The legal history behind the Swamp Land Act
An 1848 congressional bill titled “A Bill to authorize the draining of the Everglades, in the State of Florida, by said State, and to grant the same to said State for that purpose,” marked the beginnings of federal actions to expand arable lands and provide more acreage for settlement. The bill specified the area of land granted to Florida for the purpose of draining, but also laid out exactly what should be done and how. For example, one of the demands of the bill was that Florida officials have to work “under the direction of a competent engineer” to carry out the construction of drains and canals. Furthermore, there was to be a direct communication line between the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico by way of canals, on which Florida would in the future only be able to collect toll from individuals, but not federal vessels or operations. Congress even went as far as to fix the price for which Florida could sell undrained and undeveloped land, and demanded that such sales were permitted only if the potential buyer was committed to the dehydration of the land. Additionally, Florida was to designate acreage for public schools, and the State was to stay clear of Seminole lands throughout the area, unless otherwise directed by the president. The president also reserved the right to use the new lands for public works such as lighthouses, military facilities, or docks.
In 1849, 1850, and 1860, the bill turned into several Swamp Land Acts. The first, in 1849, concerned solely Louisiana, and the third, in 1860, extended the legislature to the new states of Minnesota and Oregon, but it was really the act of 1850 that had the widest-reaching effects on the Everglades. “An Act to enable the State of Arkansas and other States to reclaim the ‘Swamp Lands’ within their limits,” or short, the Swamp Land Act. The wording of the Swamp Land Act was much shorter than the previous bill, and basically provided that currently unusable swamp land would be returned to the states in which it was found, so they could undertake the draining and development of such lands. In order to pay for the drainage process, the states gained the right to sell the lands, provided all profit went into the dehydration. While neither the Everglades nor Florida are mentioned by name, the impact of the legislation was greatest on this region, as over twenty million acres out of over sixty-four million acres granted to states by the act were Florida wetlands – the Everglades.
The economic and demographic background of the Swamp Land Acts
In the context of the nineteenth century, the Swamp Land Act of 1850 made a lot of sense, for the federal government as much as for the states, as a vast area of land went unused due to swamps and other natural waters. At this point, the U.S. was still a relatively young country, trying to build a nation and attract settlers to push through that “last frontier.” Land grants and citizenship were used as incentives, and the removal of geographical obstacles such as swamps and lakes helped expand the fledgling republic.
Florida itself was only partially developed, with much of its acreage still covered by wetlands and wilderness in the mid-nineteen hundreds, and the government felt the pressure to open up more lands in a bid to curb crowded cities and settle land disputes. In Trans-Appalachian Frontier: People, Societies, and Institutions, 1775-1850, Malcolm J. Rohrbough analyzes the settlement patterns in Florida in the early to mid-nineteenth century, explaining why new lands were needed for the heavy influx of people willing to start over. Heavily divided by natural barriers of rivers, lakes, and swamps, Florida proved to be difficult to cultivate, and for a while, the development of any economy was rather slow, especially in the East and West, where the sterile, thin soil was better suited for animal husbandry than plantation endeavors. Still, the population grew, despite the devastation of the Seminole Wars in the first half of the nineteenth century, which left whatever economy growth had happened before in stagnation. The Armed Occupation Act of 1842 that granted male, arm-bearing immigrants 160 acres of land and the prospect of the title to the land after five years of “residence and minimal cultivation provisions” did not draw as many as the government had hoped, but the numbers grew nonetheless. In 1820, the population of Florida was estimated at about 11,000, by 1850 the number had risen to over 87,000, and the newcomers wanted their share of the frontier. The map of the Unites States Geological Survey (USGS) below shows just how little of Florida’s land was cultivated in 1850, explaining just why it was so important for Floridians to “reclaim” the land for agriculture.
