The Ocmulgee River (ok-MUHL-gee) is a tributary of the Altamaha River, approximately 255 mi (410 km) long, in the U.S. state of Georgia. Noted for its relatively unspoiled and gentle current, it provides the principal drainage for a large section of the Piedmont and coastal plain of central Georgia.
It is formed in north central Georgia southeast of Atlanta by the confluence of the Yellow, South, and Alcovy rivers, which join as arms of the Lake Jackson reservoir. It flows southeast past Macon which is its fall line and joins the Oconee from the northwest to a form the Altamaha near Lumber City.
Downstream from Lake Jackson the river flows freely and is considered relatively unspoiled among the rivers of the region. Its low gradient of approximately 1 ft/mile (24 cm/km) give it wide and peaceful current along most of its course and make it popular destination for canoeing. It receives treated wastewater from 13 facilities along its course. The river is a popular destination for catfishing and bass fishing.
The banks of the river were inhabited by the Mississippian culture between the 10th and 12th centuries. The river passes the remnants of several prehistoric Native American villages at Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon. In 1540 Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto traversed the region and baptized Native American converts in the river. In the 18th century, the Hitchiti, later part of the Creek Indian confederation, lived near present-day Macon in Ocmulgee Fields. The name of the river probably comes from a Hitchiti phrase oki mulgis meaning “bubbling water”.
In 1806, the U.S. acquired the area between the Oconee and Ocmulgee from the Creek Indians by the First Treaty of Washington. That same year United States Army established Fort Benjamin Hawkins overlooking the Ocmulgee Fields. In 1819 the Creek Indians held their last meeting at Ocmulgee Fields. In the same year, the McCall brother established a barge-building operation at Macon. The first steamboat arrived on the river in 1829.
During the 19th century, the river provided the principal water navigation route for Macon, allowing the development of the cotton industry in the surrounding region. In 1842 the river was connected by railroad to Savannah. The river froze from bank to bank in 1886. In 1994 devastating floods on the river after heavy rains caused widespread damage around Macon.
Archaeologists have collected evidence of an unbroken chain of civilization in the Ocmulgee River basin dating from the Ice Age migration of humans across North America. Between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago, nomadic Paleoindian hunters moved southeastward across the continent into Georgia, leaving behind scraping tools and flint spearpoints in the Ocmulgee floodplain.
Archaic hunter-gatherers in the river basin (ca. 8000-1000 B.C.) used a distinctive fiber-tempered pottery and different types of stone tools, where later earthen mounds and sherds of elaborately marked pottery mark the locations of Woodland Period villages (ca. 1000 B.C.-A.D. 900). Mississippian culture appears to have arrived at the Ocmulgee River basin around A.D. 900. On the Macon plateau and in the nearby Ocmulgee bottomlands, stretches of farmsteads and gardens constructed around elaborate ceremonial mounds are the most prominent evidence of this early Mississippian influence. The Ocmulgee National Monument, founded in 1936 and operated by the National Park Service, preserves these mounds.
Europeans first reached the Ocmulgee River in 1540, when Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s expedition came to Ichisi, a late Mississippian chiefdom that archaeologists now locate on the floodplain south of Macon. By the mid-seventeenth century, however, the Indians who had fed de Soto’s party on corncakes, wild onions, and roasted venison had been devastated by disease and social disruption and had disappeared from the region.
By 1690 English traders from the Carolinas had established a post adjoining the “Okmulgee town” on the river’s east bank, near present-day Macon. Spreading inland from Charles Town (later, Charleston), South Carolina, to the Ocmulgee region, the English found various settlements of loosely affiliated tribes. One group, the Hitchiti-speaking Okmulgees, lived in towns scattered between the Towaliga River and Walnut Creek. In the Hitchiti language Okmulgee means “where water boils up,” and it was generally thought to have referred to the big springs at Indian Springs.
The word first appears in Spanish accounts of an Apalachicola town on the Chattahoochee River, however, and some historians argue that it referred not to the river in central Georgia but to the waters of the Chattahoochee, from whose banks the Okmulgee Indians had migrated northeastward earlier in the seventeenth century. To the Okmulgees the river was known as Ochese-hatchee, or Ochese Creek, which in turn spawned the name that the English traders gave the confederation of tribes—the “Creek people” or Creeks.
