The Suwannee River Hauntings – Based on True Events

Friends and travelers, gather around, for a story so scary, you won’t make a sound. It’s based on history, and could be true, but it’s more than facts I’ll present to you. It’s a tale of greed, butchery, betrayals with vengeance served from beyond the Pale.

From way down on the Suwannee River come stories of desperate despair, where death hangs heavy in the stagnant air. What brought the sorrows to this land? Could it be that there was a curse at hand?

Blood, Butchery, and Betrayal

De Soto entering village called Napituca via WikiCommons.
Photo Credit: WikiCommons.

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.

All Hail De Soto

De Soto the Spanish Conquistador via WikiCommons.
Photo Credit: WikiCommons.

De Soto, the Spanish Conquistador, was given the edict to colonize North America for Spain. His 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 playbook 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 the idolatry and the wake of death, destruction, and cruelty that followed De Soto everywhere he went. The final tipping point came with the kidnapping and murder of Chief Aguacaleycuen and his children.

The Battle of the Ponds

The Battle of the Ponds
Photo Credit: WikiCommons.

The enraged Timucuans devised a plan to kill every last invader. The invited De Soto to parley under the pretense of making peace, while planning an ambush. De Soto’s interpreters betrayed the deadly plans, which allowed the cruel Spaniard to set his own 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 Timucua chiefs, flanked by rows 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.

Napituca’s Curse from the Grave

Shot of screaming dark sorcerer dressed in aboriginal attire in foggy cemetery.
Photo Credit: Deposit Photos.

The Timucuan lines disintegrated, many panicked and drowned in a hasty retreat. An enclave of 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.

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 Napituca, who uttered this chilling message to his captors:

“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.’’

The battle crushed Timucuan resistance, but did it span a curse that plagued European development in the Suwannee River Valley and set forth a bloody cycle of kidnapping and murder?

A Tale of No Cities

John Lee Williams (1775-1856)
Photo Credit: WikiCommons.

The Spanish tried to tame the wild Suwannee River Valley with a series of missions, but English raids forced their desertion as if some curse kept civilization at bay. After the War of 1812, Florida became a US 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. Doctor Simmons and John Lee Williams hired a boat to travel up the Suwannee to a potential location the good doctor had previously scouted.

The location had the perfect combination of land access, navigable rivers, and fresh water for a state capital. This location is eerily similar to the ghost town of Columbus, where the high road crossed the Suwannee. The party repeatedly tried to find the true mouth of the Suwannee River between all of the tidal islands but were forced to give up. By default, Tallahassee is now the state capital and the Timucuan homeland remained wild and free.

The Second Battle of the Lakes

Battle of Olustee
Photo Credit: WikiCommons.

Eventually, civilization found its way to the banks of the Suwannee. In the 1800’s the thriving metropolis of Columbus formed 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. Was this Naptiuca’s curse rising up from the bloody swamps?

Suwannee And the Lincoln Assassination

Lewis Powell via Flickr
Photo Credit: Flickr.

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 hanged at the gallows at the Washington DC Arsenal.

A Full Gallow

Lewis Powell hanging
Photo Credit: Flickr.

There were four conspirators hanged 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 life drained from it.

Reverend Payne Long Journey Home

Lewis Powell skull via WikiCommons.
Photo Credits: WikiCommons.

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?

Of Greed and Ghost Towns

Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

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 the governor’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’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.

The Return to the Native

Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

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.

The first tract of land in Suwannee River State Park was added in 1939 with many more to follow. 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 via WikiCommons.
Photo Credit: WikiCommons.

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.

Ted’s Last Kill

White rusty abandoned compact van. Unnecessary malfunctioning car junk truck abandoned on the side of the road
Photo Credit: Deposit Photos.

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”.

The words 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. Ted was executed for her murder in the Raiford electric chair at 7:16 a.m. on January 24, 1989.

History Set Right?

Suwannee River State Park
Photo Credit: Jenn Coleman.

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?

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Girl on Yllas Swing Under the Midnight Sun by Eetu Leikas
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