Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

On the landscape, history records the waxing and waning of many human habitations and civilizations. 

Their ruins are pondered by modern archeologists.  The reasons behind their disappearances sometimes are known; in other cases, mystery surrounds the demise of a particular site.

Rosweood (frontispiece)Credit: Vic Dillinger™, © 2012
In North America there are many abandoned towns and hamlets, called “ghost towns”, whose time had simply run out.  Boomtowns sprang up in the wake of mineral or precious metals discoveries (such as Tombstone, Arizona, and Silver City, Colorado).  Many died suddenly when their gold veins or silver strikes petered out.  Many others flourished and live on maps today, sometimes for dubious reasons.   

Dodge City, Kansas, for example, once the terminus of “The Long Drive”, would have become a ghost town if not for its historic denizens.  Cowboys and range riders once herded cattle from Texas to a railhead in Dodge City for transport to major markets.  After railways developed enough so cattle could be moved from closer to their sources in Texas, Dodge City fell into decline.  It only survives today as a tourist destination.  Its past characters keep it alive: the ghosts of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Big Nose Kate, and others. 

Tombstone, Arizona, also only exists because of tourism.  One of the most famous vendettas of the Old West was brought to a head in its streets when Wyatt Earp, along with his brothers and Doc Holliday, gunned down several cowboy rowdies in the misnamed “Gunfight at the OK Corral”.  

Many once thriving communities did not survive, however, and politics and social climate brought ruin.  Storyville, a city within a city, was an area segregated by the sex trade in New Orleans.  The city blocked off several square miles within its limits and allowed legal prostitution in a clearly defined area from the late 19th century until about World War I.  The Volstead Act (Prohibition, criminalizing the possession and consumption of alcohol in the United States) and an ultra-conservative swing in “values” led to the demise of this zone. Ghosts of StoryvilleCredit: Vic Dillingerâ„¢, © 2011Ghost towns dot America’s face.  Some fall victim to Nature.  Others are mysteriously depopulated in a mass exodus that can only be guessed at.  Still others are destroyed by social conditions such as racism.

Some of the most interesting of these vanished villages were populated by a broad spectrum of humanity: Native Americans, white Europeans, and African-Americans. 

Mound City
When the first Europeans (the Spanish) ventured onto the mainland soil of the Americas they found a thriving civilization in the Aztecs.  Evidence was found as well of other complex cultures (as with the Mayans and Incas). 

In North America, for centuries, it was never thought the Natives living there had anything other than loose alliances and confederacies, wandering in nomadic bands as driven by the seasons and hunting needs.  The idea of “city”, Europeans thought, had never been fully developed by the aboriginals in North America.

Cahokia, the abandoned center of a once vast trading and political Native American cultural network, disabused all naysayers of that notion.  The remains of a large centralized hub of government and culture exist today as a series of rammed-earth mounds near the eastern shore of the Mississippi River in Illinois.

Mound building in North America served several purposes.  The first was as burial mounds, wherein Natives consigned their dead to the earth and mounds rose with each successive generation.  Other mounds are nothing more than the accumulation of human detritus – in other words, many Indian mounds are but refuse heaps, again accreted over decades and centuries.  Finally, Native Americans also built mounds (such as Snake Mound in Ohio) that were ceremonial and totemic in nature and served only as symbols (although sometimes bones or pottery sherds are found in them). Cahokia (artists interpretation)Credit: William IsemingerCahokia, Illinois, however, boasts perhaps the only known remaining examples of mounds as administrative complexes for government, trade, and ceremony.  This archeological, historic, and cultural site (one of only eight in the world), has its origins in the Middle Mississippian Period of Native American culture in North America.

This era, roughly spanning 1200 CE to about 1500 CE, recorded the archaeological history of many cultures ranging along the Ohio River Valley into the mid Mississippi and Missouri rivers’ flood plains.  The surviving mounds in Cahokia, Illinois, show obvious signs of erosion and modern human activities – many of the mounds were removed in the late 19th and early 20th century for fill dirt by local farmers.

Eighty-five separate mounds, along with an interesting monumental structure made from a circular arrangement of wooden poles (that seems to work as a seasonal calendar much like Stonehenge), are guarded in a National Park preserving thousands of acres. 

