Swaying palm trees, blooming magnolia plants, and the ocean breeze on your skin. What’s not to love about Fort Lauderdale’s historic Esplanade Park? Well, as it turns out, a lot. Beneath its seemingly idyllic surface lies a tormented history that dates back to Florida’s early colonial days, when European forces displaced thousands of native Seminoles and Creek Indians, leading to a gruesome massacre that has left a bloody stain on this once-peaceful haven of rest and tranquility.
It is commonly known that European settlers infected Native populations with smallpox, the flu, and other deadly diseases by giving them blankets. But the truth is, it’s a little more complicated than that—especially in Fort Lauderdale, where the Seminoles and Creek Indians lived for thousands of years in pre-colonial Broward County.
You see, the Tequesta tribe was the first to settle in South Florida in the early 1800s, but they were largely killed off by 1743 after Europeans landed in the New World. The survivors hid and joined a new tribe—the Seminoles. Spaniards called these native inhabitants “maroons” or “wild, free people” because they refused to be ruled by colonial forces. Their inspiring persistence would lead to several scuffles and full-on military conflicts between the Seminoles and the Spainers, culminating in bloody skirmishes.
The Seminoles would eventually be overtaken by colonizers, displacing the tribe to camps in the Florida Everglades, where they lived in poverty until the early 20th century. For decades, they would live off the land, hunting, and fishing until U.S. Congress granted them thousands of acres of land in the Hollywood, Big Cypress, and Brighton areas in 1938, building casinos and luxury hotels and investing in other forms of real estate.
An idyllic park with roomy walkways, benches, and plenty of vibrant plants and greenery, one wouldn’t initially think much of Fort Lauderdale’s Esplanade Park. However, as with most haunted locations, there’s more than meets the eye.
The conflict between the Seminoles and settlers came to a head in the first half of the 19th century when the Native inhabitants decided they’d finally had enough. In 1835, a group of white settlers assassinated the Seminole chief, Alabama, and set fire to his hut in the dispute. William Cooley, one of the city’s first settlers and its Justice of Peace, imprisoned those responsible, though they were soon released for lack of evidence. However, many Creek Indians were still infuriated by Cooley’s actions and vowed revenge. No one could’ve predicted the horror that would follow.
On January 4, 1836, towards the beginning of the Second Seminole War, 15 to 20 Creek Indians broke into Cooley’s homestead while he was away, killing his wife, three children, and the children’s tutor. After murdering Cooley’s young kids and wife, they violently scalped the tutor before burning the house to the ground. It would be far from the only bloodshed between the Seminoles and white settlers, with the violence carrying over into the latter half of the century.
With this horrific violence in mind, it’s unsurprising that Esplanade Park would become the epicenter of hair-raising supernatural activity just down the river from Cooley’s former homestead. Esplanade Park is also the site of one of the many forts in the area. It was a vast military complex, with an outside garrison holding ammunition, gunpowder, and other weaponry. In the center of the park, a group of mercenaries in league with the Seminoles attempted to make off with some of these explosives but were caught red-handed by the base’s commander. Not one to back down from a fight, he set fire to the garrison, essentially cooking these rebels to death.
Today, victims of these various massacres still roam Esplanade Park. All ten men who lost their lives inside the garrison are said to walk among the living, giving unsuspecting pedestrians a scare when their ghostly manifestations appear like zombies—rotting flesh, bones, and open wounds. One particularly jarring account is from a man who was walking his dog along the Riverwalk when he suddenly felt something tugging at his shoe. When he looked down, he saw a skeletal hand clutching at his ankle from the ground. Understandably freaked out, the man called the police—who later carbon-dated the bones to the Third Seminole War.
Other more common phenomena include the lingering scent of sulfur and burning wood, perhaps, an otherworldly reminder of the atrocities at the garrison all those years ago. Other witnesses claim to have seen the bloated, long-dead bodies of the mercenaries floating down the river.
Perhaps the most bone-chilling of all is the persistent manifestations of William Cooley’s murdered children. Apparitions around the park are extremely common, and on more than one occasion, tourists have reported hearing the chilling sounds of children’s bloodcurdling wails at night, leaving their hands shaking and skin crawling. One visitor to Esplanade Park even claimed that one night, he heard a frantic child’s voice whispering “Help us” in his ear. The next day, he supposedly woke up with scratches along his ankles, as if something was trying to latch onto his body to be carried out of the park—the entity’s earthly prison.
People have also frequently reported seeing the ghastly figure of a little girl hiding behind a thicket of bushes in the park—likely, Cooley’s daughter. But as you may remember, Cooley’s wife and kids weren’t the only lives that were taken during that fateful night. The children’s tutor’s scorned spirit is said to be the most active—and terrifying—spirit to haunt Esplanade Park. It’s been said that he moans and groans around the walkways, chasing visitors out of the area. One runner even claims to have seen the tutor staring at him on a park bench, face dripping dark red in rivulets.
Screaming spirits are heard hourly; if you dare, they’re especially active the closer you get to the river. One skeptic was turned into a believer when, one night, he wandered to the river’s edge past midnight. Here, he claims he heard a lamented voice that sounded like it was being choked—by blood? By the hands of an enemy? No one knows.
Today, despite its dark past, Esplanade Park is a vibrant, bustling meeting place for Fort Lauderdale locals to enjoy the sun and sea during a long walk. Events are also regularly held here, including concerts, food truck festivals, and pop-up retail sales. As for the Seminoles, today, more than 2,000 descendants live on six reservations in the state – located in Hollywood, Big Cypress, Brighton, Immokalee, Fort Pierce, and Tampa, proudly calling themselves the “Unconquered People.” For more on the most haunted locations in America’s South, visit our blog, and be sure to keep up with U.S. Ghost Adventures on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.