Monday, March 23, 2009

About the Santa Fe River*

The Santa Fe River is a slow-flowing tributary of the Suwannee River, which was made famous by the 19th-century American composer Stephen Foster in his song, "Old Folks at Home":

Way down upon de Swanee Ribber (River)
Far, far away
Dere's wha my heart is turning ebber,
Dere's wha de old folks stay.
All up and down de whole creation
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for de old plantation
And for de old folks at home.

All de world am sad and dreary,
Ebry where I roam,
Oh! darkies how my heart grows weary,
Far from de old folks at home.

All round de little farm I wandered
When I was young,
Den many happy days I squandered,
Many de songs I sung.
When I was playing wid my brudder
Happy was I
Oh! take me to my kind old mudder,
Dere let me live and die.


One little hut amond de bushes,
One dat I love,
Still sadly to my mem'ry rushes,
No matter where I rove
When will I see de bees a humming
All round de comb?
When will I hear de banjo tumming
Down in my good old home?

Until 2008, "Old Folks at Home" was the state song of Florida. Since the lyrics were written in black dialect, however, some came to see the song as racist—even though Foster himself sympathized with black Americans and supported the North in the Civil War.

I will show my age by admitting that I can remember a time when "darkies" was the preferred term to use when referring to blacks, at least in the house where I grew up. But I digress.

Running approximately 113 kilometers from its headwaters in Lake Santa Fe (near Melrose and Keystone Heights) to its confluence with the Suwannee River (near Branford), the Santa Fe is classified as a calcareous stream—predominantly of spring origin.

The river's most unusual feature, apart from its springs, is the fact that it disappears completely underground at O'Leno State Park and returns to the surface about 4.8 km downstream at River Rise Preserve.

The Santa Fe was named for a Franciscan mission, Santa Fe de Toloca, likely located on or near a bluff that overlooks the river valley near the community of Bland. It's a magical place, as near to being suspended between earth and sky as one can get in this neck of the woods, and the archeological evidence of missions in the area is a poignant reminder of La Florida's long and fascinating history as a Spanish portal in the New World.

"Santa Fe" translates from the Spanish as "Holy Faith." It has always seemed to me that those of us who love the river are bound to it with a holy faith, sworn by our love to preserve, protect, and defend the river from ever-increasing threats to its existence.

*This map of the Santa Fe River was created by Karl Musser from USGS data and published under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 license at: 


  1. Times and sensibilities change, and it would be ridiculous to criticize Foster himself for those words. But it *does* come across now as patronizing, even a little demeaning.
    The Irish have a similar problem with "stage Irish" portrayals of their character, speech and music, though it must be said that it has often been Irish people who have been the creators of "stage Irishness". Nowadays it more often takes the form of dreamy faux Celticism than "hi-diddly-eye and top of the morning to ye", but the motive is similar. (It sells.)

  2. I agree that "it does come across now as patronizing, even a little demaning," however, I predict that at some time in the not-so-distant future, Foster's original lyrics will be reclaimed as part of a history that needs to be remembered. I don't base this prediction on anything in particular, except possibly (hopefully?) a collective move beyond "feeling offended" towards wanting to become more aware of the burdens of our history. -A Word Witch