Egmont Key, the island where captured Seminoles were warehoused before being sent to Oklahoma during the Seminole Wars in the mid-1800s, was deemed by the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the state’s 11 most endangered historical sites. The designation came May 18 at the Florida Preservation Conference in St. Petersburg.
The tiny atoll near the mouth of Tampa Bay made the list because its existence is threatened by sea level rise. According to Clay Henderson, president of the Trust’s board of trustees, it is the first time a site was chosen because of climate change.
“I think having Egmont Key on the list will elevate it to a level that people can see its importance and hopefully get behind preserving the island,” said Paul Backhouse, director of the Seminole Tribe’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. “It is a very important story, a horrific one. The community wants it to be preserved so they can teach their children what happened out there. One severe storm and that island could be gone.”
The Trust’s Most Endangered Sites program is designed to increase the public’s awareness of the urgent need to save Florida’s neglected or threatened historic resources and empower local preservationist groups to preserve the state’s rich history.
The Tribal Historic Preservation Office continues to scour the island for more proof of Seminole activity and for site of the internment camp. A couple of important finds were recently made, including an officer’s belt buckle and a bullet from the Seminole War period.
Two letters obtained from the National Archives written in 1857, presumably by an officer at the Egmont Key camp, mention two Seminole captives who did not survive.
“It is the first real evidence of Seminoles being taken and not making it off the island,” Backhouse said.
Polly Parker was held at Egmont Key in 1856 and boarded the Grey Cloud, a ship destined for New Orleans, where its passengers would be forced to join the Trail of Tears and walk to Oklahoma. Luckily for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Parker escaped during a refueling stop south of Tallahassee and made her way south to Okeechobee. Her legacy includes generations of Tribal members who have her blood in their veins today.
Egmont Key, formed about 1,000 years ago, is a mere slip of land less than two miles long and half a mile wide. Like all barrier islands, it is on the front lines of climate change. Since it was first surveyed in 1877, about 60 percent of the land mass has been taken by the Gulf of Mexico.
The island’s severe erosion is made worse by rising sea levels. Although the Army Corps of Engineers replenishes it with sand dredged from the shipping channel every seven years, erosion continues.
Sea level rise due to climate change and global warming already adversely affects coastal communities, according to the 2013 National Climate Assessment Report that was researched by 60 scientists. It is projected to keep rising unless “society can make better decisions about how to reduce risk and protect people, places and ecosystems from extreme events and long-term changes. Some but not all of these changes are inevitable. Clearly, decisions made now and in the future will influence society’s resilience to natural, social and economic impacts of future climate change,” the report states.
Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki, Florida International University’s Global Indigenous Forum, the Florida Public Archaeology Network, Florida Atlantic University and the Native Learning Center will host the Tidally United Summit 2017 Aug. 4-5 to address sea level rise and its effect on cultural and historic sites. Backhouse said he looks forward to exploring the topic with Tribal members at the event at the NLC in Hollywood.