An Epic of the Everglades

What becomes a legend most? Shadow Country—a nine-hundred-page recension of Peter Matthiessen’s linked novels Killing Mr. Watson (1990), Lost Man’s River (1997), and Bone by Bone (1999)—is quietly subtitled “A New Rendering of the Watson Legend.” That last word is carefully chosen, for Edgar J. Watson (1855–1910) is, like Davy Crockett or Jesse James, one of those larger-than-life figures in American history, as much myth as man. While one Web site lists the sugar-cane planter among the twenty-five most important people in the history of Florida, his contemporaries dubbed him “Bloody” Watson, “Emperor” Watson, the desperado Watson. Though born in South Carolina, he left his indelible mark on the Gulf side of South Florida, in the region called the Ten Thousand Islands, a frontier world long attractive to outlaws and outcasts. Marjory Stoneman Douglas summarizes his story—or at least the received wisdom—in her 1947 classic The Everglades: River of Grass:

Halfway up the empty Chatham River a circumspect man named Watson had built a respectable two-story frame house high on an old sand-and-shell Indian mound that commands a great sweep of river east and west. There was nothing to be seen but the fish jumping and the birds flying. It had a porch and high bare rooms, a rainwater cistern, a plank dock for his boats. He set out a cane patch, horse bananas, and the usual vegetables. He planted palm trees along the river, and two royal poinciana trees flamed against the gray house and dazzling blue sky….

Nobody seems to know when Watson first came to Chatham River. Nobody over there even now seems to want to say much about him. But of all the men who lived silently along those coasts with the air of strange deeds behind them, Watson’s is the figure about which multiplying legends seem most to cluster.

He was a Scotsman with red hair and fair skin and mild blue eyes. He was quiet spoken and pleasant to people. But people noticed one thing. When he stopped to talk on a Fort Myers street, he never turned his back on anybody.

It was said freely that he had killed people before he came to Florida, that he killed Belle Starr and two people in northwest Florida. That was nobody’s business here, from Fort Myers to Shark River. From time to time he went up to Fort Myers or Marco in his boat and took down to work at that lonely place of his on Chatham River people variously described as a boy, a rawboned woman, two white men, a Negro, a Russian, a Negro woman, an old woman. No one seems to know how many. No one seemed to notice for a while that none of these people came back.

He was, of course, a plume hunter and alligator skinner, and he shared many feuds with the quick-shooting men of the wilderness….

In 1910 a man and his son sailing up the Chatham River …

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