top of page


The Cornell Biological Exploring Expedition

The Experience

C.T. Trowell

Ninety years ago this summer eight young men from Cornell University at Ithaca, New York spent about six weeks exploring the wilds of the Okefenokee Swamp in search of biological specimens. The group included three professors, Albert H. Wright, J. Chester Bradley and C.R. Crosby plus three students, M.D. Leonard, Sherman C. Bishop and A.R. Cahn. E. Lee Worsham, Georgia State Entomologist and a Cornell alumni, and W.D. Funkhouser, headmaster and biological instructor at Ithaca High School joined the explorers. C.S. Spooner and Paul Battle joined the party at Fargo, Georgia. Worsham and Spooner spent the first week with the biologists. Funkhouser arrived on June 26th, spending about three weeks with the party. Francis Harper, a first year student at Cornell was not a member of the party. He went on his own in May, explored for two weeks, and left before the party arrived. Harper’s older brother, Roland M. Harper, had collected plants in the Swamp in 1902 and published an article on the Okefenokee Swamp in Popular Science Monthlyin 1909.[1]

The research trip in 1912 came to be called the Cornell Biological Exploring Expedition. Publications based on information collected by these scientists established much of what we believe today about the natural history of the Okefenokee Swamp.

Chester Bradley was the principal promoter of the project. As an entomologist for the Georgia Department of Agriculture he visited the Okefenokee area in 1909, 1910 and 1911 and mailed specimens to Cornell for identification. He wrote to Professor James G. Needham in July 1911: “Never in my life have I seen the air so filled with dragonflies as on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp about mid-May. They were thick as house flies in an unscreened kitchen in August.”[2]Needham was studying dragonflies, working on his monograph on dragonflies that is still in print. Bradley joined the Cornell faculty in 1911. Needham and Bradley recruited the interest of other faculty members; the biological departments were abuzz with plans during the winter. They began raising funds. A.H. Wright wrote that the object of the Cornell expeditions was “to study and put on record something of the biological conditions in this extensive fresh-water swamp, which still presents in a large measure primitive and interesting conditions of environment, before they become forever changed by the now rapidly penetrating lumbermen.”[3]

Francis Harper wrote to Albert Wright of the Department of Vertebrate Zoology in March 1912. He was aware of plans to explore the Swamp. “Ever since my brother, with whose paper in Popular Science Monthly for June, 1909, I suppose you are familiar, entered the swamp, nearly ten years ago, it has been my ambition to explore it ornithologically.” He went on to report: “I expect to start about the first of May, in order to strike the height of the breeding season, for Mr. Pearson of the Audubon Societies has asked me to make a report on any nesting colonies I might find. I would greatly enjoy being in the field with the rest of you, but the date would be altogether too late for a bird photographer.” He “offered” to go with Dr. Needham if he decided to go a month or two earlier. He listed names of local people and maps. But he was not invited to join the party.[4]

Newspapers reported plans of the group on May 2, 1912.[5]A Go-Away Party, “Okeefenokee Farewell,” was held at the Glen on Thurston Avenue in Ithaca on May 17th for the members of the Cornell Biological Reconnaissance.[6] They agreed to rendezvous at Union Station in Washington on May 25 for the trip south. Jack Reade and James Needham were unable to join the expedition. Arthur Allen, an ornithologist, and A.H. Wright’s future brother-in-law, was bed-ridden with fever.[7]His sister, Anna, would report news of the progress of the expedition to the Cornell community from letters from her fiancée, Bert Wright.

Francis Harper Goes Solo

While members of the expedition attended going-away parties and readied equipment and planned transportation, Francis Harper was paddling across the Okefenokee. He arrived in Waycross and Hebardville on May 3rd.

Harper met David Lee at the big sawmill at Hebardville and they planned a trip into the Swamp to Billys Island. Harper had read the article by Maurice Thompson in 1896. He proposed to boat down Suwannee Creek to Billys Lake, the route taken by the archer and his brother, William, in 1866. They could take the Waycross and Southern Railroad train to the bridge at the creek.

