EGMONT KEY — A canoe used by Seminole ancestors has been discovered on the shores of Egmont Key, a secluded island located at the mouth of Tampa Bay just off the coasts of St. Petersburg and Bradenton.
Paul Backhouse, senior director of the Seminole Tribe’s Heritage and Environment Resources Office which oversees the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO), said the find is a compelling one.
“The canoe is hugely significant in telling the story of the Tribe,” Backhouse said. “Specifically it appears to indicate the use of sails to travel between the mainland waterways and swamps of Florida and outlying islands.”
The canoe will undergo radiocarbon dating, but Backhouse and his staff said they think it was used as early as the 1520s to sometime in the 1600s, just after the early contact period with the Europeans.
Backhouse said the discovery is important because standard histories of ancestral Seminole populations rarely discuss the long range patterns of social mobility, trade and exchange that were occurring prior to the massive disruptions of those early systems by European colonization.
The fact that the canoe was found at Egmont Key could be described as somewhat serendipitous, although the island’s history is not a happy one for the Tribe.
While it is now a scenic destination for visitors who 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 thought to have been shipped or forcibly walked west during the period. Many perished on Egmont Key or on the ensuing Trail of Tears.
Nevertheless, many in the Tribe say the story of Egmont Key is an important one to tell about the Seminoles’ fight for survival.
The Tribe has recently created an Egmont Key high school curriculum and a special publication for Tribal members and the public in an effort to keep its history alive.
All of the activity involving Egmont Key has a backdrop of urgency, too.
The island is slowly disappearing – a phenomenon that has accelerated in recent years due to erosion from storm surges, sea level rise, and ever more powerful and frequent hurricanes and other environmental factors due to climate change.
Experts think Egmont Key could completely disappear in 100 years. Records show its area was about 580 acres in 1877 and is about 250 acres today.
‘An amazing thing’
It is perhaps ironic, then, that those studying the canoe think Hurricane Dorian might have been the reason its broken (16-foot, 2-inch) section was discovered in the first place on Oct. 30.
While Dorian did not make landfall on Florida’s west coast, it was one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, and it affected weather systems and ocean currents on both sides of the state.
Dorian was a hurricane from Aug. 24 to Sept. 10.
“Most likely what happened is that [the canoe] was [originally] on the island and as the island shrank, it settled in the sand, on the beach or in the middle and was buried in the sand and eventually pulled underwater,” Bernard J. Howard, Heritage and Environmental Resources Office (HERO) project manager with the Tribe said.
“Then Dorian came through and stirred up Tampa Bay,” he said, speculating that the canoe had been lodged offshore underneath the water.
The canoe was discovered by Tom Watson, an Egmont Key park ranger.
Egmont Key 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.
When Watson made the discovery, he contacted the state of Florida’s Bureau of Archeological Resources, who then contacted Tribal officials.
Howard, who earned a degree in maritime archeology, said only a few such canoes have been found in the past 50 years.
“It’s not common. I [know of] three or four references of canoes like this,” he said.
Howard said it’s too early to say what the canoe’s full dimensions would have been. He said it’s most likely made of cypress wood.
Howard echoes Backhouse’s sentiment that the discovery is particularly impactful due to evidence the canoe had a mast for a sail.
“You don’t use a sail in [Everglades] canoes,” Howard said. “A canoe with sails is specifically for ocean going, back and forth around the islands in the Gulf [of Mexico] or trading with Cuba. There are oral histories of Indigenous People trading with Cuba.”
Howard added that the canoe has tool markings that are very similar to traditional Seminole Tribe canoe tool markings.
Tribal member Pedro Zepeda, who went to Egmont Key after the canoe was discovered, concurs that it is a much older style that would have been used for going into the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and is structurally different from the wetlands canoes crafted later.
Zepeda is an Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum village crafter and canoe maker. He was one of the stakeholders who made trips to Egmont Key – on Nov. 11 and Dec. 5 – after the canoe was discovered.
They helped move the canoe to a safe area of the island, wrapped it in towels and built a temporary box so it could be placed in saltwater.
The group met with state of Florida officials and partners from the University of South Florida to transport the canoe in a 26-foot truck to a conservation lab in Tallahassee.
“The whole move process went really well to make sure we were on the same page,” Howard said. “It’s a significant find, especially washing up on Egmont Key. With the Tribe being involved and the history with the Seminoles – it was very important that we were there to make sure things were being done in a proper manner.”
“It’s an amazing thing,” Backhouse added. “It tells a completely different story about what we know about the Tribe and their seafaring techniques.”
The end goal of all parties involved, including the Tribe, is to have a studied and preserved canoe relocated back to Egmont Key.
Howard said the process could take three to five years.
It is not yet known what kind of structure might need to be constructed to house it properly.
Meanwhile, Egmont Key is undergoing a mapping process using 3D scanning technology.
The Tribe has partnered with the University of South Florida’s digital imaging lab to create a digital record.
Backhouse said it will help to show the effect climate change has had on the island and will provide a complete rendering of topography, vegetation and structures, down to very fine detail.