Ask Rufus: The alligator in Southern history

April 27, 2013 8:12:07 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


With more frequent sightings of alligators along the Tombigbee River, and with popular television shows such as "Swamp People," alligators fascinate folks of all ages. What is often overlooked is the alligator's role in Southern history. That role began with the Native Americans, who have lived in the Tombigbee River Valley for more than 12,000 years. 


The significance of the alligator to the protohistoric ancestors of the Choctaws and Chickasaws is evidenced by the finding of an alligator's skull in an Indian burial mound near Starkville. In 1934 and 1935, archaeologist Moreau Chambers investigated an Indian village site near Starkville for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. The site was probably occupied from about 800 years ago until about 400 years ago. One of the burials that Chambers excavated contained the remains of a human skeleton on top of which had been placed turtle shells upon which rested an alligator skull. 


Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, an artist, was a member of Rene de Laudonniere's French expedition to Florida in 1564. Le Moyne described how alligators could be heard from great distances "by their loud bellowing." He reported that the Indians considered alligators "... such a menace that a regular watch has to be kept against them day and night. The Indians guard themselves against these animals just as we guard ourselves from our most dangerous enemies." 


The Choctaw Indians have many tales about the alligator. A Choctaw creation myth tells how the alligator told the creator that the best water was deep among the cypress of the bayous and so that is where the alligator got to live. 


It was not just artists and Native Americans that were, in early times, inspired by alligators. In 1791, William Bartram published an account of his 1770s travels across the southeast. In the book, he described a sinkhole in west Florida in which lived a huge alligator. The hole would occasionally erupt with great torrents of rushing water that would form a winding stream for seven or eight miles before emptying into a savanna. Bartram's Travels was read and even commented on by British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who incorporated Bartram's description of the "alligator hole" into his classic poem, "Kubla Khan." Coleridge referred to Bartram's book as a book "written in the spirit of the old travelers." 


Gideon Lincecum described how not long after the settlement of Columbus he took a visitor, who was traveling from New York to New Orleans, hunting (probably in "White Slough" which is the swampy area around the Lowndes County Port on the Island). There they encountered an 11-foot alligator. The alligator turned to confront them, and they decided to have some fun with it. They started throwing pine knots at it and the alligator would swat the pieces of wood with its tail. 


The visitor got a little brave and picked up a pine knot so large he had to get close to the alligator to heave it toward the large creature. "As he (the visitor) pitched it, the alligator swept his tail around with violent force, and, striking the pine knot, squarely sent it whizzing back, narrowly missing my friend's head, thirty-five yards," Lincecum described. They then shot the alligator and after "measuring him and otherwise examining the creature, we left him for the vultures to fight over." 


In late December 1820, John J. Audubon was on the lower Mississippi River, where he described "Ivory Billed Wood Peckers becoming More plenty." The area where Audubon found not only the woodpeckers but also many "Parokeets" (Carolina parakeets) and alligators was Stack Island. Audubon described talking to two men who were hunting alligators with a grudge as one had killed his "excellent hunting dog," which had been following a wounded deer across a lake. They were hunting and killing alligators with a large club. 


In an interesting aside, Stack Island is part of Issaquena County, Mississippi, but because of the Mississippi River changing course it is on the west or Louisiana side of the river. Several years ago, a case went to the United States Supreme Court as to whether Stack Island was still part of Mississippi or had become part of Louisiana. It is still part of Mississippi, though attached to the Louisiana river bank. It is also the area in which there have been several reported sightings in recent years of the supposedly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker. 


History can often weave an interesting web of connections.

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