Book Report: The Biohistory of Alachua County, Florida

Note: this post is about the history of a single county in north Florida. I am quite aware that there were civilizations, settlements, and migrations throughout North America long before events I talk about here. In fact, my own ancestors were in Florida long, long before Alachua County was settled.

While we were visiting Gainesville, the county seat of Alachua County, Florida, I bought this slim book (published in 2015), mainly because I wanted to know what a “biohistory” was. The subtitle of this little gem, which was written by Francis William (Bill) Zettler, is “The story of life in north central Florida through the ages.” It turns out the book is based on a popular class Zettler taught for many years at the University of Florida.

I had to take a photo of the book, since I couldn’t find a nice image.

He uses the term “biohistory” to refer to his method of presenting the biological features of the area in chronological order. It turns out to be very enlightening and makes me want to read a biohistory of other areas where I’ve lived.

One thing that helped keep the book short is that Florida was underwater a long time, so there were no dinosaurs to talk about. It also helped that Florida was hard to get to, so animals, as well as humans, took their time showing up once the land mass revealed itself. I’d never thought of that!

But eventually there were lots of giant mammals (megafauna), like huge sloths, beavers, mammoths, and shovel-toothed elephants (cool). They did fine until the humans finally showed up and killed them all pretty quickly, leaving only animals we see today (deer and such). There were also camellids and different kinds of horses, which all escaped to live in Asia and South America.

A glyptodon, one of the megafauna

The same thing eventually happened to those humans (indigenous people) who showed up. Other humans drove them away. Not much did very well in the center of Florida (which explains why my ancestors hung out over by the St. Johns River). The area ended up doing well for cattle ranching for quite a while (The Ala Chua ranch was quite large), but eventually they and the horses used to herd them became feral.

Moo, y’all.

Fascinating facts: the cattle reverted to a more original cow shape and size like the Texas longhorns did, but because they lived in the woods, not on a prairie, their horns faced forward, not outward. Huh. They became “cracker cattle” and the tough little horses were “cracker horses.” Crackers were ethnically Scots-Irish Protestant people who showed up from Appalachia and were uncouth, according to the fancy English/Spanish-descended Catholic settlers (my lovely ancestors) who were already there. I’d never heard that explanation, either.

Towns and Such

It was darned hard getting towns to form and stay formed in Alachua County, because people (Native Americans and Europeans) kept enslaving each other, attacking each other and burning things down. At least Micanopy, the oldest town, settled by some intrepid Native Americans before they fled to the Everglades, is still there. The area was so swampy that roads were hard to make, too.

Payne’s Prairie (which I wrote about, along with Micanopy, during my trip), was a prairie most of the time, and hard to cross, so most of the towns in the county, including Gainesville, didn’t show up until railroads connected them. Like in much of the rest of the US in the age of railroads, towns grew and shrunk depending on whether there were train stops. Thank goodness there were lots of railroads and bridges built, because when cars came along, they could just make roads where all the old tracks were.

Bison showing how damp Payne’s Prairie is. From tripadvisor.

To me, this was all fascinating. I had no idea Gainesville was about as young as Cameron, Texas, nor did I realize there was so little history of human intervention in the area until my grandfather and the rest of the surveyors working for lumber companies showed up in the early 1900s.

Thanks to the Pineapple Press for publishing this treasure of a book, at least for the naturalist types. I’m going to treasure my little autographed copy (after I let my sister look at it!).

Author: Sue Ann (Suna) Kendall

The person behind The Hermits' Rest blog and many others. I'm a certified Texas Master Naturalist and love the nature of Milam County. I manage technical writers in Austin, help with Hearts Homes and Hands, a personal assistance service, in Cameron, and serve on three nonprofit boards. You may know me from La Leche League, knitting, iNaturalist, or Facebook. I'm interested in ALL of you!

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