Ancient Indian civilizations flourished throughout the Suwannee River Valley. It forms a natural waterway for hunting and trade. Hundreds of sparkling clean freshwater springs bubble out of the karst aquifer and the woods are filled with game. Why didn’t European settlements flourish in this fertile valley? Could all of the maladies and misfortune that befell settlers here have been caused by the Napituca Curse?
We learned these stories while camping on the Suwannee River. What is a campout without a good true scary story? Like most scary stories, these are grounded in history. While there are no known fabrications, the absolute truth may have been weaved with a little innuendo, but nothing we have are presented is pure fiction or fabrication. These are real scary stories of the Suwannee River.
Of Blood, Butchery, and Betrayal
The Timucua Indians lived peacefully in a little village called Napituca, which was located between present-day Live Oak and Houston Florida. The family clans clustered around the area’s many springs, like the Little Gem Spring in Suwannee River State Park, which was less than a day’s walk away from Napituca. They lived in harmony with nature, hunting, and fishing until the arrival of the Spanish devastated their civilization.
Our knowledge of these events comes from the diary of Rodrigo Ranjel, the private secretary of Hernando De Soto. This diary was lost for three hundred years and not published until 1851. The incomplete translation was the only surviving journal written from the expedition itself.
De Soto was a Spanish Conquistador given the edict to colonize North America for Spain. The expedition landed near present-day Tampa Bay in May of 1539. They continued up the Suwannee River Valley, reaching the village of Napituca by September.
Following the blueprint the Spanish used to defeat and subjugate the Inca, De Soto claimed to be a god incarnate, the son of the Sun, and immortal. These beliefs coincided with Inca mythology but didn’t resonate in Florida. By the time he reached Napituca, the locals grew weary of these claims and the wake of death, destruction, and cruelty that followed De Soto through Florida. The final tipping point came with the kidnapping and murder of Chief Aguacaleycuen and his children.
The Napituca Curse from the Grave
The enraged Timucua Indians devised a plan to kill every last invader. The invited De Soto to parley under the pretense of making peace, all the while planning an ambush. De Soto’s interpreters betrayed the Timucuan’s intentions, which allowed the cruel Spaniard to lay his trap.
De Soto waited in an empty field outside of Napituca for the Indians to arrive. His force of 620 men remained nearby, acting aloof, but waiting for the order to charge. An entourage of Timucuan chiefs, flanked by row after row of warriors flooded the field. The Spanish were ready. As soon as the fray began, a cavalry charge cut through the Timucua ranks and the rout was on.
The Timucuan lines disintegrated. Many Indians panicked and drowned in their panicked retreat. An enclave on about 200 men and nine chiefs remained organized. Badly outnumbered and outgunned, they retreated into a shallow pond. The soft ground kept the cavalry at bay until nightfall. Their resistance was so well organized that some historians refer to this entire battle as The Battle of the Ponds.
That night must have been truly horrific. The enclave knew that they could not escape or win the fight. They knew how the Spaniards murdered Chief Aguacaleycuen and expected no better. It’s unknown what witchcraft or convent was conceived in the darkness, but by daybreak, the warriors surrendered. The last man to put on Spanish shackles was a sullen chief, who uttered this chilling message to his captors that went roughly like this:
‘I have done as a brave man, and struggled and fought like a man until I took refuge in this pond. It was not to escape death, or to avoid dying but to encourage those who were there and had not surrendered. I ask that my people not have anything to do with these Christians, who are devils and will prove mightier than they. If I have to die, it will be as a brave man.’
With those words, he conceded to the Spaniards. True to form, shortly after being taken prisoner, these two hundred soldiers and nine chiefs were executed. The battle crushed Napitucan resistance, but it might have spawned a curse that plagued European development in the Suwannee River Valley and a bloody cycle of kidnapping and murder.
A Tale of No Cities
The Spanish tried to tame the wild Suwannee River Valley. They build a series of missions in the valley, but English raids forced their desertion. It was as if some curse kept civilization at bay.
After the War of 1812, the area was purchased by America and Florida became a territory. As with any new territory, it needed a capital. Tallahassee wasn’t the popular choice, so a full-on search began to find a more suitable location.