The mounds are made of dirt, rammed earth that was brought into place by people carrying woven baskets of fill on their heads and backs.  The largest is a truncated, stepped, pyramidal mound.  It was given the European name of “Monks Mound” (named for the French monks who once lived in its shadow), and it is an impressive 100 feet high.  It has an estimated 22 million cubic feet of dirt.  The base covers an area of 14 acres (larger than the base of Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Khufu).  

Monks Mound, Cahokia, ILCredit: wiki commons

The mounds’ purpose was the same as any other monumental architecture – to impress.  Whatever aboriginal group that had America’s first city built and controlled it was very powerful.  Local tribes, and those from several hundred miles away in Mississippi and Arkansas, are known to have brought goods as tribute to Cahokia. 

The mounds were first described in 1811 by an explorer stumbling upon them while surveying the surrounding plains.  The pyramidal structures led him to equate them with Egypt’s pyramid, and the comparison stuck – today, that part of Southern Illinois is called “Little Egypt”, and the town name of Cairo (incorrectly pronounced “KAY-roe” by the locals) bears out the dubious connection.  Upon discovery, though, no one thought the mounds were of Native American origin – no one had seen such an obvious sign of “civilization” among the aboriginals up to then.  The mounds were attributed to a mysterious and long dead race of unknowns.

Finally, it was realized that mysterious men and women did not build the mounds but, rather, they had been laboriously constructed by Natives, one basket of dirt at a time.  This had to be an impressive undertaking – there were no draft animals in North America except humans when the mounds were built.  The largest native land animal, the bison, was not domesticated (horses and cows were not brought in until late in the 16th century). Thus, raw manual labor built the Great Cahokia Pyramid and all its lesser structures. 

The fate of the mound builders is unknown.  The major mounds are dated as having been constructed very rapidly around 1050 CE (as one archeologist put it, “almost overnight”).  The cultural remains are rich and have been instrumental in helping understand the Natives from the periods.  For example, remains of ritual human sacrifice have been found (akin to the Aztecs); this represented a very fundamental change in common beliefs about Natives as relatively benign in their criminal practices. 

The name “Cahokia” was taken from a tribe found living in the area in the 1600s.  The original occupants remain nameless, but much has been inferred.  High-status corpses were found with elaborate burial objects surrounding them.  Evidence of thousands of permanent homes has been unearthed along with the attendant signs of human occupation.  The population of the city complex is estimated to have been between 10,000 and 15,000 people with another roughly 20,000 to 30,000 in the surrounding area supporting it economically.

The city thrived and survived for about 300 years.  Recent evidence shows climate change may have diminished the surrounding land’s ability to produce food by shortening the growing season.  Also, evidence of a series of a defensive stockade around the city (built and maintained 1125 CE and 1275 CE) might indicate it was routinely besieged by hostiles.  By the time of Columbus’ first trans-Atlantic voyage, the city was abandoned and in ruin, and most of the area was depopulated so heavily that archeologists refer to the area as “The Vacant Quarter”.

The fate of the mound builders remains a mystery – to date, only about 1% of the complex has been excavated and interpreted.  Standing atop Monks Mound, however, is quite thrilling – the view is astounding, and it does give a visitor a sense of awe to realize this huge mountain of earth was dropped into place one basketful at a time.  And it still survives.

Most of the “mystery” of the Lost Colony of Roanoke has been addressed; continual excavation and research provides much new information.  However, there remains a romance and a Roanoke (Virginia land grant), 1584 mapCredit: public domaindisquieting sense of uncertainty about the disappearance of an entire colony of English settlers on a little island off the coast of North Carolina.  The only solid clue to the vanished 90 men, 17 women, and 11 children, was the single word “Croatan” carved in a tree.

The Roanoke colony had been established in 1585.  The colony was part of Virginia (now North Carolina), and the little island was a sheltered refuge, safe from the swampy mess of the mainland and potential marauding natives.  Most school children learn of Virginia Dare, the first English baby born on North American soil (in 1587); she drew her first breath on Roanoke. 

In the beginning of Europe’s incursion, the Natives were helpful to the point of paving the way later for their own genocide.  They were usually not hostile without provocation, and in fact they helped many settlers establish themselves and to survive by giving them food from the Indians’ own stores.  Most of the English got along with the Natives as well, and a relatively peaceful, if not always cozy, co-existence developed (as recorded for the Jamestown, Virginia, settlement, and the later Puritan experience in New England).

This level of co-existence was never reached in establishing the Roanoke colony, though. During the early exploration of the mainland a Native group was accused of stealing a silver cup, and their Native village was sacked and burned in retaliation by the exploring European party.   

