Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Picnic Shooting at Blue Hole (September 28, 1869)

The Run from Blue Hole as it appears today
On September 28, 1869, a shooting near Blue Hole Spring in Jackson County ignited one of the bloodiest confrontations of the Reconstruction era, not just in Florida but in the entire South.

The event has grown in magnitude over the years until some recent writers have described it as a "massacre" while others point to it as an example of political assassination by an organized band of "regulators" determined to stamp out justice and fair treatment for black citizens freed from slavery just four years earlier.

The site of the incident is inside today's Florida Caverns State Park. The Blue Hole Spring still flows, but a cave collapse in recent years has changed its appearance in a dramatic way from the popular swimming place enjoyed by thousands of visitors since the opening of the park more than sixty years ago. It is a peaceful place today, where visitors to the park can reflect on nature and history and enjoy boardwalks and foot bridges.  A small swimming spot remains, but is seldom open due to changes in the clarity of the water.

Blue Hole prior to the cave collapse
The Blue Hole and the nearby Natural Bridge of the Chipola River have been popular picnic areas since long before the Civil War. On September 28, 1869, a large group of former slaves or "freedmen" were making their way to the spring for a picnic and gathering when the incident took place.

There are several versions of what happened, but the basic facts are these:  Calvin Rogers, the black Reconstruction era constable of Jackson County was leading the party along the road to the spring when for some reason he walked ahead of the main group and disappeared around a bend in the road. From his unseen location, Rogers suddenly called out that he had been shot at, although no eyewitness described hearing a gunshot:

...He then called for Wyatt Scurlock, one of his friends, who on his approach to Rogers caught up a child, and he and the child were killed by one shot from some unknown person. Rogers, with the party, returned to Marianna, and with a party of whites and blacks, went in search of the murderer. They could find no clue to the perpetrator of the deed. (Macon Telegraph, 10/15/1869)

Blue Hole Spring as it appears today.
The incident was tragic and could not have come at a worse time for the citizens of Jackson County. Just four days earlier the county's government appointed carpetbagger sheriff, John W. King, had vanished taking with him a noteworthy sum of the county's funds.  With the constable involved in the shooting in one way or another, the people had no law enforcement officer to turn to for help in solving the crime.

A coroner's inquest was held, the members of which determined that Scurlock and the child had been killed by a shot fired by an unknown person. A posse was organized and a search conducted of the area, but no trace of the murderer with the possible exception of some prints from a horse could be found. Both the coroner's jury and the posse were made up of both black and white citizens.

Far from being the "massacre" described in some modern accounts, the picnic shooting was tragic and, unfortunately, never was solved. The blame  for this largely rests on the occupation government that controlled Florida during the Reconstruction era. A competent and trustworthy sheriff was not appointed for Jackson County and the citizens had no one in whom they could depend for a reasonable investigation.

The facts of the incident are extremely strange. Why did Calvin Rogers walk ahead of the group and out of sight at the time of the shooting? Why did he call specifically for Scurlock from an unseen location after claiming that a shot no one else could hear had been fired at him?  Under the circumstances, it might seem reasonable that Rogers himself should have been a suspect in the murders, but he never became the focus of an investigation and events over the next few days became so violent that they obscured the incident at Blue Hole Spring.

The citizens of the county held a public meeting in the wake of the shooting and a number of the principal business leaders of Marianna offered a reward for the apprehension of the person or persons responsible. The reward was never claimed and the murders of Scurlock and the child became more statistics of what is remembered today as the Jackson County Reconstruction War.


Terry Sirmans said...

Thanks Dale. I've never heard of this incident. I have missed your posts on this site.

Dale Cox said...

Terry, Thanks for the note. I will try to get back to posting a little more regularly. I had been in a crush finishing the Ghost of Bellamy Bridge and Scott Massacre of 1817 books. Now that they are out, I should have a little more time again.