Get Your Story Straight

Was Fort Lauderdale the site of a Seminole massacre? Or is Florida just confused?


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You walk along canals as the wild parrots scream in the palm trees above. The evening light delivers an array of pastels. A breeze kicks up from the east, blowing ocean smells across the road. Ocean salt crackles in the air, which is heavy and warm. The houses along the canal sit behind low walls. You can look into each yard, thick with semi-tropical growth. Everything grows here, all the time. You walk down further toward the ocean and the canals widen, turning into small rivers. You wander into a park. Is that a Quattrocento Florentine palazzo across the water? There is a small plaque in the park, unobtrusive. You stop to read. It says something about William Cooley and the New River Massacre. “I’ve never heard of William Cooley or the New River Massacre,” you think. What is this place? Where am I?

You, sir or madam, are in Fort Lauderdale in the fine state of Florida.


People have long noted that there is something different about Florida. It is the only state, it is said, where the further north you travel, the further south you get. There are other strange things about Florida. The flora and fauna come to mind. Alligators are always up to something in Florida. The laws can be unusual. I have heard that it is illegal, in the town of Sarasota, to sing in public while attired in a bathing suit. I cannot verify the truth or falsity of this alleged law. But the point here is not the truth. The point is that people are ready to believe nearly anything about Florida.

The reasons for this are, no doubt, complex. Florida is a state that has been growing and changing rapidly in recent decades. It is now the fourth most populous state in the Union. People are coming to Florida from other states, settling in a place they do not fully understand. Turmoil, as ever, breeds confusion. Add to this the fact that Florida, especially in its most southern parts, is practically a Caribbean nation. The country of Cuba is, famously, but 90 miles from the southern tip of Florida. The Bahamas are only 50 miles off the Florida coast.

The Caribbean identity of Florida goes back to its earliest days. The first European, probably, to step onto Florida’s shore was Juan Ponce de León, who sailed to Florida from Puerto Rico. Ponce de León was a Spaniard and right there we have something else unusual about Florida. The founding fathers of America are by and large a bunch of former Brits. The standard colonial history of the US is a story of Englishmen trying to solve English problems. The French do show up in the equation. Benjamin Franklin was always running off to Paris. Thomas Jefferson, too. The American Revolutionary War could never have been won without help from the French Navy. But the Englishmen play a starring role.

You rarely find a Spaniard in the founding narratives of this country. The early colonial history of Florida is, however, largely a Spanish story. And this brings us back to Juan Ponce de León. Ponce de León, as everyone knows who has ever heard of Ponce de León, came to Florida seeking the Fountain of Youth. Stories about The Fountain of Youth had been in circulation since ancient times. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus speaks about a Fountain of Youth. The Fountain was said to be a magical place. Immersing yourself in its waters would bring to any man or woman a renewed state of youthfulness. In the 16th century Caribbean of Ponce de León, the story of a New World Fountain of Youth was being circulated by a tribe of Native Americans known as Arawaks. According to the Arawaks, there was a land called Bimini to the Northwest. Bimini was said to contain great riches and restorative waters. And so, when Ponce de León took off toward the northwest, eventually stumbling upon Florida, the legend arose that he was really looking for The Fountain of Youth.

In fact, Ponce de León cared nothing for fountains. He was looking for something more tangible. Gold. Barring gold, he would take riches of any kind. Barring riches, he would accept cheap labor. Ponce de León, we should be clear, was a man after fortune. Most of the early conquistadors — the Spaniards who conquered the Aztecs, Incas, and other New World civilizations — were looking for gold. Ponce de León was more than happy to steal whatever gold he could find from the native inhabitants he encountered. But there wasn’t enough gold to be found that way. So, Ponce de León started up mining operations. He needed labor for those mines. On the island of Puerto Rico and on Hispaniola (the island split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic) Ponce de León went about forcing the Native American populations into becoming a cheap labor supply. The Native tribes sometimes, understandably, resisted this process. But Ponce de León was quite skilled at killing them when they tried.

The Spanish plan was to do pretty much the same thing in Florida as they had been doing throughout what is now Latin America. Wealth was extracted from the land by means of what has since become known as the hacienda system. The hacienda system wasn’t exactly slavery. It was forced labor at cheap prices, all of it kept in place by means of the gun. The Catholic Church helped too. The Jesuits and Franciscans in the New World were direct beneficiaries of the hacienda system, often owning vast tracts of land. A number of Missions were set up all around Florida in the 16th and 17th centuries. The hacienda system was revving its engines. All this ground to a halt in the mid 18th century, when Spain agreed to give Florida to the British in exchange for Cuba.