The intended colony was located on the north end of the little island of Roanoke (which is only about 12 miles long and averaging about 3 miles wide) for defense and protection.  Near Roanoke Island lived a group of Natives on Croatan Island (now Hatteras Island).  Trade and intercourse between the two groups was sporadic, and sometimes the neighboring natives raided the village for stores.  Some of the European men, sick of living poorly, took up with Native women and went to live with the Croatans. 

Sir Walter Raleigh had founded the colony expedition (although he personally never set foot in the New World), and it was not succeeding.  The object of colonization was to flourish and to exploit natural resources to send back to England for profit (such as timber or precious metals).  Much like the Jamestown colony, the people on Roanoke lived a hard-scrabble, subsistence existence.  They were psychically and materially ill-equipped to handle the harshness of a wilderness environment.  The climate lent itself to disease as well; malarial mosquitoes thrived as did other bacterial diseases.  The colonists were continually on the verge of starvation, and if not for occasional trade with the Natives, they certainly would have died.  In fact, one of the early ships carrying their food supplies at the outset of establishing a beach head foundered on rocks, and the food was ruined.  A governor was left in place, a man named Lane, and the balance of the expeditionary party, led by Sir Richard Grenville, left to go back to England for more food, more equipment, and more people.  He promised to return by April 1586.

Relations with the Natives were still Roanoke Colony scene (engraving)Credit: public domaintouch-and-go with frequent raids brought on by memory of the sacked Indian village on the mainland.  The colonists struggled, trying to survive until Grenville returned with supply ships.  He never showed up, and when Sir Francis Drake passed by after April 1586, he stopped off and offered to evacuate the colonists.  They agreed and abandoned the place for home.

Raleigh organized a second colonial expedition (he had seven years to show a profit or he would lose his colonial charter), and he shipped 150 people off to the abandoned Roanoke site in 1587.  An artist and friend of Raleigh’s, John White, was appointed governor of the new group.  They arrived to re-establish the Roanoke colony.  John White tried in vain to cultivate friendly relations with the area Natives (who had been sorely antagonized by the previous governor), but they (understandably) refused to barter or talk with him or his group.  A lone colonist was killed by Natives while he was hunting crabs – the remaining colonists prevailed upon Governor White to go back to England for reinforcements.  White left in late 1587.

Circumstances (war with Spain at sea, the ship’s captain’s refusal to sail in winter, etc.) delayed White’s return to the New World until sometime in the spring of 1588.  However, England was operating its merchant ships as privateers as well – the captains of the two small supply ships White consigned and the crews saw an opportunity to plunder some Spanish ships on the way.  This did not go well for them: the Spaniards stripped them of their stores, and allowed the empty ships to return to England with skeleton crews.

War with Spain meant much caution was needed for ocean voyages, and White was delayed again in finding another ship.  He finally hitched a ride with a privateer (read: “pirate”) who agreed to drop him and his supplies off at Roanoke en route to the Caribbean.  White and his party arrived at the island on August 15, 1590.

The colony was abandoned, with no sign of what happened.  The word “Croatan” was carved on a tree.  Elsewhere, the three letters “C-R-O” were carved into a wooden post. 

White concluded the people had been captured by hostiles or had willingly abandoned the site.  Either way, he concluded the Croatan Indians were involved, and he assumed the colonists were either captive as slaves, dead, or willing guest of the Natives.  A storm was brewing at sea, and his men refused to sail any further, so he never conducted a search of Croatan Island. Instead, after the storm blew over, the ship (with White) sailed away.

Sir Walter Raleigh, still trying to turn a profit from his Roanoke failure, secured financing for another expedition to the area.  His public reason was to find the Lost Colonists, but privately the ship’s complement had orders to secure certain aromatic woods and plants (such as sassafras) for exploitation and profit.  The ship completed its biopiracy raid, but a storm turned them back along the Outer Banks, forcing them to abandon the search for The Lost Colony.  Raleigh, meanwhile had been arrested for treason by the king, and could arrange no more treks.  He was later executed.

Sporadic attempts to find the Lost Colony or explain its disappearance were made over the intervening years without success.  Even today, the best explanation lies in the accounts of later explorers and settlers in the area.  Reports of strange, lighter-skinned, grey- and blued-eyed Indians were noted.  The simple truth is the colonists, tiring of constant vigilance and starvation, probably willingly evacuated and begged to go live with the Natives (of which there were several groups).  DNA analyses are under way from known descendants of Native Americans of the area and period and of the European descendants – the DNA ties will at least determine if assimilation occurred, and how blue-eyed Indians came into being.  

