Art by Padmini Muraletharen
Sophomore, Sustainability Studies and Geography Double Major
You’re nearing Gainesville, driving on I-75. You look to your left and to your right. You look in front of you and then glance behind in your rearview. What do you see? Paynes Prairie.
While many people know the name and the location, very few people know the history of Paynes Prairie or why it is so important to both the city of Gainesville and entirety of Alachua County.. Consisting of more than 21,000 acres of marshland, Paynes Prairie has the unique distinction of being the state’s first preserve. Paynes Prairie was an important part of Gainesville’s natural and cultural history even before establishment of the city.
For over 12,000 years, Paynes Prairie was a lush farmland for many different settlers in the state of Florida. Ancient communities of Paleo and Cade people helped settle the land. Later on, Potano Indians settled the area. The Spanish settlers prior to Florida’s statehood had a large effect on the environment of Paynes Prairie, including introducing scrub cattle to the area. La Chua, the largest cattle farm in Spanish Florida, was in Paynes Prairie.
The last major community before settlers took over was comprised of Seminole Indians. William Bartram, a famous illustrator, visited the land during the late eighteenth century and called it the Great Alachua Savannah. The name Payne is attributed to a Seminole chief named King Payne. King Payne was killed during fights with American settlers calling themselves “Patriots” during the War of 1812. During the Seminole Wars from 1835-1842, Seminoles vigorously fought American troops to defend their claims to the fertile and beautiful land. In fact, one of the first major battles in this war was the Battle of Black Point, where Major Francis Dade ran into heavy casualties against the Seminoles. Eventually, the army claimed the land as their own and settled the land further.
In 1871, strong and heavy rains continued to pour into the prairie and formed what was then known as Alachua Lake. This lake helped grow the local economy as it allowed steamboats to pass through the area and trade lumber and transport locals. It wasn’t until 1891 when the spring drained on its own and once again became a marsh. In the early twentieth century, William Camp turned the area once again into a thriving cattle farming area.
However, in recent years, farming on Paynes Prairie has taken a dark turn. According to Dr. Russo, a professor of Geology at UF, draining the water in order to build I-75, as well as for agriculture, resulted in the creation of “coalesced sinkholes.” Paynes Prairie, which was once a recharge zone for Florida water, revitalizing the aquifer with clean freshwater, became polluted after the drainage, as “the contaminated water just sat there.”
Nonetheless, there is hope for Paynes Prairie. The “Sheetflow” project, orchestrated by the city of Gainesville, will steadily rebuild the wetland and replenish the aquifer. Accomplished through the building of drainage canals, the city hopes to restore over 125 acres of wetland, preserving this beauty, as well as Gainesville’s clean water supply, for future generations.
Gainesville citizens and students actively enjoy and appreciate this natural wonder. The annual November 5k, in which runners traverse normally restricted parts of the park, is incredibly popular. However, you don’t have to wait until this one day to enjoy Paynes Prairie; the park is open daily for hiking, camping, and watching the sunrise and set. One student, sophomore Rebekkah Lue, reported that watching the sunrise was “absolutely gorgeous,” and “a great experience” as there is nothing better than being with friends “and just watching something beautiful and natural happen.” What are you waiting for? We’ll see you tomorrow morning on the I-75 viewing platform!