“Early French explorers originally dubbed it Massacre Island for the mounds of sun-bleached bones that they found there. What they didn’t realize was that they had disturbed a sacred Native American burial ground that is rumored to be watched over by supernatural specters at night…”
Sea travel had it’s way with these explorers, the salt of the water drying out their skin like a tanned hide. Their lips had become arid deserts, cracking as they tried to speak to one another, but at this length in their travels, there was nothing left to say. They sat in silence, fighting the pains of being dehydrated and yet the salty sea seemed to permeate through every inch of clothing at the same time. Would they finally reach a destination today, finally leave this cursed water?
From a distance the weary explorers saw huge, white hills—hills that grew to look like small mountains floating on the sea. Was this the oasis they longed for? Had the months of travel caused these explorers to see things that were not there? Their imaginations raced as they envisioned what great things could be found on these ivory mountains. What was the environment like there? What beasts and creatures wander these isles, these summits floating on the sea? Most importantly, what souls lived there? What did these people engage in, and what did their culture believe? Most importantly, they asked themselves, what could France gain from them? The thoughts began to fill the explorers’ heads, overflowing out of there jaws, to become ideas shared with one another. This was the first conversation in months. Finally, there was hope.
With the islands now coming much more clearly into sight through their salt crusted eyes, the explorers now waited in anticipation to see the new land they were going to be making their Canaan. As they finally grew close enough to see the summits, they were taken aback in horror. Their aspirations and towering ideas were destroyed, and nothing but mortal fear lie in the ashes. As the ships floated closer, the explorers now wished they could get as far from these morbid islands as they could, but the current from the water drew them closer to the island, closer to their fears. The nearer they became, their fears became much more of their reality. Now insight, the mountains appearance changed into something grotesque and macabre. As the ships dropped anchor, the men boarded their exploration vessels, as if they were headed on their death march. The boats glided onto the wet sand, stopping suddenly with a loud thud on the shore. As they looked up, trembling in fear, they could see what was, from a distance, once alluring peaks of a promised land, now the substance of nightmares. In front of the explorers, piling higher than they could see, were bones, skulls, staring back at them, bleached by the sun, reaching all the way to the heavens. The weary explorers had finally reached their port of call, the isle of bones: Massacre Island.
In 1699 the le Moyne brothers, Iberville and Bienville, sailed into Mobile Bay. The brothers would go on to be the founders of many of the cities that lie on the Gulf Coast, Bienville being the heavily tattooed founder of Mobile, but that’s another story. (Entitled “Bienville’s Sacred Oath”, which can be found as an earlier blog on our site). After dropping anchor because of a passing storm, the group came upon the ghastily sight, piles of human bones found all throughout the island.
A journal belonging to Andre Penicaut, a carpenter, was found that gave an even closer description of the travels with the brothers. Penicaut sailed with Iberville to the French province of Louisiana in 1699, not returning to France until 1721. In those twenty-two years he saw and documented the trails that were left. He began his writing in Louisiana and finished upon his return to France. As a ship carpenter, Penicaut was chosen as a member of several key expeditions, giving his first hand accounts of these explorations, in a very objective way. Penicaut helped to build the first post in Louisiana, at Old Biloxi, and the second post on the Mobile River. Here we have Penicaut’s account of the first site of the “Isle of Bones”:
“When we disembarked, we became terrified upon finding such a prodigious number of human skeletons that they formed a mountain, there were so many of them. We learned afterwards that this was a numerous nation who, being pursued and having withdrawn to this region, had almost all died here of sickness; and as the manner of savages is to gather together all the bones of the dead, they had carried them into this spot. This nation was called Mobila, and a small number of them survive… M. de Bienville, the brother of M. d’Hyberville, who commanded us, named it Isle Massacre on account of all these bones.”1
Stories grew from these accounts and continued to spread until a pile of bones became a tremendous mountain. The final resting place for the remains of all those people, however, was not meant to be seen, but respected under the sand. In all truth, “the mountain of bones was just a burial mound that had broken open during a hurricane, but it horrified the crew so much that they set sail up the Mobile River and entered the Mississippi/Alabama/Louisiana Delta Gulf Coast Region.”2
The stories and lore surrounding the island only grew, even with knowledge of the truth being quite common. A majority of these stories became based around the island, or at least one suffering from bad luck. Carl Carmer wrote his famous book “Stars Fell on Alabama” about his experiences living in Alabama in the 1920’s and about the stories he heard from the local people. In all the beautiful Southern detail, locals of Dauphin Island were jumping at the chance to give their story about the things that happened on their fair island, and what might continue to haunt them to that day. Here’s an exert from two of those stories.
“’They built a beautiful church here. They called it Fort Belle Eglise. It had a high tower on it and at the top of that was a big gold cross. Fishermen could see it when they were a good many miles out. One day a British pirate ship from Jamaica saw it and piled into the harbor here with the black flag flying. The people were scared and ran away and hid-all except the priest-Father Hivre his name was. He ran to his church and up the steps into the tower-then he climbed the rest of the way up to the cross and managed to get it loose. By that time the pirates were already in the town. There was a big wide well beside the church and Father Hivre jumped from the top of the tower carrying the gold cross with him right into it. Nobody has ever seen anything of either of them since. When pirates couldn’t find the cross they were so mad they burned the church, and the place where it stood has never been found. But we all look for it sometimes. Every boy on the island thinks he’ll find that well…”
“‘Captain Kidd used to bury his treasure on this island,” said Veronica imperturbably, “and back in nineteen sixteen Jimmie Mellon found it. A storm washed away half the shell bank and uncovered a brick cistern underneath a lot of Indian stuff. Jimmie opened the cistern and there was a clay pot with the cover sealed up. Mr. Dewberry was in charge of the island then-he and some rich folks were planning to develop it-so Jimmie closed up the cistern and sent for him. As soon as he came they both ran over to the spot and opened the cistern but the pot was gone. There was one old Spanish gold-piece at the bottom of the cistern. Nobody had left the island and nobody could leave for a while without bein’ searched. But they never found anything. Jimmie says he bets the Mermaid took it.’