Nature can be an ugly and unstoppable force, and it is indiscriminate in the justice it dispenses. 
A little Native American village that had been occupied continually for at least 2000 years was wiped out in an instant, without warning, in about 1700. Ozette Village (ca. 1890)Credit: public domain

The Makah people lived on the eastern shore of Lake Ozette (in Clallam County, Washington, about 3 miles or so from the Pacific coast on the Olympic Peninsula).  This home site had been continually occupied for over two millennia.  The Makah survived largely by lake fishing, and the nearby ocean provided whales and seals, salmon, and halibut. 

A mudslide suddenly covered most of the village from the slopes of a nearby bluff.  The surviving Makah clung to the shore in a hamlet (now gone) called Ozette.  The Ozette Indian Reservation is nearby and stretches along the shore of the Pacific.

Excavations in the area began with test drillings in 1966 and 1967.  The richness of this site was not understood until 1970, though, when six long houses, in a perfect state of preservation, were found beneath the mud that had covered it for almost three hundred years.  Surprisingly, among the over 55,000 artifacts recovered from this primitive site, over 30,000 of them are wood, a substance that does not last long in an uncontrolled environment.

Ozette Indian Village Archaeological SiteCredit: US Govt., public domain

Archaeologists have found (among other items) toys; sharpened beaver teeth (probably used as awls or scrapers); bows and arrows; eating utensils and knives made of mussel shell; and ornamental objects of whale and seal bone.  They also unearthed iron artifacts (the Makah did not have forging technology, and it is theorized the iron pieces found and shaped came from nails and other iron fixtures washed ashore attached to ship-wood wreckage adrift from Asia). 

The Makah’s oral history makes reference to “The Great Slide”, and it is only in the 11 years of active excavation that this little group of Natives was given its cultural due.  The mudslide site is preserved and protected by the United States Government.   It was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1974; it is now called the Ozette Indian Village Archaeological Site.  In 1979, a cultural resource center dedicated to the long-house Makahs was opened (The Makah Museum) and features replicas of their cedar long-houses and canoes.  It also displays many of the artifacts from the collection. 

Cahokia and its many monumental mounds represent the zenith of Indian civilization in terms of complexity.  The little Makah village under the mud is just as important, and maybe more – the site of occupation would have been one of the first areas settled by migrant Asians populating North America millennia ago via the Bering Strait land bridge.  That means the Makah were probably directly descended from some of the first humans to occupy the country, making them, perhaps, the truest Native Americans. 

Nature cares little for grand designs of its lesser life forms.  The first capital of Illinois, a thriving crossroads town that was the terminus of a heavily traveled pioneer trail, was wiped out in a mighty wall of water.

The French had made greater inroads into the North American interior than had any other group except the Spanish.  In 1703, when the Kaskaskia Indians migrated from their home territory near modern-day Peoria, Illinois, a Jesuit missionary moved along with them.  They settled west along the banks of the Kaskaskia River (named for the Natives), a site that had seen indigenous occupancy for centuries.  The French lived in their midst, establishing a French village.  By 1717, the French presence was solidified when the village became the Illinois country’s capital with a French commandant in charge who reported to a French governor in Louisiana. Kaskaskia-Ste. Genevieve map (French)Credit: public domainA French fort was maintained at Kaskaskia, Illinois, from 1733 until 1755 when it was moved to a nearby town.  The Treaty of Paris passed control of Illinois to the British, but the Kaskaskia area population remained overwhelmingly French and Native American.  George Rogers Clark, with an expedition from Virginia, captured Kaskaskia on July 4, 1778, and the village became part of the United States. 

Old Kaskaskia State House (before flood of 1881)Credit: public domain

The Kaskaskia Trail trafficked across Southern Illinois in settlers and trade goods.  It was a hub of commerce.  Kaskaskia was at a very advantageous place on the map both from an economic and military standpoint.  It was now a US frontier outpost abutting Spanish-held lands across the Mississippi.   After 1790, American settlers displaced French occupants as the majority, and when Illinois Territory was organized in 1809, Kaskaskia was the territorial capital.French architecture informed the village’s stone mansions and typical dwellings.  [A contemporary source described them as “shabby”.]  The residents raised cattle, horses and hogs, and they worked small farms.  Kaskaskia had a post office, several general mercantiles, a haberdasher, and three tailor shops.  There was only one tavern in town, but its place at the end of the Kaskaskia Trail meant it was always overcrowded by state officials, soldiers, adventurers, and land speculators.  At the height of its influence, Kaskaskia boasted 7,000 inhabitants.  When statehood arrived for Illinois in 1818, Kaskaskia was the first state capital, but two years later this was changed to Vandalia, Illinois.  As a result, Kaskaskia’s population and importance declined exponentially.

