Tuesday, May 13, 2014

#75 The Headless Indian Chief of Sneads (100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida)

Looking across to Jackson County on a foggy day.
The bizarre and tragic legend of the Headless Indian Chief of Sneads is #75 on our list of 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida.

Please click here to see the entire list as it is unveiled.

There is an old legend told by people who fish in the Apalachicola River between Sneads and the neighboring Gadsden County city of Chattahoochee. When conditions are just right and fog rises from the river to fill the vast swamp on the Jackson County side, the ghostly figure of a headless American Indian chief appears on the riverbank. He stands there in silence, as if in mourning over the disappearance of his people.

I first heard this ghost story when I was a child but never knew until about 10 years ago that there is a stunning true story behind it.

American Indian village of the 1830s.
The roots of the legend can be traced to the Creek War of 1836. In the spring of that year a portion of the Creek Nation rose up against white settlers in Alabama and Georgia in a final desperate attempt to halt plans to remove the entire nation to new lands west of the Mississippi. The odds against the warriors were overwhelming and they fought even knowing that they stood no real chance.

The war quickly went against them as U.S. troops and state militia forces from Alabama and Georgia moved in on the Creeks from all directions. As the fighting came to an end, soldiers forced the Creek men, women and children from their homes and into "emigration" camps to be forcefully removed from their homes and sent west on the Trail of Tears. Some warriors were arrested and tried for taking part in the war. Among them were three of my Yuchi Creek ancestors who were hanged at what is now Phenix City, Alabama.

Among the Creek chiefs at this time was a respected man named Coa-hadjo (not to be confused with the Seminole leader of the same name). As his people were disarmed and forced into an emigration camp, they were set upon by an outlaw group of militia soldiers who assaulted women, robbed people of jewelry and other valuables and generally terrorized the people of Coa-hadjo's band. Infuriated, he led his people out of the camp during the night and into the swamps of the upper Pea River.

They were driven from there south into what is now Walton County, Florida, where they engaged in a series of fights with white settlers and Florida militia troops. They eventually wound up making their way east through what is now Bay County. Desperate to prevent them from carrying out additional attacks, the interpreter Stephen Richards left Ocheesee Bluff and sought them out. Through his intervention they were convinced to surrender.

Seminole town in Jackson County, 1838
Richards brought them into Jackson County to Walker's Town, a village of Apalachicola Seminoles that stood just south of U.S. 90 on the high ground back from the Apalachicola River near today's Sneads. John Walker, the chief of the town, agreed to let them live among his people until the government provided transportation for them to all move west together.

Coa-hadjo, however, was stabbed to death by one of Walker's warriors. The people of the town prevented a war between the two bands by executing the murderer. When the people of Walker's town began their long journey west on the Trail of Tears, the graves of their ancestors and friends were left behind. One of these was that of Coa-hadjo.

One year later, Dr. Joseph Buchanan of Cincinnati, Ohio, wrote a letter from Pensacola in which he noted that he had obtained the skulls of Coa-hadjo and his murderer, a warrior named Lewis, as well as that of the long dead chief Mulatto King. Whether he dug them up himself or paid someone to steal them for him is not known. The bodies of the three men were left behind as Buchanan was interested only in their heads.

Jackson County shore as seen from Chattahoochee Landing
Buchanan was a phrenologist. This now extinct term referred to a scientist who believed he could determine the intelligence and personality of a person by examining the shape of their head. It was quack science and the exhumation of the graves of Coa-hadjo, Lewis and Mulatto King was a sacrilege.

The heads of the three American Indians were added to Buchanan's vast collection and what became of them is not known to this day. It was from this incident, however, that the legend of the Headless Indian Chief appears to have grown.

Does one of the three men appear on the banks of the Apalachicola in ghostly form to mourn the disappearance of his people on the Trail of Tears? I can't answer that question. I can say that each time I visit Chattahoochee Landing across the river on a foggy or rainy day, I always feel a bit of a chill run down my spine as I look across to the Jackson County shore and wonder if the headless chief will appear.

While the story is based on tragic events, the legend is an important part of the American Indian culture of our area and for that reason it is one of the 100 Great Things about Jackson County, Florida.

The story of the Headless Indian Chief of Sneads is one of the ten additional stories included in my book, The Ghost of Bellamy Bridge. It is available from Amazon in either book or Kindle format:

(Book) The Ghost of Bellamy Bridge: 10 Ghosts & Monsters from Jackson County, Florida

(Kindle) The Ghost of Bellamy Bridge

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