Tall Tales of Giant Timucua; Or, The Myth of Indigenous Giants

by Tim Gilmore, 6/12/2022

Digging Downtown for old bottles, he found arrowheads, Civil War minié balls and Indian pottery, supposedly “a small child’s skull,” “a partial plate of gold bridgework” and a “Chinese burial urn” all at the “foot of Church Street.” Wesley B. Plott’s staplebound 1980 book Antique Bottles Found in Northeast Florida, which the collector printed at Kwik Kopy Printing and sold for $5.95, also explains how to locate refuse pits from late 1800s outhouses, wondrous receptacles of medicine bottles and whiskey jugs, toys and broken china.

None of those claims come close to matching his strangest and most extravagant. Plott was a big man with an even bigger personality. He curated a mind stocked with abstruse and arcane knowledge but also told tall tales. In the 1970s and ’80s, Plott was synonymous with the Purple Petunia, his bottle shop and florist located in an old Tudor Revival style gas station beneath the highway flyover in Riverside. Only Wesley Plott would have claimed to have accidentally unearthed an Indian downtown.

Plott’s not around to ask for more details and no one who remembers him remembers the story. Three decades after he suffered a massive stroke in the back room of his shop in 1994 and died soon thereafter, 51 years old, all we have of the tale is a brief mention in a chapter only half a page long called “Other Buried Treasures.”

“On the corner of Adams Street and Ocean,” Plott writes, “next to the old library, I found an Indian which had been buried many years ago. (Found at a depth of twelve feet.) Note I covered him (or her) as the case may be, back up to sleep until ?. There’s a gas station on top of that site now.” [multiple sics]

I’d misremembered, however, and confused the depth at which he says he found the burial for the length of the body. Hopefully my error is forgivable since I’ve heard all my life the fable that Timucuan Indians were seven or nine feet tall.

So I’m not surprised when I’m transcribing digitized but still murky audio recorded in January 1967 to hear the strange and gentle old man Willie Browne, who lived without electricity in the woods and donated hundreds of acres to conservation when he died in December 1970, say the Timucuan burials archaeologists had excavated on his land yielded the bodies of indigenous giants.

Willie Browne, 1960s, courtesy Jacksonville Historical Society

First he’s telling the Reverend Frank Dearing about an Indian skeleton the Spearings had exhumed in building their house. They’d lived on the bluffs before the Brownes did. “He told all the men it must have been every bit of seven feet high.” Later he says someone “told my father that he believed the man was seven feet high.”

“Really?” the reverend asks. “Now where was his house built, Willie? Below St. Johns Bluff?”

image courtesy The Florida Times-Union

“No, Spearing’s house, see. He stayed down there with the Spearing boys, see. They cleaned off a piece of ground to build a house.”

RD: That was on this side of the river?

WB: Yes, right where my place is now.

Willie’s cabin, courtesy Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve

“I had heard somewhere,” Father Dearing says, “about a race of very tall Indians that had lived here before the Timucuans came in here. They were some very tall people.”

Willie says that when William Sears of the University of Florida started excavating a mound on Willie’s land in the 1950s, he saw bones laid out on the ground and said to one of the field workers, “How would you like to meet a man that high?” He quoted the black field worker, “Praise God, Mr. Willie, I shore wouldn’t let him in!”

Willie Browne and other field work assistants for archaeologist William Spears, 1950s, image courtesy National Park Service

The Mocama — the Timucuan people who lived in what’s now Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia — were not seven feet tall. Nor were earlier populations. The myth seems to have arisen from fictitious engravings the French promulgated, which show the Timucuans much taller than Europeans. Then there’s the simple fact that “long bones” appear longer than the thicker limbs that once encased them, and surely Willie saw long bones that confirmed what he, and the Reverend Dearing, had heard or read elsewhere.

Reverend Frank Dearing, from The Florida Times-Union, 1987

In the spring of 1568, French colonizer Jean Ribault set sail south from Fort Caroline in present-day Jacksonville to attack St. Augustine, unknowingly heading into a hurricane, while Pedro Menéndez de Aviles, whom King Philip II of Spain had sent to rid Florida of French Protestants, sent his men marching overland to Fort Caroline. Somehow, René Goulaine de Laudonnière, Ribault’s second-in-command, who’d established Fort Caroline four years earlier, and the artist Jacques le Moyne escaped. Flemish reproductions of le Moyne’s lost artworks, supposedly chronicling the French expedition and interactions with the Timucuans soon became the center of a centuries-long con game.