‘Why did all these people give up and go back to the mainland?’ I asked.
‘Bad luck,’ said John. ‘It all started, they say, ‘round the year seventeen-forty. This harbor was better than the one at Pensacola then, and all the big boats used to make it. Then one day the big sailing vessel Bellona was standing off waiting to take the governor, Bienville, to France. The weather was just as calm and clear as it is now. All of a sudden she sank-with out any warning-sank and drowned half her crew. They say she just slipped straight down. A couple of weeks later come a twelve-day blow that just wiped out the harbor-took one arm right away. Nobody would stay here after that. The rich families all left and the houses and orchards rotted away. Spain didn’t get much when she bought us from France. But if we could get some salvagers after the Bellona and bring her up, we’d get flush times again. Her sinking’ was what started it all.’”3
With the importance of this beautiful island being so evident, the fight against the tide continues to this day. Five years after an oil spill, ten years after the island was violently split in two, and forty seven years after it’s hay day, the juggle of sand continues. Trucks carry mountains of beach, moving shifting sands, desperately trying to keep the island that is so loved, the idea that is so adored by it’s people, together. When looking at the stories and folklore of the little “Isle Dauphine”, it seems to be one shrouded in myth, destruction and rebirth. Time and time again, this island has been rebuilt on shifting sands, fighting tooth and nail to keep it together. Could this all be the effect of a mythical curse for disrupting a sacred burial ground in 1699?
The reality of the origin of “Massacre Island” might answer this question. The “Isle of Bones” is what is classified as a barrier island. These islands are long, narrow, offshore deposits of sand or sediment that run parallel to the coastline, serving as protection for the shore from hurricanes. They are separated from the main land by a shallow sound, bay, or lagoon, protecting vital wetlands. Barrier islands also operate as a type of dune system, yet dunes that were recorded to be massive in the times of Bienville are now in modern days falling into small hills. Some beliefs are that these islands migrate, depending on storms and environmental conditions. What effect might years of habitation on this island produced? Daniel Cusick says in his series as an E&E Reporter:
“Coastal erosion, storm surge and sea-level rise are all conspiring to wash the island away, or at least dismember it to such a degree that it no longer functions as a hurricane buffer, wildlife sanctuary, historic site or prime vacation spot.”
“The breakup of Dauphin Island would also be one of the only known cases of a U.S. municipality giving up substantial parts of its landmass to the sea and put the state in the untenable position of seeing nearly half of its seashore lost or reconfigured, with huge implications for tourism, fisheries, transportation, commerce and hurricane resilience.”
Dunes, as seen from a distance by French explorers covered in bones, are the heart of keeping this island together. These mountains of bones were created from sacred burial grounds, being ripped open by a hurricane, exposing what lay beneath, for the explorers attempting to colonize an unknown land to witness. Bleached white bones, thrown about like pillaged relics, from the heart of the island, from a sacred reverence that the explorers would never fathom. That which wasn’t understood became unholy, the unknown became savage, and thus was the creation of “Massacre Island”. Colonizing those “savages” and as a result, creating a civilization that is now what they know and understand. They were ultimately doing away with all footprints left by the natives. In a short time, this new civilization erased what the migrating natives believed and practiced, and created settlements that were permanent in their eyes. In the creation of permanent living spaces on the shifting sands of an unknown barrier island, was our society essentially established by trying to take control of that which can’t be tamed, that which will not be controlled?
“Civilization comes with greater control of impulses. We control violence, the state is there to control ourselves and control others. We also have something called self-control. Inner directed self-control, whereby we know there are certain things we don’t do anymore. You could argue that civilization is increasing control over human nature.” -Louise Fresco
Myths, stories, and legends are our attempts to explain the unexplainable. We tell stories around a fire, around the table, in a place of worship, trying to define that which shouldn’t have to be put into words. Once we name something, we limit what it can be. Humanity has a longing to search for explanation, and ultimately, create permanence in impermanence, to control our circumstances and environment. Could that idea be, at our core, what is fighting to keep this beautiful island community alive? The fight for control, is that the island’s curse? Or more importantly, is that our curse? Could the true Massacre that took place on this island be that of the creation of modern civilization itself?
Looking back at the story we began with, we may see something with new eyes. In front of the explorers, piling higher than they could see, were bones, skulls, staring back at them, bleached by the sun, reaching all the way to the heavens.
Could the skulls staring back at the fearful explorers actually be the ghosts of our futures past? Are these haints showing to us our fears of the loss of control, the unknown, which would ultimately be the end of our existence? Death is humanity’s number one fear. In death, we give up all control.
The beauty of a barrier island is that, left uncontrolled, it will protect the ecosystem and mainland it guards. Control is not part of nature’s plan. Eventually though, the island will change shape, and its life will end. Nothing is permanent, not even something as mythological as humanity’s “Massacre Island”.
- “Fleur de Lys and Calumet” by Richebourg Gaillard McWilliams, Original
1723 French text translated/published 1953 ppgs 9-11
- Alabama Footprints Exploration Lost and Forgotten stories, Donna R. Causey pg 23
- “Stars Fell On Alabama” Excerpts from the 1934 book telling of visit to Dauphin Island by Arthur Carl Carmer ppgs 249-251