Harper and Lee found a boat at Suwannee Lake on May 6th and tried to enter the Swamp by the creek. The stream was so overgrown that even the experienced Lee was ready to give up after a night in the boat. They bogged across through the black gum swamp a few hundred yards to the logging railroad that was under construction. The railroad on piling was just entering the Swamp from Hopkins. They returned to Waycross.[8]

On the following day, May 8th, they caught the train to Braganza and crossed Cowhouse Island to the boat landing. David Lee paddled the boat across the Swamp, via Dinner Pond, Big Water, Minnies Lake and Billys Lake, arriving at Billys Island long after dark. During the next two weeks, Harper and Lee made trips from Billys Island to Mixons Hammock, Honey Island, the Suwanee Canal, Chase Prairie, Floyds Island and Floyds Island Prairie. Harper and Lee were unable to reach Minnies Island, reported to be the home of the Ivory-billed woodpecker.[9]They crossed the Swamp and reached Cowhouse Island on May 23rd.

By May 24th, Harper was back at Hebardville and five days later he was aboard ship on his way back to New York. Members of the exploring expedition reached Billys Island on May 28th.

The Trip South

After lengthy negotiations with ticket and baggage agents, the party boarded the New York, Atlanta and New Orleans Limited at Union Station in Washington on May 25th.[10]They arrived in Atlanta one hour late. Lee Worsham and Mr. Horing, his father-in-law, met them at the train. According to Albert Wright, Worsham and Horing took the party on an auto tour of the city and Worsham’s “rich father-in-law” gave them a great dinner at the best hotel in Atlanta. Sherman Bishop commented on the fine meal at the M-M Club, “some grub.” On the 26th, the party visited the Capitol “to meet the political bugs of Georgia”and the Atlanta Constitution reporters. They visited Mr. Horing’s fine residence and garden just outside of the city, but returned soaked by a Georgia shower and covered in Georgia clay; the auto had skidded into a ditch following a rain shower and the riders had to dismount and push. After getting their shoes cleaned and coats pressed at the hotel they boarded the southbound train.

They arrived at Fargo at 6:35 A.M. on the 28th. C.S. Spooner, a Cornell alumnus and Paul Battle, a Boy Scout from Bainbridge, Georgia, joined them. The big sawmill of G.S. Baxter and Company had burned the first week of May and was being re-built. The explorers soon boarded a flat car on a logging train and headed northeast. After a sixteen mile ride, they were met at the logging camp at Mixons Ferry at the end of the railroad by a Negro worker of the Fargo Land Company, driving a high-wheeled wagon pulled by two Georgia mules. According to Sherman Bishop, the driver showed “some ability to cuss.” They loaded their trunks, suitcases, and “three barrels of grub” on the wagon. Led by two guides, Lee brothers who lived on Billys Island., the explorers headed for Billys Island. They soon crossed the Suwannee River and waded to Mixons Hammock and across to Jones Island. According to Wright, “We walked and walked.” “Oh heavens how hot it was.” They crossed the corduroy road from Jones Island to Billys Island built by General Floyd’s men in 1838. They were forced to cut down trees, the logs were covered with water; suitcases rolled off into the water. They waded most of the way, finally arriving at Billys Island around six. They made a temporary camp and Wright wrote a letter to Anna Allen for the Negro driver to mail at Fargo. Wright was fighting mosquitoes as he wrote and told Anna: “Tell Prof. Needham I never saw so many dragonflies in my life….” Exhausted, they were soon asleep despite the mosquitoes.[11]

Camping on Billys Island

The next morning, May 29th, the explorers moved their camp to a better site, shaded by chinaberry trees and huge palms. The camping area was covered by blueberries, huckleberries and blackberries, breakfast for the taking. They used an abandoned log cabin for a laboratory. The cabin was a single-pen affair, the home of Jim Lee, the founder of the “Lees of Billys Island,” probably built around 1870.

For the next six weeks the party camped on Billys Island. From there they visited Honey Island, Mixons Hammock, Minnies Island, Floyds Island, and the surrounding swamps and lakes. Chester Bradley was in charge of the expedition. Sherman Bishop served as camp cook.[12]

It rained every day for the first two weeks. They suffered severe sunburn, thousands of bites of red bugs, yellow flies, and mosquitoes. Nevertheless, they systematically recorded observations of the flora and fauna, dug an Indian mound and collected skeleton remains and artifacts, collected birds, snakes, fish, insects, amphibians, mammals, and almost anything within reach that they did not eat. They shot birds, snakes, bears and alligators They skinned and pinned and photographed. They ate fish, bear and gator tail. They made several attempts to find the Ivory-billed woodpecker on Minnies Island. They enlisted the help of members of the Lee family and their friends, collecting the names of plants and animals and their homes and habits in the Swamp. The Lee family would continue to collect specimens for them long after the party folded camp and returned to the university.

