Egmont Key, Florida — The history of this spit of an island is without parallel. Sadly, the Key itself could soon be history.
Native Americans, for example, hunted the island at the mouth of Tampa Bay centuries ago. Spanish explorers mapped it in the 1500s. Billy Bowlegs and Polly Parker, Seminole Indian legends, were imprisoned here during the so-called Third Seminole War.
Runaway slaves hid among its cabbage palms and live oaks. Union sailors used the Key to blockade Confederate ships during the Civil War. A fort and village was built during the Spanish-American war. Bootleggers stowed booze during Prohibition.
Meanwhile, the sea rose higher, hurricanes pummeled the beaches and ever-larger ships pushed waves further onto the shores. Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge today is under siege from the waters that surround it. It's likely to get worse.
The Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico are expected to rise at least one meter (39 inches) by 2100, according to a number of scientific publications. If so, the scientific journal Plos One predicts, more than 13,000 archaeological sites across the Southeast will disappear. Over 1,000 of those sites are currently eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
"A lot of those landscapes are not only critical from a scientific perspective, but also from a cultural perspective," said Richard Kanaski, the Service's archaeologist in the Southeast. "We would lose access to a whole range of sites that are important to both local communities and Native American tribes. Once they're gone, they're gone."
In 1877, Egmont Key boasted 540 acres. Today, it's 250.
"The history of this island is a matter of cultural memory for our people," James Billie, the former chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, wrote in a 2013 letter to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. "We wish it to be preserved if at all possible so that the youth of our tribe can visit this place and learn how far we have come together."
Graves and wildlife
Dave Scheidecker, below, hopped the 10 a.m. ferry to Egmont Key on a recent, not-yet-scalding summer day. An archaeologist with the Seminole's historic preservation office, Scheidecker was keen to visit the island's cemetery where tribal ancestors were buried.
Egmont Key offers a mash of competing priorities. It became a national wildlife refuge in 1974 due to its wealth of nesting shorebirds, sea turtles and gopher tortoises who amble along red-brick paths with little concern for two-legged interlopers. An off-limits bird sanctuary on the key's south end welcomes federally threatened piping plovers and some of the highest numbers of royal and sandwich terns in Florida. In a typical year, three or four dozen threatened loggerhead sea turtles nest on Egmont Key. This year, a record 162 nests have been tallied.
Fort Dade, the early 1900s military base, occupies much of the island's mid-section with some of its 70 buildings intact or hidden beneath tropical greenery. The fort, along with the 160-year-old lighthouse near the northern tip, put Egmont Key on the national historic listing in 1978. Boaters, bathers and birders encircle the incredibly shrinking sock-shaped Key.
The cemetery sits below the lighthouse, a sacred spot for the Seminoles. At least five Seminoles were buried on Egmont which served as a temporary stockade during the 1850s when the tribe was forcibly moved westward by U.S. troops. Who were they? How did they die? And where are they now?
"For the Seminole, if they are buried somewhere, they should stay there. Their graves are sacrosanct," said Scheidecker adding that the historic designation prohibits tampering with the cemetery. "There are very strong death taboos with the tribe. But the stories that are not pleasant to hear are the most important to tell."
The island's Native American history long predates the Europeans. Kanaski and other historians peg the first European visit to Egmont to 1757; a seaman discovered an abandoned dugout canoe on the beach. A British surveyor named the Key after the second Earl of Egmont six years later.
Without fresh water, the Key languished. A small military depot and observation tower were erected in 1837. A lighthouse was built in 1848, but dismantled a decade later after a battering by storms. Colonel Robert E. Lee recommended in 1849 that the military take control of the key. The lighthouse that stands today, 87-feet tall and 3-feet thick, opened in 1858.
Endurance and struggle
The federal government began forcibly removing Native Americans from Florida in 1817 and didn't stop until the Third Seminole War (1856-1858). A stockade on Egmont Key held maybe 300 Seminoles awaiting ships headed to New Orleans and, eventually, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Billy Bowlegs, the last Seminole chief in South Florida, surrendered May 4, 1858, his capture trumpeted across newspapers nationwide. Polly Parker and 125 tribal members joined Bowlegs on the Egmont stopover.
