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Tribe works to preserve, teach history of Egmont Key

Egmont Key might be a secluded island, but it’s one with a significant historical connection to the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Located at the mouth of Tampa Bay, the island is just off the coasts of St. Petersburg and Bradenton.

It became a wildlife refuge and was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. The island was designated as a Florida State Park in 1989.

But it’s the history of Egmont Key well before those years that is of most interest to the Tribe and those at the Tribal Historic Preservation Office and Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in Big Cypress.

The final touches are being put on both an Egmont Key high school curriculum and a special report for Tribal members and the public, in an effort to keep the history of what happened there alive.

Bradley Mueller of the THPO looks toward the lighthouse as he approaches Egmont Key. (Courtesy THPO)

‘The dark place’

As scenic and beautiful as it is to visitors who might go to snorkel, picnic or bird watch, Egmont Key has a sinister history.

The island was used as an internment camp for Seminoles before they were transported to New Orleans and other locations in the Western U.S. as part of the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Thousands of Seminoles are estimated to have been shipped or forcibly walked west during this period. Many perished on the island or on the Trail of Tears.

While today there are no remnants left of the Seminole prison – what they have called “the dark place” – historians and researchers have a good idea of where it would have been located – close to the island’s lighthouse and a nearby dock.

Egmont Key’s history also extends to one of the most notable Seminole ancestors who was imprisoned there. Records show that in 1858, the steamer Grey Cloud left Egmont Key headed west with 160 Seminoles.

Polly Parker (Emateloye) was on the vessel, but managed to escape when it stopped at St. Marks on the Florida panhandle.

The Tribe thinks the Egmont Key story is an important one to tell about the Seminoles fight for survival.

“We need to remember places like Egmont Key so that kids know what we went through and how we lived during the wars,” Seminole medicine man Bobby Henry said. “We need to keep talking about this history so we don’t lose it.”

The quote from Henry is one of several Tribal voices that are featured in the forthcoming 40-page report – “Egmont Key: A Seminole Story.”

The photo-rich report looks less like a formal document and reads like an informative National Geographic-style publication.

“I think a lot of our ancestors fought very dearly for our lives to be free. And to be able to come back and visit something like this, it’s very sad for me.

But at the end of the day, I think as Seminoles all need to come and visit it and get an idea of what they went through,” former Big Cypress Councilman Manuel “Mondo” Tiger said in the report.

The report features a timeline of the island’s history that starts at 2,000 B.C., when ancestors of the Seminole Tribe began using the island as a fishing location. You can follow the timeline all the way to present day.

There is also a section on Parker, her escape, and the impact she made on Seminole ancestry and history.

The coastline of Egmont Key has been significantly eroded over time.(Courtesy THPO)

‘Get the word out’

The report is intended to educate and be shared among Tribal members, the public and partners who share the Tribe’s goal of preserving Egmont Key.

“[It’s] designed to get the word out and develop a historical record,” Maureen Mahoney, a Tribal archaeologist at THPO, said.

She’s been closely involved in Egmont Key with others on the THPO staff over the years.

The THPO has made trips to the island to do metal detecting for artifacts; something that ramped up after a lightning-caused fire in 2016 burned 80 acres of foliage making some areas easier to study.

Tribal members, THPO staff and others have made trips to the island for archeological finds. The THPO wants to continue to do archival research, excavations, examination of cemeteries and gather oral histories.

“Egmont Key: A Seminole Story” will soon be sent to all of the museum’s members and distributed throughout the Tribe, Mahoney said.

Egmont Key curriculum

Meanwhile, representatives of Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki scheduled a community meeting Oct. 1 in Big Cypress to get final Tribal member feedback on an almost completed Egmont Key curriculum designed for the high school level.

Alyssa Boge, education coordinator at the museum, organized the meeting and has been working on the project and its lesson plans.

“If you go to the island today, you wouldn’t know about what happened to the Seminoles there,” Boge said.

That’s one of the main drivers for the curriculum (and the report), she said – so students can be taught what happened there and also learn that the Seminole Tribe is alive and well today.

Boge said the curriculum can be used in a variety of classroom subjects – social studies, writing, reading comprehension and even visual arts.

She expects the lesson plans will be used in both Tribal and non-Tribal schools, as it will meet Florida education standards.

“My long term goal is to make sure Seminole history is taught in every school in Florida,” Boge said. “I want teachers to feel confident teaching about Seminole People – it’s important for teachers to have curriculum that is going to touch on Native American and Seminole experiences.”

Ticking clock

There’s been a time pressure at play among those involved in both Egmont Key projects.

That’s because the island has been slowly disappearing – a phenomenon that’s accelerated in recent years due to climate change and other environmental factors.

Because the Tribe is already involved in many environmental issues, it has also sought to bring awareness to the Egmont Key’s erosion from storm surges, sea level rise, and ever more powerful and frequent hurricanes.

The THPO has partnered with park rangers who are also interested in preserving the island and its wildlife.

Human contact has also had an effect on the island’s wildlife – its bird and sea turtle populations.

Experts think the island itself could completely disappear in 100 years. Records show its area was about 580 acres in 1877 and is about 250 acres today.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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