Among Florida Alligators

Having organized an expedition to the great Lake Okechobee, some thirty miles due west from the Indian River Inlet, we hired a wagon and pair of mules to carry our tents and necessary baggage, but, no other animals being attainable, only those of us who were fit for a tramp of nearly a hundred miles could go.

Colonel Vincent, Macleod and Herbert of the “Victoria,” Captain Morris, Roberts, and myself, with the two pilots, Pecetti and Weldon, as guides, and Tom and a negro whom we picked up at Capron for cooks,—ten men in all, well-armed,—we were strong enough to insure respect from any roving party of Seminoles who might have been tempted to rob a weaker party. There are at this time, it is supposed, two or three hundred of these Indians in the region between Lake Okechobee and the Keys, descendants of a few Seminoles who concealed themselves in these inaccessible fastnesses when the greater part of their nation was sent West in 1842. They plant some corn on the islands of the Everglades, but live principally by the chase. Hitherto they have not been hostile to the whites, but as they increase in numbers faster than the white settlers, it is not impossible that they may reoccupy Southern Florida sooner or later, it being, in fact, a region suited only to the roving hunter….

The first day we made about twenty miles through a forest of yellow pine, such as stretches along the Southern coast from Virginia to Alabama, the trees standing thirty or forty feet apart, with little underbrush. Here and there we came upon a hummock of good soil, covered with the live-oak, magnolia, and cabbage-palm, all interlaced with vines and creepers, so as to form an almost impassable jungle. Now the road would lead into a wide savanna or meadow, waving with grass and browsed by herds of wild cattle and deer. In these meadows were set bright, mirror-like lakes, the abodes of water-fowl and wading birds, black bass, and the grim alligator, which in these solitudes, not being impressed with the fear of man, will hardly trouble himself to move out of the way. March in this region corresponding to May in the Middle States, the birds were in full spring song in every thicket,—the cardinal, the nonpareil, the mocking-bird, and our old familiar robin, whose cheerful note greets the traveller all over North America. Up and down the great pine trunks ran the red and gray squirrels, the little brown hare scudded through the palmetto scrub, and the turkey-buzzards floated above our heads in long easy circles.

So we fared on our way till about four P.M., when we made our camp on a clear branch or creek which issued from a lake near by, and while some of the party went to look for a deer, Captain Herbert and I took our rods and went up the creek towards the lake. Casting our spoons into a deep hole, we soon took a mess of bass and pike, which were very abundant and eager to be caught, when, as we were preparing to return to camp, we suddenly saw an alligator about eight feet long quietly stealing towards us. I seized a young pine-tree about as thick as my arm, and made for him. Not at all alarmed, the beast opened his jaws and advanced, hissing loudly. I brought down my club with full force upon his head, but it seemed to produce no impression; he still advanced as I retreated battering his skull.

“What is that brute’s head made of?” inquired Herbert, as he came to my assistance with another club; and between us we managed to stun the hard-lived reptile, and left him on the ground.

The hunters brought in a young buck and two turkeys, so that we had a plentiful supper after our tramp….

About two o’clock that night we were disturbed by the mules, which had been staked out to graze hard by, and which retreated towards the camp to the end of their ropes, snorting with terror. The dogs rushed to the scene of disturbance, and appeared to have a fight with some animal which escaped in the woods. Our guides thought it was a panther, and at daylight they started, with Morris and myself and all the dogs, to hunt for it. The hounds soon hit the trail, which we followed into a cypress swamp about half a mile from the camp, in the midst of which they started a large panther, which, being hotly pressed by the hounds, treed in a big live-oak on the farther side of the swamp. When we came up we plainly saw the beast lying out on a branch which stretched horizontally from the trunk about twenty-five feet from the ground.

“Now,” said Pecetti, “you two fire first, and if you don’t kill, Weldon and I will be ready. Aim at the heart.”

Morris and I fired, and the panther sprang from the tree among the dogs, which all piled on him at once. There was a confused mass of fur rolling on the ground, snarling, and snapping, for half a minute; then the panther broke loose, and was making off, when Weldon put half a dozen buckshot in his head, and he rolled over and over, so nearly dead that when the dogs mounted him again he could do no mischief. He had badly cut both the deer-hounds, however, which had been the first to seize him: Weldon’s fox-hounds, having more experience with this sort of game, had kept clear of his claws. It was a fine male, measuring eight feet from the nose to the tip of the tail, and we took the skin for a trophy. The tenacity of life in these large cats is very great. One of our balls had penetrated the chest, and the other had broken the fore leg, but he was still able to shake off the dogs, and would probably have escaped but for Weldon’s shot….

