Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dozier School "Mystery Graves" were there in 1940

USDA Aerial Photographs Show “Controversial” Cemetery Existed Before World War II
by Dale Cox

The little cemetery near Dozier School that has been the subject of so much controversy of late actually existed for decades prior to the current allegations. In fact, aerial photographs taken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture clearly show that the cemetery was part of the Marianna landscape as early as 1940.
Historical records indicate that most of the graves in the burial ground, which is located on the hill behind the Jackson County Correctional Complex, probably date from 1914 and 1918.
A deadly accidental fire took place at what was then the Florida Reform School in 1914, claiming the lives of six students and two staff members. A Jackson County Grand Jury report indicates that the fire was caused either by a faulty heater or spontaneous combustion from a nearby pile of oily rags. Regardless of the cause, however, it quickly spread through a dormitory at the school threatening the lives of everyone inside.
While more than fifty students were led to safety by staff members, five other students and two staff members were trapped by the flames. Grand Jury records indicate that a desperate effort was made to save them. Several staff members, including the facility’s superintendent, received severe burns in an unsuccessful effort to reach the unfortunate individuals. A sixth student died after he ran back into the building to try to save one of the staff members. A letter written in 1914 from the superintendent to the mother of one of the victims indicates that those who died in the fire were burned beyond recognition and were buried on the grounds.
A second tragedy at the school in 1918 claimed at least 13 more lives. According to U.S. health records, what is now Dozier School was severely impacted by the terrible influenza epidemic that year that killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. A federal health inspector visited the Florida Reform School and found that hundreds of students and all of the staff members were severely ill with the flu. According to his report, one dozen students and one staff member had already died in the epidemic and many others were near death.
These two incidents alone count for the deaths of at least 21 people at the school prior to 1920, all of whom are believed to have been buried on the grounds. Records also verify the deaths of other individuals at the school over the years, from causes ranging from accidental drowning to the murder of a student by another student.
The fact that the little cemetery there existed during the early 1900s can be confirmed by aerial photographs taken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A series of photographs taken through the 1940s show that the Dozier Cemetery then looked much as it does today. The initial photograph, taken in 1940, shows the cemetery on the hilltop where itcan still be seen. . Another, taken in 1960, shows the cemetery surrounded by trees as it is today.

While this new evidence does not prove or disprove the stories of abuse at the school, it does show that the little cemetery has been a part of the Jackson County landscape for nearly sixty years.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Early Settlers of Jackson County, Florida

By Dale Cox

The smoke had barely cleared from the First Seminole War when the first settlers began to make their way back to the rich lands they had explored with Andrew Jackson in 1818. It was a risky proposition at best. The area that would become Jackson County was still Spanish territory at the time and there was the possibility of violent confrontation with Native American warriors still angered over their losses in the war.
Despite such dangers, however, several dozen frontier families made their way into the area by 1820. Their initial settlements were along Spring Creek in the Campbellton area, on the old Indian fields along Irwin’s Mill Creek and along the Apalachicola River south of the Native American towns of Tomatley and Choconicla.
Some of the names of these first settlers are recognizable in Jackson County today. The Spring Creek settlement, for example, included John Williams, James Falk, William T. Nelson, Abraham Philips, Benjamin Hamilton, Owen Williams, Micajah Cadwell, Joseph Parrot, John Ward, Nathan A. Ward, William Philips, James Ward, Andrew Farmer, Robert Thomas, John Hays, Samuel C. Fowler, Nathaniel Hudson, Wilie Blount, Moses Brantley, Robert Thompson, Guthrie Moore, Stephen Daniel, John Gwinn, John Jones, Allaway Roach, Henry Moses, Joel Porter, Simeon Cook, James C. Roach, John Smith and Presley Scurlock.
Their farms stretched from Holmes Creek on the west across the present site of Campbellton and then down Spring Creek to its junction with the headwaters of the Chipola River. To the south their lands extended about as far down as today’s Waddell’s Mill Pond, while to the north other settlements lay just across the Alabama line.
None of these farms were the large plantations for which Jackson County later became known. The largest had around 40 acres in cultivation, but the average settler farmed less than 15 acres. It was a start, though, and qualified each of them to later claim 640 acres after Florida was ceded by Spain to the United States in 1821.
The settlement at Irwin’s Mill Creek, then called “Conchatty Hatchy” or “Red Ground Creek,” included Joseph Brown, William Brown, Joseph Brooks, William Chamblis, James Irwin, Adam Kimbrough, William McDonald, William H. Pyke, George Sharp and Allis Wood.
Down on the Apalachicola, meanwhile, were Charles Barnes, Adam Hunter, John H. King and Reuben Littleton. These men all lived along the stretch of the river north Ocheesee Bluff, where Thomas and Stephen Richards had settled.
Other settlers known to have been in Jackson County prior to 1821 included James Dennard, Jonathan Hagan, John Hopson, Hugh Robertson, Joshua Scurlock and Robert Sullivan, all of whom settled along the upper Chipola east of the Spring Creek settlement, and William Pyles who staked a claim at Blue Spring.
Note: This article is excerpted from The History of Jackson County, Florida: The Early Years. The book is available at Chipola River Book and Tea in Downtown Marianna or online at

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Second Seminole War Attack in Jackson County

By Dale Cox

Fought in virtually every corner of Florida, the Second Seminole War was a bloody conflict that deteriorated into guerrilla raids by the forces of both sides. Jackson County became the target of such a raid in July of 1841 when a party of Creek warriors emerged from the swamps south of Marianna and attacked the home of Morris Simms.

According to a report carried by newspapers across the nation, the attack took place with around 30 warriors struck the Simms’ home, located near the Chipola River about 12 miles south of Marianna. Subsequent events indicate that the warriors responsible for the raid were part of a group that had eluded capture by hiding with their families deep in what was then a wilderness area surrounding St. Andrew Bay. Between 1840 and 1844 they carried out a series of raids against isolated farms and homes, primarily to obtain food and other supplies.

The attacks were usually swift and bloody. In the attack on the Simms’ settlement, for example, the warriors killed two of Morris Simms’ young daughters. “The little girls were found in the cowpen,” read a letter received in Tallahassee from Marianna, “pierced with spiked arrows, and their brains dashed out with lightwood knots.” The oldest of the girls was seven, while the youngest was only two.

The war party also carried away a large quantity of bacon from the smokehouse, a barrel of flour and any other provisions it could find, before killing two hogs and crippling Simms’ horses by shooting barbed arrows into their legs.

Such attacks, sadly, were commonplace during the war and were not limited to Indian warriors. A party of Jackson County militia had been accused four years earlier of killing a number of women and children in a brutal massacre in Walton County.

As soon as news of the raid was received in Marianna, a group of local men took up arms and formed into a volunteer company. Led by Major Bryan, the rode south to the Simms’ settlement. They reached the scene of the attack and managed to pick up the trail of the retreating warriors, “but they had made good their retreat, and their trail could be traced no further than a hammock some three or four miles from the scene of the outrage.”

News of the Simms’ attack prompted the U.S. Army to send regular troops into the region. In November of 1841, about four months after the raid, Lieutenant James W. Smith and a company of men from the 3rd U.S. Infantry established Fort Chipola south of Marianna. Located where the Federal Road crossed the Chipola River on the Jackson-Calhoun line, the fort served as a base for operations against scattered parties of Indians in the region for at least the next year.

Note: This article is excerpted from my 2008 book, The History of Jackson County, Florida: The Early Years. The book is available at Chipola River Book and Tea in Downtown Marianna or online at