03 December 2013

Mullet and Egmont: A Natal Reflection

I was born in Lakeland Memorial Hospital on 30 November 1950, but my parents lived ten miles away, in Winter Haven.  That is where I grew up.  While living in the center of the state of Florida, my parents had a strong affinity for the Gulf coast...especially the area south of Tampa By.  There is some history to this.

My maternal grandmother (maiden name:  Agnes Amelia Hofacker) was born in Largo, FL in 1901.  Largo was a fishing and merchantile community nestled between the, then, small towns of Tampa and St. Petersburg.

There is some contention as to where my maternal grandfather was born.  National Archive records show the Burden family moving from the Northeast Borough of Erie, PA sometime between 1890 and 1892...settling in an area near the town of Miami generally known as the Homestead Region.  They were mechants.  My grandfather was born in 1892...either before or just after the pioneer venture to south Florida.

Some cultural history.  Florida has lived under four flags:  Spanish, French, English and United States.  The Spanish laid claim to the region in 1538...as part of their quest for precious metals and an alleged "fountain of youth."  There had been a strong indigenous population dating back about 8,000 years.  On the west coast of Florida, the Timacuan, Tocobaga and Calusa groups populated the regions from what is now Crystal River down to what is now Naples.  The Spanish were harsh "conquerors" and treated the indigenous populations very badly...usually killing the leaders and torturing the people to either get them converted to Catholicism or to find out where the gold and silver were located (there were neither).

On the east coast of Florida, the French had built a fort in a place that the Spanish later called Matanzas (means "place of slaughter") and laid claim to the peninsula.  The Spanish landed at a place they called St. Augustine and did, in fact, engage and slaughter the French garrison.  The oldest continuously inhabited city in North America was established in 1565, as a result of the French "deeding" the land to the Spanish, who called it "La Florida" (land of flowers).

To make a long story short, the Spanish established a string of missions and settlements from the the panhandle and down the east and west coasts of Florida.  The Spanish colonial capital of the region was established in Havana, and the area claimed by Spain included the Caribbean islands, Florida, Mexico and parts of the regions now known as Central and South America.

During the French and Indian War (1757-63), the British captured Havana as a reprisal for the Spanish supporting the French.  The Spanish traded Florida in order to get Cuba and their capital back.  The British held Florida until the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which ended the American Revolution.  Florida was returned to the Spanish.  After some rather ugly fighting, the Spanish ceded Florida to the United States in 1821.  Florida became a state in 1845.

 The real losers in all this?  The Indigenous peoples of Florida simply ceased to exist.  Either killed or dying of invading European diseases, the remnants of these once proud people became what we know as the Seminole Nation.  The term "seminole" is a Muskogee derivative meaning "runaway" or "wild."  When Andrew Jackson began the campaign of moving whole nations west to the Oklahoma Territory, those refusing to go fled south into Florida and banded with the few remnants of Florida's indigenous nations.

There were three periods of fighting that are known as the Seminole Wars.  During that time, the United States garrisoned troops in a string of forts...mostly along the western half of the state.  The Seminoles were never defeated and have never lived under a treaty.  Such cities as Ft. Meade and Ft. Myers reflect the investment of the United States in both the wars and then to protect the ranchers and settlers that began moving into west Florida in the 1850s.
Francisco Celi Map of Tampa Bay, 1757

Tampa Bay was not much explored or utilized by the Spanish.  The most complete cartography of the area was done by Captain Francisco Celi in 1757.  His map has become quite famous.  His name for the island that sits in the middle of the deep channel at the mouth of the bay was St. Blas y Barreda.  There were several barrier islands that ranged around the mainland that was called Pinellas.  They bear names I cannot read on the original map copies.  When the English gained control of Florida in 1763, they changed many of the place names and took great interest in the large, natural deep water bay.  Barreda was renamed "Egmont Caye" in honor of John Perceval, Second Earl of Egmont (Ireland) and then Lord of the British Admiralty.  The largest of the barrier islands at the edge of the bay was named "Mullet Caye" after the abundant fish prized by incoming settlers.  The French/Spanish term "Caye" (pronounced Key) was shifted to the American English, "Key" somewhere in all this.

My deep interest in cultural history began quite early, and, obviously, Florida has a rather unique evolution.  The Spanish, French and English influences remain obvious.  Because the Spanish were harsh rulers...especially in Cuba...refugees from that island nation fled to the Tampa Bay area...beginning in the 1700s.  (the name "Tampa" may come from a Calusa term meaning "sticks of fire" from the large number of lightning strikes common to the area).  This heritage is still very much a part of the flavor of the Tampa Bay region.

My maternal grandparents would bring their family (my mom and uncle) to the north island of south Tampa Bay...Anna Maria...in the 1920s and 30s to camp, rent a small cabin and enjoy both the Gulf and Bay as a vacation from my grandfather's work as an entomologist for the Florida State Plant Board (a precursor to the United States Department of Agriculture).  In addition to his work with the Mediterranean Fruit Fly and Citrus Canker, Grandad was a true Florida naturalist.  His growing up in south Florida and later work with south Florida citrus and botanical diseases created a number of bonds with Seminole hunters and guides.  I remember a number of visits with my great uncle Carl Hofaker and Aunt Hannah, who lived on Treasure Island (a key off south St. Petersburg) as a child.

