Returning to Miami, as the traveler must who desires to cross to the West Coast of Florida, one takes a bus or a motor car for the 200-mile expedition through the heart of the Everglades, over the Tamiami Trail. Tampa-Miami-those two words give at a glance the derivation of the highway’s name. For a few miles westward from Miami the Tamiami Trail traverses an agricultural district, with little settlements lining the highway. But before long it enters the region of the unreclaimed swamps of the Everglades, giving the motorist a glimpse such as few, as yet, can obtain in any other way of tropical Nature in the raw. The road cuts through the northern edge of the Everglades National Park, largest but one of all the National Parks of the United States. Yellowstone Park alone exceeds in size the 2,500 square miles of the Everglades which is being taken over by the Federal government to be maintained in perpetuity in as nearly as possible its natural wild state.
The movement to make a National Park of this tropical wilderness, and so save from the encroachments of agriculture and of sub-divisions the only typically tropical area in this country, in order that for all time to come the American people might have ready access to see with their own eyes the curious and beautiful manifestations of tree, plant and floral growth, and the native wild animal and bird life, was initiated by a group of enthusiastic Floridians, headed by Dr. David Fairchild, with Mr. Ernest F. Coe as Executive Chairman of the Tropical Everglades Park Association. In 1929 the late U. S. Senator from Florida, the Hon. Duncan U. Fletcher, introduced the first legislative act in Congress looking toward the establishment of the Park. His colleague, the late Senator Park Trammel, cooperated in the effort. The Florida legislature of 1929 authorized the purchase of all of the necessary lands not already owned by the state, and its gift to the Federal government as a National Park. It was not, however, until 1934 that Congress finally acted and authorized the Department of the Interior to accept it for a National Park. It has been well and briefly described by A. S. Houghton, who has been foremost in the movement for establishing this and other unique and unusual areas as National Parks, in the following language:
“It is the last great area of America’s primeval frontier. It is the area of our only tropics. The terrain is a mixture of water with its 10,000 islands and rivers teeming with bird and fish life on the West, while on the East and South are the bays, sounds and keys. In the central portion of this area are prairies many miles in extent, in which abound fresh water lakes, streams, forests and hammocks, the latter surmounted generally by massive palm trees.
“On the banks of the rivers and lakes are to be found the rookeries of countless thousands of birds, among which are many forms of herons, white egret, scarlet and white ibis, and that now most rare of beautiful birds, in this area once so plentiful, the roseate spoonbill. Of the crocodiles and alligators that once inhabited this area in great numbers, only the alligator can be found. Of the mammals there are deer, bear, an occasional panther, and raccoons.”
Few Americans, accustomed as they are to thinking of National Parks in terms of glaciers and geysers, of rugged mountains, rushing rivers and towering redwoods, yet realize that within a few hours of New York there is a National Park project which will eventually provide as interesting, though different, facilities for outdoor recreation, exploration and education. One gets about in the Everglades National Park region principally by boat. No white man has as yet completely explored the hundreds of miles of winding channels that twist in and out among the myriad islands. Only the Seminole Indians, who have made the Everglades their refuge and habitation since the main body of their tribe was forcibly deported to the reservations of the West, know their way about in the labyrinth of waterways. They are the ideal guides to take the visitor through the National Park.
They are a strange and unique people, these Seminoles, the only remnant of the aboriginal inhabitants of this country who have never acknowledged the sovereignty of the United States. They have dwindled to a mere handful. The state census of 1935 accounts for only 429 Seminole Indians. It is probable that as many more eluded the census enumerators. In any event, fewer than a thousand of these descendants of Osceola’s people remain, and probably none of the pure racial stock. The Seminoles of today have a large mixture of both white and negro strains.
They are a good natured, peaceable people, as industrious as they need to be to supply their primitive wants, skillful watermen in their long, narrow dug-out canoes hewn from cypress logs, in which they traverse the hidden channels and bayous of the Everglades where the stranger becomes hopelessly bewildered and lost. In these shallow waters punt-poles usually serve instead of paddles. The Seminoles are skillful fishermen and good hunters. They still take fish with spears, and many of the men of the tribe are said to be still skilled in the ancient art of bringing down small game and birds with bow and arrow. Most of their hunters, however, have white men’s guns. The Seminoles are not at all averse to taking the white man’s money for the curios of carved wood and crudely woven basketry which they offer for sale at roadside stands along the Tamiami Trail. They make their own laws and live under them in calm disregard of the white man’s rules and customs. Only when an occasional young Seminole buck gets under the influence of the white men’s fire-water and creates a disturbance around a white settlement do the law enforcement officials concern themselves with the doings of the Indians. There is no record in recent years of any serious quarrels or antagonisms between Seminoles and Whites, either as individuals or as a class.
