FIRST CITIZEN OF THE OKEFENOKEE, RALPH DAVIS, PREPARES SWAMP HISTORY
Charlton County Herald
August 29, 1979
“That swamp is a mystery,” Ralph Davis says as he comfortably swings in the wooden glider in his front yard about a mile from the edge of the Okefenokee. “And the biggest mystery about it is all the people in Folkston who never get out to see it. To them it’s just that old swamp.”
Since 1911 when Davis was born in the house that sits on the lot adjoining his present home, that old swamp has been his home and constant source of learning and excitement.
All of his life he has worked in and around the swamp, even in the days before the government took most of it to make it into a wildlife preserve. In later years as a Host and Consultant with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department, he has served as a guide for many of the top experts in archeology and anthropology who have studied the Okefenokee. “Some of them wouldn’t talk too much,” he said. “But most of them didn’t mind sharing what they knew. Those were the fellows worth spending some time with.”
Based on his own memory and studies of the Okefenokee and on the many experiences he has had with experts on the various subjects involved, Davis is now preparing a book telling of the swamp’s history and of his first-hand knowledge of life in the swamp. The book is important to him partly because he sees himself as the last of the old swampers and partly just because he loves the subject.
Davis said that at the turn of the century there were a group of families living around the swamp and making their livelihoods from it. But with the government moving in and the rest of them moving out he may very well be the last of a breed. “I’m the last one. My son may carry on with it, but he won’t enjoy it the way I did.”
To understand what he means in calling himself the last one, you need to talk with Ralph Davis and hear the intonations in his voice and the look on his face when he tells of the old days -- days when the swamp people were free to have the swamp as if it were their own.
Of course the swamp is rich in hunting and fishing. “We would leave at one or two in the morning from the canal entrance. Push-poling the boats all night out to the islands; we would fish through sunrise and through noon. In the winter we would duck hunt all day and into the night.”
And there were the alligators to hunt. Davis doesn’t apologize for his early days of killing the gators. Although commercial hunters may have come close to driving the gators out of existence, the swamp people just killed them for their own use. “Man has been a part of the Okefenokee all of its history,” he observes. “We have found artifacts going back thousands of years.” Davis points out that for all of those centuries people were part of the ecological balance the kept the swamp alive. In fact, he believes now that man has been taken out of that formula, the gators have too free a command of the swamp.
More important that the hunting and fishing in later years in the swamp was the lumber business. During the depression years, Davis and most of the people around the Okefenokee worked for the timber companies. “Most people don’t believe the way we worked in the depression days,” Davis observes. “It was a twelve hour work day with no more than a dollar in pay and often we didn’t get that. But if you could make it to the end of the month with 30 dollars, you were something.”
But there were good times even in the middle of hard times. “We had peanut poppin’s and dances in the spring. In those days people made their own recreation.”
And for those who knew the swamp, the hunting did not end with the government acquisitions of land. “At first there were big parts of the swamp the government didn’t own. I could go hunting out there without ever getting into government land. People would come up to me and say, “Ralph, you been poaching again?” but I never needed to poach. I knew where to hunt without poaching.”
The transition of the swamp from an open hunting ground to a wildlife refuge and the way that change affected the people of the Okefenokee will be a major thrust of Davis’ book. But he will also be trying to impart some of the more personal, less tangible aspects of life in the Okefenokee.
He has learned a lot about the Indian cultures and the creatures of the swamp in his years of living and working there. And his colorful, straight to the point style of telling it make the effort worthwhile in itself.
“A man must be a terrible thing to smell,” he says of his experiences hunting game. “You can’t hunt down wind; everything fears people.” Smell isn’t the only thing to master when hunting in the swamp. There are also an infinite variety of sounds. Davis speaks of this with the appreciation of a men who has spent many years, stretching back into boyhood, just stopping in the swamp to take in its many sounds of life. “All the creatures have their own language that they understand,” he says. “We’ve been able to isolate some of the sounds, but we’ll never isolate all of them.”
The history of the swamp is also the history of people, says Davis. It is the history of the Indians and the white men who made it their home. “I’ll tell you how I mastered the swamp,” he says reaching into the past. “I did it by visiting all the families ringing the swamp. Each family had its own territory that it lived on.” By learning all of the individual territories, Davis was able to learn more and more about the swamp while he lived and worked it.”
He enjoys telling of the wonders of the swamp and in dispelling many of the myths that have grown up around it. “People are amazed when I tell them that there are probably alligators in the swamp that are 100 years old and have never seen a human,” he said. “But we don’t know how long they live. And being night creatures, a lot of them may have never seen a man.”
Many of the legends surrounding the swamp are more colorful than they are accurate, according to Davis.
He said a fellow once told him that it would be easy to retrace the march of General Floyd through the swamp by following a trail of magnolia trees the General had planted along the way. “There is no trail of magnolias in the swamp,” he said. “But these stories get passed on.”
Another myth about the swamp is that the islands or hammocks can dislodge from the floor and float around. As a night hunter in the swamp, Davis said that he had to be able to depend on landmarks to find his way. “The peat moss moves up and down, but it doesn’t float away.”
To dispel many of these myths and get the story of the Okefenokee on record as he has learned it over the years is the purpose of trying to complete his work on the book.
Of course, he will include a good bit about the history of the Indians of the Okefenokee in his account of the swamp. He said that he and his family have lived around the swamp for about two hundred years. But if you include the Indian blood in him, his ancestry goes back considerably further. Davis’ grandfather on his mother’s side was half Cherokee. “That puts my lines back a long way.”
Davis said a full blooded Indian from a western tribe visited the swamp a few years back and walked right up to him and told him that he was part Indian and claimed he could even name the tribe. Davis said the man immediately named the Cherokees. However, Davis says that he doesn’t know where his half Indian grandfather is buried.
Saying that the Seminoles were only a temporary tribe in the Okefenokee, who moved in when the others were forced out, Davis observed. “A lot of history isn’t so.”
Perhaps much of the record of the recent history of the Okefenokee can be set straight if Davis can complete his efforts to record everything from his childhood, listening to the stories of the Indians and fishing in the swamp, to the present on paper. That will include such items as the fact that the first movie theater in the county was located on Billys Island which was inhabited as a small town many years ago and the story of the government condemnation of property to make the refuge. Davis had a small house on the swamp that he used as a sort of retreat when he wanted to be alone. “But I didn’t get mad with the world when they condemned my house, even though they didn’t really pay what it was worth.”
“The restoration of the Chesser Homestead, the fact that General Floyd didn’t actually come though the swamp from Billys Island and didn’t run the Indians out,” Davis said, “There was only one Indian left when they got there and he was crippled and couldn’t follow the others.”
“A lot of history is around if you ask the right people about it,” he observed. And Ralph Davis is the right one to ask about the Okefenokee Swamp and its history.
[One picture, of Ralph Davis resting in a wooden swing, accompanied this article. It had the following cut line: A proud man on his own land, Ralph Davis has seen much of his land and the land of his neighbors become part of the government owned wildlife refuge called the Okefenokee. He is last of the pure swamp people. Having made his living from the mysterious world of the trembling earth. Soon he may share much of this knowledge in a book on his life and experiences in the Okefenokee.]