The Mississippi River has been having its way with the lands it drains for eons, and over the next 25 years after the capital was moved it chewed away at Kaskaskia’s shoreline.  A series of heavy floods destroyed much of the farm land, making it more difficult to make a living there from the ground, and people began leaving.  In 1844, the year of The Great Flood, the town of Kaskaskia moved further to the south, leaving the old place behind.  The last straw came in April 1881.  The river’s channel had shifted suddenly eastward, flooding out most of the original  town, and what was once a peninsula now became an island in the Mississippi, cut off from the mainland.  The new course of the Mississippi covered over the last ten miles of the old Kaskaskia River bed.  Not surprisingly, Kaskaskia’s success is what helped bring about its demise – heavy deforestation along the riverbanks to support steamboat traffic (wood for steamboat fuel) weakened the shore, leaving it open to major erosion. 

People left in droves – there was no ready access from Kaskaskia Island to the Illinois mainland and with uncontrolled river flooding, the low island was subject to submersion occasionally.  Legally, the land in the river belongs to the state of Illinois; ironically, over time, silt built up connecting the island to the Missouri shore.  Now, the only access to this piece of Illinois is via a bridge over a bayou area from Missouri.

Attempts were made over the years to save the town’s oldest structures.  In 1893, a church (The Immaculate Conception Church) was moved to save it from flooding.  By 1950, only 112 people lived on the island; this number dropped to 79 in the 1970 US Census.  In 1973, a flood rose to the level of the church’s altar.  In 1993, the island was submerged under 9 feet of muddy river water.  In the 2000 census, Kaskaskia, a near ghost town, had only nine residents who called it home.  That number nearly doubled to 14 by 2010.  Kaskaskia’s most famous citizen was John Willis Menard (1838-1893), the first African-American ever elected to the US Congress.  

What remains of this once burgeoning river town is a handful of homes occupied by three families.  Isolation perhaps knows nothing greater than the dead island of Kaskaskia.

Mother Nature cannot compare with human nature when it comes to wanton cruelty and mindless destruction. 
In perhaps the most appalling display of hatred fueled by racism and ignorance, the destruction of an entire town in Florida by a vigilante mob of out-of-control, foaming-at-the-mouth rednecks and poor white trash led to one of the lowest and most embarrassing moments in American history.

The hamlet of Rosewood, Florida, was settled in 1845 a few miles inland from Florida’s Gulf Coast.  Its denizens were black, white, and Native American, or any combination of the three.  The draw to the region was lumber – the town of Rosewood got its name from the color of a cedar tree’s heartwood.  Nearby in Cedar Key (right on the Gulf shore) were two pencil mills, and there were several turpentine mills and a sawmill in Sumner (three miles from Rosewood).  By 1807, Rosewood had its own post office and a train depot.  The town was a melting pot, work was easily had, and almost anyone was welcome there.

Rosewood’s fortunes rose and fell with the Levy County economy.  The cedar trees used in making pencils had all been cut by 1890 – the two pencil mills in Cedar Key closed.  Most of the white residents moved away to Sumner to work either in the sawmill or in the turpentine processing plants.  By 1900, Rosewood was predominantly African-American, while nearby Sumner was overwhelmingly white.  Despite the clearly drawn racial lines, the two communities got along peaceably. 

The two premier families of Rosewood were the Goins and the Carriers.  The Goins had brought the turpentine business to Levy County, and they were the second largest landowners in the county.  Agitation and threats of lawsuits over their business by jealous white competitors caused the Goins to move their operations and themselves to Gainesville, Florida, leaving a dent in Rosewood’s population. 

The Carrier family was well liked and respected, and almost everyone in Rosewood was somehow related to everyone else, either by blood or marriage.  The few whites who lived in the town were treated no differently than the resident blacks, nor did they condescend to the black residents.

