By Capt. Dennis S. Kirk
The Indians had a name – Pease River – for the 100-mile-long winding, slowly-flowing river. From her headwaters of the great green swamp (between Tampa and Orlando) through Polk, Hardee, DeSoto and Charlotte counties, she winds her way to Charlotte Harbor, finally emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.
In the days before the settlers and Europeans appeared, the Indians lived off the land. Along the shores of this river were abundant cow peas and black-eyed peas, giving the name “Pease Creek” its origin. As the settlers moved further south, tensions arose between the newcomers and Indians. This resulted in the Seminole Wars of the 1800s. Both sides decided this was not good, and formed a “treaty of peace” using the river as a dividing line. This put the settlers on one side, and the Indians on the other. The name was recorded in early journals as the “Rio de la Paz” or, as it is presently called, the Peace River.
There are many features of the Peace River which make her unique. Being fed by the green swamp and many tributaries that flow through cypress and grasslands, the decaying leaves and other vegetation give off tannin, or tannic acid. In small quantities it is quite harmless, and those that drink tea will attest to this fact.
In the early days, bucketfuls of this water were boiled, which left a strong solution that animal skins were treated with. This makes hide soft and preserved and this process, still in use today, is called “tanning” leather.
The main industries along the river – indeed throughout Florida – were cattle ranching, logging and citrus: logging because the railroads and towns were being built, and the cattle to feed people. Still a major business for generations, the early cowboys would control the herds by cracking whips as they rode the horses accustomed to their task. The term Florida “Cracker” today refers to these people and native Florida folks born in the early days
Another big industry was phosphate mining. This mineral in the earth was used in laundry detergent and soaps, because when agitated in water it creates suds, which clean the clothes. The main use today for phosphate is for fertilizer.
This mineral was thought to be in the river bottom along the lower Peace River, and many towns were established along the river because of this find. The dredges would scoop up the mud, sand and phosphate pebbles. These were loaded onto barges, shipped down the Peace River, through Charlotte Harbor and out to Boca Grande. Boca Grande had the largest phosphate plant in the world up until the 1950s.
One of these old towns, today a ghost town, was founded in 1860 by John Cross, a businessman from England. He thought that being located on the Peace River with access to Charlotte Harbor, the Gulf of Mexico and different ports of the world, this town would be a great seaport. Being from England, he named it after a large sea port there – Liverpool. The town was booming in the late 1800s, but the mining industry found that the phosphate was not in the river further inland.
In the 1920s the mining companies opened plants inland by Bartow, and were better serviced by the newly-built railroads. Since most of the folks in these waterfront towns worked with the mining of phosphate, they followed the work and all of the towns were abandoned. The old town of Liverpool is still visible today, in ruins, if you tour the Peace River and know where to look.
Another feature of the “Rio de la Paz” is that for the first 75 miles it is all fresh water. Fish, such as largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill and catfish are abundant for the fresh water fisherman. The lower part of the river is tidal, bringing saltwater to mix with the fresh as the river flows southward. This mixing creates “brackish” water. At times of heavy rain, the fresh water flows all the way to Charlotte Harbor. During the dry season or drought, there is a higher salinity. This brings the saltwater fish upriver, and snook, redfish, mullet, drum, snapper, trout and even tarpon can be found in odd places.
By far the best feature of the Peace River is the pristine beauty that is prevalent as you travel the route of Indians, settlers and pioneers. Unchanged for hundreds of years you can see alligators, manatee, otters, nesting birds such as eagles and osprey, lots of flowers such as iris and orchids – and too much to mention here.
Whether you travel by canoe, kayak, in your own boat or with a local tour captain, you will be delighted and enlightened as you see this part of real Florida.
Capt. Dennis Kirk has been traveling the Peace River since 1979. Part of the Nav-A-Gator (a riverfront restaurant and marina), he operates Peace River Tours daily from the Nav-A-Gator. The Nav-A-Gator is located just off Kings Highway in DeSoto County. For additional information, contact (941) 627-FISH.