The Wakulla Volcano Archive

A Tallahassee Girl Excerpt #3

Maurice Thompson (1881)




  HOEVER goes to Tallahassee will hear
  of the mysterious smoke of Wakulla.
It was first talked of in the early days when
St. Mark's was just beginning to be known as a
landing-place for Gulf-coast vessels. The sailors
saw it, from far out on the water, a tall, slender
column, now black like pitch-smoke, now gray
like the smoke from burning leaves, and anon
white like steam. Its apparent location is in
the midst of a swamp, very little above tide-
water, wherein grow every conceivable aquatic
weed and grass and bush and tree, ---- a jungle
a hundred-fold more difficult to penetrate than
any in Africa or India.
Every newspaper attache who happens to
get into Middle Florida feels in duty bound
to "write up" this smoky phenomenon, but

always at a distance, and mostly from hearsay
evidence. He gets upon some high, windy
hill near Tallahassee, and, looking south-east,
sees, or, what is quite the same, imagines he
sees, the lifting jet trembling against the sky,
and he writes. He goes and sees Judge White,
and writes more. He sees Col. Brevard, or
Mayor Lewis, or Capt. Dyke, and adds some
interesting particulars. He interviews an aged
darky, who remembers " when de fus' house
wus built in Tallahassee," and prolongs the
account. For the rest he draws upon his
ready imagination, or, if his imagination should
chance to be slow to move, he whets it with a
bottle of scuppernong.
The older inhabitants of Tallahassee may, if
you are an intimate friend, tell you that once
"The New York Herald" sent a man to explore
the swamp, and explain the smoke of Wakulla.
You will hear that this man got lost in the
jungle, and came near dying, and saw wonderful
things, and went away a wiser and silenter
correspondent than was ever in that region
before or since. You may get from Judge
White ---- a genial and genuinely interesting

gentleman ---- some account of his own effort
to reach the foot of that tall smoke-column;
how he floundered for miles through mud-slush,
water, saw-grass, swamp=weeds, and bay-thickets,
millions of mosquitoes, and legions of snakes,
till, at last, he reached a tall pine on a tus-
sock; how he nailed cleats and climbed, and
nailed cleats and climbed, up this tree, for a
hundred feet or more, and, with a field-glass,
looked at the smoke, still six miles distant;
and how his assistants all gave up and deserted
him, and how the wild jungle was utterly im-
passable any farther, and how he came down
from his tree, and floundered and splashed and
swam and dragged and fought his way back to
terra firma, sick, discouraged, but more than
ever impressed with the strangeness of the
smoke rising from that awful quagmire.
And it is no hoax, no illusion, no creation of
a vivid Southern imagination. The smoke is
there. It has been noted and commented on
for nearly fifty years. It has been seen, almost
constantly, fro the north, the east, the south,
and the west. Its location has been accurately
determined by intelligent observations. It is a

permanent and persistent mystery. It is the
greatest physical phenomenon in Florida. It
is a standing temptation to inquisitive and
adventuresome folk, ---- a constant taunt and
banter which Nature flaunts in the faces of
scientific explorers, and it offers the reward
of fame for high achievement to whomsoever
will solve its riddle.
It was, as has been said, first noticed by sail-
ors on the Gulf coast, and by sponge-fishers;
afterwards it came to be a source of considera-
ble speculation by the early inhabitants of Leon
and Wakulla counties. For a time it was be-
lieved that it was a sort of beacon or signal
made by a band of smugglers or pirates, who
had a rendezvous there. Some would explain
it by supposing that runaway negroes had a
camp in the swamp. During the war it was
held to be a colony of deserters from the Con-
federate army. Since the war it has been
dubbed a volcano. Such, in short, is the his-
tory of the Wakulla smoke.
Cauthorne, with a native colored guide, a
pack-mule, a canvas boat, and, indeed, an outfit
exactly suited to his purpose, went forth upon

his preliminary survey. It is not a part of this
story to follow him step by step on his most
extraordinary journey, nor could it be done if it
were desired. He has maintained a reticence
regarding his adverntures, which nothing has
induced him to cast aside. What is known is
here given, gained mostly from the statements
drawn from a family of negroes living on a
tussock deep in the swamp of Wakulla, in whose
cabin he lay for nine days sick of malarial fever.
It seems that Cauthorne got lost, and that his
guide, discovering the fact, stole the mule and
deserted, making his way to Tampa, where he
sold the animal for thirty-eight dollars, and em-
barked on a vessel bound for New Orleans.
Thus abandoned, Cauthorne wandered about
for days without food, and was at last seized
with a fever which prostrated him. He was
found in a state of delirium, by a negro girl
who was hunting for a lost cow. She ran for her
father ; and together they dragged, carried, and
rolled Cauthorne to their cabin. He was very
sick. They applied such simple remedies as
they possessed, and nursed him with that kind-
liness and tender care so characteristic of their

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