Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park

Encompassing 22,000-acres of wet and dry savanna in Micanopy, Florida, south of Gainesville, this Florida State Park features more than 20 distinct biological communities which provide a rich array of habitats for wildlife and livestock. Waves of diverse people settled the area for over 12,000 years. A rich prehistory of Paleo, Cades Pond, and Alachua people were followed by the historic Potano Indians, Spanish adventurers, Seminole Indians and finally Americans from the north. The wilderness, now called Paynes Prairie, has always proved an irresistible lure to the explorer and the adventurer. 

photo by Ellie Wolf

The region was also historically known as the Alachua Savannah. It is in the center of the Paynes Prairie Basin. The basin's primary source of drainage is Alachua Sink. During occasional wet periods, the basin will become full. A notable period occurred from 1871 to 1891 when the Alachua Sink was temporarily blocked. During that time, shallow draft steamboats were a frequent sight on Alachua Lake in the center of the prairie. The steam-powered boats were charged with transporting cotton, citrus, lumber and other goods across the lake. Travelers toured the lake and used it to visit nearby towns until 1891, when the Alachua Sink unexpectedly reopened. The waters receded back to normal levels and the whole lake disappeared in under two weeks time.

Drainage has been modified by several canals. Since 1927, Camps Canal has linked the basin to the River Styx which leads to Orange Lake and eventually the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Johns River. That reduced the basins water intake by half. Additional changes to the prairie's environment have been detrimental to its hydrology. In 1970, the state of Florida acquired the land and has been in the process of restoring the environment to a more natural condition ever since. Heavy rains have temporarily restored Alachua Lake on several occasions, most recently in October 2017, when Hurricane Irma dropped 9 inches of rain and damaged a levee, flooding much of the basin for months.

In early colonial La Florida, Spaniards capitalized on the agricultural societies they encountered. Apalachee and Timucua Indians grew and harvested corn for the colonists. The diminishing indigenous population, meant less food supplied by the Indian societies, and led the Spanish to engage in new uses of the land. Raising livestock became central to the Spanish Florida economy by the middle of the 17th century. 

Andalusian/Caribbean descended cattle were the first in today's United States. Some scholars believe that cattle brought by the expeditions of Ponce de Leon in 1521 and Don Diego de Maldonado in 1540 escaped and survived in the wild. Organized ranching began with the founding of St. Augustine in 1565, when cattle from Spain and Cuba formed the basis of herds that fed the garrison and surrounding communities. In addition to herds owned by the Spanish and Indians, wild cattle flourished in the rangelands and prairies. Eventually Spanish colonists began exporting cattle to Cuba. During the 1600s, Spanish clergy raised cattle at the missions, and Native Americans learned to tend them.

Around 1637, Francisco Menéndez Márquez, the royal treasurer of Spanish Florida, established Rancho la Chúa in the vicinity of Paynes Prairie. It spanned 87 square miles and by the late 17th-century became the largest cattle ranch in the colony.

By 1700, Florida contained approximately 34 ranches and 20,000 head of cattle. After British-Creek Indian raids in 1702 and 1704 devastated Florida cattle ranchers, Indians sustained cattle raising in Florida. Spanish colonists abandoned interior settlements such as Rancho la Chúa. Muskogee-speaking Native Americans slowly migrated into the region and seized cattle formerly worked by Spanish ranchers and their slaves. The prairie became the stronghold of the Alachua band of the Seminole tribe under chief Ahaya the Cowkeeper (ca. 1710-1783) by the mid-1700s. The Seminole town of Cuscowilla was located near modern Micanopy, Florida. In 1776 the area, then known as Alachua Savannah, was visited by William Bartram who noted in his book, "Bartram's Travels", that it was used as grazing ground by the local Seminole.

During British rule (1763-1783), English planters and Creek Indians in west Florida owned substantial herds. Cowmen from Georgia and the Carolinas spread into north Florida during that period. In early Florida, Europeans, Americans, and Indians stole cattle from each other. When the U.S. took possession of Florida in 1821, it was described as a "vast, untamed wilderness, plentifully stocked with wild cattle." Florida "scrub" or Cracker cattle were descended from the mix of Spanish and British breeds. These hardy creatures survived on native forage, tolerated severe heat, insect pests, and acquired immunity to many diseases.

The prairie became the stronghold of the Alachua band of the Seminole tribe under Chief Ahaya the Cowkeeper by the mid-1700s. The Seminole town of Cuscowilla was located near modern Micanopy, Florida. By the 1790s, Cuscowilla had been relocated to a site east of Lake Wauburg and become known as Paynes Town. The town and the surrounding prairie was named for Chief Cowkeeper's eldest surviving son, Payne. Paynes Town was destroyed by Tennessee Volunteers in 1813. Fort Tarver and Ford Crane were both located in Paynes Prairie during the Second Seminole War.

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Paynes Prairie is part of the Southeastern conifer forests ecoregion. The prairie itself is a large Floridian highlands freshwater marsh, composed of different herbaceous plant communities that vary based on water depth. Wet, forested areas have southern coastal plain non-riverine basin swamps of bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) and swamp tupelo (Nyssa biflora). Southern coastal plain blackwater river floodplain forests grow along streams. On drier uplands, southern coastal plain oak domes and hammocks of southern live oak (Quercus virginiana) grow in areas with moderately moist soils, and Florida longleaf pine sandhills grow on drier, sandier soils.

Over 270 species of birds, including large migratory flocks of Sandhill and Whooping Cranes, can be seen in the park as well as American Alligators and small herds of Florida Cracker Horses and Florida Cracker Cattle (both containing descendants of horses and cattle from the Spanish Colonial Period). The plains bison were reintroduced to the park from the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in 1975, as part of the park service goal of restoring Florida's natural resources to pre-European settler conditions; they roamed this area until the late 18th century. When bison sightings occur, they usually appear along the Cone's Dike trail.

A good place to start explorations of the Preserve is the visitor center near the historic town of Micanopy. Exhibits, stunning photography and an audio-visual program explain the area’s natural significance and cultural history. A 50-foot-high observation tower provides panoramic views and a chance to see the bison or wild horses. Reconnect to nature at Paynes Prairie on more than 30 miles of trails for equestrians, hikers and bicyclists through a variety of ecosystems. Spend a night camped under the stars at the full facility campground. Participate in a ranger-led activity on weekends, November to April. A public boat ramp for canoes, kayaks and small boats with electric motors is located on the east side of nearly 300-acre Lake Wauberg. For anglers, the day’s catch may include bass, bream or speckled perch. Florida freshwater fishing license required.


ADDRESS: 100 Savannah Blvd, Micanopy, FL 32667
PHONE: (352) 466-3397
HOURS: Park - 8 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year. Ranger Station: 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays; 8:00 a.m. to Sundown Fridays, Saturdays, and Holidays.


page information credit: Florida State Parks, Florida Memory Project, Visit Gainesville, Explore Southern History, Wikipedia 
photos from the sources listed above, as well as publicly posted online sites with thanks to the contributors