By Bob Davidsson
The late 19th century was the last great age of exploration. It was an era when newspaper publishers not only reported sensational adventures in faraway lands, but sponsored expeditions to Africa, the Arctic and other unexplored regions to beat the competition.
The best known of these journalistic expeditions was the dispatching of Henry Morton Stanley by the New York Herald to find and "rescue" missing missionary-explorer Dr. David Livingston from the unknown depths of central Africa in 1871.
Not to be outdone by their northern rival publications, the editors of the newly merged New Orleans Times-Democrat newspaper (1881-1914) decided to launch two expeditions to the mysterious and poorly charted inland sea known as Lake Okeechobee. It was hoped journal reports from the expeditions would increase national readership, while new outlets to the sea would be discovered for future economic development.
Times-Democrat correspondents kept journals of the expeditions. Their articles were printed in installments in the newspaper. A summary editorial entitled "North and South Through the Everglades in 1883" was published in the Jan. 6, 1884 edition of the newspaper.
The editorial summarized, "These articles in the Times-Democrat introduce the whole country to Florida, and a general desire we felt to know more about this country and particularly about the Everglades."
The Lake Okeechobee expeditions were led by Major A.P. Williams. The journalist-explorers sailed from New Orleans to the cattle town of Punta Rassa on Florida's west coast. Both expeditions then paddled up the Caloosahatchee River to Lake Okeechobee.
The first expedition sailed north and explored the Kissimmee River to its source. It was followed by a second journey to the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee in November 1883. The explorers searched for a water gateway that would lead them through the Everglades to Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
Their waterway of choice was christened the "Democrat River" in honor of their newspaper. The river led not to the sea, but into the heart of the Everglades.
Life Along the Democrat River, 700 to 1883 A.D.
For more than 1,000 years, from 700 A.D. until Queen Anne's War in 1702, the Democrat River flowed through a complex of native American village mounds and burial middens, located just west of Belle Glade.
The main 10-foot high habitation mound of the Belle Glade complex, measuring 300 feet by 450 feet in width, was located between the two main branches of the Democrat River. Opposite the main mound, 100 yards north of the eastern river channel, was a smaller circular midden used for tribal burials.
The Belle Glade mounds were first excavated in the 1930s by a federal archaeological team sponsored by the WPA program. Two smaller sites called the Vinegar Bend and Democrat River mounds were later discovered and examined.
The habitation mounds provided refuge for villagers during seasonal flooding and hurricane storm surges on Lake Okeechobee. The Democrat River served as a natural buffer that channeled overflow from the lake into the Everglades.
When the 1928 hurricane hit Lake Okeechobee, there were no barrier marshes remaining to absorb the surging water. Mud dikes along the shoreline collapsed, sending a 10-foot wall of water into the farming communities. Thirty lucky residents survived by clinging to the top of the ancient Indian mound. About 3,000 of their neighbors drowned.
Europeans called the native inhabitants along the Democrat River the Maymi Indians. They were in fact the easternmost branch of the Calusa mound building culture, living along the southern and western coasts of Lake Okeechobee. Their neighbors to the east, the Santaluces tribe, extended north of Canal Point along the eastern shore of the big lake.
The Democrat River provided easy access to Lake Okeechobee for their dugout canoes. It also offered a route for food resources found in the Everglades to the south.
By the time of the Times-Democrat expedition, the original Maymi inhabitants were long gone, the victims of introduced diseases and slave raids from South Carolina. The Seminole tribe did not establish a permanent village along the river.
In their journal, expedition members made no mention of Indian mounds in the area. By the year 1883, the mounds would have been covered by thick vegetation and could have been mistaken for natural hillocks.
The Democrat River and Everglades Expedition
The second Times-Democrat expedition was once again led by Major Williams. The 12 explorers included two retired U.S. Army officers, a newspaper correspondent, and Louisiana and Florida boatmen of white, black and mixed-race origins.
The expedition was provisioned by two bateaus of French-Canadian (Cajun) design with retractable sails used for voyages on the lake. Small "skiffs" and canoes, with names like the "Susie B" and the "Daisy W," completed the small flotilla.