The next morning, March 13, we breakfasted upon a couple of gophers or land-tortoises which the men had found the day before in the pine-woods. These creatures are about eighteen inches long, and weigh twelve or fifteen pounds. A stew of the gopher and the terminal buds of the cabbage-palm is a favorite Florida dish. About noon we came suddenly upon the shore of the great lake Okechobee, which extends away to the west and south as far as the eye can reach: in fact, the shores are so low as to be invisible at any distance. This is by far the largest sheet of water in the State, being about forty miles long and thirty wide, but it is not deep. It contains on the western side several islands, which are occupied by the Seminoles. To the south and east of this lake are the Everglades, or Grassy Lakes, a region where land and water are mingled,—rivers, lakes, dry islands, and wet marshes all jumbled together in confusion, and extending over many hundred square miles, the chosen abode of the alligator, the gar-fish, the snapping-turtle, the moccasin snake, and other hideous and ferocious creatures more or less mythical, and recalling those earlier periods in the earth’s history when the great monsters, the Ichthyosauri and the Plesiosauri, wallowed and crawled over the continents.

We made our camp in a grove near the lake, almost on the spot where Taylor fought his battle in 1838. As soon as this was done the pilots went in search of a tree to make canoes. They found not far off a large cypress which served, and by the next night they had completed two canoes, each about twelve feet long and eighteen inches wide, suitable for navigating the lake and able to carry four men each. In the mean time we had commenced hostilities against the alligators, which were here very large, bold, and numerous. They lay basking in the sun upon the beach in front of our camp, some of them fifteen feet long, and it became necessary to drive them away, lest they should devour our dogs, or even our mules, for some of these monsters looked able to do it. We opened fire upon them with repeating rifles, and if any Indians were within hearing they must have supposed that General Taylor had come back again, such was the rapidity of our fusillade. The brain of the alligator is small, and developed chiefly in the region of destructiveness; but after a dozen were killed and many more wounded, it seemed to dawn upon their perceptions that this part of the lake was unsafe, and they gradually took themselves away. I disapprove of killing animals for mere sport, and destroy not deliberately except when I wish to use them for food; but the alligator is the enemy of all living creatures, the tyrant of the waters, and the death of one saves the lives of hundreds of other animals. So blaze away at the ’gators, O ye Florida tourists!—you will not kill many of them, anyway: their shells are too thick,—but spare the pelicans, who are a harmless race of fisherfolk, like ourselves.

There were great numbers of large turtles in the lake, Chelonura and Trionyx, from two to three feet long; gar-fish also, almost as big as the alligators. These mailed warriors, like the knights of old, exercise their prowess chiefly upon the defenceless multitudes of the fresh waters, but I have heard of half a large alligator being found in the stomach of a shark at a river mouth. In spite of all these destroyers, the lake swarmed with fish. Pecetti could generally get enough black bass, pike, or perch at one or two casts of his net to feed our whole party if at any time it happened that they would not bite at the hook.

A curious feature of the lake and river scenery is the floating island. This is principally formed of the water-lettuce, or Pistia, an aquatic plant with long roots which descend to the bottom. These beds of Pistia become matted together with grass and weeds, so as to be thick enough to bear the weight of small animals, and even sometimes of man. In strong winds these islands break loose from their anchorage and float away for miles, till they bring up in some quiet bay, where the plants again take root. Lake Okechobee contains many of these floating meadows, which are a great resort for ducks and water-fowl. In fact, one would think that all the ducks, divers, herons, curlews, ibises, cranes, and waders generally had assembled here in mass-meeting. Among them are those rare and beautiful species, the scarlet ibis, roseate spoonbill, and black-necked stilt. The ducks, being birds of passage, spending their summers up North, are acquainted with men and their arts, and are comparatively shy, but the native birds are very tame and can easily be approached.

I was awakened the next morning at sunrise by sounds from the woods as of a gang of ship-carpenters or calkers at work. It was the great ivory-billed woodpecker (Picus principalis) tearing off the bark and probing the dead trees for insects and grubs, and making a noise which could plainly be heard half a mile in the still morning air. Another sound of a different character now made itself heard from the swamps. It was something like the bellowing of bulls, and proceeded from the old male alligators calling to their mates. This indicates the coming of spring, the breeding-season of these creatures. William Bartram, who travelled in East Florida a hundred years ago, gives a thrilling account of the terrible combats which he witnessed in the St. John’s River between these rival champions, who did not hesitate to attack him in his boat.

The next day, March 15, being in want of meat, Colonel Vincent, Dr. Macleod, Morris, and I started for a hunt, taking Pecetti for guide, since nothing is easier than to get lost in this wilderness. We kept up the lake shore to the north on the sandy beach, towards the mouth of the Kissimmee River, which here enters the lake. This is a deep and rapid stream, which drains the great wet prairies to the north, and in the rainy season must carry a large volume of water. Like the lake, it has great patches of water-lettuce, which in some places almost bridge the channel. Much of its course is through swamps, though in some places the pine barrens and live-oak hummocks approach its banks. It contains immense quantities of fish,—pike, bass, and perch.