The last seven years of her life, our mom lived on Anna Maria Island.  Prior to that, our parents would rent a cabin on Longboat Key (south of Anna Maria) each summer.  So, my childhood included a strong attachment to the area in which we now live.  I have a memory that, around age 11, on a visit to Sarasota, I told our dad, "This is my favorite city of all, and I want to live here some day."  Fifty years later, much to my surprise, we actually moved here.

Many times...especially as a young adult...I would do a morning six mile run around a large part of Anna Maria Island and end up on the fishing pier at the north end of the island (called City Pier).  There was a small coffee shop at the end of the pier.  I would get a large glass of water, a cup of coffee and sit on one of the benches to watch the fishermen and a +variety of avian and marine life.  It is a place where Tampa Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico, so there is an ever shifting ecosystem (with the tides and weather).

As I would sit, my gaze would often rest on Egmont Key, nestled in the midst of the mouth of the bay.  The lighthouse beacon always blinking and Coast Guard craft moving about, I would wonder what that island was really like...vowing someday to take a boat trip to see for myself.  I knew that Fort Dade had been there, and small garrisons had occupied the island, prior to that, to protect the bay from pirates; to incarcerate captured Seminoles (during those wars); to protect the Union blockade during the Civil War (the Confederate militia holding the island was defeated in a small but bloody skirmish in early 1862); and to fortify this part of Florida at the beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898 (the building of Ft. Dade).   These garrisons and the fort were attached to larger garrisons and a fort on Mullet Key...on the north side of the deep channel.  The 1898 building of Ft. DeSoto on Mullet Key and Ft. Dade on Egmont Key completed a coastal defense plan that had originally been submitted by a young U.S. Army Colonel and Engineer in 1849...Robert E. Lee.  Col. Lee three other Army Engineers spent four months surveying and creating plans to complete a revision of the United States Coastal Defense Network, that had been instituted by Thomas Jefferson, during his presidency.

I told you I love history.  It is all around us.  When my wife asked me what I wanted to do for my 63rd birthday, I rather quickly hit upon a plan that would satisfy a curiosity that began in childhood.  We would spend the day exploring both Mullet Key and Egmont Key.  I reserved seats on a ferry that travels once daily from Ft. DeSoto Park to Egmont...a 20 minute boat ride.  The ferry picks up its passengers in mid-afternoon, which allowed about three hours on the island.  What can one do in three hours?  If you  hang around with me, you won't get it all done.

At the height of Ft. Dade's life, it garrisoned 175 soldiers in two artillery units.  A small town supported the work of the artillery batteries, and the total population, at one time, reached 500.  What remains, after the fort was deactivated in 1921, are the brick paved streets, concrete sidewalks and a number of concrete foundations of buildings that were largely made of wood.  It is a ghost town that is maintained with explanatory markers and plaques with original pictures of the structures.  Much of the five gun battery structures remain, but water erosion and storms have claimed some of the concrete buildings.

The key feature of Egmont Key is the lighthouse.  The original was built in 1847 and was destroyed in a hurricane 10 years later.  In 1858, the present lighthouse was completed and operational...and remains operational to this day.  After its use in World War II for harbor defense and bombardier training , the Coast Guard took over the north end of the island and maintained the lighthouse.  It is now full automated with daily visits from Coast Guard engineers.  There are no permanent human inhabitants of Egmont Key.  The Harbor Pilots have facilities on the island but do not live there.  Pilots meet every incoming ocean going vessel and guide the ships through the channels to the various ports in Tampa Bay.

Mullet Key has a museum, remnants of Ft. DeSoto and a self-guided walking trail to view the layout of the 1898 buildings that comprised the fort and its support systems.  It garrisoned 250 artillery soldiers at its peak.  There was also a  civilian quarantine hospital on site.  The actual fame of the area and rapid growth of Tampa and St. Petersburg are the result of the influx of military during the Spanish-American War.  Tampa Bay was THE staging area for all troops going to fight in Cuba.  The infrastructure for that short war and World War I training...along with the increasing Cuban population at the turn of the 20th Century established modern Tampa as a major city in Florida

There is always much more to who we are and where we live than that to which we are awake.  History isn't simply a gathering of facts and figures.  To do history, one needs to be open to experiencing the "vibration" of one's surroundings.  The bigger questions (bigger than the "who and "what") are "how" and "why."  For answers, one has to walk around, be quiet in order to perceive the sacredness and life forces (human as well as other life forces that we call "nature"), and engage curiosity that is innate but often occluded by issues of self.

This is just one story and one place of curiosity satisfied after years of speculation.  Now that, for me, was a real birthday gift.

Love and blessings!


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