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For thousands of years the mighty Altamaha River has flowed unimpeded through south central Georgia, ever bound for the sea. Formed by the confluence of the Ocmulgee, Oconee and Ohoopee Rivers near Lumber City, the Altamaha River watershed is the largest river system east of the Mississippi, offering priceless habitat along its 140 mile course. Over 100 species of rare or endangered plants and animals find shelter in this basin, including the Georgia spiny mussel, Atlantic sturgeon, the swallow-tailed kite, the American oyster catcher and the piping plover. Further inland, the watershed includes old stands of long leaf pine, colonies of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, gopher turtles, Alabama milk vine (Matelea alabamensis) and other rare plants.
In 1999 the Mexico-based Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network recognized the Altamaha River Delta in Glynn and McIntosh Counties as a major reserve for shorebirds, one of only 40, highlighting its importance as a stopover for migratory and wintering birds traveling between the Arctic and South America. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources estimates this area supports at least 55,000 species of seabirds and shorebirds annually, stating "There are very few places as valuable to such a large and diverse number of coastal birds in all the southeast United States."
Designated a Bio reserve in 1991 by The Nature Conservancy, The Altamaha River is on their list of 75 "Last Great Places" in the world. Currently, a 6 year $4.2 million dollar project funded thru a grant from the National Science Foundation involves researchers from the University of Georgia Marine Institute on Sapelo Island, Georgia Tech, Indiana University and the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. Focusing on the Altamaha River's complex system of water movement, this study will help to clarify relationships between intertidal creeks and marshes as well as long term trends in land use patterns and the withdrawal of freshwater from the watershed.
Although used in the 19th century as a route for commerce between central Georgia and the coast, the river is nearly entirely still in its natural state.
The Altamaha River flows through a flood plain up to five miles (8 km) wide and consisting of some of the last remaining hardwood bottom lands and cypress swamps in the American South. As the river approaches the Atlantic Ocean it becomes a broad estuary. At least 120 species of rare or endangered plants and animals live in the Altamaha River watershed, including eleven species of pearly mussels, seven of which are endemic to the Altamaha. The river basin also supports the only known example of old growth Long leaf Pine and Black oak forest in the United States. Other notable species include Short nose sturgeon, Atlantic sturgeon, West Indian manatee, Eastern indigo snake (Drymarchon couperi), Greenfly orchid, and Georgia plume. The unusual Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha), now extinct in the wild, was found by John Bartram along the Altamaha River in 1765. Bartram sent seeds from the trees to England and planted some in his garden in Philadelphia, where some presumably still live.
In prehistoric times the Timucua people occupied northern Florida and a portion of Georgia reaching as far north as the Altamaha River. The Utinahica tribe lived along the river and the Spanish mission of Santa Isabel de Utinahica was established around 1610 near the source of the Altamaha. Along the coast of Spanish Florida the Altamaha River marked the boundary between the Guale and Mocama missionary provinces.
In the later 17th century a group of Yamasee Indians under Chief Altamaha took up residence near the mouth of the Altamaha.
The Altamaha River marked the western border of the Colony of Georgia until the American Revolution and therefore the western border of the English settlement in North America. It also marked the boundary between the Spanish missionary provinces of Guale and Mocama. The name comes from a Yamasee chief named Altamaha.