In the town of Sumner a white woman named Frances Taylor lived with her husband James.  She was a 22-year-old housewife with a baby, and James was a 30-year-old millwright who worked long and dirty hours.  The Mrs. Taylor was described as a bit odd by town standards, an obsessive-compulsive who insisted on scrubbing her wood floors daily on hands-and-knees with bleach to keep them bleached white.  “Fannie”, as she was known in town, had a white boyfriend as well.  Her husband James had to leave for work when it was still dark outside.  After James was gone for the day, Fannie’s boyfriend, a white man named John Bradley who worked for the Seaboard rail system, usually came calling.

On the morning of New Years Day 1923, a neighbor of Fannie’s heard her shrieking inside her house.  Checking on her, the neighbor found Fannie crying in hysterics, disheveled and bruised.  She was screaming wildly about wanting her baby, and rambled about a mysterious black man who had entered her home, beaten her up, and tried to kidnap her child.  The alarm went out, and a posse was formed to beat the brush for this black man who had assaulted Fannie. 

As the story was told and retold during the day, suddenly the black man had not only beaten Fannie, but he had raped her and then robbed her as well.  [Fannie never claimed he did either, though she did nothing to correct the misconception.]  This was too much for the white rednecks of Levy County – they couldn’t have their pure, virtuous white women being molested by marauding black bucks!

The catalyst for what came next was a completely unrelated event.  Word had been received in Levy County that a black prisoner named Jesse Hunter had escaped from a chain gang.  Naturally, this black escaped convict was the mob’s first, prime, and only choice of suspect.  Considering they were unable to find him at large, they concluded that the black residents of Rosewood must be hiding the fugitive, and they aimed to have him.

Meanwhile, Fannie’s boyfriend found his way surreptitiously to Rosewood from Sumner.  As it would be learned, it was no black man who had beaten Fannie; it was he, John Bradley, a white man.  He and Fannie had argued that morning after James had gone to work, and for whatever reason he had beaten her.  Rather than face an angry, cuckolded husband with the truth (he would certainly notice her black eye, fat lip, and bruises), she made up the story of the errant black stranger.  John Bradley slipped out after beating Frannie; he was seen by Fannie’s black laundress, Rosewood resident Sarah Carrier and her granddaughter, Philomena Goins.

None of this was known but to John Bradley as he found his way to the home of his black friend in Rosewood, Aaron Carrier.  Aaron had served in World War I as did John Bradley, and both men were Freemasons.  Bradley figured Aaron would hide him out of loyalty to both flag and Freemasonry.  Sam Carter (another black Mason) and Aaron Carrier smuggled John Bradley out of town by hiding him under a blanket in the back of a wagon.

The county sheriff, Robert Walker, was faced with 400 volunteers who couldn’t wait to lynch the escaped convict and defiler of white women, Jesse Hunter.  He deputized the mob, and with tracking dogs they began searching the woods.  

Aaron Carrier and Sam Carter had left John Bradley out by a river and then went home.  Sam had the misfortune of being nearby when the posse’s hound dogs came sniffing around.  Since the dogs had been at Fannie’s house they had picked up John Bradley’s scent, (assumed to be that of the escaped convict, Jesse Hunter), Sam Carter was beaten and questioned about where he had hidden Jesse Hunter.  He, of course, had never seen Hunter at all, but he did not tell them of Bradley’s proximity.  After more beatings, he “confessed” to helping Jesse Hunter get away.  Startling many of the men standing around, one of the mob shot Sam Carter in the face, killing him. 

The dogs’ tracking and the locals’ known connections led the mob back to Aaron Carrier’s house.  On the way, they ran into one of Rosewood’s most prominent citizens, a black intellectual named Sylvester Carrier.  Sylvester was a popular, independent, and urbane man who was a music teacher.  To the townspeople of Rosewood, Sylvester Carrier was affectionately and respectfully known as “Mr. Man”.  To the white trash from Sumner, Sylvester was considered “an uppity nigger”.  The mob advised Sylvester he should leave town.  He told them he would do no such thing, and the mob moved on.  About 150 men showed up at Aaron Carrier’s house.  He was taken outside, questioned about Jesse Hunter’s whereabouts (which he truly did not know), beaten, tied to a car bumper, and dragged the three miles to Sumner.  There he was placed in “protective” custody, then transported for his safety to Bronson, the county seat (presumably out of the mob’s range of action). 