After leaving their main camp near the Caloosahatchee River portage site, the expedition sailed southeast along the lake shore, where they discovered many small outlets from Lake Okeechobee. They were explored and called "dead rivers" due to their short lengths and dead ends.
When they entered a channel near Rita Island, the Times-Democrat journal recorded, "The river at its mouth is 100 yards wide, the depth of which being about eight feet. To say that our little party was overjoyed would poorly express it. We do not go 100 yards before we hear exclamations from members of our party in praise of the beautiful scenery which greeted the eye on every side."
Soon their joy would turn to frustration. The journal states, "After going about a mile, we find impenetrable swamp which surrounds us. After going (another) half a mile, we find we are no longer in any stream but hindered by dark, sluggish water. The roots of trees form a barrier."
"The river on which we encamped last night we have named the Rita River," the journal continues, "and the one on which we are now encamped and will use as a means of reaching the Everglades we name in honor of the journal we represent, the Times-Democrat River."
The expedition reached the Democrat River on Nov. 10. After several failed attempts to find a navigable river south of Lake Okeechobee, Major Williams decided to follow the course of the Democrat River because it was found to be "larger than the others."
The journal entry reported, "It was determined to ascent it as far as possible and from its source to start into the swamp."
The explorers paddled up both branches of the Democrat River. The smaller branch flowed east for several miles before "dispersing into sawgrass". The larger western river branch led the flotilla south through a pond apple forest.
Using its skiffs and canoes, the expedition followed the southern river channel to its end. Once again, the explorers faced a sea of sawgrass. They encountered the seemingly endless Everglades River of Grass (Pay-ho-kee).
The expedition pushed and pulled their boats southwest through the Everglades for nearly 90 miles. November was the beginning of the dry season, so fires were set by the boat crews to remove thick barriers of vegetation.
Several days into their ordeal, their provision bateau, the "Queen Anne," began leaking badly after it was dragged across sharp limestone rocks. It was soon abandoned. Eventually, the tired explorers reached the Shark River on Florida's southwest coast and drifted with the tide to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Aftermath of the Expedition
In its 1884 editorial journal summary, the Times-Democrat staff concluded, "It has set at rest all questions about the Everglades, which has found to be much different from what was imagined. The sawgrass extends 100 miles instead of ten."
"As to the question of building a telegraph line through this country - a matter to which Western Union has been anxious to solve - Major Williams reports that this is impossible and not to be thought of."
"As to the possibility of draining the Everglades," the Times-Democrat editorial continues, "Major Williams reports adversely. He can see no hope or possibility of redeeming the greater portion of the region, which must remain a swamp forever."
The findings of the Times-Democrat expedition were soon proven wrong. After the turn of 20th century, immigrant farmers rushed to western Palm Beach County to grow beans, corn, peppers, tomatoes and sugarcane in the rich black muck of the Everglades.
The pioneer farmers saw little practical use for the freshwater estuary known as the Democrat River. The marshes were drained and the river became an agricultural drainage ditch. After the surrounding communities of Chosen and Hillsboro (Belle Glade) were established, there was no need for the canal. The former Democrat River estuary became places of commerce, housing and agricultural land.
In its rather self-serving conclusion, the Times-Democrat journal report stated, "Such is the story of our expedition. It has accomplished all that it was organized to do. It was the first party of white men to go through the Everglades, and it solved all the problems of that mysterious region."
The Times-Democrat ceased publication on April 5, 1914. It merged with the rival New Orleans Picayune and became the "Times-Picayune". Under this front page mast, the newspaper continues publication today.
(c.) Davidsson. 2017.
NOTE: "Democrat River" is the first of two articles about the county's ghost rivers which no longer exist. Read additional articles archived in Older Posts.
A Rich Historical Heritage
The "Origins & History of the Palm Beaches" information site is a retrospective look at the history of Palm Beach County, and how its past has influenced the present. This blog is a companion site to "Palm Beach County Issues & Views." Both sites are edited by Robert I. Davidsson, retired manager of the Palm Beach County Library System's Government Research Service (GRS), and author of the book "Indian River: A History of the Ais Indians in Spanish Florida" and related articles about Florida's past.