image by Theodor de Bry, 1590

Flemish artist Theodor de Bry claimed that le Moyne’s widow sold him the French artist’s later watercolor recreations of the works lost in Florida, which de Bry engraved and published in 1591, three years after le Moyne died in London. In fact, that sale almost certainly never occurred and de Bry forged images from other colonizers of the Tupinambá people of Brazil and the Algonquins of Virginia, those images themselves dubious. For more than four centuries, de Bry’s completely inaccurate depictions of supposed Timucuans have depicted tall muscular “noble savages” in the Eden of the “New World.”

image by John White, 1585

In one of the most famous images, the Timucuan Prince Athore, son of King Saturiwa, shows Laudonnière how the indigenous people supposedly worship and pray to the column Ribault planted among them. Athore stands stalwart, robust, taller than this comparatively dandified Frenchman. Laudonnière looks a bit of a slouch, while Athore stands sculpted of iron and muscle. The forgery has long assuaged white consciences with its depiction of regal diplomacy, giving rise to the myth of the Giant Mocaman, while the truth is that when the French first entered the Riviere de May, today’s St. Johns River, this indigenous civilization thousands of years old had only another century and a half left on earth.

engraving by Theodor de Bry

When the National Park Service established Fort Caroline National Memorial in 1953, the search for evidence of the fort’s actual location and the hunt for archaeological evidence of American Indian habitation during the time of Fort Caroline intensified. So too did the romantic myth of erstwhile giants who’d once roamed the State of Florida.

from The Tampa Daily Times, January 25, 1959

In a January 25, 1959 “Pioneer Florida” column, D.B. McKay, former Tampa mayor and owner and editor of The Tampa Daily Times, wrote, “A legend that is scoffed by many but given credence by others is that there were human giants in Florida in the prehistoric era.” Even apart from the fallacy of the indigenous giant, anything McKay said about ethnicity can only be greeted with intense skepticism, since he was the largest organizer of the White Municipal Party and the first and fifth of eight Tampa mayors elected from the white supremacist party through the 1940s.

“I saw some of the skeletons exhumed at the Cypress Street site in West Tampa,” McKay writes, “and I know that the bones were much larger than those of a man six feet tall.” Clearly, McKay hadn’t considered how long his own femur, fibula and tibia might look devoid of surrounding flesh.

Next McKay goes on, with no specifics, about “a legend of a chief of a tribe with headquarters at what is now Cedar Key who was nine feet tall” and about “well preserved bones” all “uniformly of abnormal size” removed “from a long row of graves” being “cleared of underbrush” at “the site of what is now believed to be the site [sic] of the Garden of Eden in Apalachicola Valley” near Tallahassee. If McKay thought Adam and Eve were Timucuan or Apalachee, he did not say. It was apparently enough for him to believe they were Floridians.

photograph by Benjamin “Red” Kerce, 1953, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

My mother, who graduated high school in 1953, and being 5’11” at a time when young women were meant to be delicate, even mousy, at some point latched onto the idea that she was descended from Timucuan Indians. She’d heard the Timucua had been tall, majestic, noble.

Whites commonly claimed American Indian heritage. So many grandmothers had supposedly been Cherokee princesses that they could have formed their own tribe. It romanticized you but also authenticated you, since whites clearly came from someplace else. Like the “wild child” frequently called a “Gypsy,” the Southerner who never quite fit in became “Cherokee.” It explained your outsider nature, while also making you native, truly original, indigenous, real. Joan Irene Gilmore, 20 years before she became my mother at age 38, was never a Gypsy, nor Cherokee, but she tied herself to the Timucua.

Joan Irene Glennon, née Keene, before she was my mother, 17 years old, atop Aloha Tower, Honolulu, on her first honeymoon, 1953

We bonded during her terminal illness, when she was 50 and I was 12, together against the rest of existence. I believed her when she told me we were directly descended from the Timucua. I’d win a Fiction Fix award for my prose poem “Juan Alonso Cavale” in 2010, the poem about the supposed “last Timucuan,” who’d died in Guanabacoa, in Eastern Havana, Cuba in 1767. I’d learned that only a thousand Timucuans, mostly mestizo, were still alive, according to census enumerations, by 1700, final remnants of a great people diminished finally through the Carolinian slave trade. I’d learned the Timucua were never seven feet tall. (I’d later later “the last Timucuan” was not the last Timucuan, that today’s Seminole tribe includes the Timucua among their forebears.)