Florida settlers and politicians alike were convinced that the subtropical climate of inner-Florida would provide the perfect conditions for the cultivation of citrus fruits and other exotic crops that currently had to be imported. There was only the problem of seasonal flooding throughout the wetlands that hindered any and all agricultural development. The solution was rather obvious: drain the land, open up fertile new grounds, and cash in. Money was not the only objective behind the wish to open up the land, however. Florida’s progressive politicians interpreted Gifford Pinchot’s philosophy to use land wisely and with the greatest good for the most people as an imperative to drain the land in order to help the most people become economically successful. John Muir’s view that the wild should be left wild was cast aside. The theory that the land was extra fertile considering the plush greens of the Everglades even prior to draining, they additionally argued that small plots would be able to yield excessive crops, therefore a large number of smaller plots, opposed to a small number of large plots, would serve more people.
Prior to the Swamp Land Act, however, individual settlers lacked the massive resources needed to drain the lands, and the federal government hoped that selling the land at a fixed price and promoting drainage paid for by the states would attract more people and help build the nation. Such promises drew people into the area, but they would quickly find out that the promises were exaggerated, and that Florida’s political system and internal corruption had greatly hindered the draining of the land. Instead of selling the land to receive funds for the drainage program, Florida politicians looked at the grant as a tool to gain political influence, and gave land away in exchange for favors and votes. This, in turn, left the coffers that were to pay for the project abysmally empty, and initially helped prevent Florida from achieving the goal of dehydration and land extension. But something had to be done, and after a series of local laws and policy changes regarding the sale of land and the funding of drainage, eventually the process of dehydrating the Everglades began.
Draining the Wetlands: Easier Said than Done
As soon as the Swamp Land Act was passed, speculators and developers did not hesitate to grab up the lands made available. Below, an 1888 map of Florida shows cities, towns, drainage, land grants, and land for sale, depicting the massive amount of development brought on by the Swamp Act of 1850.
Tasked with implementing methods to drain the land, prospective settlers took to the chore with much gusto, but little knowledge. In The Everglades: An Environmental History, David McCally describes the efforts – and failures – to drain the land and the ultimate decision to call in the “big guns,” i.e. the U.S. Army, to help out.  The first estimate on drainage, commissioned by the government of Florida and developed by Buckingham Smith in 1848, held an optimistic outlook, claiming that the process of draining would be a quick one, and the costs would be low at about $500,000 total. Officials assumed that the biggest concern would be lands draining too fast, leaving behind masses of dead fish which might pose a health hazard to the population.
However, it would still take decades before large-scale draining started. In 1881, Hamilton Disston, industrialist and real-estate developer, began draining an area of four million acres, concentrating on lakes around the Kissimmee River, but also opening canals connecting Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River. Drainage began around the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee’s, but due to the Panic of 1893, the entire project was suspended. Nevertheless, this first massive attempt motivated other landowners of the area, giving them hope about the possibility and speed of draining the Everglades.
As drainage projects went on at the turn of the century, it soon became obvious that merely connecting Lake Okeechobee with the Atlantic was an inadequate way of draining the area. Unexpected side effects emerged in the now dry areas that negated the benefit of having more land to work with and resulted in a massive cost increase and the involvement of the U.S. Government via the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to undo mistakes and develop a successful drainage system that would benefit everyone.
Agricultural plans gone awry
Draining the Everglades had unexpected and devastating side effects on the Florida panhandle. Excessive flooding, desiccation, salinization, and polluted ground water greatly affected Florida residents and potential settlers.
The first unexpected side effect of draining caught many by surprise. With the disappearance of trees to keep hurricanes at bay, and the completely changed water flow system, Florida began to experience a series of flooding in the early 1920s, caused by heavy rains and hurricanes. Thousands of prospective agriculturalists gave up and left when their crops drowned in the floods. Those who stayed behind, urged the politicians for a water-control program, and in 1928, after yet another mammoth hurricane that killed over 2000 people and caused wide-spread damage, the government was convinced that something had to be done. Works began on the Hoover Dike, a massive levee at Lake Okeechobee’s south shore. The dike was finished in 1938, and definitely improved the flooding situation, but it turned out that dry land was not the end of all worries.
