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Lake Okeechobee’s Watery Graves

Lake Okeechobee covers 730 square miles of South Florida and parts of five counties making it the second largest body of fresh water within the borders of the United States. Prior to 1545, Calusa Indians called the great lake “Mayaimi” which is probably where Miami gets its name. In 1564, two shipwrecked Spanish sailors referred to it as “Sarrope” while in other accounts it is identified as “Lake Mayacco” or “Laguna del Esperita Santo.” In recent history it has been known as Lake Okeechobee, a fitting Seminole word meaning “big water.”

Lake Okeechobee has not been immune to strange stories or unusual claims and has had its share of tales about ghosts, lost treasures, and even monsters. In 1956, a pilot flying over the northern end of the lake reported seeing giant dinosaur tracks in the mud. Most of these weird accounts have been dismissed as just folk yarns. As for the dinosaur tracks, they turned out to be tracks left by dredging machines. However, Lake Okeechobee has one unexplained mystery, with good physical evidence, that has baffled both scientists and local folks for many years. It’s the secret of the Okeechobee bones.

Prior to 1910, early pioneers reported seeing human skeletons in the shallows around the southern end of the huge lake. Several old fishermen told of “catchin’ human skulls” in their nets. One early settler claimed that there were so many skulls in the shallows that “During low water it looked like a pumpkin patch.” A surveyor clearing land on Grassy Island in the early 1900s, exposed more than fifty human skeletons that were covered only with a couple of inches of sand. This was not a case of dry land burials, as Grassy Island is not a natural island, it was originally lake bottom that was exposed when water levels were lowered by drainage canals. Willis Crosby used to “catfish” in Okeechobee and shared his story with me about finding a half dozen human skulls in 1953 just lying in the mud on Observation Island. “There were a bunch of other bones scattered all over the bottom, I guess they were human,” he recounted. “Everybody said they were Indian bones, it was pretty much common sight when the water was down.” All accounts of finding human bones come from the area extending from Kreamer Island to Observation Island and the several square miles in-between the mainland.

In 1918, the water level dropped to an all-time low revealing hundreds of human remains wedged in the silt along the north sides of Ritta and Kreamer Islands. There seemed to be no order to these skeletons. Bones of both adults and children were scattered all over the lake bottom. The first theory that comes to mind is that these were victims of one of Okeechobee’s terrible hurricanes. If so, then it would have been an ancient hurricane, because the 2000 dead from the 1926 and ’28 hurricanes were recovered and buried in mass graves on the mainland. Prior to 1900, only a few people lived around Lake Okeechobee, which would rule out any mass casualties from floods or storms and certainly not enough to account for the estimated thousands of mysterious bodies on Okeechobee’s bottom.

Some researchers have looked to the Seminole war for answers to this mystery. However, the only local skirmish was the 1837 Battle of Okeechobee on the north end of the lake, which resulted in only thirty dead. Historians have found no early Spanish connections to the mystery and believe that the bones may pre-date the first Spanish period by thousands of years. Some speculate the skeletons may have been residents of an ancient Indian village devastated by tribal warfare or disease. This would certainly account for the presence of both adult and children’s remains. But if this is the case, then what explains the total absence of artifacts and pottery?

In my conversations with anthropologists and historians, it seems that no one can really explain what the bones are doing in Lake Okeechobee although some think it is a huge underwater burial site. Perhaps the big lake was seen as a spiritual place by some ancient culture and a good place to bury the dead. In 1997, I asked archeologist Dr. Warren Browning about this possibility and learned that some aboriginal burials were done underwater with the bodies anchored to the bottom of lakes. Still, this does not explain why so much skeletal material is scattered over such a wide area in no apparent order or why there are no artifacts associated with these bones.

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.” A story appeared in a supermarket tabloid a few years ago that claimed the curse was responsible for two major aircraft crashes in the area, the 1972 Tristar Flight 401 tragedy and the 1996 Flight 592 crash. The Seminole Tribe of Florida responded that the tabloid had tried to create a myth and the story was “Ho-lash-ko-an.” If my Seminole translation is correct, I believe that means something like “a bunch of hogwash.”

There have been many wild speculations about Lake Okeechobee’s skeletons. Maybe they are the remains of a mythical lost tribe like mentioned in various religious chronicles. With the Florida peninsula extending so far south into the ocean, it is reasonable to think that ancient seafarers must have bumped into it at some time. Perhaps the skeletons belonged to refugees escaping from Atlantis or aliens from outer space. Until someone arrives with a good explanation for this ancient mystery of death, the secret will remain guarded by the big waters of Lake Okeechobee.

Weird Florida

 

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