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Indigenous site still attracts city dwellers, tourists

The circle has been kept buried for its protection but is landscaped in its original shape with stone and vegetation. It is surrounded by a public park. (Photo Damon Scott)

MIAMI — In downtown Miami where the Miami River meets Biscayne Bay sits the Miami Circle – an anomaly among an
overdeveloped metro area with millions of residents and visitors. For those interested in a historical look of the area’s Indigenous people, it’s a fascinating, accessible and free (other than parking) visit.

The Miami Circle is a 2.2-acre archaeological site on the south bank of the Miami River in the city’s Brickell neighborhood. It consists of a near perfect circle measuring 38 feet in diameter. Miami condo high-rises – some of the most valuable real estate in the U.S. – surround it, but the site itself is protected.

The Miami Circle was discovered after the Brickell Point apartments were demolished in 1998 to make way for new high-rise construction. Archaeologists uncovered prehistoric artifacts. Salvage excavations revealed an unusual circular
feature consisting of holes and basins carved into the shallow Miami oolitic limestone bedrock. It is thought to have been the foundation for a wooden structure built by the Tequesta Indians in what possibly served as their capital.

It is also thought to be the only cut-in-rock, prehistoric structural footprint ever found in eastern North America. Carbon dating places it at between 1,700 and 2,000 years old.

The Miami Circle was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2009. (Photo Damon Scott)

Artifacts found at the site include intact black earth midden deposits – an archaeological feature consisting of patches
of dark-colored earth and “concentrated artifacts” that are from the discard of refuse, food remains, broken tools and crockery. Shell, stone, animal bone and pottery were unearthed at the site as well.

It’s important when referencing the Tequesta to note that labels don’t always tell the whole story. For example, Florida’s early peoples, who include the Tequesta, are sometimes referred to as the “lost tribes.” The Tequesta’s footprint is not only found in Miami, but in other Florida locations as well.

While the Seminoles are also Florida’s first residents, some historians say it’s not accurate that they be included on the list of “original” inhabitants – that the Tequesta were in Florida “before” the Seminoles.

But Paul Backhouse, the senior director of the Heritage and Environment Resources Office (HERO) for the tribe, explains that such thinking amounts to a fabrication of history – the idea that the Seminoles were “new” to Florida. He argues that history is more complex and nuanced, that in all of Florida there were Indigenous peoples moving back and forth constantly. The Seminoles didn’t appear out of nowhere, Backhouse explains.

Nevertheless, the Tequesta, like the Seminoles, used the Miami River as a conduit between the bay and the Everglades – which provided connections to Lake Okeechobee and other areas for trade and travel.

Circle support

The Miami Circle discovery was announced to the public in January 1999. Protecting it from development was not an
easy task. Demonstrators, including many Seminoles and other Natives, protested plans to destroy it. Bobby Billie, featured on one of the signs at the site, along with other tribal members, held candlelight vigils at the site each Tuesday night after its discovery in order to gain support for its protection.

A huge amount media attention and general interest in the discovery eventually caught the eyes and ears of officials at the city and the state, who heard appeals from the public to purchase the site from the developer.

The site is in the middle of downtown Miami with high rise buildings on both sides, where the Miami River meets Biscayne Bay. (Photo Damon Scott)

In September 1999, Miami-Dade County and the developer reached a settlement agreement – the county would pay $26.7 million for the property. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush also agreed to contribute state funds to the acquisition, pending an
archaeological investigation by the Bureau of Archaeological Research (BAR).

The subsequent assessment concluded that the Miami Circle is ancient and of human origin. Intact deposits were found across 70% of the site, including many other holes cut into the limestone not associated with the circular structure.

In 2002, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2009. A
waterfront park that opened in 2011 and is managed by the HistoryMiami Museum now surrounds it, although the circle itself is buried in order to protect it.

If you go: Search for “Miami Circle National Historic Landmark” on Google Maps. The site is open 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Parking can be found on nearby streets or via parking garages. More information is at trailoffloridasindianheritage.com.

Read Offline:
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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