Tate’s WHAT?

We at Florida Memory like to think every part of Florida is a little piece of Heaven, mosquitoes and sand gnats notwithstanding. One forest in the Florida Panhandle, however, has earned a reputation for being just the opposite. We’re referring, of course, to Tate’s Hell State Forest, a dense section of mostly virgin growth on the eastern side of the Apalachicola River in Liberty and Franklin counties.

Excerpt of the 2014 official Florida Department of Transportation highway map showing Tate's Hell State Forest and the surrounding region.

Excerpt of the 2014 official Florida Department of Transportation highway map showing Tate’s Hell State Forest and the surrounding region.

Tate’s Hell is known for the thickness of its foliage and the swampiness of its terrain. Several rare plant species make their homes here, including the thick-leaved water willow, Florida bear grass, and Chapman’s butterwort. Rare animal species found here include the gopher tortoise, bald eagle, and Florida black bear.

Gopher tortoise (circa 1980s).

Gopher tortoise (circa 1980s).

One of the most peculiar living assets of Tate’s Hell is its stands of “dwarf cypress,” also called “miniature cypress” or “hat rack cypress.” Like most cypress trees, they can live to be hundreds of years old. Unlike their bald cypress cousins, however, dwarf cypress trees generally never grow more than 15 feet tall.

A stand of dwarf cypress trees in the southern part of the Everglades, southwest of Royal Palm Hammock in Dade County (1925).

A stand of dwarf cypress trees in the southern part of the Everglades, southwest of Royal Palm Hammock in Dade County (1925).

So it’s got a few bears and it’s a little swampy. Was that really enough to give the place such a rotten nickname? You might not think so after a short visit, but getting lost in Tate’s Hell for a few days might change your mind.

That’s what happened to Seab Tate, a farmer and trapper living along the Apalachicola River in the 1870s. According to local legend, Tate entered the forest with his dogs, a rifle, and a hunting knife to go after a panther that had been killing off his livestock. He quickly became lost in the dense jungle-like growth. Different versions of the legend provide different details as to what happened while Tate was wandering around in the swamp, but suffice it to say the insects, predators, and punishing landscape took their toll. At last, ten days after losing his way, Tate staggered from the miry forest near Carrabelle and into the path of two locals passing by. The strangers reported that Tate was covered with mud and scratches, and that his hair had turned pure white. When they asked the man where he had been, Tate replied, “In Hell!” and collapsed dead at their feet.

The legend of Tate’s predicament may have lent the place an unfortunate name, but with the right equipment Tate’s Hell is excellent for camping, fishing, or boating. A total of 35 miles of rivers, streams, and creeks are available for use, along with several primitive campsites. Fishing and hunting are both permitted in the forest, within guidelines set by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Visit the official website of Tate’s Hell State Forest for more details.

AND, don’t forget to search the Florida Photographic Collection for images of your favorite Florida state parks and forests!