Tracing the Trail of Outlaws in the Everglades

By 3 p.m. on the first day of our 117-mile canoe journey through the Everglades, the sun is beginning to drop in the sky, and we are gliding south toward a point where Huston Bay drains into the Chatham River.

The plan is to ride the outgoing tide down this tributary and then follow the river to our first camp - The Watson Place.

As we approach the campsite at Chatham Bend, a half dozen turkey vultures glide in a tight spiral, forming a kind of feathered cyclone above what used to be the farm of Ed Watson.

Mr. Watson is a legend in these parts, growing even more notorious since his demise in 1910. Ask anyone in Everglades City or Chokoloskee and they'll tell you the story - and offer their opinion about whether he was a murderer.

It isn't just toothy critters and soggy wilderness that create the mystique of the Everglades, which celebrates its 50th anniversary as a national park this month. This section of Florida has a history of being a magnet for colorful - and sometimes dangerous - characters. In the late 1800s, the Everglades was every bit a frontier as the Wild West was earlier in the century. In addition to Indians and runaway slaves, it attracted a hardy breed - fugitives, murderers, Civil War deserters, plume hunters, alligator trappers, and assorted loners. It was the last place east of the Mississippi where a man could lose his past amid miles of uninhabited marshland.

But even among all these scoundrels and scofflaws, Watson stood out. By the time he arrived in Everglades City in the 1890s, he already had an unshakable reputation as a dangerous man. Folks said he had killed the famous outlaw Belle Starr in Arkansas. She was Jesse James's girlfriend.

There were other alleged victims. It seemed anyone who had a run-in with Watson's violent temper turned up dead.

When he first arrived in the region, Watson worked in the cane fields and cut firewood. Later he bought a schooner and purchased a claim to the Chatham Bend property for $250. There he grew sugar cane, papayas, and beans, selling the produce in Key West and Fort Myers. Watson hired a steady string of loners and fugitives to work his farm and sail his schooner. The only problem was that his hired help kept turning up missing - usually around payday.

A land of vigilante justice

Watson's neighbors, 17 miles away on Chokoloskee Island, began to talk. The last straw came when some clam diggers found the body of Hannah Smith weighed down in a nearby river. She had been working at The Watson Place.

When Watson was confronted, he suggested another of his workers murdered Smith. An armed Chokoloskee posse didn't believe him, and Watson was gunned down during an argument on the beach. So many bullets flew that it was impossible to tell who fired the fatal shots.

None of the suspected murders was ever solved.

That's why it seemed only appropriate that the first sign of Chatham Bend should be vultures circling overhead.

In its heyday, The Watson Place was a two-story farmhouse, a barn, a dock, and acres of sugar cane and vegetables. But after the National Park Service took over in 1947, the farm, like several other homesteads scattered among the mangroves, was burned down.

Now all that remains is the foundation of the house, a few pieces of farm equipment, and a huge iron vat once used to boil molasses from sugar cane - and the Watson legend. Watson wasn't the region's only desperado, just the most famous. In the 1900s, the frontier tradition continued with rum-runners, moonshiners, alligator poachers, and even drug smugglers using the confusing labyrinth of mangrove islands and oyster bars to cover their illegal activities. Some of the poaching and smuggling continues today.

Hat feathers turn pass

At the turn of the century, one of the biggest problems was hunters who came to the Everglades in search of valuable feathers that were worth their weight in gold - literally - to the makers of women's hats in New York City. The hunters shot thousands of birds right off their nests. They were so efficient that by 1900 the region's egret population was near extinction. The scarcity drove feather prices even higher.

Then the National Audubon Society launched a campaign to educate women about the toll fashionable feathers were taking in the wild. It even hired young men to protect the vulnerable rookeries of the Everglades from plume hunters. This was dangerous work.

And in 1905, one of the wardens was shot dead while attempting to arrest two suspected plume hunters. The hunters claimed self-defense, and since there were no other living witnesses, a Key West grand jury refused to indict.

But the killing sparked an outcry far beyond south Florida, and eventually plume hunting was outlawed. It was a campaign that laid the early groundwork for the creation of Everglades National Park as a sanctuary for all wildlife more than 40 years later.

As for our short stay at The Watson Place, I am happy to report no bodies surfaced in the river during the night. And the only "illegal" activity observed involved an army of bandit-faced raccoons who spent the night trying to break into our coolers to steal our food. By morning they were perhaps the most frustrated and hungry raccoons in the park.

* Dec. 11: We strike out for the Everglades' famed 'River of Grass.' Dec. 16: Encounter with a nine-foot croc. Dec. 18: Stuck in the mud flats. Dec. 22: Midnight paddling and heading home. The first part in the series ran Dec. 5.

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