Sylvester, meanwhile, gathered up as many people and firearms as he could for protection of the townspeople against the rampaging whites.  Sylvester and about 20 other people sought refuge in Sarah Carrier’s house (that of his mother and his father, Haywood).  [Haywood Carrier was away on a hunting trip at the time of the massacre].  The house was put under siege by the 400 vigilantes outside.  Sylvester and Sarah were shot and killed, many others were injured, and the house was burned to the ground. Sarah Carrier house (aftermath, Rosewood, FL, Jan 7, 1923)Credit: public domainBy this time no one was thinking of capturing Jesse Hunter; they were trying to put the black man in his place.  Between late January 1, 1923, and Jan 6, 1923, Sarah Carrier and her family were murdered, their houses burned, other families were forced out at gunpoint, and the town was put to the torch.  Those who managed to stay hidden in the swamps survived.  Some, who showed themselves too soon were, were shot on sight (some people were killed as they ran from burning homes).

This massacre, which the press of the day termed a “race riot”, headlined almost every paper in the country.  And yet, based on the stories, it was impossible to tell who the bad guy was.  “Race riot” made it sound as if blacks were unprovoked aggressors, agitating and clashing with whites.  The plain truth, which no one would discuss for years to come, was that the jealous and poor whites of Sumner took a conflated opportunity to retaliate against the more successful blacks of Rosewood.

On January 6, 1923, white railroaders John and William Bryce took a huge personal risk and ran a train through Rosewood’s station, slowing but not stopping.  As many people as possible hopped aboard and the Bryces took them on to Gainesville and safety.  The white store owner in Rosewood, John Wright, took in as many refugees as he could hide in his house, and over the next several days, many displaced Rosewood residents sneaked to his home.  His wife, Mary Jo, hid them in closets and cupboards, whatever it took to keep them away from the straggling vigilantes who still roamed the area. Rosewood structure afire (Jan 6 or 7, 1923)Credit: public domainOn January 7, 1923, a few hundred vigilantes came back to Rosewood and torched the remaining roughly dozen structures still standing.  When the literal smoke had cleared, Rosewood was gone.  The rampaging white mob had burned the homes and barns and outhouses and sheds.  Death toll numbers range from a paltry (and certainly false) 6 blacks killed up to a more believable 27.  At least two whites were killed; one black resident of Rosewood thinks that number was underreported, too.  She recalled seeing several more whites lying around dead on a porch.  

Aaron Carrier spent several months in jail without having committed any crime.  He was released and died in 1965.  Haywood Carrier returned from his hunting trip to find his house and town burned, his wife (Sarah) and son (Sylvester) dead.  Haywood apparently had a nervous breakdown, because afterward he was caught muttering to himself, and he often wandered off from his remaining family without clothes on.  He died a year after the massacre

The home of John Wright, the store owner, was the only house in Rosewood to survive without a scratch.  None of the survivors ever returned to Rosewood – John Wright acted as their liaison between local authorities and the survivors.  Almost all of the Rosewood land was sold out from under the owners at auction to cover property taxes (since the residents would not come back and pay them).  Mary Jo Wright died in 1931; John Wright was ostracized for his role in helping blacks escape Rosewood, and he died a destitute alcoholic.

The woman who started the trouble, Frances Taylor, moved away from Sumner with her husband and baby to another mill town.  She was described as being “nervous” later in life and she died of cancer, never telling the truth about the events of January 1, 1923.  Surviving family members of Philomena Goins (the girl with Sarah Carrier who had seen John Bradley leave Frances Taylor’s house, headed for Rosewood) managed to draw attention to the story after an investigative journalist poked around in the early 1980s and brought the tragedy out into the light of day for the first time in decades.  Naturally, the fine citizens of Levy County understandably did not want to speak of their silent shame. 

In 1993, a suit was filed by some descendants of Rosewood survivors for reparations.  The survivors were later granted awards upon proof of residency in Rosewood at the time of the massacre.  Only nine people living could do this, and the reparation money was split among them.  Later, a historic marker was set up telling the true story of Rosewood.  In 1996, an action movie based on the events, Rosewood, was released in theaters.  It took a few liberties with the details (creating a heroic character out of whole cloth, riding in to help the town), but the basic story is correct.  

No one was ever prosecuted for the massacre.

A lonely highway marker stands on a desolate strip of road as a reminder.  There is no town to mark, however.


Author’s Note: Special thanks to IB’er ddraig for inadvertently providing inspiration for this piece with her excellent article, Capel Celyn: A Village under the Water in North Wales.

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