Check out Morgan Meis’s reflection on the historical consciousness of the Sunshine State. In a short essay that is part history, part travelogue, Meis investigates the memory of William Cooley and the New River Massacre. This is a great piece of historical journalism that captures the culture of Florida and the sense of “confusion” about its past. Here is a taste:
You walk along canals as the wild parrots scream in the palm trees above. The evening light delivers an array of pastels. A breeze kicks up from the east, blowing ocean smells across the road. Ocean salt crackles in the air, which is heavy and warm. The houses along the canal sit behind low walls. You can look into each yard, thick with semi-tropical growth. Everything grows here, all the time. You walk down further toward the ocean and the canals widen, turning into small rivers. You wander into a park. Is that a Quattrocento Florentine palazzo across the water? There is a small plaque in the park, unobtrusive. You stop to read. It says something about William Cooley and the New River Massacre. “I’ve never heard of William Cooley or the New River Massacre,” you think. What is this place? Where am I?
You, sir or madam, are in Fort Lauderdale in the fine state of Florida.
And she concludes:
A final note about that park in Fort Lauderdale with the plaque memorializing the Cooley Family: The park’s official name is Colee Hammock Park. You’ll notice that Cooley and Colee are two completely different names. Residents of Fort Lauderdale noticed the same thing. It turns out there was some confusion back in the days when the park was first established. A man named James Louis Colee was also a resident of the New River Settlement. But James Colee got to New River decades later than William Cooley. James Colee set up a work camp at the site of the park that now bares his name. James was a civil engineer. He was working on something called the Intracoastal Waterway project, a network of rivers and canals that runs down the Atlantic coast and all the way around through the Gulf Coast.
Somewhere along the line, the names Cooley and Colee got mixed up. The park is not the site of the massacre at all. The massacre occurred up the river a bit. But the people of Fort Lauderdale have decided that they want the plaque to stay in Colee Hammock Park anyway.
There is something very Florida about that decision. It is the decision to wear your own confusion on your sleeve. It is openly to acknowledge that you do not have your story straight. Every state in the USA and, for that matter, every region of every country on the planet has a story of trauma to tell. But in most places the story has been rehearsed time and time again. The edges have been rounded off. The story’s been cleaned up and made digestible. Florida hasn’t figured out how to do that yet. A cynic might consider this the result of indifference. I like to think of it as a form of honesty. Not many places would memorialize the terrible massacre of a slave owner’s family by creating a park named after an entirely different, and otherwise unknown, civil engineer. But this is Florida, where honesty comes with a large dose of confusion.