EGMONT KEY — When about 40 people – mostly Seminoles – braved the cold air and the Gulf of Mexico’s choppy seas to visit an island near the mouth of Tampa Bay on Feb. 29, they were stepping back into a critical chapter in the Tribe’s history.
In what was essentially a concentration camp set up by the U.S. Army in the late 1850s, Seminoles were held captive on the island as they awaited a forced removal to Indian Territory in Oklahoma.
The trip to the uninhabited island, which is accessible only by boat, was organized by Quenton Cypress, Heritage, Environment Resources Office community engagement manager, and Lois Billie, Executive Operations Office administrative assistant II.
The trip was sponsored by the Brighton Council Office and the Tribal Historic Preservation Office. It provided an in-depth history of Egmont Key.
It was the first time some in the group visited the island. For many, their roots can be traced back to Polly Parker, who escaped as she was being sent to Oklahoma.
“The U.S. Army tried to destroy us, but here we are in our colors, in our patchwork,” Cypress said. “That’s why we do these trips.”
The ages of the assembled group ranged from elders to newborns. They gathered by the lighthouse to listen as Cypress and David Scheidecker, THPO research coordinator, shared the history of Egmont Key.
THPO has been taking Tribal members to the island for the past few years and this was the largest group so far.
Edna Bowers, a descendant of Parker from Brighton, was glad to see so many young people in attendance.
“I want them to be interested in their history,” Bowers said. “We have informed them about it and wanted them to see it for themselves.”
A couple of teenagers climbed the ruins of an army battery as they soaked up information.
“It’s pretty creepy,” said Rylec King, 14, a student at Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School in Brighton. “I learned about it in Miss Jade’s class. I thought it was just some island, but my people stayed and died here. There is a lot of history here.”
“It’s crazy how they sacrificed themselves to get out of here,” added Joseph Toneges, 18. “It’s pretty cool to be out here to experience it.”
Rita Youngman was also pleased so many young people were there to explore the island.
“They are searching for who they are,” she said. “I’m proud to see young people here with their children. This is so important for them.”
Parker was Brighton Councilman Larry Howard’s great-great-grandmother. Being on the island for the first time was a moving experience for him.
“I wanted to stand on these grounds and visualize what happened here,” Councilman Howard said. “It speaks volumes to me.”
Egmont Key itself is a contradiction. On the one hand, it is a peaceful destination for day-tripping beach-goers. On the other, it is the remnant of a horrific chapter of Seminole history.
“I can feel things out here,” said Youngman, who has been to Egmont Key four times. “There is a sadness and a sense of pride because we survived. The voices are here. The ancestors wanted to be found, remembered and not lost.”
THPO archeologists have been working to find evidence of the internment camp and other relics for about four years.
The island was the embodiment of the U.S. government’s Indian Removal Act of 1830.
The legislation authorized the removal of all Native Americans east of the Mississippi River from their lands in what became known as the Trail of Tears, which ended in Oklahoma.
The Army referred to Egmont Key as an Indian depot.
“It was really a concentration camp,” Scheidecker said.
Captured Seminoles were taken aboard the ship, the Grey Cloud, to New Orleans where they were marched to Oklahoma.
However, one extraordinary Seminole woman escaped.
Parker bolted from the Grey Cloud when it stopped for fuel at Fort St. Marks in the Florida panhandle.
Parker led a few other escapees and walked more than 330 miles to join their families near Lake Okeechobee.
It was hostile territory, but they managed to survive.
Parker’s determination to escape and live can be felt throughout the Tribe’s history, then and now.
Many of her progeny, such as Councilman Howard, live on the Brighton Reservation today.
In a 2016 story in the Tribune, then-Chairman James E. Billie mentioned former chairmen Howard Tommie and Betty Mae Jumper and then-Brighton Councilman Andrew J. Bowers Jr. “as examples of highly successful Polly Parker descendants.”
A cemetery built on the highest part of Egmont Key is empty of graves now.
The identities of all who were interred remain a mystery, but through intense research Scheidecker found handwritten records of six Indians who were buried there.
Those remains were moved to other cemeteries and ultimately reburied in two graves in St. Augustine. The graves are labeled “Unknown Indians.”
Long after the Seminole Wars ended, the Army built Fort Dade on the island in preparation for the Spanish American War in 1898.
It had four artillery batteries, munitions depots, military housing, radio towers, support structures, roads and a rail line.
Evidence of the Seminoles has been hard to find because the construction of the fort probably destroyed it, including the wooden blockhouse in which they were imprisoned.
THPO archeologists believe the prison would have been located on a natural clearing near the lighthouse and cemetery.
Soldiers used it as a parade ground and the U.S. Coast Guard built a helipad on it in the mid-20th century.
“Polly Parker told her daughter about the fort,” Scheidecker said. “She said they were held in the fort and watched by armed guards. But there is no proof left that it existed.”
Climate change and the effects of digging the Tampa Bay shipping channel in the early 20th century have wreaked havoc on Egmont Key. Erosion is taking the island.
In 1877, it was about 580 acres. Today, approximately 200 acres remain; it is less than half the size it was when it held Seminoles captive.
“One reason we came out here is to find a way to save the island,” Scheidecker said. “Some say it should be saved. But a lot more say this is a place where bad things happened and maybe that’s why it is being taken away.”
To ensure the island will live on in Seminole history, THPO recently completed a digital 3D laser scan of the northern portion of the island around the lighthouse.
Today Egmont Key is both a National Wildlife Refuge and a state park.