Florida Everglades – Unique Cultural Landscape

Water once flowed out of Lake Okeechobee without interruption, or interference from men. Aspiring farmers wanted to challenge her blue hegemony. All that rich peat beneath the lakes was going to waste! Melaleuca quinquenervia was an exotic invasive, an Australian tree imported to suck the Florida swamp dry. If you were a swamp kid, you were weaned on the story of the Four Pilots of the Apocalypse, these men who had flown over the swamp in tiny Cessnas and sprinkled melaleuca seeds out of restaurant salt and pepper shakers.”

From Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

The Florida Everglades is one of the most diverse places in the United States.  In the Everglades you can find swamps, grass prairies, and dense forests with more than 350 species of birds, 40 species of mammals and 50 species of reptiles! It is not only a unique natural landscape, but is a unique cultural landscape as well.  It bears the evidence of increasingly sophisticated native peoples, the migration of the Seminole tribe, modern manipulations and development after the Tamiami Trail connected the Everglades to Tampa, as well as restoration attempts as the National Park Service works to reverse some of the damage done to the Everglades by encroaching development.

The Florida Everglades. Image via Patricia Sagastrume

According to UNESCO, a  cultural landscape represents the “combined works of nature and of man.”  It illustrates the the “evolution of human society and settlement over time, under the influence of the physical constraints and/or opportunities presented by their natural environment and of successive social, economic and cultural forces, both external and internal.”

Archeological Heritage

A rich archeological history can be found in the Everglades.   Archeologists have excavated evidence from prehistoric/archaic native people to sophisticated Native American tribes.  Recently, scientists speculated that one of the unique features of the Everglades, “tree islands,” are not naturally occurring but are actually the vestiges of garbage piles left by humans thousands of years ago!  The piles of bones, shells, food, pottery etc. provided an environment for trees to grow above the water level.

Shell midden. Image via NPS

These piles, called middens, remained a fixture of Everglade culture.  Evidence of shellworks/middens created by the Calusa Indians are scattered throughout the Everglades.  According to the National Park Service,  ” Shell works are large-scale, planned formations of piled oyster shells that formed built villages. It is unknown what their primary purpose may have been, but archaeologists suggest that the shell works separated domestic and public from sacred spaces. Shell deposits were formed to create high ridges, mounds, crescents, platforms, canals and courtyards. According to William Morgan, author of Precolumbian Architecture in Eastern North America, these works created networks linking communities and resources, as well as dividing separate zones of space.”

Natural or man made, the tree islands in the Everglades almost always contain archeological remains.   Therefore, the islands, which are small elevated patches of forest surrounded by marsh, are believed to have been significant to native peoples. The material suggests that native people were maintaining inland central settlements. The tree islands were also used by the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes. Many are now used by hunters, fisherman, and air boat operators.

Mud Lake Canal. Image via NPS

Native peoples also manipulated the landscape by creating long distance canal systems.  The Mud Lake Canal, engineered by the Tequestra tribe, is 3.9 miles in length and is one of few surviving canals.  It connected the Everglades, Ten Thousand Islands and the Florida keys allowing canoers to avoid the rough waters of the Gulf.  It is an example of the organization and ingenuity utilized by native peoples.

Modern Manipulation

The Everglades remained secluded and the home of the Seminoles displaced by the Seminole War until the Tamiami Trail was completed in 1930 connecting Tampa to Miami.   A steady stream of Americans seeking fortune followed the trail south. Some settled in the Everglades hoping to tap into the rich peat and soil.  To do so, the swamps needed to be drained to create farmland.  Dykes and levees were built  changing the water level in Lake Okeechobee.  And in 1930, some inventive soul decided the easiest and fastest way to drain the swamp and access the land would be to plant thirsty Melaleuca trees. The trees would drink up all the water and then could be harvested for wood.  To this end, pilots flew low over the Everglades and sprinkled the seeds over the land from salt and pepper shakers. True story!

A stand of Melaleuca tress in the Everglades. Image via the Washington Post

Unfortunately, the trees were difficult to harvest and the plan was soon abandoned leaving the invasive Melaleuca to proliferate strangling native species.  Less than 25 years is required for Melaleuca to progress from 5% to 95% over one square mile!


Continued encroachment from development and agriculture prompted the establishment of the Everglades National Park in 1947.   It was expanded in 1989.  And 1996, an act was passed allowing the government purchase farmland, which would be returned to marsh.  The park represents 27.3% of the original area. It covers about 2357 square miles.  Florida and the Army Corp of Engineers are undertaking a variety of projects to reverse some of the damage done to wildlife and native species.

With its wide variety of plant and animal life and the the evidence it holds illustrating the “evolution of human society and settlement over time, under the influence of the physical constraints and/or opportunities presented by their natural environment and of successive social, economic and cultural forces,” from prehistoric native people to the present attempts to restore and protect it, the Everglades is an incredibly rare and unique cultural landscape.



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