Sunday, April 6, 2014

Skeletons of Lake Okeechobee

In the late 19th century, explorers of Florida's Lake Okeechobee reported finding the water to be filled with human skeletons around the southern end. One of those early pioneers has been quoted as saying that there were so many human skulls in the shallows, that "during low water it looked like a pumpkin patch." Fishermen and sailors trying their luck in the waters kept finding, to their horror, skulls in their nets instead of fish.

Then around 1910, a surveyor on Lake Okeechobee's Grassy Island (not to be confused with another island of the same name along the Nature Coast) discovered, by only digging a few inches into the sand, fifty human skeletons. And in 1918 an extreme drought lowered the lake's water level and exposed hundreds more along the north sides of Ritta Island and Kreamer Island. So far, it has been estimated that over one thousand skeletal remains have been found in the lake, mostly within a thirty-mile range between Kreamer Island and Observation Island.

The presence of these bones has left us in something of a mystery. Some - including a writer in the October 18, 1959 edition of the Miami News - have tried to explain them away as being victims of the great hurricanes of the 1920s, and in fact many hurricane victims' bodies have been pulled from the lake, but that doesn't explain the vast majority of the discoveries.

Others have proposed the Seminole War of 1837 as a source for the mass graves, but that took place on the northern end of the lake, not the southern, and besides, records indicate that only thirty people died in it. Furthermore, the bones are far more ancient than circa 1837.

Spanish settlers, perhaps? Nope. The bones have already been studied by researchers and believed to predate the Spanish, but that fact was unknown to a reporter for the Palm Beach Post who declared them to be Spanish in origin in the paper's July 3, 1936 edition. The paper, by way of an eggplant farmer named Creech, makes this assertion based on alleged information from the Smithsonian Institute (and in the days before DNA analysis.)

They must be from some sort of native American tribe, but who they were, how they got here, and why they died is a huge gap in the historical record. Researcher Charlie Carlson had this to say:

According to one legend, in February 1841, two-hundred Seminoles, rather than to be captured by the army, committed mass suicide. Allegedly, these people "slit their own throats and flung themselves into the water where their bodies disappeared into the glades water." I don’t know if this has any connection to the bones in the lake, plus I’ve found no historical records to support this story. However, the story goes on to say that a medicine man put a hex on the area, which has since been known as the "Curse of the Everglades."

Intriguing, but the skulls unearthed from the lake number in the thousands, not hundreds. My question is, where are the skeletons now? Probably forgotten, languishing in boxes buried behind other boxes on the bottom shelf in one of thousands of Smithsonian storage units not opened in decades and poorly indexed by unpaid interns.

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