Fire, Bacteria, and Dust
As land became too dry, wildfires, previously unable to reach the center of the Florida peninsula, were fed by highly flammable grounds thanks to the chemical make-up of the dried land. The muck left behind by the drainage was dry and brittle, and fires would often burn for a long time, even going underground through the cracks, and spreading out from there, burning vegetation and soil, and exposing the roots of the Cypress trees. In February of 1932, residents of Dade County called out for help when massive fires destroyed the crops and soil, endangering residential areas and polluting the air with heavy smoke. Another side effect of the dry grounds was that now bacteria, previously encased by the high groundwater, were now exposed to oxygen and thus able to completely decompose the organic remains of the flora. Where plant matter created soil before, biochemical oxidation now consumed soil, and scientists measured a loss of over six feet of soil within 38 years, calculating that the low water table and the resulting oxidation caused an inch a year soil loss since 1912. Additionally, the dry muck proved very dusty, and when the farmers plowed their fields, the dust clung to everything, winds caused dust storms, and any air movement could uncover some plants while completely covering others.
The soil itself proved difficult for plant cultivation, and the land “reclaimed” from the swamplands proved less fertile than expected. Some crops failed to grow, turning yellow after a few weeks after initially sprouting well, others grew as big as expected, but failed to produce fruit. Furthermore, Bermuda grass, imported into the area to feed the cattle, somehow turned into a health hazard for the animals as they died en masse after consuming the grass. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the United States Geological Survey, and the Soil Science Society of Florida sent in specialists to figure out just what exactly the problem was, and a 1915 soil analysis along the North New River Canal found that over eighty percent of the soil’s peat was difficult to utilize due to a lack trace elements, especially copper. Incidentally, potato farmers, about the only ones moderately successful up to this point, had not realized that the insecticide used to protect their potato plants contained enough copper to help the plants grow. An experiment station was funded by the state of Florida, and scientists used the 160-acre farm to figure out how to make plants grow in the Sunshine State. They realized that mixing copper and manganese sulfate into plant fertilizers turned the tide around for Florida’s agriculturalists, and they could now produce better crops, multiple times a year thanks to the favorable climate.
By 1919, residents of the Atlantic Coasts increasingly experienced a saltwater intrusion into their wells. They figured that moving the wells further inland should solve the problem, but by 1938 even inland wells were too salty, with over one thousand wells now containing water not fit for consumption. When the canals were built to drain the Everglades, water could flow both ways, and during high tide, water often flowed inland. Previously, the ground was heavily saturated with high ground water, but as the draining became more and more successful, the soil was dry enough to take up the extra saltwater from the sea. The pump-free wells built by the earlier residents were shallow enough that they only needed to slightly penetrate the water-bearing lime stone beneath to provide fresh water, but here, too, saltwater intruded and replaced the fresh water, leaving a shortage of drinking water. To fix the problem, more money was needed to build saltwater-control dams near the canal mouths, driving the costs for entire drainage program even higher. Drainage had initially not brought many benefits for the human population of the panhandle, but an improved water-control system and the enhancement of soil eventually meant that agriculture began to flourish in the area. While human settlement was certainly impeded by the negative effects of the initial draining, the consequences for the Everglade’s ecosystem were much worse.
Where art thou, plants and animals?
The Everglades with their somewhat unique ecosystem are home to a vast amount of endemic plants and animals, all of which suffered from the draining and subsequent shrinking of their natural habitat.
The canals and levees covering large parts of the Florida Peninsula today changed the ecosystem of the Everglades extensively. A report by Rebecca G. Harvey, William F. Loftus, Jennifer S. Rehage, and Frank J. Mazzotti on the specific effects of the artificial waterways and earthworks throughout the region describes in detail what the construction of canals and levees alone did to the wildlife of the Everglades. For one, the artificial waterways cause a fluctuation in salinity of the water. Many aquatic animals and plants, however, are highly sensitive to such changes in salt content, and become increasingly endangered. As canals provide for sudden pulses of fresh water, rather than the gradual flow of the natural estuaries, the salinity is altered even more abruptly, wildlife habitat gets flooded, and native fish concentrations are displaced frequently. The levees provide for deep pools of water with little or no flow, which prevents water plants from taking root. Due to the break-up of the previous estuary system, the gene flow of aquatic creatures is severely restricted, resulting in genetic issues among species. Excess fertilizer flooding the waterways additionally poison plants and animals alike. Furthermore, the canal and levee system provides for perfect breeding grounds for non-native wildlife, which then encroaches and takes over endemic wildlife territory. Finally, the dry lands enable the intrusion of terrestrial non-native plants and animals. Some of the species that are increasingly endangered due to the man-made changes to the Everglades are the Florida apple snail, which is pushed out by the much larger island apple snail, the alligator population which experiences a decrease in food and habitat, and the manatees, who would get trapped in canals by control gates and locks and perished in large numbers.
