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Uncovering the prison at Egmont Key

Tribal members gather around THPO employees to learn about some of the history of Egmont Key while on a trip to the island at the mouth of Tampa Bay. (Courtesy photo)

The Tribal Historic Preservation Office made two trips to Egmont Key recently, as part of an ongoing project to record and preserve the island’s story of Seminole struggle and perseverance. Egmont Key is a beautiful island in the mouth of Tampa Bay that is home to a state park, a scenic lighthouse, a bird sanctuary, and is a popular destination for boaters and snorkelers in the Gulf of Mexico. However, in the last stages of the Seminole Wars (1817-1858) the island housed a United States army base dedicated to holding Seminole prisoners captive, before their eventual forced removal to  the ‘Indian Territory’ that would become Oklahoma.  Now that history is at risk. Egmont Key is washing away. Changes to Tampa Bay and the rising sea levels have seen the island reduced to less than a third of the size it was in the 1800s.

The prison camp at Egmont was well known at the time. Mention of it was made in newspapers as far away as New York and Chicago. When Billy Bowlegs, himself a household name throughout the country, was brought there at the end of the Seminole War in 1858, it was national news. Over 150 years later, however, that history has largely been lost behind beautiful beaches and the ruins of a naval base from the Spanish-American War.

In order to raise awareness of the Island’s tragic story, the THPO has organized several trips to the island. In November the THPO Community Engagement Coordinator Quenton Cypress arranged for Councilman Mondo Tiger and the elders of the Big Cypress Reservation to visit the site. THPO Archaeologists gave a tour of the Island and what is known of its history. “I think it has a lot of history to tell us.” Councilman Tiger said, “I think 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. I think as Seminoles… to come out here and visit, to get an idea what they gone through; I think it’s very meaningful.”

This trip was followed up with another in December, this time with Ted Isham, the Historic Preservation Officer for the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. Ted had heard stories of Egmont, but had never been able to make the trip to see it before.  On the island he told a story he had heard growing up, of Seminole who had been captured and would soon be forced to leave Florida. The group chose, instead of being taken away, that they would walk off together into the sea, never to be seen again. On the beach he looked around and stated “Standing here, seeing this place, I’m sure this is where that happened.”

The Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma both want the history of Egmont Key to be remembered,  not because it is a happy story but because it is a tragic one, a story that shaped both tribes, and a story many would prefer wasn’t remembered at all.

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