Ask Rufus: A slue of information about Mississippi swamps

June 18, 2011 11:16:00 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


People have asked what is the difference between a swamp, a slue and a bayou. To be precise, not much. 


The U.S. Geological Survey defines a swamp as a, "forested, low, spongy land generally saturated with water and covered with trees and aquatic vegetation; may be a deepwater swamp, such as the cypress tupelo, which has standing water all or part of the growing season, or bottomland hardwood forests which are only flooded periodically." 


The Geological Survey did not give a definition of slue or Bayou. Generally, a bayou is considered to be a sluggish body of water which is found in low or marshy areas. It probably comes from the Choctaw word for a small stream, "byuk." A slue is usually defined as a stagnant body of water in a swamp. 


The term swamp carries with it an image of thick vegetation, stagnant water, alligators and cottonmouths with the smell of organic rot. A 1900 geological survey said, "By the term ''swamp'' is merely meant a wet, muddy region, covered with a wild growth of trees and bushes." Though much reduced in size, the Tombigbee valley swamps of 200 years ago still exist. 


Although smaller in size, the swamps along the Tombigbee are as primeval as any shown on the reality shows of cable television. The alligators which are becoming more common in the area are not new here. They have simply returned. In a prehistoric burial ground northeast of Starkville, a large alligator skull was found buried with an individual. 


The written record of the history of the Upper Tombigbee Valley goes back almost 500 years. The first mention of swamps in the Columbus area was in the Hernando de Soto narratives of 1540 -1541. However they just referred to crossing many swamps and cold rivers. The first detailed description of the swamps of this area was written by Bernard Romans. 


In 1771, Romans, an English civil engineer, traveled from the Carolinas to New Orleans and wrote an account of the natural history of the region. As part of his journey he traveled overland up the west side of the Tombigbee to the Chickasaw villages (now Tupelo) and then canoed back down to Mobile, Ala. He described two kinds of swamps that he encountered: River and inland swamps. 


He described river swamps as, "... this foil is the best adapted for corn and indigo, yet known; some of grounds are clay, others sand, and others again partake of both; when used for rice it matters not which of these foils they are made up of ... by swamps then in general is to be understood any low ground subject to inundations, distinguished from marshes, in having a large growth of timber, and much underwood, canes, reeds, wythes, vines, briars and such like, so matted together, that they are in a great measure impenetrable to man or beast ..." 


"The back or inland swamps answer in situation to what are called the meadows or savannahs (among the pine lands) their soil being rich, occasions them to bear trees. The true back swamps, that are in wet seasons full of standing water, bear scarcely any other tree, than a variety of that species ... vulgarly called bottle arsed tupelo; the continuance of water on this kind of ground, is the reason why scarce any undergrowth is found here..." 


Romans also referred to cypress knees as "vegetable monsters" to horses which can be "staked" on their spurs, making such swamps almost impassable. 


In 1838, Philip Henry Gosse, an Englishman, arrived in Alabama and took a position as a school teacher on a plantation near Selma. He wrote many letters describing his experiences and the natural history of the area. On one occasion he went hunting in a local swamp and described his impressions. 


"Returning by a different route homeward, we skirted the edge of a cypress swamp, a tract invested with a gloom far more savage and sombre than any through which we had passed. Nothing can be more dismal than the interior of one of these swamps, even by day, half-tepid stagnant water covering the ground, the density of the timber and the black opacity of the foliage almost shutting out the light, while the gaunt horizontal branches are hung with far-pendent ragged masses of that Spanish moss that I have before alluded to, the very type of dreariness and desolation. Such trees always remind me of an army of skeletons, giants of some remote age, still standing where they had lived, and still wearing the decaying tatters of the robes which they had worn of old." 


Rufus Ward is a local historian. Email your questions about local history to him at [email protected]

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]