or San Lucia, or both, on the other, and the cuts must also be made from the streams on both sides of the peninsula into the Glades. Besides, after the height of the waters in the Glades should be decreased, even as much as 5 feet, there will probably be a necessity for several drains through the Glades and those swamps, by which the waters accumulating from the rains may be conducted to the ocean or gulf…”
This excerpt is interesting for me because San Lucia is the St Lucie River. Smith is saying the St Lucie should be tapped or cut to allow Lake Okeechobee to drain to the ocean. This is the first formally government documented statement of such an observation/recommendation. The Halpatiokee Swamp, also mentioned as the headwaters, was located between today’s Martin and St Lucie counties. I am told by my brother Todd that Halpatiokee Swamp and “Alpatiokee Swamp” were used interchangeably. Both meaning “Alligator” in Seminole or some similar language stock. The Loxahatchee river, spelled “Lochahatchee” by Smith, was never connected to drain Lake Okeechobee but has been partially channelized and otherwise extensively drained. The Calooshatchee was tapped first by Hamilton Disston around 1881 to drain Lake Okeechobee and then widened and deepened multiple times as also with the St Lucie. “Asteenahoofa,” a new work for me, was Smith’s word for today’s Big Cypress Swamp.
Transcription page 51, Buckingham Smith Report: (The unusual beauty of the place)
“Imagine a vast lake of fresh water extending in every direction from shore to shore beyond the reach of human vision, ordinarily unruffled by a ripple on its surface, studded with thousands of islands of various sizes, from one-fourth of an acre to hundreds of acres in area, and which are generally covered with dense thickets of shrubbery and vines. Occasionally an island is found with lofty pines and palmettos upon it, but oftener they are without any, and not unusually a solitary majestic palmetto is seen, the only tree upon an island, as if to guide in approaching it, or a place of signal or lookout for its former denizens. The surrounding waters, except in places that at first seem like channel ways (but which are not), are covered with the tall sawgrass, shooting up its straight and slender stem from the shallow bottom of the lake to the height of 10 feet above the surface and covering all but a few rods around from your view. The water is pure and limpid and almost imperceptibly moves, not in partial currents, but in a mass, silently and slowly to the southward. The bottom of the lake at the distance of from 3 to 6 feet is covered with a deposit of decayed vegetable substance, the accumulated product of ages, generally 2 or 3 feet in depth on the white sand and rock that underlies it over the entire surface of the basin. The flexible grass bending gently to the breeze protects the waters from its influence. Lilies and other aquatic flowers of every variety and hue are to be seen on every side, in pleasant contrast with the pale green of the saw grass, and as you draw near an island the beauty of the scene is increased by the rich foliage and blooming flowers of the wild myrtle and the honeysuckle and the shrubs and vines that generally adorn its shores. The profound and wild solitude of the place, the solemn silence that pervades it, unless broken by the splashing of a paddle of the canoe of light bateau with which only can you traverse the Pahayokee, or by the voices of your “compagnons du voyage” add to awakened and excited curiosity feelings bordering on awe. No human being, civilized of savage, inhabits the secluded interior of the Glades. The Seminoles reside in the region between them and the Gulf. Except for the occasional flight of an eagle or a bittern, startled by the strange invaders of their privacy, for for a view of the fishes in the shallow waters gliding swiftly from your boat as it goes near to them your eye would not rest on living thing abiding in this wilderness of “grass waters,” shrubbery, and flowers…”
This page 51 excerpt is interesting because this man who we have forever associated with the determination to drain the Everglades obviously also recognized its awe and beauty. Buckingham Smith was a very learned man of his era, a deep intellectual. I think it pained him in some way to recommend drainage. He had a job to do -survey – and he knew what the government wanted to do. In his full report, he did really present both options: the Everglades’ incredible beautiful essence, and then on the other, hand demonizing it as a filthy swamp to be resurrected for mankind, as below.
Pages 53 and 54: (Smith’s most quoted reference to why the Everglades should be drained)
“Eminent statements and philosophers have, in estimating the services of individuals to their county and to their fellow men, advanced the opinion that he who causes two sheaves of wheat to grow where one only grew before, better deserves the thanks of his race than the author, the legislator, or the victorious general. The degree of merit awarded by them to the particular act first specified may be extravagant, but no one of sound moral judgment will, it is presumed, deny that then increase of the agricultural resources , and the promotion of the the agricultural interests of a people already politically free, is the very highest service that can be rendered them, and most conductive to the preservation of their independence, prosperity, and happiness. The citizen, whether in executive or legislative station, or without either, who succeeds in making fit for cultivation, even if but partially, a region equal in extent to either of the smallest State of this Confederacy, now as useless as the deserts of Africa, will earn a rich meed of praise from the people of Florida and of the Union. The Everglades are now suitable only for the haunt of noxious vermin, or the resort of pestilent reptiles. The statesman whose exertions shall cause the millions of acres they contain, now worse than worthless, to teem with the products of agricultural industry; to be changed into a garden in which can be reared many and various exotics, introduced for the first time for cultivation into the United States, whether necessaries of life, or conveniences, or luxuries merely; that man who thus adds to the resources and wealth and independence of his country, who contributes by such means to the comfort of his fellow men, will merit a high place in public favor, not only with this own generation, but with posterity. He will have created a State. I feel that to be connected with the inception of a measure which, if carried out properly, will probably produce such results; to be identified, even in a secondary position, with the commencement of an undertaking that must be so eminently beneficial to my country, is a privilege of no mean consideration…”
This report has been used thousands of times to showcase the words “The Everglades are now suitable only for the haunt of noxious vermin, or the resort of pestilent reptiles.” A sharp contrast to “Lilies and other aquatic flowers of every variety and hue are to be seen on every side, in pleasant contrast with the pale green of the saw grass, and as you draw near an island the beauty of the scene is increased by the rich foliage and blooming flowers of the wild myrtle and the honeysuckle and the shrubs and vines that generally adorn its shores. The profound and wild solitude of the place, the solemn silence that pervades it, unless broken by the splashing of a paddle of the canoe of light bateau with which only can you traverse the Pahayokee, or by the voices of your “compagnons du voyage” add to awakened and excited curiosity feelings bordering on awe.”
I wonder what Buckingham Smith would write if he were alive today?
Thomas Buckingham Smith 1810-1871