Dove Cottage, Grasmere, England

Recently I stooped to move from room to room in Dove Cottage, the former public house called The Dove and Olive Branch, at the outer edge of the Lake District village of Grasmere in northern England, where William Wordsworth lived with his sister Dorothy from 1799 to 1808, and where the poet wrote parts of The Prelude, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” and “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” I’d somehow always thought Wordsworth was tall and had a hard time imagining him stooping through these doorways.

Dove Cottage, Grasmere, England

Our guide confirmed Wordsworth’s notable height. He stood 5’ 9 ½”. I’m 6’ 4.” She reminded me that average human heights in wealthier nations have increased across the last couple centuries. Then at Bronte Parsonage, I stood vis-à-vis the striped dress, glass enclosed, of Charlotte Bronte, this giant, along with her sisters Anne and Emily, of English literature, and despite myself I imagined enclosing its tiny waist in my suddenly grotesque and Nosferatu-like long fingers, and I learned the author of Jane Eyre stood about 4’ 9”.

Charlotte Bronte’s striped dress, Bronte Parsonage, Haworth, England

The Timucua may have been taller than Charlotte Bronte, but they were not Mayor McKay’s absurd Garden-of-Eden Indians. The author of Florida’s official state play had McKay’s ancient cartoon heathens more in mind than the people who made this place home for millennia.

In 1965, American playwright Paul Green, who’d won a Pulitzer for his 1927 play In Abraham’s Bosom, was commissioned to write a play commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine. The result was the shamelessly titled Cross and Sword: A Symphonic Drama of the Spanish Settlement of Florida, which the state Senate designated Florida’s official play in 1973. It was performed for 10 weeks every summer at the St. Augustine Amphitheater until 1996.

An August 27, 1968 review in The Orlando Sentinel condemned “several weak spots in the cast,” but made exception for “a tall young sophomore from Jacksonville University,” playing the role of Chief Oriba. “The chief was said to be seven feel tall and Alec Roberts seemed to be every inch that. He is very impressive in the role, and makes Oriba very fearsome and powerful.”

Chief Oriba, Cross and Sword, date unknown, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

In Patrick D. Smith’s multigenerational Florida novel, A Land Remembered, first published in 1984, a character named Frog says, “This place spooks me” in the spring of 1868. Out in the wilderness, he says, “I got a feeling somebody is watching us.” Emma MacIvey, who cooks for all the men, accuses them of “seeing ghosts everywhere.” Her husband Tobias leaves camp before breakfast the next morning to scout a way through the swamp.

Tobias follows a thin ridge to higher ground in the pre-dawn gloaming, passing tall bald cypress trees, rocklike clusters of lusty prehistoric ferns, root masses of palmetto, remembering when the family’s cows marched blindly into a sinkhole, then hears again a strange sound he’d noticed the night before. His horse whinnies, spooked, takes a few steps back.

detail of a “Timucuan Village” by Evergreene Painting Studios, 1993-1994, at the U.S. Capitol

The specter who appears before Tobias calls himself “a Timucuan, the last of my people,” says, “I am the keeper of the graves.” He says he’s been hiding from Spanish soldiers for long “beyond my time.” The narrator says, “The man was beyond age, so old that his skin was cracked like alligator hide. He was almost seven feet tall, and his hair was tied on top of his head with bands of reeds, making him seem even taller.” He warns Tobias away, saying, “Do not bring your cows in here,” for “This swamp is a burial ground for all who enter. My people have known this to be true.”

In fact, the Mocama thrived until Europeans arrived. At least Wesley Plott claimed to have reburied the fictitious Indian he supposedly dug up at Ocean Street and Adams. Above that corner, the bell towers and spires of First Presbyterian, whose congregation dates back to 1840, date to immediate rebuilding after the Great Fire of 1901.

The Timucua, one of perhaps hundreds of North American tribes now extinct but extant when Europeans first touched the continent, were the largest indigenous people in Northeast Florida, Southeast Georgia and North Central Florida, consisting of 35 separate chiefdoms speaking numerous dialects with an estimated population, at the time of European arrival, of some 200,000, stretched back some 3,000 years.

Timucua figures at Jacksonville’s Museum of Science and History

I stand taller than Wordsworth, but I’m no prehistoric giant. Wordsworth may or may not have stood taller than the Mocama, though he never heard of Florida. I rebury myself “to sleep until ?.” Perchance to dream. What stranger dream could ever the Mocama have dreamt than their own extinction — than you and I haunting their homeland?