Lake Okeechobee covers 730 square miles of south Florida and parts of five counties, making it the second largest body of freshwater in the United States. Okeechobee is a Seminole word meaning “Big Water”. Known for great fishing and beautiful scenery, Lake O (as we Floridians like to call it) also has a dark and mysterious side to it.
There are tales of ghosts, lost treasure, and even a lake monster or two. As a matter of fact, in 1956, a pilot flying over the lake reported seeing large dinosaur tracks in the mud! Turned out that the tracks were actually left by a dredging machine and many of the other stories have been dismissed as local yarns and lore. However, Lake O has one unexplained mystery with real physical evidence that keeps scientists and historians baffled – The Secret of the Okeechobee Bones!
Prior to the 1900s, early pioneers reported seeing human skeletons in the southern shallows of the lake. Old Timers like to tell stories about “catchin’ human skulls” in their nets and one early settler claimed that there were so many skulls in the shallows that “during low water it looked like a pumpkin patch.”
In the early 1900s, a surveyor was clearing land on Lake O’s Grassy Island and exposed more than fifty human skeletons that were covered by only a few inches of sand. While it is not that unusual to find old graveyards hidden away and forgotten over time, this discovery was different. This was not a case of a dry land burial sight. Grassy Island is not a natural island; it was originally lake bottom that was exposed when the water levels were lowered by newly built drainage canals. The remains found would have been placed on Grassy Island hundreds of years before Grassy Island even existed!
To date it is estimated that over a 1,000 ancient skeletal remains have been found in the southern shallows of Lake Okeechobee. All accounts of the human bones come from a 30 mile area extending from Kreamer Island to Observation Island. One theory is that these were victims of one of the area’s massive hurricanes. If so, it would have been an ancient and unknown storm. It is true that 2,000 people are known to have died during hurricanes in the area between 1926 and 1928. However, the mysterious bones found in the lake are much older than that.
Historians have tried to link the bones to the Seminole War, but there was only one battle in the area in 1837. The battle happened on the north end of the lake and only thirty people died in the battle. Further research shows that there just wasn’t enough people in the area in 1837 to account for the number of bones found…and again, the bones are much older than that. Historians have also tried to link the bones to early Spanish exploration, but science shows that the bones predate the Spanish connection by a few thousand years. Some speculate that the bones could be all that remains of an ancient Indian village. If this is the case, how does one explain the lack of pottery and other ancient artifacts?
Maybe the skeletons are all that remains of a lost mythical tribe. It’s possible that the bones are the remains of ancient seafarers who got lost looking for fresh water, or perhaps the bones are the remains of refugees escaping from the lost City of Atlantis. Until someone arrives with a good explanation for this ancient mystery of death, the secret will remain guarded by the Big Waters of Lake Okeechobee.