For centuries prior to European conquest, Lake Lafayette was a favored settlement of Florida’s native peoples. At least 40 mounds and middens are still located around the lake's edge, evidence of the connections human had with these productive waters. For thousands of years, the interconnected wetlands of Lake Lafayette functioned as a single unit, drying and refilling in response to rainfall and drought. In recognition of invaluable French aid during the American Revolution, the U.S. Congress gave the Marquis de Lafayette a township of land where he established a colony of peasants on the shores of the lake, intending to cultivate vineyards, olive groves, mulberry trees and silkworms. But the effort quickly failed “due to the ravages of the climate,” and cotton and other agricultural production became the economic mainstay for these lands, and much of newly-established Leon County.
Florida Photo Archives
- photo of engraving of
Marquis de Lafayette
In the 1820s, the entire length of the lake's northern shore was separated from Alford Arm and stabilized so that the CSX railroad could be built close to the water's edge. In 1948, the owners of Piney Z Plantation built earthen dikes in the middle of the lake. The lake was alternately farmed and flooded for duck hunting. Over time, the lake was further fragmented by numerous dikes into the artificial basins that exist today. Stabilized water levels interrupted natural cycles of drought and flooding.
Lake Lafayette was so often dry and grassy that early settlers grazed their cattle there and called it Prairie Lake. Remnants of old fence lines are sometimes evident when the water is very low. During drought periods, the lake bottom would dry out -- the dense aquatic plant life would die and decompose, enriching the soil. Sometimes lightning-ignited fires would clear out the plant matter, which also added nutrients to the soil. When the rainy season started, the cleansed, hardened lake bottom would again become suitable habitat.
Florida Photo Archives
- photo railway through
In 1909, geologist Eli Sellards investigated what he dubbed four “disappearing lakes” north and east of Tallahassee: Iamonia, Jackson, Miccosukee and Lafayette. Scientists later determined that these temporary lakes came and went with seasonal rainfall, and that sinkholes probably connected them to the aquifer. During floods, Lake Lafayette would flow east and spill into the St. Mark’s River. But in a dry spell, much of the lake water would drain west and disappear into the underground aquifer through Fallschase Sink, a large sinkhole in the northern reaches of the lake.
In 1977, Louise Kirk Edwards donated nearly 700 acres to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The FWC purchased a 4.82-acre addition in 1984, and in 2009, the 1,064-acre Wood Sink tract was added, bringing the total to 1,782 acres.