Mingo National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is a nationally-protected wildlife sanctuary located in Southeastern Missouri. Named for the region’s original inhabitants, the Mingo Tribe, Mingo NWR is a bottomland hardwoods swamp that provides critical refuge for various waterfowl, migratory birds, swamp mammals and even migratory monarch butterflies. A bottomwood hardwoods region is classified as a hardwood forest that occasionally floods. This requires plant life to develop unique abilities to allow for frequent root submergence. Bottomwood swamps often form near tributaries and major rivers, like our Mississippi River.
I have observed other plant life in similar submerged environments. The mangrove trees of Southern Florida have evolved to adapt to the harsh conditions of tidal coasts. Mangroves have developed specialized aerial roots that allow its fully submerged roots to breathe underwater. Similarly, cypress trees have developed “knees” above water to assist in root aeration. While mangrove tree roots are perpetually under water, the cypress trees of Mingo swamp can only endure temporary flooding.
Root submersion ebbs and flows with the seasons. These deciduous trees can only tolerate standing water temporarily and depend on a dry season.
The Mingo Boardwalk Trail contains various informational panels, educating visitors of the swampland flora and fauna. Migratory birds travel to the swampland to feed and rest as they prepare to complete their journeys. Several species of waterfowl make Mingo their home base during the Winter months.
Approximately 18,000 years ago a major earthquake along the New Madrid fault line disrupted and altered the flow of the Mississippi River. This event caused the river to shift Eastward, leaving behind what is now the Mingo Swamp Basin. The Mingos, a migrating tribe of Iroquoian-speaking Native Americans, were drawn to the rich natural resources of the basin and inhabited the land for many years. The United States government forcibly removed the Mingos and other Native American tribes from their ancestral homelands under the Indian Removal Act of the early 1800’s, causing the Mingos to travel West from their native roots of what is now Delaware. Eventually settlers drove the Mingo people from their newly established homes in Missouri, and the Mingo tribe moved further west to Oklahoma.
Resource Harvesting & the Great Depression
Acquired in the early 1800’s from France via the Louisiana Purchase, the Mingo swampland was originally rather inaccessible and largely uninhabited by settlers. Lumber companies harvested much of the area by the late 1880’s for its abundance of cypress and tupelo trees. A versatile wood, cypress and tupelo trees were used to create the nation’s first railroad ties by Missouri’s largest contractor, the T.J. Moss Tie Company.
The lumber industry eventually peaked in the early 1900’s. Landowners drained the lowlands to use it for agricultural purposes. Financed by long-term bonds, landowners established the Mingo Drainage District to carry swamp runoff to the St. Francis and Mississippi Rivers. Unfortunately, the impending financial crisis would devalue the land significantly. Large landholders began to default on bond payments. The Mingo Drainage District project was abandoned.
The Great Depression would take its toll on the region and eventually the Mingo region became heavily neglected, overrun with destructive wild cattle and hogs. The Mingo basin would become open range country with wildlife indiscriminately harvested, lands abused and the condition of the swampland would eventually become an abysmal wasteland.
It required an incredible effort to rehabilitate the region. In 1945 the United States Fish and Wildlife Service purchased 21,676 acres of the Mingo region and established it as the Mingo National Wildlife Reserve. As native plant life began to restore itself, wildlife also returned to the region. The Wilderness Act of 1964 established an 8,000 acre portion of the reserve as the Mingo Wilderness. Today, the National Wilderness Preservation System protects 110 million acres in the United States.
(Pictured above: A canal near the Boardwalk Trail)
The Battle of Mingo Swamp
The Mingo region is rich with American Civil War history. A mass grave discovered many years ago within the Greenbrier/Zephyr Cemetery contains the remains of Civil War soldiers. Also known as the Mingo Massacre, the Battle of Mingo Swamp would claim the lives of 29 Confederate soldiers, ambushed by the Union in 1863.
Led by Confederate Captain Daniel McGee and his first sergeant James A. Logan, the small group of Union soldiers sought rest and refuge on Simeon Cato’s plantation at Bollinger’s Mill. A North Carolina native, Cato was Capt. McGee’s uncle and owned plantation property in South Bollinger County. On February 4, 1863, Confederate soldiers discovered the group and attacked. It is important to note that many of the battles fought in the Bootheel region were more guerrilla-centered rather than epic. A death toll of 29 individuals in this piece of history may seem minor, but the attack is documented as the bloodiest single war incident in Southeast Missouri. Cato, along with Capt. McGee and Logan, perished during the ambush. No Union lives were lost during the ambush, prompting historians to document this event as a massacre.
A detailed history of the event can be read in “Mingo: Southeast Missouri’s Ancient Swamp and the Countryside Surrounding It“, written by Cletis R. Ellinghouse.
Mingo NWR Today
Today Mingo NWR is a lush swampland, and its existence is critical to various migratory birds and native wildlife. Mingo now provides food and shelter for more than 250 species of birds and 38 species of mammals. Much of the land is undisturbed by human contact, animal and plant life once again thrives here.
Multiple trails provide visitors with observatory overlooks to view wildlife. Photographers may reserve wildlife blinds to photograph animals in their natural habitats. During the months of April through May, a 25-mile self-automobile tour is available. Limited hunting opportunities exist within designated areas of the refuge. Visitors can fish, canoe, hike, view wildlife, forage for mushrooms and much more. For a list of things to do at Mingo, visit https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Mingo/visit/visitor_activities.html.
(Pictured above: Wood Ear fungus, Auricularia auricula. An edible and medicinal mushroom)
Visit Mingo Swamp!
If you are ever in the Southeast Missouri region, I recommend taking the scenic drive to visit Mingo. The refuge is located approximately 2.5 hours from St. Louis. The drive takes me through my hometown of Farmington, and continues further South towards Lake Wappapello, a reservoir on the St. Francis River. There are many other points of interest along the way, but Mingo in itself is quite an interesting destination. I should note that at present, the Boardwalk Trail is largely inaccessible. Downed trees block many areas of the trail, rendering it very difficult to traverse. The Department of Conservation has temporarily closed the Boardwalk Trail to the public amid safety concerns. Once operational restrictions related to the pandemic are lifted, Mingo employees can begin to remove the trail debris and visitors may once again enjoy the captivating beauty of the Missouri swampland.