Two men, Doctor Simmons and John Lee Williams hired a boat to travel up the Suwannee to a potential location Doctor Simmons had identified earlier. He believed that the location, although lacking any development, had the perfect combination of land access, navigable rivers, and fresh water to be suitable for a state capital. This sounds very similar to the ghost town of Columbus, where the high road crossed the Suwannee.
The boat captain tried and tried again to find the true mouth of the Suwannee River between all of the tidal islands. Despite his best efforts, they gave up their search and Tallahassee became the capital by default. Perhaps the poor navigation was influenced from beyond the grave to keep the Timucua homeland free.
The Second Battle of the Lakes
Eventually, civilization found its way to the banks of the Suwannee. In the 1800’s, instead of the Suwannee River Park, there was the thriving metropolis of Columbus where river boats loaded their cargo into waiting rail cars. During the Civil War, this was a primary supply line for Florida beef to reach Confederate Troops.
On February 20, 1864, the fight for the river crossing at Columbus became the impetus for the Battle of Olustee. It was the bloodiest battle in Florida during the Civil War. Nearly 3000 casualties mounted in the ponds near Baker County Florida. This is not so dissimilar from the Battle of the Ponds near Live Oak that caused so much devastation in the Indian community over 300 years prior.
What caused all of this carnage? There were many battles fought during the Civil War that did not have this casualty rate. Of the 10,500 soldiers in the battle, nearly 1/3 were killed, lost, captured or injured. Some say the unusually high death toll was the result of the Naptiuca Curse.
The earthen forts to guard the railroad crossing can still be seen in Suwannee River State Park, and all that remains of Columbus is the graveyard. The Union raid did not eradicate the town, but the curse might have been responsible for the brutality of the fighting as evidenced by the gruesome cargo that crossed that bridge just before the supply line terminated. It was the headless body Lewis Powell returning to his family home near the ancient village of Napituca.
True Scary Stories About the Lincoln Assassination
Like De Soto centuries earlier, Lewis Powell assumed the alias of a pseudo-religious persona. He called himself Reverend Lewis Payne to hide in Washington DC. There, he conspired with John Wilkes Booth to kidnap President Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward to ransom in exchange for Confederate prisoners of war. After hearing a Lincoln speech on April 11, 1865, that spoke of giving blacks the right to vote, the enraged conspirator’s plans turned to murder.
At 10:30 PM, April 14, 1865, Lewis Powell entered the residence of William Seward. He pointed a pistol at Seward’s son Frederick. When he pulled the trigger, the gun misfired. An alarm was sounded and Powell was forced to flee. Three days later he was apprehended and at 1:15 PM on July 7, 1865, he was hung at the gallows at the Washington DC Arsenal.
There were four conspirators hung that day, Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt. They were hung side by side in a specially constructed gallow by a 12’ long rope. Powell suffered the most during the execution. His body swung wildly for nearly five minutes before the life drained from it. The conspirators were buried on the east end of the prison wall.
By 1869, President Johnson agreed to return their remains to the families. The remains of the bodies were returned, but Powell’s body became lost for several years and its final resting place remains a mystery. Some say in 1871 his family was finally able to locate and return the now headless corpse to the family cemetery in Geneva Florida. Others claim that he remains buried in a mass grave in the Graceland Cemetery near DC. What we do know for sure, is what happened to his skull.
In 1991, a Smithsonian researcher stumbled upon an out of place skull in the Native American collection labeled – 2244 “P” – Criminal executed by hanging. Forensic evidence and investigation positively identified it to be the remains of Lewis Powell – aka Reverend Payne. It was returned to Florida to be buried alongside his mother. Could it be just an amazing coincidence that it remained lost in the Indian archives for so long?
Greed and Ghost Towns
It wasn’t the invading Union troops that eventually destroyed Columbus, but the competition from an upstart town built just across the river – Ellasville. Ellasville was the company town of Governor Drew, the first Florida Governor following reconstruction after the Civil War. Its namesake was Governor Drew’s long employed black servant Ella. There is a long history of Southern “Gentlemen” giving extra attention to certain female servants. Sometimes this “attention” was mutual, other times, it was forced. It’s uncertain exactly what enthralled Governor Drew enough to name a town after Ella.