In the first hummock which we reached the colonel shot a buck, and I got two young turkeys from a flock. As we emerged from this hummock the guide spied a herd of wild cattle feeding on the prairie about half a mile off, and by his direction we crept through the scrub as far as it afforded cover, and then trusted to the high grass for concealment till we got within a hundred yards of the herd, which consisted of about twenty cows and calves, with a couple of bulls. The doctor and colonel fired together and brought down a heifer. A big bull immediately charged towards the smoke and report of the guns, for he could not see us. On he came, head down and tail erect, bellowing with rage,—a magnificent animal of brindled color, with an immensely heavy neck and shoulder, like a bison, but without the mane. When within fifty yards I fired at his head: the ball struck him full in the forehead and staggered him, but he shook his head and kept straight for us. I gave him another shot, which struck him in the chest and turned him, when Pecetti gave him sixteen buckshot in the shoulder from his big double-barrel, which brought him down, dying bravely in defence of his family.

“His carcass is too old and tough to be of any good,” said the guide, “but I’ll take off his hide; the heifer will give us meat enough.”

While he was butchering, Morris returned to the camp and sent out Tom with the wagon to bring in the beef and venison. It was not long before a flock of turkey-buzzards appeared in sight and floated in circles above our heads, waiting for our departure to begin their feast. It was formerly the opinion of naturalists that these birds were guided by scent in the discovery of the dead animals upon which they feed, but later investigations show that they are led by their acute vision; and my own experience convinces me that this is the fact. As we were returning to camp through the hummock, Pecetti killed a large rattlesnake: it was over five feet long, and as thick as the calf of a man’s leg….

On the morning of March 20, Captain Herbert, Pecetti and I went on a fishing excursion up the lake in a canoe. A few casts of the net near the shore procured a supply of small fish of the mullet species for bait, and we paddled up near to the inlet of the Kissimmee. Here we found the alligators and gars too numerous, they having collected probably to prey upon the fish which there enter the lake. In a quiet bay near the fringe of Pistia and water-lilies, where the water was five or six feet deep, we trolled with a spoon for black bass, and took some of very large size,—eight, ten and twelve pounds….

What adds much to the interest of fishing in strange waters is the uncertainty of the sport and the variety of species; and in this lake we could not tell whether the next offer would be from a peaceful perch, a bounding bass, a piratical pike, or a gigantic gar. I put a chub, or a fish resembling it, eight or nine inches long upon a gang of large hooks, and cast it astern with a hand-line. Presently I saw a great roll towards it from out the weeds, and my line stopped short. I had something very heavy, which, however, played in the sluggish fashion of the pike family, and in ten minutes, without much resistance, I had it alongside the canoe, and it was gaffed by Pecetti. It was a huge pike, four feet four inches long, and weighed, when we got to camp, thirty-four pounds. Pecetti called it the striped pike, and said he had seen them six feet long in some of the lakes: perhaps Esox vittatus (Rafinesque) of the Mississippi Basin.

By this time the gars had collected about us in such numbers that the other fish were driven away: we found it impossible to get a hook into their bony jaws or bills, and only succeeded in capturing one of small size by slipping a noose over its head as it followed the bait. This gar-fish is useless as food, but we wanted a few specimens for Dr. White, it being in demand for museums, particularly in foreign countries, as it belongs to a species exclusively American, and represents an order of fishes (the ganoids) of which few families at present exist. This one, Lepidosteus, has a wide range in America, being found from Florida to Wisconsin. Another American ganoid is Amia calva, the dog-fish or bow-fin, which is very numerous in Western rivers. Both are voracious, but unfit for food. They are described by Agassiz as being of an old-fashioned type, such as were common in the earlier geologic periods, and this is one among many proofs that North America is the oldest of the continents.

Morris, Vincent, and the other hunters brought in to-day a large supply of game,—deer, turkeys, and ducks,—but sustained the loss of one of Morris’s deer-hounds, which they supposed to have been taken by an alligator while swimming a lake in pursuit of a deer. They were some miles south of the camp when this occurred. They did not see the alligator, but the dog suddenly disappeared, and was not to be found after a long search. Morris felt so much disgusted by the loss of this valuable dog that he wished to return to the yacht and go down towards the Keys. So we started the next morning, and arrived at the inlet on the 23d. The weather had been delightful, as is usually the case in Florida in winter, but the day we arrived at the inlet we encountered the beginning of the equinoctial storm, which lasted two days and was very violent.


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