This post is part of the This Town is Myth Project which looks to examine a lost town named Pemberton Ferry, Florida, that history has all but forgotten. Most of the material is my way of wiggling out the different aspects of the unexplained, the deep history, and several conspiracies and theories related to the town. As such, there will be mistakes, misidentifications, and misunderstandings. This has always been a part of Tripping on Legends as we know we are not always getting the best information when it comes to folklore and legends, but it is even more so with this. I am an outsider to the area in many respects, and my information comes from different sources and is the best information I have at the time. Mistakes come from a genuine place and not from a desire to be a poor researcher.
Please contact me with any corrections, additions, or clarifications. This project begs for it…
It is the essence of This Town is Myth; a perfect example of why how hard it is to get a handle on the history of this unnoticed and unimportant patch of land and how trying to find the start of something often means finding yourself being forced to look in too many directions at once. It should be a simple story, or at least a quick look at a legend which is somewhat related to Pemberton Ferry. There’s an old Seminole legend, an illiterate soldier who somehow survived a massacre when those more skilled and more articulate didn’t, and a blood-sucking owl witch. Simple, right.
One of the most important events in the area is the Dade Massacre. It warrants more time than a simple blog post here as you can tell from the multiple books and articles that have been written about. Trying to summarize it even gets tricky. There’s no way to even touch the subject without mentioning the moments leading up to it, hinting at the conspiracy theories connected to it, and wondering why there are so many conflicting accounts of it given how solid the actually historical documentation of it is. Important moments in history are never clear-cut. The more waves the stones cause, the more time we have to spend studying how it was thrown, what the rock looked like, or how the effect drifted out from the center.
On December 23, 1835, 110 men set out from Fort Brook north to Fort King. Think going from Tampa to Ocala. There was a lot going on that led to that day, but the simplest explanations are sometimes the best. Fort King had been suffering some attacks in the preceding months as the United States government struggled to move the Seminole tribe west to Oklahoma, something some leaders of the Nation had agreed to without the consent of all of those in control of the multiple factions that made up the complex Seminoles. The military march was led by Major Francis Langhorne Dade who decided to take charge when the original commander was confronted with problems on the home front. They made their way down Kings Highway, a narrow path through wilderness and swamp designed specifically to connect the two locations. Destroyed bridges and artillery too heavy for the journey plagued them and slowly the trip, something the Seminoles had facilitated in an attempt to slow their journey. Osceola, recognized as one of their major leaders, was in negotiations that they expected to lose, and they set a trap as they waited to hear word from him.
On December 28th, as the US troops marched with their guns under heavy coats near what is now Bushnell, Florida, they were attacked by almost twice as many Seminoles hidden in the swamps and perched behind the trees. When the battle was over, all but three of soldiers and their guide had been killed, the Seminoles had made a statement about not being so easily moved from their land, and the seeds of the Second Seminole had been formally planted. History tells of Ransom Clarke who survived and crawled 65 miles to get back to Fort Brooke. Private Edward Decourcey is remembered for hiding under dead bodies and then being killed when he and Clarke were attacked on their way back and split up to force their pursuer to chose between them. And then there was an illiterate private who somehow survived. No one really can get a handle on his part in the battle or how he made it back to Fort Brooke, but Joseph Sprague also made lived through the attack.
As I was doing some research for my upcoming legend trip to Pinecraft in Sarasota on the hunt for a classic Lover’s Leap, Romeo and Juliet type ghostly legend, I came across this interesting article posted on a seemingly defunct Web site called Folktales of Florida called Tampa’s Stikini Witches.
Through the first Seminole War a small group of elderly Seminole women were allowed to remain in their homes on North of Fort Brooke on the Hillsborough River. In 1835 The United States moved forward with plans to relocate all of the Seminole Indians west of the Mississippi. When given this news, these woman were enraged, refused to move and threatened that Fort Brooke would be forever cursed. Soon there after 110 soldiers left Ft Brooke moving Northward. The first morning at camp a young soldier was found dead in his bed, an investigation concluded that the man’s heart had been removed. This same scenario happened night after night and as fear of the Seminole womens’ curse grew stronger, soldier Joseph Sprague abandoned his post. As he fled through the forest at dusk he saw the group of Seminole Women whom had cursed the soldiers. He watched in horror as they kneeled, chanted and expelled their internal organs from their mouths. One by one they then took the form of owls and took off into the night. They were the stikini witches of Seminole legend coming to exact their revenge. Sprague hurried the news to Fort Brooke but by the time reinforcements arrived all 109 other soldiers lay dead in their beds with their hearts removed. The group of elderly Seminole were never seen again but will always be remembered in this story of the Dade Massacre.
And the rabbit hole starts.
