Pirates adrift in Florida’s sea of grass
The legend of the Ghost Ship of the Florida Everglades is an old seafaring tale. First told by 19th century sailors, it appeared in newspapers across the United States in 1901.
The story centers on a crew of phantom pirates. Much like the sailors of the infamous Flying Dutchman, these crewmen of the Florida coast are cursed to sail the grasslands and twisting channels of the Everglades in eternal misery for the sins they committed under the black flag of piracy.
No one really knows the age of the story. It was told in various ports of Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic Coasts and was said to be more than 300 years old by the time it was first published in 1901. It is a moral tale that originated in the days of the real pirates of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico and likely has its roots in days when pirate ships lurked in the bays and rivers of Florida waiting to strike merchant ships that strayed too near their hidden lairs.
Such ships sailed from Florida for centuries under captains like William Augustus Bowles (“Billy Bowlegs), Jose Gaspar (“Gasparilla”), Jean Lafitte and others. In the 16th-19th centuries, the pirates raided Spanish treasure and merchant ships and eventually American merchantmen. The United States Navy finally brought their days to an end.
Pirate raiders captured both St. Augustine and San Marcos de Apalache (St. Marks) during Florida’s first Spanish era, looting the important ports and leaving ruins and misery in their wake. By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the marauders focused more on slave ships, merchant vessels and even fishing smacks. Warships of the Spanish and later U.S. Navy hounded the pirates, chasing and taking them when possible.
The story of the Ghost Ship of the Everglades began with a pirate attack on a merchant vessel near the Florida Keys. The captain tried to outrun the pirates and the chase continued for hours through the Florida Straits. The outlaws finally closed the range, however, and the plucky captain and his crew were forced to surrender.
Both ships were near Cape Florida when the pirates finally closed on their prey and forced its surrender:
Furious at the length of the chase and the brave resistance of the gallant crew of the merchantman the pirate captain cruelly forced every one of the crew to walk the plank, with fiendish ingenuity keeping the skipper’s wife to watch their fate and that of her brave husband. – (New York Daily People, August 11, 1901).
The crew was put to death to the last man. Seeing this, the captain’s wife became filled with righteous anger. She fell to her knees and, raising her hands above her head, called God’s judgement and punishment down on her captors for their evil deeds. “At that moment,” the story continued, “a curling line of foam came sweeping down over the calm expanse, and, lifting both vessels in its embrace, carried them away.”
The enormous tidal wave swept the ships before it. The fate of the merchant vessel is unknown, but the voyage of the pirate ship was just beginning:
On, on, the tidal wave bore the pirate ship on its snowy crest. Across the sandy shallows, high over the beach above the tallest trees for miles the great wave carried the pirate until it finally set it down in the center of the great pitiless solitude.
The wave expended its strength and faded back to the sea, leaving the pirate ship stranded deep in the twisting channels and flooded grasslands of the Florida Everglades. The doomed ship and its cursed crew remain there to this day, unable to escape the labyrinth of water and grass. They died one by one of fever and starvation, but their ghosts remained trapped in a state of eternal suffering. Year after year they sail on, searching without hope for an escape from their prison of grass:
Now the Indians and hunters in the Everglades tell of seeing the pirate ship with rotting masts and hull and with sails – trying to find a channel out of the sawgrass pools into the deep blue waters of the sea.
The chilling story of a rotting ghost ship crewed by ghosts is just one of the many legends of the Everglades, a wetland that covers more than 1.5 million acres in the southern tip of Florida. You can learn more about this vast subtropical wilderness by visiting Everglades National Park. A World Heritage Site, the park can be accessed via Miami, Homestead and Everglades City.