The Okeehumkee on the Oklawaha
A Painting by Christopher M. Still
Oil on Linen 48 x 126 in
The Civil War is over and the slaves free. It is the late 1800s, and a small steamboat winds its way through the serpentine curves of the Oklawaha River at night. Its passengers are visitors and adventure seekers from northern states. As they pass by giant cypress trees and under Spanish moss, their way lit by fire, these first Florida tourists are thrilled by white-tailed deer, large, plumed birds, and huge, prehistoric looking alligators that appear out of the shadows along the river’s edge. The stories they had read about the natural beauty and wonders of this southern state were certainly true.
But this idyllic scene contains some signs of trouble. Exotic water hyacinths, like the one seen above the alligator’s back, were introduced into the rivers and began an ongoing invasion. The herons and egrets, found by looking carefully into the painting’s shadows, were so admired for their plumes used on ladies’ hats that they were nearly hunted to extinction. Although they were eventually spared due to efforts of the National Audubon Society founded in 1905, the native Carolina parakeets, pictured on the right side of the painting, were not so fortunate.
And while tourists idly cruised in these “floating palaces”, life was forever changing for the pioneers, trappers, farmers and former slaves who lived and worked here. Florida was no longer on its way to becoming another cotton state. New businesses like citrus farming, phosphate mining, and tourism were pushing the rapid growth of transportation industries, and the state was ripe with opportunity. Investors from the north came, not for the scenery, but to get in on the expected boom, and to take advantage of the confusion and disarray left in the wake of the war.
Federal troops, the Freedman’s Bureau, and radical Republicans also arrived, ostensibly to help improve conditions for Florida’s African American citizens during Reconstruction. For a very short time they succeeded, evidenced by the election in 1868 of 19 black men to the state legislature including Jonathon Gibbs, a pastor, who later became Florida’s Secretary of State. Unfortunately, this progress was dramatically reversed in 1877.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Palmetto Leaves, sits above the painting’s frame on the right. Northern readers were so taken by her descriptions of Florida, that they came to see it for themselves, and often stayed. This painting is a reminder that most of the natural wonders that give Florida its unique identity and atmosphere, can still be found as exciting today as they were at the end of the 19th century.