But for the accidents of history, Florida might today resemble the Dominican Republic, or even Haiti. That is to say, it would be what we refer to as a Third World or, more politely, a “developing” country. Instead, as we all know, Florida ended up as one of the United States of America. Before we start feeling good about this turn of events, let’s remind ourselves of what the British and then Americans were doing in those days. The Anglos wanted to replace the Spanish hacienda system with their own labor system, which was based upon African slavery. So Florida was, in effect, moving from a forced labor system into a slave labor system.

The Native American population was more or less a nuisance to the slave labor system. There is no reason to have cheap labor when the entire system is set up to have free labor. Plus, tremendous amounts of money were being made in transporting slave populations from Africa. The Native American populations of Florida did not fit very well into this equation.

This brings us back to William Cooley and the New River Settlement, now known as Fort Lauderdale. William Cooley was one of the first white settlers of Broward County on the southeast coast of Florida. He arrived in 1813, looking to start up an arrowroot plantation. Arrowroot was a profitable crop at that time. Cooley used African slaves on his plantation and, it seems, some Native American labor. He also traded with the nearby Seminole and Creek Indian tribes. Cooley was fast becoming a very rich man. With those riches came increased responsibility and political power. Cooley took a leading role in negotiations with the Native American tribes. War had already broken out between Seminoles and settlers once before in 1814.

In the year 1835, something went terribly wrong. White settlers killed a Creek chief named Alibama. The settlers were acquitted of the crime. The Creek Indians blamed Cooley. On January 4, 1836 Creek Indians entered William Cooley’s homestead while he was away on other business. Cooley’s wife tried to run away with their infant son. They were shot down in the yard. Cooley’s 9-year-old son was killed with a blow to the head. His daughter was shot. The Creek Indians set fire to the home and left. The Second Seminole War had begun (Creek Indians and Seminoles were often considered part of the same tribe).

By the end of the Third Seminole War there were only about 100 Seminoles left in Florida. The rest had been killed or forcibly shipped off to other states. This forced relocation, sometimes in chains, was all part of what was officially called the Indian Removal Act. The Native American tribes refer to it as the Trail of Tears. George W. Harkins, chief of the Choctaws, wrote an open letter to the people of America on February 25, 1832. It is one of the more heartbreaking documents of American history. Harkins wrote:

I ask you in the name of justice, for repose for myself and for my injured people. Let us alone — we will not harm you, we want rest. We hope, in the name of justice, that another outrage may never be committed against us, and that we may for the future be cared for as children, and not driven about as beasts, which are benefited by a change of pasture.

The few remaining Seminoles in Florida retreated to the inner swamps, where they can be found to this day. They are involved in agriculture and raising cattle. Seminoles on a reservation near Tampa opened the Sheraton Tampa East hotel in 1986. It is profitable.

William Cooley lived in Florida until his death. He fled the Fort Lauderdale area. It had become too dangerous. But he never supported the forced relocation of the Seminoles. He always felt that the tribe was much more valuable as a source of cheap labor.


A final note about that park in Fort Lauderdale with the plaque memorializing the Cooley Family: The park’s official name is Colee Hammock Park. You’ll notice that Cooley and Colee are two completely different names. Residents of Fort Lauderdale noticed the same thing. It turns out there was some confusion back in the days when the park was first established. A man named James Louis Colee was also a resident of the New River Settlement. But James Colee got to New River decades later than William Cooley. James Colee set up a work camp at the site of the park that now bares his name. James was a civil engineer. He was working on something called the Intracoastal Waterway project, a network of rivers and canals that runs down the Atlantic coast and all the way around through the Gulf Coast.

Somewhere along the line, the names Cooley and Colee got mixed up. The park is not the site of the massacre at all. The massacre occurred up the river a bit. But the people of Fort Lauderdale have decided that they want the plaque to stay in Colee Hammock Park anyway.

There is something very Florida about that decision. It is the decision to wear your own confusion on your sleeve. It is openly to acknowledge that you do not have your story straight. Every state in the USA and, for that matter, every region of every country on the planet has a story of trauma to tell. But in most places the story has been rehearsed time and time again. The edges have been rounded off. The story’s been cleaned up and made digestible. Florida hasn’t figured out how to do that yet. A cynic might consider this the result of indifference. I like to think of it as a form of honesty. Not many places would memorialize the terrible massacre of a slave owner’s family by creating a park named after an entirely different, and otherwise unknown, civil engineer. But this is Florida, where honesty comes with a large dose of confusion. • 25 March 2013