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.
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.
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.