– Peter N. Stearns
I’ve heard people talking about Phinizy Swamp as long as I can remember. We know it as the home of a nature park and wildlife management area. We also know the swamp as the scene of plane crashes, lost hunters and the former “Big Farm.” I suspect during Prohibition a lot of whiskey was manufactured in remote areas of the swamp.
The swamp – which encompasses thousands of acres of wetlands, hardwoods and fauna, and is home to an array of creatures ranging from rabbits to alligators – has a fascinating past that can be traced to the dawn of civilization.
This past summer, the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy teamed with Georgia Regents University Augusta to explore how this place came to be known as Phinizy Swamp. Through the meticulous research of history intern Abe Wilson, we learned a lot about the Phinizy connection. But, like all good mysteries, a definitive answer to our question remains elusive.
We know that people lived in the swamp 10,000 years ago in the Paleo-Indian period. The archeological digging this past summer by University of West Georgia researchers Ashley Smallwood and Tom Jennings uncovered artifacts from about 6,000 years ago, which is the late Archaic period. Their goal is to hit the Clovis period, which would take them back 13,000 years.
But that’s ancient history.
The founding of Augusta in 1736 expanded European influence into American Indian country. After the Revolutionary War, settlers moved into the area we now call Phinizy Swamp. Using the water power on Rocky Creek, they built mills to grind corn, grist and flour.
BY THE MID-1800S, three mills were established along Rocky Creek, including one owned by John Phinizy, who served a term as mayor of Augusta in the late 1830s. The mill would have been where Rocky Creek crosses Doug Barnard Parkway. A right-of-way deed to the Augusta and Waynesboro Railroad may record the only confirmation of Phinizy’s mill, according to historian Michael C. White. In 1900, the property was sold by Phinizy’s estate.
Wilson’s research uncovered yet another, smaller Phinizy mill on Butler Creek. “That name and the confusing history of Phinizy farm, mill and pond,” Wilson wrote, “have obfuscated the history of the name Phinizy Swamp.”
Even with a fuzzy origin for the swamp’s name, the Phinizy pedigree is not a bad brand to have. Ferdinand Phinizy was the patriarch of one of the most prominent families in colonial Georgia. The Phinizys settled in Wilkes and Oglethorpe counties and Augusta. Ferdinand served as a major in Rochambeau’s Army, fighting for American independence in 1778. His son John Phinizy was the first Italian-American mayor of a major U.S. city.
So we know that for at least 100 years, the Phinizy name has been pegged to the swamp. In a way it is a fitting memorial to a family that contributed in so many ways to the development of our city. What better memorial than a thriving environment of thousands of acres of trees, plants, creeks, streams and wildlife? Phinizy Swamp is as much about our future as it is about our past.
Drs. Smallwood and Jennings plan to be back in the swamp in their quest for the origins of our region’s earliest residents. Their work is extremely complex, meticulous and time-consuming. Opening a box of history takes a lot of patience.
DR. SMALLWOOD is the Waring Laboratory director and an assistant professor at the University of West Georgia. Her current research focus is to identify signatures of Southeastern Clovis technology and organization to culturally define Clovis in the region.
Dr. Jennings specializes in applying geoarchaeology, stone tool analysis and quantitative methods to understand the Pleistocene peopling of the Americas. He has experience excavating Paleo-Indian sites in Alaska, Colorado, Oklahoma, South Carolina and, most recently, Texas.
The researchers already have made some remarkable discoveries in Phinizy Swamp, and will be in Augusta on Nov. 1 to share them with local residents. They will be presenting at the inaugural William G. Hatcher Sr. Symposium in recognition of Native American Heritage Month in Augusta.
The presentation will be at 5 p.m. in the auditorium of the Augusta Museum of History. Admission is free. The symposium is a cooperative program of the Augusta Museum of History and the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy.
Quite naturally, we live in the present and plan for the future, but it is through exploration of our past that we are better able to understand why we are what we are, and why we do what we do. Whether we are digging through documents for the origin of a name or digging through layers of soil in search of our ancestors, the thirst for knowledge is just as strong.
Sometimes the answers come easily. Other times they are more difficult to find. But it is the inherent desire to know that defines who we are.
(The writer, a former Augusta mayor, is president and chief executive officer of the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy in Augusta.)