Men and women alike of the Seminole Indians wear a distinctive costume, the torso being clothed by both sexes in a garment resembling a shirt-waist with wide, puffed sleeves, usually woven in wide contrasting horizontal stripes. Both sexes wear skirts, those of the men falling to the knee, those of the women longer than ankle-length.
Nearly all of the Seminoles can speak English when they want to, but most of them make a pretense of inability to speak or understand any language but their own unless a matter of business is concerned. They are probably the most simple, primitive people still living in the United States. Their homes, in the deep fastnesses of the Everglades, follow the pattern recorded in the sketches and descriptions sent back to Europe by the earliest explorers of Florida. They are huts built by driving poles vertically into the earth, supporting a platform or floor a foot or two above ground, and a roof of palmetto thatch laid on poles. In this near-tropical climate they need no shelter from cold, only from rain. Of their tribal religious beliefs and customs little is known. Several missions have succeeded in converting a few Seminoles to at least an outward semblance of Christianity, but in practice they still adhere to the ancient pagan nature-worship of their forebears and their kinsmen, the Creeks.
With the development of the Everglades National Park anthropologists are beginning to make closer and more scientific studies of the Seminoles, in the hope of adding to the sum of knowledge of the aboriginal inhabitants of this country. The Seminoles were not the original race inhabitating the Florida peninsula; one and possibly two other and distinct races preceded them. Their immediate predecessors were a tribe whom the Spanish called “Timuquan,” whose identity with any of the surviving Indian tribes or races has not been established. The Seminoles are of the same stock as the Creek Indians of Georgia, who descended upon the Timuquans and exterminated them at about the time of the first European settlements.
Alongside the Tamiami Trail runs a wide canal, the ditch from which the material was excavated to build the highway above possible flood level. Here the traveler has his easiest opportunity to observe the Florida alligator at close range. These huge lizards, seldom more than nine or ten feet long, but occasionally running to fifteen feet or more, may occasionally be seen swimming or floating in the water with only their elevated nostrils and eyes visible above the surface, or on sunny days basking singly or in groups along the banks. One occasionally ventures to cross the highway, but they are rather shy, in spite of their ferocious aspect, and usually scuttle for cover at the near approach of a vehicle or a human being. Let a dog, a pig or any other small animal incautiously venture within range and it has to be agile indeed to elude the gators swift attack.
Along the banks of the trail, too, the motorist gets not infrequent glimpses of other Florida reptilian life, the “cottonmouth” water moccasin, reputedly the deadliest of North American serpents, the ground rattler and once in a while the king of snakedom, the diamond-back rattler, to whom it is prudent for the pedestrian, unless he is wearing top-boots or leather leggings, to give a wide berth.
To the nature lover few sights are more entrancing than the flight of the tropical birds at daybreak as they leave their roosts and nests to start on their daily quest for food. The snowy white herons and their blue cousins, the cranes and their gorgeous relatives the roseate spoonbills, may often be seen at dawn filling the air in great flocks.
To the fisherman there are few waters which offer as wide a variety of sport within as small a compass. In the western part of the Everglades National Park area, on the edge of the Great Cypress Swamp, many of the watercourses among the islands are salt water inlets from the Gulf. In these the fisherman may take sea creatures by casting his lure from the bank or even from an open car, fish such as most anglers have to go out to sea in boats to capture.
In many of these inlets and bays still lives the manatee, or sea-cow, known also as the dugong, that strange marine mammal which sometimes reaches a length of ten feet. The manatee is one of Florida’s “sacred cows” and heavy penalties await anyone reckless or cruel enough to kill one of them. They are harmless, gentle beasts whose food is the succulent eelgrass which grows at the bottom of salt water inlets where the fresh water meets the salt. They graze like cows, coming up for air at half-hour intervals. Their young are nursed by the mother, who stands half out of the water with her high breasts exposed, a practice which is believed to have given rise to the age-old myth of the mermaid, reported by seafaring men the world over from time immemorial.
The town of Everglades, in Collier County, is just on the western edge of the Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades National Park. Everglades is a fisherman’s rendezvous de luxe, with its handsome modern hotel, attractively laid out streets and parks, and general atmosphere of cleanliness and comfort. It is the county seat of Collier County, named for Barron G Collier, the national street-railway advertising magnate, who purchased a million acres of this Southwest Florida land in the early days of the real estate boom, and has been steadily developing his property ever since. Mr. Collier is typical of the many hundreds of northern men of wealth who, after once visiting Florida, have been so captivated by its climate and its nameless charm that they have felt and responded to the urge to do something to make Florida better known and more accessible to the millions who have not yet felt its lure.