Few people are aware that the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Georgia contains at least 74 Indian mounds.
Only a few mounds on the swamp's edge have been briefly excavated by professional archaeologists, but the evidence suggests that the Okefenokee once was home to thousands of Native Americans and advanced indigenous culture. The swamp covers over 438,000 acres.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, over 400,000 visitors a year come to this exotic region in the southeastern tip of the State of Georgia. That is probably conservative. On the fringes of this boggy landscape that are outside federal property boundaries, there are farmsteads and hamlets, where residents have hunted and fished in the swamp for many generations. Most of the swamp was purchased by the Roosevelt Administration in 1936 to prevent the extinction of its wildlife and remaining stands of virgin Bald Cypress trees.
Tourists come from around the world to see the swamp's famous alligators, snakes, aquatic birds, cypress trees, giant longleaf pines, and Jurassic Period terrain. The visitor's center does have some exhibits related to the Native American occupation of the region but presents an incomplete story. Tourists do not see any evidence of Native American culture in the swamp as it appears today. They assume that its ancient inhabitants were few in number and left the region as soon as Europeans arrived on the scene.
Geologists believe that the swamp was formed at least 6-8,000 years ago when a sandy barrier island trapped water in a bay, as the South Atlantic coastline retreated eastward. Probably, for much of its existence, the swamp looked something like Lake Okeechobee in southern Florida. Over time, vegetation created islands in the shallow lake, upon which groves of trees could thrive; particularly Bald Cypress. Even today, some of the vegetative islands are so thin that they vibrate when walked on.
Origin of the swamp's name
Most books, magazine articles, TV documentaries, and even the official USFWS web site define the meaning of the Okefenokee Swamp as being a Creek Indian word meaning, "The Land of the Trembling Earth." That is not correct. The Creek Indian words for trembling and earth are entirely different.
Patricia Affable and Beeler Madison of the Smithsonian Institute wrote a book on Indian place names in 1995 that got closer to accuracy than anybody else. They stated that the word was Miccosukee-Seminole and was derived from okifanô:ki, meaning "bubbling water" or alternatively "trembling earth." Their book also states that the original name for the swamp was Lake Oconee, named after an extinct branch of the Arawak-speaking Timucua Indians. This part of the interpretation was entirely wrong.
Okefenokee is actually derived from a Hitchiti word. Hitchiti was the language spoken by most of the Creek Indians in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. The original word was oka-fenoke in Itsa-ti (Hitchiti,) which means "water-shaking." The Hitchiti word for "bubbling" is "mole." The Oconi (actually Okani – now Okonee) Indians were one of the most important branches of the Creek Indian Confederacy. They originally spoke Hitchiti and were major players in the mound-building business. Their name means "born of water."
The Okonee Creeks have an origin myth that they arose out from a watery Garden of Eden to the south of their later mound-studded centers in northeast Georgia. Unlike most Southeastern mound builders, most of the Okonee's lived in dispersed farmsteads and hamlets. The elite lived in small, palisaded compounds, containing several large mounds and public buildings.
Research by Gary Daniels, who developed the LostWorlds.org website, suggests that the culture of Okonee's first flourished in the watery terrain of southeast Georgia and northeast Florida – perhaps even southern Florida. The Okefenokee Swamp could certainly be viewed as a watery Garden of Eden from a Native American perspective. The mounds on the swamp's larger islands probably are vestiges of ceremonial centers or the compounds occupied by the Okonee elite. Farmsteads were probably scattered among smaller islands and the edges of the swamp. The swamp's environment would have been an ideal location to adapt varieties of tropical crops such as maize, yucca, Calusa squash, and tobacco to a temperate climate.
Like their contemporaries around Lake Okeechobee, Florida, the Okonee could well have had most cultural traits associated with the "Mississippian" mound-builders by 750 AD. Their language contains many Maya Indian words. In their own language, Hitchiti is written as Itsa-ti, which means "Itza (Maya) People."
Daniels theorizes that when Arawak invaders struck the Florida peninsula around 1150 AD, the Okonee were pushed northward. The majority settled on what is now the Oconee River in northeast Georgia. However, apparently one branch stayed in the relative security of the Okefenokee Swamp as much of the land to the south, east and west were occupied by the Timucua Arawaks.