The redirection of rivers, the drainage of swamps, and the construction of canals and dams resulted in a change of water quantity and the quality of the ecosystem, which in turn had far-reaching and devastating consequences for the endemic species of animals as well as for the plant life. Reptiles, amphibians, and aquatic animals were not the only creatures who lost their home. Birds and land animals were affected as well. Frogs, owls, panthers, and countless other species went almost extinct due to the ever-shrinking are of the Everglades. Wildflowers, lilies, and algae endemic to the area began to disappear. Elizabeth Culotta’s “Bringing Back the Everglades” further examines the damage, putting the number of endangered or threatened species up to fifty-five. According to Culotta, the wading bird population of the Everglades has decreased by ninety percent due to draining, which shrank the habitat of these birds greatly. Other vertebrates, from amphibians to mammals, have decreased in population anywhere from seventy-five to ninety-five percent. What is more, the plant life is completely disrupted due to changes in landscape and soil and water quality, and species like cattails, previously only minimally present in the Everglades, now take up large patches of the more fertile areas.
The issue of endangered species in the Everglades is large enough that the National Park Service (NPS) has dedicated an entire website to the problem, listing the species from Atlantic Ridley Turtle to Wood Stork, and stating their current situation, ranging from unknown to resident, and explaining exactly what the NPS is doing to alleviate the problem.
The Swamp Land Act of 1850 was passed with the intention to alleviate the pressure of an ever-increasing population throughout the wetlands of Florida and the subsequent need for more land to settle. However, with the implementation of the act came a massive destruction of the Everglades, which initially affected the human population negatively through floods, fires, soil infertility, and salinization. It took a lot of scientific research to combat these issues and turn Florida into an agriculturally sound state, but it will take a lot more to undo the devastation the drainage did to the endemic fauna and flora. The endangerment of local wildlife by long-lasting changes to the size of the natural habitat, the chemical makeup of the soil, and the freshwater pollution following the draining of the land will take a lot of resources and some sacrifices to reverse. McCally put it best when he said,
“Ironically, the modern American version of development is actually rooted in extensive destruction. But since that destruction does not lay waste human achievements, it is often ignored, and the close relationship between human development and the destruction of the natural world is overlooked.”
Many have begun to speak up for the Everglades, and serious efforts have been made to restore them to their previous glory, but to list all the programs, the effects, and the barriers of such undertakings would be an entirely different paper.
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. Morgan Robertson, "Swamp Lands Acts," in Encyclopedia of Environment and Society, Paul Robbins. (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2007), accessed January 17, 2016, http://libproxy.troy.edu/login?url=http://literati.credoreference.com/content/entry/sageenvsoc/swamp_lands_acts/0.
. U.S. Congress, “CHAP. LXXXIV. - An Act to enable the State of Arkansas and other States to reclaim the ‘Swamp Lands’ within their limits,” September 28, 1850, Public Acts of the Thirty-First Congress of the United States, 519-520 , Library of Congress, accessed February 9, 2016, http://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/31st-congress/c31.pdf.
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. David McCally, The Everglades: An Environmental History, (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999), eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed January 17, 2016), 85-6.
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. Rebecca G. Harvey, William F. Loftus, Jennifer S. Rehage, and Frank J. Mazzotti, “Effects of Canals and Levees on Everglades Ecosystems: Circular,” Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Department, UF/IFAS Extension (December 2010), accessed February 9, 2016, http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw349.
. Elizabeth Culotta, "Bringing Back the Everglades," Science 268, no. 5218 (Jun 23, 1995): 1688. http://search.proquest.com/docview/213591495?accountid=38769 (accessed January 17, 2016).
. “Inventory of Threatened and Endangered Species in Everglades National Park,” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior (February 28, 2016), accessed February 29, 2016, http://www.nps.gov/ever/learn/nature/techecklist.htm.
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