Friday, May 5, 2017

Thirty-seven years asleep in a Marianna cave?!

Stunning formations at Florida Caverns
State Park in Marianna, Florida.
The caves of the Marianna area and Florida Caverns State Park were places of mystery, legend and sometimes even hiding for our ancestors.

Creek and Seminole families hid in caves during the First Seminole War. They were the first stop on the Underground Railroad for African-Americans escaping slavery. Women, children and the elderly used them as hiding places during the Battle of Marianna. Outlaws frequented out of the way caverns during reconstruction and moonshiners made use of more than one during Prohibition!

In one case - if the media is to be believed - a man even stayed inside one for 37 years!

The story appeared in a New York newspaper in 1887 and was picked up by other papers across the nation:

...A few days ago there appeared upon the register of the Fifth Avenue hotel the name of a gentleman from Marianna, Fla. He was a good talker, and told a most extraordinary tale of an occurrence that took place in the neighborhood of his home town. It is believed by everybody in that section of the state, "and," said the narrator, "I am not prepared to say it is not true, as more than half the people in that town saw the hero of the story." - (New York Graphic, 1888).

Billy Bailey of Florida Caverns State Park explores
the narrow passages of Old Indian Cave.
The incident originated from a large cavern 2 miles from Marianna. Tradition identifies this as the Natural Bridge or "Old Indian" Cave at today's Florida Caverns State Park. That cave, however, does not have a spring or karst window inside as the story relates:

...On April 1, 1884, a party of explorers consisting of two gentlemen and five ladies, visited the cave. They followed the path that led to a point known as "The Spring," where a bold stream of cold clear water gushed forth from the rock, and flowed in a rivulet for some fifty feet and disappeared under a mass of detached fragments of limestone. - (New York Graphic, 1888).

It may or may not be significant that the date of this expedition was given as April Fool's Day.

The South America Pool during a time of low water. The rim
of the pool approximates the shape of South America.
There are a number of caves immediately around Marianna that match the description given in the article. The "South America Pool" in the tour cave at Florida Caverns State Park forms a rivulet of clear water at times and the Ladies' Cave west of the park has a strong-flowing stream of water. Both are within 2 miles of Marianna.

It was after the party of explorers reached "the Spring" that the story got really interesting:

...[O]ne of the gentlemen of the party, with his cane, detached a jutting rock particularly brilliant with mica spangles from what seemed the solid wall of rock. A large mass of loosened rock followed the fragments with a crash which reverberated hundreds of times throughout the cavernous depths. Then it was an astonishing sight met the eyes of the party which at first rendered them motionless with horror and fright. A hitherto unknown chamber was seen through the aperture, and but a few feet away, apparently motionless as the stone floor on which it lay, was the body of a man clad in the habiliments of a soldier, with his musket beside him. - (New York Graphic 1888).

Kelly Banta of Florida Caverns State Park guides a tour
through an enchanted forest of columns and formations.
It took a few minutes for the explorers to recover their senses enough to move closer. The man did not appear to be breathing but neither did he show signs of being dead. The two male explorers tried to lift the body which caused its rotten clothing and equipment to fall away. They wrapped it in a waterproof coat and carried it to the banks of the underground spring. The ladies of the party made their way out to daylight and headed to Marianna in their carriage to alert the citizens.

The two gentlemen explorers located two other men nearby and with them reentered the cave:

...They went directly to the spring. To their astonishment they found that the man supposed to be dead was living with half open eyes, breathing stertorously, while a faint color tinged his cheek. Examination disclosed rapid but distinct pulsation. The horrified men carried the phenomenon to the open air outside the cave as quickly as the burden would allow. -  (New York Graphic, 1888).

The men succeeded in getting the "phenomenon" to take a few sips of brandy and then took him to a nearby cabin. They left him there and started for town but quickly ran into a group of some 50 townspeople on its way to the cave. The crowd went to the cabin and the mysterious stranger was examined by several of Marianna's doctors.

The tour cave at Florida Caverns State Park offers visitors
an incredible array of formations and colors.
They gave him stimulants and he soon recovered enough to talk but due to his weakness the physicians would not allow him to be asked questions until the following day. He then told the following story:

...He said that in 1837 he was sent from Pensacola to Fort Dade with important military papers. When near Marianna he was followed by a band of Choctaws, who had gone on the warpath in sympathy with their Seminole brethren.
   Being hard pressed, he abandoned his horse and finding a hole in the ground he squeezed into it, and fearing the Indians would discover his trail, went some distance into the cave, when he suddenly felt a difficulty in respiration, a feeling of drowsiness came over him, and he remembered no further. - New York Graphic, 1888).

The story is definitely bizarre but it includes some little known true facts. Probably the most significant is that there was a handful of Choctaw warriors with a group of Creek Indians that fled into the Florida Panhandle following the Battle of Hobdy's Bridge, Alabama, in February 1837. This fact is so obscure that many modern researchers of the Seminole War are not aware of it.

The Cathedral formation at Florida Caverns State Park. Did a
Seminole War soldier really spend 37 years in such a cave?
Also of significance is the mention of Fort Dade, a Seminole War log fort that should not be confused with a later Fort Dade that is open to the public on Mullet Key near St. Petersburg. The original Fort Dade was built in 1837 where the historic Fort King Road crossed the Withlacoochee River near today's community of Lacoochee, Florida.

The New York newspaper's account of this Florida "Rip Van Winkle" concludes:

...It was hard to make the soldier believe that thirty-seven years had passed while he lay in coma, and that the fields of rice, sugar cane and cotton which dotted the landscape were the same wilderness through which he had been chased by the Indians. He seemed to be of a retiring disposition, and did not care to pose as an object of curiosity, and when his strength fully returned disappeared, and was never afterwards heard of. - (New York Graphic, 1888).

Could a Seminole War soldier really have slept for 37 years in a Marianna cave? The writer of the story's original headline probably summed it up best: "A story that the guileless people of Florida unhesitatingly believe."

Dale Cox
May 4, 2017

P.S. To hear the version of this legend as told today and to journey into Old Indian Cave at Florida Caverns State Park, please click play on this video:

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