The details of the biological activities of the party are catalogued in the Journal of Sherman Bishop, in an article by Chester Bradley published in the Cornell Countryman in 1913, in Bert Wright’s letters to Anna Allen, and in several journal articles. The substance of their work is recorded and analyzed in a number of papers that were published in scientific journals, some of them over two decades later.


On May 30thand 31st, and June 1st, Professors Bradley and Wright and Mr. Worsham went to Honey Island on a bear and alligator hunt with a couple of local hunters. Worsham had to return to Atlanta and wanted to hunt bear before he left. They walked from the camp on the north end of Billys Island, down the island and across the swamp to Honey Island and into Honey Island Prairie. They killed a bear and alligators. They brought back the bear skin and an alligator. They ate bear liver and shivered through wet days and nights. Wright wrote to Anna: “Never knew what mosquitoes were until this night.” “This three days were the most strenuous of my life.” By the time they returned Wright noted that “… the fellows about camp had picked up all sorts of things.” [13]

Meanwhile, Bishop waded back to the logging camp on the 30th with local hunters to mail letters . They reached the camp around 4:30 P.M. and mailed the letters. Bishop spent the night with John Mixon and his family and supped on hoe-cake, fish and cold rice. He spent most of the evening “kicking pigs, dogs and kids from underfoot.” The kids carried a smudge pot filled with rotten wood through the house to drive out mosquitoes and yellow flies. Bishop’s room and the rest of the house was filled with smoke.

Bishop arose at five and skinned the snake he had caught the day before. He noted: “General exodus of men, women, children, pigs, dogs, etc. when I hauled the snake out by the neck.” He and Dave Lee began paddling back to Billys Island around 9:30. They pushed up a swiftly flowing river through Log River [the Narrows]. They stopped and ate huckleberries from the high bushes on Mixons Hammock and reached Billys Lake. Bishop recorded the flora along the edge of the lake and noted pileated woodpeckers, water turkeys, warblers and sapsuckers that flew ahead of the boat, marking the way. He noted “huge spiders half as big as the hand” on the cypress trunks. On June 1st, Bishop went fishing on Billys Lake and the other students and local hunters went bear hunting, searching for a bear that had been killing pigs.[14]

During the next two weeks they collected specimens between rain showers. They shot birds, snakes, bats, another bear, and alligators. They ate alligator tail and tongue.[15]

On June 13th they paddled up to Minnies Lake, noting the flora and birds along the way. They attempted to kill an alligator, but failed. Bryant Lee tried to guide the party to Minnies Island and the Ivorybill woodpecker holes, but he got lost. They had to spend a miserable night in a tent in the middle of the swamp. They gave up and returned to the camp on Billys Island. [16]

The biologists collected on and around Billys Island for the next week. They paddled to Mixons Hammock at the end of Billys Lake and found an abandoned slab house on the island.[17]

Professor Crosby left for Ithaca on June 24th. He was carrying letters and a load of specimens.[18]

Dr. Wright and Cahn left at eight on the morning of June 25th for Floyds Island but the visit was brief. They were back the following day. The rest of the party collected on Billys Island and Gallberry Island and in the surrounding bog. [19]

Bishop, Funkhouser, Leonard, and Paul paddled to Mixons Hammock on June 30th. They collected during the morning and “opened the Indian mound” in the afternoon. [20]

On July 1stthe party made another attempt to reach the Minnie Lake Islands. This time Jackson Lee led them to the islands from Billys Lake. They reached Long Island and made camp. Jackson, Farly and Abner Lee had seen an ivorybill there ten years earlier. Jackson Lee and Dr. Wright went on to Camp Island and the hammock where Farley Lee had seen a woodpecker about five year earlier. Bishop thought that he saw an ivorybill and Lee thought that he heard one on Camp Island. But it was an unsuccessful trip. It rained and rained and the party spent two miserable nights packed in a tent, struggling with mosquitoes for space . They returned to Billys Island on July 3rd.[21]

By the beginning of July, the explorers were tired. They were tired of red bugs and gator tail and they were tired of rain. Tempers sometimes flared. The expedition began to close down.

