While the Suwannee River, also spelled Suwanee, starts in South Georgia, it runs southwestward into the Florida Panhandle, dropping in elevation through a limestone layer into a rare Florida whitewater rapid. Once it passes the rapid, the Suwanee turns west near the town of White Springs, Florida to finally connect with the confluence of the Alapaha River and the Withlacoochee River. About 246 miles long, it is a wild blackwater river. It is the prehistoric Suwanee Straits which separated a peninsular Florida from the panhandle.
At the start of the confluences forms the southern borderline of Hamilton County, Florida and bends southward near the town of Ellaville, Florida. Once it reaches Luraville, Florida, it joins the Santa Fe River south of Branford, Florida. On the outskirts of Suwannee, Florida, it drains into the Gulf of Mexico.
In the first millennium CE, the Suwannee River was inhabited by the people of the Weedon Island archaeological culture. Then around 900 CE, a derivative local culture, known as the Suwanee River Valley culture developed.
In the 16th century, two closely related Timucua language speaking peoples, the Yustaga and the Northern Utina inhabited the river. The Yustaga lived on the west side of the river, with the Northern Utina living on the east side. The Spanish established the missions of San Juan de Guacara, San Francisco de Chuaquin, and San Augustin de Urihica along the Suwannee to convert the western Timucua peoples by 1633.
Seminoles lived by the River in the 18th century. Madison, a steamboat operated on the river before the Civil War. In the late 19th century, White Springs had 14 hotels and became a popular health resort due to the White Sulphur Springs in the area.
Recorded by the Spanish, the native Timucua originally named the river Guacara. Throughout time, many different etymologies have been suggested.
San Juan:First suggested in 1889 by D. G. Brinton in his Notes on the Floridian Peninsula the Suwannee was a corruption of the Spanish San Juan. The theory is, in the 17th century the Spanish mission of San Juan de Guacara located on the Suwannee River, the name Suwannee developed through San Juan-ee.
Shawnee:Throughout the South, the migrations of the Shawnee (Shawnee: Shaawanwaki; Muscogee: Swanoke) have also been connected to the name Suwannee. Indian agent John Johnson in the early 1820s said “the ‘Suwaney’ river was named after the Shawanoese [Shawnee], Suwaney being a corruption of Shawanoese. Casting doubt on this etymology is the fact the primary southern Shawnee settlements were along the Savannah River. There was one village of Ephippeck on the Apalachicola River securely identified in Florida.
“Echo”:Albert S. Gatschet in 1884 claimed that Suwannee derived from the Creek word sawani, meaning “echo” and subsequently rejecting the earlier Shawnee theory. In 1885, Stephen Boyd’s Indian Local Names with Their Interpretation and The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States by Henry Gannett in 1905, repeat this interpretation. They called sawani and “Indian word for the “echo river.” Gatschet’s etymology has survived in more recent publications, with the University of South Florida stating that the “Timucuan Indian word Suwani means Echo River … River of Reeds, Deep Water or Crooked Black Water. William Bright in 2004, attributed the name Suwanee to the Cherokee village of Sawani. This theory is considered unlikely since the Cherokee never lived in Florida or South Georgia.
The Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, a cooperative effort by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Suwannee River Water Management District, cities, business, and citizens of the eight-county Suwannee River Basin region is unique. The boating route encompasses 170 miles of river from the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park to the Gulf of Mexico.
From the western banks of the Suwannee River for approximately 60 miles is the Florida National Scenic Trail. It goes from the Deep Creek Conservation Area in Columbia County to the Twin Rivers State Forest in Madison County.
Bird and wildlife observation, wildlife photography, fishing, canoeing, hunting, and interpretive walks are offered at the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. Under construction is a driving tour, as well as several boardwalks and observation towers.
Adjacent to the river in Live Oak, Florida at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park music gatherings such as the Magnolia Festival, SpringFest, and Wanee have been held in recent years.
Photography credit to the Sierra Club