As a historical event, the Dade Massacre sets of a series of dominos that leads ultimately to the development of all of Florida. It springs the Second Seminole War and the roads and outposts needed to defeat the tribe led the US government to cut out what was essentially a swamp before the fighting. Between the three survivors, the stories told by those who picked up after the carnage or missed the battle because they had to turn back on the journey for one reason or another, and the multiple Seminole accounts, this is a moment in history that is fairly well documented. There may be some inconsistent accounts, most due to the motivation of the teller, but this is a victory for the Seminoles. Forget what might have happened after and the current state of the people. This was a victory.
The pressing question remains; why create a fictionalized version, a folktale for something that is clearly a great triumph for Seminoles? Folklore develops to explain a misunderstood natural phenomena, to explain a lost moment in history, or to revise a moment to rationalize something bad that has happened. The story of the Tampa Stikini does not fit any of these markers. The Seminoles beat the army militarily, strategically, tactically. They can even be said to be on the right side of the argument on who was right. It makes no sense why a fantastical narrative should develop from their storytellers basically taking the power of the actual events away.
The stikini are a powerful part of their folklore by themselves. The basic origin of the story, if it is possible to whittle down an origin story, involves trauma and revenge taken too far. They are women who have been wronged in some way, usually sexually either by their own men, former slaves, or white Americans who made their way into Creek and Seminole lands. They called upon a goddess named She Who Walks the Circle, a formal mortal who wished for powers herself and then abused them to become a cursed deity. She grants the woman the power to get back at her tormentors, much like she was granted power, and they abuse it like she did. They become drunk with their new abilities and continue to kill once the scales have been balanced, causing them to become cursed. They are no longer women, but vampire-like wraths who can find comfort only in each other.
Echoing older legends from the Chinese, who call them Jiangshi, and the Mayans, where they are referred to as Camazotz, they are normal, often beautiful and alluring by day, but turn into a mysterious human-owl like creature at night. They must feed on the entrails and blood of men (there are almost no versions that involve women being victimized) and sometimes store the men they capture to eat later or make into stew. They can transform into their evil selves at will but cannot stand the light of day as the creature. They patrol the dark woods and off the beaten path roads and swamps looking for their prey with little or no knowledge of their past lives or what made them into the abomination in the first place. They seek each other out and live in covens, which hints more at a European influence on the story than a traditional Native American narrative.
Overall, a total nightmare and a callback to the need for revenge for the taking of lands and the taking of whatever the conquers wished to claim. They can even be said to be a folklore explanation of mental health disorders such as dissociative identity disorder and multiple personality disorder where sexual trauma forces one to make other masks to deal with the horrific event that have happened. They are well known in legends and folklore and paint the Web pages of cryptid and role-playing game sites.
Here they are ill-placed and unexplained. This does not fit with the Dade Massacre. It needs no embellishing and is not a tale of revenge or wrath.
Then there is the name mentioned in the story. John Sprague is an odd footnote to history and will be getting his own write-up in the coming weeks. He is cited in a few sources as being a survivor of the Dade Massacre but missing from most of the definitive books and articles. Sprague was a career military man from Vermont who kept enlisting because he was not qualified to do much more than be a grunt. After each campaign, he would be granted a little bit of land and a pension but could not make things work. He would sign up again, leaving only an X because he was illiterate, and fight another battle without distinction or merit. He hid under dead bodies after the initial attack and was left for dead when a troop of black Seminoles came after the battle to kill off anyone who was remaining and raid for anything that could be used. He crawled the rest of the way back to Fort Brooke and reported what had happened the day after Ransom Clarke made it home. Clarke, the more articulate and literate of the two, has gone down in history as the only survivor of the day, and history has all but forgotten Sprague.
There were at least four men, named and documented, who turned back for various reasons on the trip. They are known. They could have been used for the Stikini story and it would have made more sense. Instead, the Seminoles who spread this story use a survivor of the battle as the witness who turned around and saw the coven in the woods. While not a hero in the traditional sense (all he did was survive), he is nevertheless a wounded soldier who made it through the conflict to tell what had happened. While it might serve some purpose to turn him into a coward who gets scared and flees for safety only to report the witches in the woods, it is still odd that he should be a character in the story at all. Why give a name at all, especially one that can be verified and who was known to have not done what the story says? This would be harder to follow-up on and make the character a better representation of all treacherous villains they were in conflict with.
There is something romantic about vampires in our modern culture, an invention of a new desire to take characters from old stories and adapt them for the next consumer. Along the way heritage gets lost and the bad guys of folklore get watered down to something near unrecognizable to the metaphors and symbols they were created to invoke. The stikini of the Dade Massacre lie somewhere in between. There is nothing seductive in the way they appear in the story, nothing to make us want to set them into a love triangle or create a steamy novel about. They lie in the shadows, not only in the dark swamps and forgotten roadways of Florida, but in the gray areas of Florida folklore. Seminole Stikini shine brightly in the tales of other places even as they avoid the light, but in Central Florida they change and hide and are less willing to be understood. It makes sense though. When This Town is Myth is involved, even legends tend to dissolve to mist.
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