On the eighteenth-century frontier, trade drew the Creeks and whites closer together and land claims ripped them apart. In the Yamasee War of 1715, Carolinian soldiers destroyed Okmulgee Town and drove out its inhabitants. When General James E. Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia in 1733, he managed, through negotiations with the Creek chiefs, to settle the immediate Georgia coast in relative peace. Yet Oglethorpe’s Royal grant had proposed that colonial expansion could proceed inland as far as the Ocmulgee River, regardless of the Creeks’ claims to the land, and although the whites’ pressures to settle Georgia’s interior abated somewhat, they never disappeared.
As the end of the Revolutionary War (1775-83) brought new overland migrations from Virginia and the Carolinas, the new state of Georgia obtained concessions to Creek tribal lands up to the Oconee River, and the U.S. government continued placing forts and trading houses in Creek territory bordering the Ocmulgee. With the 1805 Treaty of Washington, the Ocmulgee River became the southwestern boundary of the United States. Finally, in successive treaties signed at Indian Springs, the Creeks first ceded lands west of the Ocmulgee to the Flint River (1821), and then were forced to give up the rest of their lands in Georgia (1825).
Nineteenth-Century River Traffic and Trade
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, wagon and stagecoach trails followed the old Indian trails along the Ocmulgee, linking settlements and frontier forts like Fort Hawkins along the east bank. By the 1820s numerous ferry landings linked settlements in the newly opened western territories with principal roads from Monticello, Clinton, and Milledgeville (the new state capital) on the Upper Ocmulgee, and from Marion, Hartford, and Jacksonville on the lower leg.
Commercial river navigation of this era depended upon log rafts loaded down with field and farm produce and guided by pole-handling crews who rode their lumber “down to Darien,” where it could be sold to sawmills. These raftsmen played a major role in Georgia’s economy, yet their story survives primarily through rafting folklore. As cotton production expanded into the rich Lower Ocmulgee bottomlands, steamboat navigation offered the fastest route to coastal markets.
Because the river was frequently narrow and winding, and unnavigably shallow in the dry months, however, it had never been particularly well suited to commercial boat traffic. The best that steamboats could do in the 1820s was to make the trip partway from the coast and transfer their goods to poleboats, which could be pushed the rest of the way to Macon by slaves.
The first steamboat reached Macon in 1829, and the first commercial steamboat to make the full Darien-to-Macon run arrived in 1833. In late 1835 three steamboat companies operated on the river, and by the end of the decade there was a steady flow of traffic transporting cotton and lumber to the markets of Savannah and Darien from the wharves of Macon, Hawkinsville, Abbeville, Jacksonville, and Lumber City, and from the river landings of prosperous Ocmulgee River plantations.
With the building of the railroads in the late 1830s and early 1840s, the Ocmulgee’s importance for shipping cotton traffic from its rich bottomlands to the coast dwindled. The lobby for channel improvements and proposed canals was diverted to the raising of capital for the railways, and the first great era of Ocmulgee River traffic was all but over by 1847-48, when barely 1 percent of Macon’s cotton shipments to Savannah were by boat.
What the rails took away from the river in cotton, they would return in part in pine trees. In the Ocmulgee region below the Hawkinsville-Dublin road, longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) forests thrived in the wiregrass belt, and in the mid-eighteenth century the lumber industry found that these “yellow” or “Georgia” pines provided the perfect substitute for the now-depleted northern white pine. In the immediate post–Civil War (1861-65) period, the destruction of the central Georgia railroads by Union general William T. Sherman’s army meant that the river again became an important means of commercial transportation, particularly for the independent lumber manufacturers, who did not have a great deal of capital.
The rebuilding of the railways fed the timber and naval stores industries in the Oconee basin by bringing in equipment for cutting, milling, and turpentine distillation. River traffic remained the cheaper, more available means of transportation for many sawmillers and turpentine men. Each year between 1870 and 1900, steamboats again regularly traveled the Ocmulgee laden with cotton bales, although their major cargo by now was barrels of rosins and gum spirits.
In 1889 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported nine steamboats running regularly on routes originating at Hawkinsville, Abbeville, and Lumber City. Meanwhile, thousands of raft runners from the Ocmulgee-Oconee region made the downriver journey in ways not too different from their pioneer predecessors, “drifting” bunches of hewn timbers out of the river-basin swamps and creeks and then tying them together to make the 175-foot-long rafts they guided downriver.
NPS: OCMULGEE CHRONOLOGY
You Tube: Little Ocmulgee State Park