Only a century ago humans found the southern third of Florida an unwelcoming wet wilderness. Lake Okeechobee was nearly twice the size it is today. From the lake, water crept southward down the peninsula through swamps and sawgrass. Rainfall that did not soak into the underlying limestone sat on the nearly flat land. The only dry places were on the Atlantic coastal ridge and the Everglades hammocks.

photo Seminole Indian
Florida Photo Archives

Indians inhabited south Florida even before wetter climatic conditions set into motion the beginning of the Everglades 5000 or so years ago. At the time European explorers arrived in the 1500s, Indian cultures were well established, and people lived by hunting, fishing, and gathering wild foods. Villages around Lake Okeechobee may have grown corn, at least for a time. Most of the Indian population was in villages near estuaries and on the coastal ridge. People traveled from these villages back and forth to camps in the Everglades to hunt and fish, much as modern urban dwellers continue to do today.

By the mid 1700s, the original Indian cultures encountered by European explorers were gone, their members killed or enslaved, or dead from diseases to which they had no resistance. A new group of Indians, a few hundred Seminoles and Miccosukees, escaped to south Florida at the end of the Second Seminole War in 1842. They established small settlements on the tree islands, hunted, fished, gardened, and collected wild foods. They plied the waterways in cypress canoes, and toward the end of the 19th century began trading alligator hides and egret feathers, desirable commodities in the world of women's fashions, for sewing machines and other goods.

photo cattle
South Florida Water Management District

In 1948 Congress authorized the central and south Florida Project to protect agricultural and urban areas from flooding and to serve as a source of freshwater for what was fast becoming the heavily populated Gold Coast. Construction of canals, levees, and water control structures began in 1949 and was completed in 1962. These structures have altered the natural hydroperiods and disrupted sheetflow from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay. On some portions of the area drained land was used for sugar cane cultivation or cattle ranching.

The area was named for Ray Rotenberger who constructed a small camp and airfield there during the late 1950s or early 1960s. The first portion of the area (6,300 acres) was purchased by the state under the Environmentally Endangered Lands Act in 1975. In the late 1950s or early 1960s an exploratory oil well was drilled near the south central boundary. A 2-acre support pad and access road were constructed.

In 1994 the state passed the Everglades Forever Act to address environmental concerns related to quality, quantity, and timing of water entering the Everglades.

For more information on Everglades restoration visit the South Florida Water Management web site.



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