OF BOYNTON ISLAND
WASHINGTON COUNTY’S HAUNTED SWAMP, ‘SOMETHING DISQUIETING’ HERE
Written by: Dale Cox
Boynton Island is a dark and mysterious place. Even during the daylight. Cypress trees cast long shadows over swamplands where some believe that the ivory-billed woodpecker still clings to life.
At night, it is a place where those strong of heart hesitate to go.
And it is all because of a fiddle player who died more than 100 years ago. His name was Moses “Mose” Boynton, and northwest Florida legend claims that he and his crew of ghostly dancers party well after midnight at their hideout deep in this haunted swamp.
Boynton Island is an anomaly of nature. Located where Holmes Creek flows down from the northeast to meet the Choctawhatchee River in northwest Florida, it was originally not an island at all. The river pours out of the red clay hills of Alabama with much greater volume than the creek, picking up and depositing huge amounts of sediment during the annual flood seasons.
Over eons of time this process has slowly elevated the bottom of the Choctawhatchee to higher levels than the creek. Holmes Creek, meanwhile, carved itself a path down into Florida’s karst topography, lowering its bottom even deeper below that of the river. At certain times of the year, the surface of the creek is actually several feet below that of the river.
Since water has a way of flowing downhill, the Choctawhatchee opened a “cut” through a natural levee into Holmes Creek near the point where the two finally flowed together. The river’s water started trickling through and quickly became a torrent. The result was a wide channel called the Boynton Cutoff. The explosive power of the Choctawhatchee widened the cutoff and now it is the main channel of the river. The land between the cutoff and the original confluence became an island, the 19th century domain of Moses Boynton. The place’s isolation makes it even more mysterious.
Especially because many believe that Boynton and his cast of spectral dancers still hang out there!
BOYNTON ISLAND GHOST LEGEND
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, most such stories have a foundation in true history. The available documentation indicates that the name Boynton—which may be a corruption of the names Boyington or Bowington—has been associated with the area around the confluence of Holmes Creek and the Choctawhatchee River since before the Civil War.
The 1850 U.S. Census for Washington County showed Haywood Boyington, age 23, living in the area with his wife, two young daughters and a 17-year-old girl who may have been his sister. He was no longer there by 1860, when another family member was heading the household. They were from Alabama.
Records from 1860 show the presence of the man who is the focus of the Boynton Island ghost legend. Moses Bowington, also a native of Alabama, appeared on the census as the head of a household in the Boynton Island area. Three years later this same individual—but under the name Moses Boynton—mustered into the Confederate service at the Cowford, an early crossing point on the Choctawhatchee River downstream from the island near today’s town of Ebro. He served for a few months in Company C, 11th Florida Infantry, but was dropped from the regimental rolls just a short time later. The records are silent as to the reason.
Not long after Moses Boynton left the service, however, a large band of Southern Unionists and Confederate deserters picked Boynton Island as its hideout. Led by a man named Jim Ward, the group used the island as a base for strikes against pro-secession civilians, military detachments and even the town of Elba, Alabama. Local citizens called them “raiders,” but some of these men served in the Union army as soldiers of the 1st Florida Cavalry (U.S.). Others remained irregulars, fighting their own uncivil war against both sides.
Boynton’s relationship with them is not known, but the proximity of his home to their hideout suggests that at a minimum he was on peaceful terms with Ward’s group.
His island is rumored to be a hiding place for gold and silver buried by the band.
SLOWLY RECLAIMED BY THE SWAMP
The last decades of the 19th century brought an explosion
in timber and sawmill activity on the Choctawhatchee
River and Choctawhatchee Bay. Moses Boynton and his son,
Raymond, engaged in cutting virgin cypress logs that they
floated downstream to mills around Point Washington at
the mouth of the river. They branded their name on one end
of each log before setting them loose or connecting them
into rafts for the journey. It was backbreaking work.
Moses was known by timber workers up and down the
river as a man who enjoyed a good time. One of the best
dance callers in the region, he played a mighty fine fiddle.
The large log-and-plank Boynton home on Boynton Island
was often brightly illuminated at night and could be seen
for great distances around. Friends, family and neighbors
gathered there for food, fun and dancing. Choctawhatchee
loggers often joined the parties—sounds of the music and
dancing could be heard for miles.
The years went by … and Moses Boynton aged with them.
After he died, the old house was abandoned and slowly reclaimed
by the swamp. Loggers and fishermen who camped at
nearby Boynton Landing found something disquieting about
the place, especially late at night. Stories spread of strange
lights in the swamp. In the logging camps, tales were told of
how strong lumbermen were unnerved by the clear voice of
a man calling dances over the music of a fiddle accompanied
by the stomping feet of whole troupes of dancers. The sounds
came from the deep swamps of Boynton Island, where no living
human beings could have been partying so late at night.
Word spread that old Moses Boynton was back, and that
he was not alone. For as long as a trace of the old house
remained, locals stayed away.
Tales of Moses Boynton and his dancing guests became legendary
in Washington County. The dark and foreboding setting of
the island—with its gators and enormous water moccasins—
added to the mysterious appeal of the story. People came to fish
or hunt during the day, but they made sure they were across the
cutoff and on their way home long before sunset.
The island with its cypress trees and Spanish moss was left to its
own during the stillness of the night. It remains that way today,
and many believe that the fiddling ghost and his cadre of dancers
are still there … when the moon is high and the fog rises just right.
Boynton Island is dark and mysterious at night. The cutoff runs
fast and muddy during times of high water and much of the
island itself is submerged during the annual Choctawhatchee
River floods. It is largely owned by the Northwest Florida
Water Management District, which maintains its holdings
as public land. There are no facilities or developed trails. The
Choctawhatchee River Blueway, a state designated paddling
trail, passes the island, and Boynton Cutoff Landing is a boat
ramp directly opposite the island.
If you go, be safe. And don’t say that you weren’t warned.
Editor’s Note: Award-winning author and historian Dale Cox has
written 19 books on the history of Florida and the Southeast. This
is an excerpt from his “Two Egg Florida: A Collection of Ghost
Stories, Legends and Unusual Facts.” FCM