They began packing specimens and getting Dr. Wright ready to leave for Ithaca. Jackson Lee invited them to have 4th of July dinner with the family. They ate chicken, bacon, peas, hoecake biscuits, three kinds of cake, sweet bread, roasted corn, coffee, cream and peaches butter. Professor Wright left on July 5th.[22] Bert Wright went home to a wedding. He married Anna Allen, his life-long companion and scientific associate.

Bishop, Funkhouser, and several students remained until July 12th. They returned to Mixons Hammock on July 8th and 11th and continued to excavate the Indian mound. Three more skeletons were recovered. They prepared the bones for shipment to Ithaca.[23]

Bishop left on July 12th and Bradley appears to have followed a day or two later. Bishop and other members of the party went to Spring Creek, about 16 miles from Bainbridge. Paul Battle’s father invited them to visit him. They spent two weeks at Spring Creek before returning to Ithaca. [24]The expedition ended -- but it was also just beginning. James Needham, Chester Bradley and others returned in December 1913 to study the winter aspect of the Okefenokee and the Wrights and Francis Harper returned again and again until 1922 seeking data for closure on several of the studies begun in 1912.

Bradley prepared an article for the Cornell Countryman in February 1913. He concluded his paper:

The extensive collections that were made are being prepared for study. It will take months and in some cases even years to complete the work upon them, and as it progresses new questions will arise, indeed have already arisen, the solutions to which can be answered only by subsequent visits to the swamp. So the expedition is to be looked up as a preliminary one, the merest beginning toward the study of the life of this fascinating place. The party is unanimous in the conviction that a permanent biological laboratory established there could be of utmost value, not only for research but for instruction, and that a few weeks spent in the swamp would teach the students more real biology and natural history than a long time in a laboratory.

In the next issue see: The Cornell Biological Exploring Expedition: The Legacy

[1] Roland M. Harper, Okefinokee Swamp, Popular Science Monthly, June 1909, 596-614.

[2] JCB to JGN, July 1, 1911. (JGN Papers, 21/23/479 Box 2 - Olin Library, Cornell U.)

[3] Albert Hazen Wright, Life Histories of the Frogs of Okefinokee Swamp, Georgia: North American Salientia (Anura) No. 2. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1932, p. 1.

[4] FH to AHW, March 3, 1912. (AHW Papers, 14/26/1382 - Olin Library, Cornell U.))

[5] “Cornellians to Make Invasion of Georgia Swamp,” Sunday Magazine, (?) n.d. (Clippings in A.H. Wright Papers and Sherman C. Bishop Papers).

[6] Invitation in J.G. Needham Papers. (JGN Papers, 12/23/479, Box 2)

[7] AA to AHW, June 12, 1912. (AHW Papers, 14/26/1382)

[8] FH Field Notebook, May 3-29, 1912. (Francis Harper Collection, Special Coll. Henderson Memorial Library, Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, GA)

[9] Francis Harper, Report of Expedition into the Okefenoke Swamp, Bird Lore, Vol. 16, (1912), 402-407; A.H. Wright and Francis Harper, A Biological Reconnaissance of Okefinokee Swamp: The Birds, The Auk, October 1913, 477-489; Francis Harper, A Sojourn in the Primeval Okefinokee, The Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, Vol. 2:1, April 15, 1915, 226-244.

[10] J.C. Bradley, The Cornell Expedition to Okefenoke Swamp, Cornell Countryman, February 1913, 130-133.

[11] AHW to AA, May 26, 1912; May 27, 1912; May 28, 1912; Journal of S.C. Bishop, May 28, 1912 (Unpublished manuscript, held by Beth Flory, his daughter, of Naples, NY.)

[12] Phone interview with Mrs. Beth Flory, Naples, NY, July 30, 2002.

[13] AHW to AA, June 2, 1912.

[14] Journal of S.C. Bishop, May 30, 31, and June 1, 1912.

[15] Bishop.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

from DeBrahm's Report
bottom of page