Ellasville was prosperous but fortified with a strong undercurrent of unseemly activities adding wealth to the Drews’ pockets. The first wave of workers in the sawmill came from the Florida convict program. This is the same program that is the namesake of nearby Convict Springs. When the good folk learned of the egregious treatment of the convicts under this program, it was summarily shut down.
After convict labor came payment in company script. This is where the workers were paid in a fiat currency that could only be used in the company store. It’s almost like the bit-coin of the 1800’s.
It wasn’t merely the employment practices but rather the unsustainable business model that drove Ellasville off the map. In their greed, the Drew’s harvested more trees than was supportable. After the forests were leveled, there was no longer a purpose for Ellasville. It languished through a few fires and ultimately left the map in 1942 when its post office closed. Once again, the Indian homeland was kept safe from industrial advances.
Appeasement of a 400 Year Haunting Cycle
There are many cycles in nature, as well as the supernatural. One of particular interest is the 400-year calendar cycle. Every 400 years, the calendar resets itself. The calendar provides that every year divisible by 4 is a leap year, except years ending in two zeros. Such years are leap years only if divisible by 400.
It is thought that curses grow on the approach of major anniversaries. The 400-year anniversary of the Napituca Curse would have occurred on 1936. Could the heightened power of the curse have prompted restitution?
The first tract of land in Suwannee River State Park was added in 1939 with many more to follow. During the 30’s fires devastated Ellasville until the post office close in 1942. The formation of Suwannee River State Park and the nearby Twin Rivers State Forest kept civilization off the banks of the Suwannee for good. Could this have lifted the 400-year-old curse?
Ted Bundy Comes to the Suwannee
Ted Bundy has been called the very definition of heartless evil. He was handsome, charming, and charismatic, much like a Spanish conquistador. He would use these traits to gain the confidence of young women and lure them to their death. He has been described as a sadistic sociopath who took pleasure from another human’s pain and from the control he had over his victims, to the point of death, and even after. His depraved pattern of kidnapping and murder came to an end after he unwittingly entered Napitucan territory.
Ted was in a desperate mood, evading the manhunt following the brutal Chi Omega murders in Tallahassee. He was desperate for a kill, and in his hunger and desperation, he resorted to stalking young girls at a junior high school. Ted hoped the downpour that fate-full day would help conceal his hunting. This is where he found his last victim – Kimberly Leach.
Leach was only 12 years old at the time and a student at Lake City Junior High School. She was paged from the office to come get her forgotten purse. Her classroom was not in the main building so she set out into the rain to get it. That’s where Ted Bundy found her. As he spotted young Kimberly out in the rain, he called out – “Hey you there”. This drew Kimberly closer to the van, close enough that he was able to grab her and shove her into the passenger seat. Once inside the van, he bashed her head into the dashboard until she was unconscious and then repeatedly raped her before killing her. He dumped her body in a pig farrowing shed just outside of Suwannee River State Park.
The abduction and murder of children is eerily reminiscent of Hernando De Soto’s activities in Florida. Miss Leach was Ted Bundy’s last victim. He was executed for her murder in the Raiford electric chair at 7:16 a.m. on January 24, 1989.
True Scary Stories of the Suwannee
If the instigating event of the Suwannee River Hauntings was the abduction and murder of Native American children back in 1539, it would seem that Ted Bundy messed with the wrong ghosts. Interestingly, it was, in fact, Leach’s murder that ultimately landed Ted Bundy in the electric chair. Did the ghosts of the Suwannee somehow play a part in somehow helping to solve this crime that happened on their homeland? Could Ted Bundy have bore the brunt of a long-standing vendetta that has now seemingly been eradicated?
What we do know for sure is that the Suwannee River State Park now exists as a beautiful and serene place to camp, hike, and paddle while enjoying one of the real Florida’s most scenic waterways. There is an abundance of natural beauty and more ways to have fun there then you can shake a paddle at. Most of all, you can now show up fireside armed with an artillery of true scary stories to share of the Suwannee River.