The next day, while stopping in St. Marks to take on wood for fuel, Parker and a dozen Seminoles were granted permission to go ashore and gather roots and herbs for medicine. A guard accompanied them. Parker gave a signal and the prisoners scattered into the woods. Some were recaptured. But Parker escaped and returned home to the Lake Okeechobee area where she died in 1921.
Scheidecker tells other tales of Seminole woe on Egmont Key: of a humiliated chief named Tiger Tail who drank a cup of water and crushed glass to commit suicide; of 10 warriors marching silently into the gulf to die instead of suffering the ignominy of relocation from their ancestral lands.
"It's not a happy history; it's a dark history," said Scheidecker while strolling the red-brick path through Fort Dade. "It's a story of endurance and struggle and loss. And it needs to be told so that it doesn't happen again."
The Seminoles know only too well Winston Churchill's aphorism that history is written by the victors. Their Egmont captors didn't speak their language, barely bothered to learn their names and inaccurately recorded their fate. Many Seminoles are believed to have died on Egmont, but nobody can say how many or where all were buried. Fort Dade may have been built atop Seminole graves; others may have been lost to the encroaching seas.
Kanaski, the Service's archaeologist, wrote in a 2007 report that the cemetery south of the lighthouse is "the most likely location of any Seminole burials." A plaque alongside the cemetery lists five Seminoles buried within: Chief Tommy and four children. The tribe, now 4,000 members strong, doesn't consider the plaque accurate.
The cemetery was dug up in 1909 to make way for a parade ground. A bill of lading sent to the U.S. War Department's quartermaster general lists 25 bodies disinterred, boxed up in clear pine coffins with tin or zinc liners and delivered to the train station in Tampa. Cost: $271.30. The bodies were re-interred at the St. Augustine National Cemetery. Scheidecker researched the reburials and believes the five Seminoles made the cross-state journey.
Egmont "has a lot of history to tell us," Manuel "Mondo" Tiger, a tribal councilman, said after visiting the key last November. "A lot of our ancestors fought very dearly for our lives, to be free. And to come back and visit something like this is very sad for me. … It's very meaningful."
Efforts and failures
Saving the island might be more challenging than saving its history. Its highest elevation, near the lighthouse, is six feet above sea level. It has lost more than half its land mass over the last 150 years. The seas surrounding Florida have risen at least 8 inches the last century. State officials predict another 9-to-24-inch rise by 2060.
Egmont is buffeted by more than sea-level rise. Hurricanes and strong storms hammer the low-lying, little-protected Key. And erosion, due primarily to wakes churned by fuel tankers, container ships and cruise liners heading to and from Port Tampa Bay and Port Manatee, pummels the dunes, particularly along the island's northern side.
Signs of destruction abound. Palm trees, killed by saltwater intrusion, stand stripped and forlorn along the western beach. Concrete remnants of the old power plant, which once sat mid-island, lay half-submerged in the gulf. Two gun batteries now serve as diving attractions 100 yards off the coast. Large, sand-filled "geotubes" intended to slow erosion were buried on the island's north end in 2014 and buffered by 30-plus yards worth of sand. They're now exposed and the sand is gone.
"We're most worried about the center of the island," said Stan Garner, visitor services manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Tampa region. "It's the lowest point and the area most likely to wash over and split in two. Once that happens both ends of the island will disappear."
The state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have tried repeatedly over the years to protect Egmont by installing geotubes or adding hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of dredged sand to the key's shores. All have failed. A massive retaining wall (and another 1.3 million yards of sand) at a cost of $35 million was deemed too expensive by the Corps.
"There's been erosion all along, but around 2012 it really ratcheted up," Garner said. "It's an alarming rate of erosion and something has to be done. It's all washing away very quickly."
Scheidecker expects Egmont Key, one day, will succumb to the waves. He fears the island will disappear before the Seminole fully understand who was buried and where. He recoils at the notion of long-lost tribal members slipping into watery graves without proper burials.
Scheidecker caught the afternoon ferry back to the mainland. A school of tarpon passed along one side of the boat; a manatee on the other. The lighthouse and gun batteries receded quickly.
"The history out here," Scheidecker said, "is insane."
This story was originally published for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and is republished with permission here.