by Gary Wright
“If you want to live through the night, let the devil sleep.”
—John Verdon, ‘Let the Devil Sleep.’
Okefenokee is believed to be a Muscogee (Creek) word meaning ‘shaking water.’ Aptly named for the mass of peat moss which grows atop the swamp water, it shakes in places. The marsh, a vast expanse straddling the Georgia/Florida boundary, is unbelievably huge, incredibly beautiful and utterly dangerous. Poisonous snakes, large, feral hogs, and swarms of mosquitoes are some of the many natural dangers. And these are only the physical hazards! As if inherent risks aren’t enough, let me tell you about some of the unnatural perils which are said to haunt the area.
Just for starters, are headless wanderers; Yeti, Sasquatch, swamp lights, and UFOs. Long before Europeans set foot in this area, the indigenous tribal peoples lived in awe of the nature around them and in fear of the supernatural beings and ethereal entities which coexisted with them in the ‘Swamp.’ When the earliest European pioneer settlers arrived, they heard these stories of unexplained phenomenon and strange occurrences that related to the Okefenokee. The immigrants quickly added their own experiences!
UFO sightings have been attributed to eerie and unearthly lights generated by so-called “Swamp Gas.” The swamp is the modern equivalent of the prehistoric dinosaur’s habitat. Imagine the dominant creature lurking at the top of the swamp food chain, unseen at the farthest reaches of the unexplored heart of the swamp. Okefenokee is home to the American Alligator which existed alongside the reptiles of the Mesozoic Era “The Age of Dinosaurs.” What other strange creatures roam the swamp freely, occasionally coming in contact with the local population?
So begins our tale to be repeated only on a cold winter’s night, before a roaring outdoor fire, with the pine knots crackling brightly, and strange noises drifting in on an icy breeze. Southern Ware County, Georgia near the Florida line, in the winter of 1828–1829, was parched, and two farmers living near the edge of the swamp decided to explore deeply into it, looking for game which had become scarce. One man took his son, and the three ventured far into the Okefenokee for two weeks, living off of small game, which became more plentiful the further in they ventured.
Near the very ‘heart of darkness,’ they discovered a stunning set of gigantic footprints: “… The length of the foot was eighteen inches, and the breadth was nine inches. The monster, from every appearance, must have moved forward in a smooth or hesitating gait, his stride, from heel to toe, being a trifle over six feet,” according to the Milledgeville, Georgia Statesman January 1829. The discovery scared the farmers so badly that they immediately ended their foray and returned to civilization, but the news about what they had seen quickly spread.
The story caught the fancy of a group of professional hunters from Florida, who resolved to bring to bay the mysterious giant. A harsh journey of some days ensued, and guided by one of the members of the original party, the hunters found the site, and some remains of the previous encounter were discovered The band of hunters made camp at that position and prepared for the next day’s possible meeting with the mysterious being. In that day, gunpowder was likely to become damp and unusable when left in guns overnight, so they discharged their weapons at sunset, in order to reload with fresh powder on the morrow.
The noise interrupted the stillness of the night swamp, and, according to a local newspaper account, “…. [T]he next minute he was full in their view, advancing upon them with a terrible look and ferocious mien. The little band instinctively gathered close in a body, reloaded and presented their rifles. The huge being, undaunted, bounded upon his victims, and in the same instant received the contents of seven guns.” Before the creature was finally stilled, he had killed five of the hunting party and wrung the head of one unfortunate, as one might a chicken before frying. Finally, the behemoth lay still in death, mingled with the bloody and mangled bodies of the party he had killed. The episode, however, did not end there.
The account continued….“The creature was found to measure thirteen feet from head to toe, and his breadth and volume of just proportions.” The survivors, so fearful that the noise of the fight and the dying cries of the monster might attract others of its kind, ran from the swamp in panic and horror, leaving the dead monster and the bodies of their dead companions. No member of the party ever returned to the site, nor could they ever find its exact location again.
Did the party encounter a monster, or was it some other creature of the deep? Did it attack, or did the party panic, and, firing into the darkness, shoot their own members? Or, is this tale made up entirely? After hearing such a legend, however, one wonders long into the night at the scratching of a tree limb against the roof, and the whistling of the wind makes the imagination run wild. There-in lies the true nature of a good Southern story.
First image from www.theimagehunter.org
Second image from GeorgiaInfo
Third image from Lazer Horse
Fourth image from Smithsonian Magazine
Fifth image from http://waynemorganartistry.com/okefenokee