Thu December 20, 2012
Everglades Violent Past Remembered
In the late 1800's, the Everglades was a place for Native Americans, newly-freed slaves, naturalists, poachers, settlers and expansionists.
But by the end of the century, a massive influx of settlers were flocking to the Everglades for one thing: to kill birds for their feathers.
It has been said that Marie Antoinette started the trend of using plumes to adorn her royal head - before she lost hers.
But once the fashion accessory spread to America, the feathers of Florida's most beautiful birds became as valuable as gold.
For nearly 50 years, plume hunters invaded the Everglades and nearly wiped out populations of Florida’s tropical birds, such as the Snowy Egret. But birds weren’t the only casualties.
Guy Bradley was the first game warden in South Florida assigned to protect birds from plume hunters. In the summer of 1905, Bradley was trying to arrest a notorious plume hunter when he was shot in the throat. He became the first game warden murdered on the job, but not the last to meet that same fate in Monroe County. Back then, laws to protect birds were very unpopular.
Bradley himself had hunted birds for their feathers as a teenager. He and his friend Charlie Pierce had run away to hunt deep in the Everglades -- without their parents permission.
One hundred years later, this story is being told in a book written by Pierce’s descendant, Harvey Oyer III. His book, The Last Egret, is now required reading for fourth graders in five South Florida counties.
"He had the same moral decisions that a child today," said Oyer. "Do you tell mom the truth? Do you run away from home? All of these things that kids struggle with today, Charlie, Lilly and Tiger, the characters in my book struggle with."
Charlie Pierce’s legacy is that he kept a journal through out his life. Those entries tell how the friends came across piles of de-plumed bird carcasses at nest sites. Rookeries were being decimated by hunters. After that trip, the young Pierce gave up plume hunting but continued writing. During his life, his ledgers reveal the explosive growth of frontier life in Florida. He was even one of the legendary barefoot mailmen, who carried mail from Palm Beach to Miami and back each week.
"By the time he died, Florida had been opened up through Mr. Flagler’s railroad, the Intracoastal waterway, the highway system," said Oyer. "So he was a witness to the creation of South Florida that we know."
Pierce's story has the support of another Everglades conservationist, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Ron Bergeron. Known as "Alligator Ron," Bergeron donated funds to help publish the book.
"My family has been in Florida for 170 years and I’ve been very blessed to be raised by a grandfather who was a game warden back in the 40’s which introduced me to God’s creation,' Bergeron said.
These days he spends much of his time trying to get kids to give up their iPods for fishing poles. He’s working with the state to create seven youth camps adjacent to the Big Cypress Preserve, where he owns thousands of acres.
"The important thing is that we have preservation with access so children can fall in love with it just like I did," he said.
Under the Sun
Dispatches From The Swing State