Before the Bloodshed

William Cooley’s name is synonymous with one of the grisliest acts in local history. But there’s more to his story than the massacre


John Dolen

Published date: 

Dec. 30, 2016


William Cooley settled on the New River in 1824 - an uncharted time in South Florida. Besides the Seminoles who had been pushed down from the north, there were also transient Bahamians hunting turtles, fishing, even salvaging shipwrecks. Slaves also fled south during Spanish rule, before Spain sold the region to the U.S. in 1821. 

And then there were the characters, like the man who called himself Count Odet Phillipe, claiming to be a French nobleman. He told people he was appointed to be a naval surgeon by none other than Napoleon. He set up a salt-making venture on the New River that eventually tanked.

Philippe was one of an estimated 70 settlers in the colony that accepted Cooley as its leader. At that time, deeds were not necessary - you just cleared out a piece of land. Cooley built a business processing and shipping arrowroot, an edible starch used in gum and candy, made from the plentiful coontie plant along the river. He built a 50-foot wharf, and schooners took the product from his factory to Key West. From there it went to northern and European ports.

In addition to his pioneering and business skills, Cooley’s success could be attributed to time spent in North Florida, where he learned the Seminole tongue and cultivated the tribe’s friendship. Cooley even led a campaign on their behalf after they were stripped of land by Spain. He’d later name two of his children after Indian chiefs.

Eventually, Cooley’s estate near present-day Sailboat Bend expanded to 29 acres, holding not only his factory but pens for 80 hogs, and space to grow sugarcane, citrus trees, potatoes, pumpkins and coconut palms. 

In 1831, he was made justice of the peace, and getting into government may have been his biggest mistake. For a while, all was well. Besides a thriving business, he had built a comfortable home for his wife and three children, a house constructed of cypress planks and beautifully furnished. 

But the clouds of Seminole discontent with whites were growing. In 1835, during a time of truce talks between federal agents and famed Seminole warrior Osceola, an idiot general decided to disregard all tradition. He slapped chains on Osceola (one of many Creeks under the banner of the Seminoles) and threw him in a North Florida jail. Though he was released the next day, this was a “dissing” of the highest order, and war was in the offing. 

Soon Cooley, justice of the peace of what was called The New River Settlement, was drawn into the maelstrom. In a dispute between some white men and the Creeks, the whites shot a beloved elder chieftain.  Cooley immediately took the whites into custody, but later in a Key West trial, charges were dropped. Some accounts say Cooley was blamed.

Meanwhile, the successful Cooley had also been named property appraiser. Early in 1836, he was called in after a fierce hurricane laid low ships up and down the coast. One was a 200-ton Spanish vessel washed ashore off Hillsboro Inlet, where Cooley collected salvageable goods. Later, a Key West merchant bought the wreck and hired Cooley and his men to complete the salvage operation. 

That is where he and his men were that infamous day when 15 to 20 Indians stormed the Cooley residence in what would become known locally as the Cooley Massacre. They first chopped down Cooley’s son’s tutor, who was trying to defend the child, with an axe, scalping him. Mrs. Cooley was shot trying to run away with her baby; the bullet passed through her, killing them both. Cooley’s 9-year-old son was clubbed to death, and his 11-year-old daughter was shot, found with her recitation book still in her hand. The estate was plundered, though the Indians and two slaves who worked there were not harmed.

After returning home and seeing the horror, Cooley buried his family and made his decision. He and the other New River settlers shipped down to Key Biscayne and Cape Florida. The first New River Settlement was finished.

If this were a film documentary, the following might roll before the final credits:

“One year after the tragedy, a stone’s throw up from what was called ‘Cooley’s Patch,’ work began on a blockhouse for soldiers. It was later named Fort Lauderdale.

William Cooley moved on to Tampa and worked for the army as a courier, later heading north to become a postmaster. He returned to Tampa in 1847, where he was one of the first city council members. He served three terms before his death in 1863 at the age of 80.”