Seminole Tribe, USF Sustainable Tourism and USF Access 3D Lab preserve history at Egmont KeyModern tech meets ancient island

Part 1 in a 2 part series. 

Egmont Key -- located between St. Petersburg and Bradenton at the mouth of Tampa Bay, approximately a 20-minute ferry ride southwest from Fort DeSoto Park -- holds a haunting chapter in Florida history that the Seminole Tribe of Florida insists must not be forgotten, and which USF has the tech to help preserve.

Historical records uncovered by the Seminole Tribe of Florida Tribal Historic Preservation Office reveal that for approximately three years from 1855 until 1858, Egmont Key was a concentration camp where Seminole women, children, and elders were imprisoned after the United States Army forcibly removed them from their homes in Florida's cypress swamps per the Indian Removal Act. Those who survived yellow fever outbreaks and inhumane internment conditions were shipped north, where any record of their existence is erased on the Trail of Tears.

Now, every hurricane season brings Egmont, itself, closer to erasure as storm surge erodes the island at an alarming rate: of the 539 acres originally surveyed in 1877, approximately 250 acres of dry land remain today. In addition to the centuries of cultural heritage at stake on the rapidly shrinking island, Egmont Key is also a National Wildlife Refuge and nesting site for sea turtles, gopher tortoises, and dozens of seabird species. 

With the urging of the Seminole Tribe, a multidisciplinary team from USF's Patel College of Global Sustainability and Access 3D Lab is racing against time -- and unpredictable climate factors -- to preserve the rapidly disappearing island by documenting endangered spaces and 3D-scanning historic sites to reconstruct in augmented-reality virtual realms. Dr. Brooke Hansen, Director of the Sustainable Tourism concentration at Patel College, co-directs the program with USF Access 3D Lab Director, Dr. Laura Harrison.

This summer, the world mourns more than 930 Indigenous children whose remains were recently located in mass grave sites at residential schools in Canada. On June 22, the United States' first Native American Secretary of Interior, Deb Haaland, introduced legislation to identify possible burial sites at the 360+ residential boarding schools in the U.S. where Native American children were separated from their families in a federally mandated effort to force cultural assimilation in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of those schools still operate today.

The weight of Egmont Key -- a space some Seminole refer to as "our Auschwitz" while Army records euphemistically call it "Indian Depot" -- is too close for any of us who call the Tampa Bay area home to leave unacknowledged. 

Seminoles connect with ancestral history at Egmont Key

Seminole history at Egmont Key is best documented in "Egmont Key: A Seminole Story," a digital book produced by the THPO containing Tribe members' anecdotes, research, maps, and infographics. This free ebook also details the remarkable story of Polly Parker, who, after being shipped from Egmont Key to the Florida panhandle en route to the Trail of Tears, escaped at St. Mark's (near Tallahassee) and walked nearly 400 miles home to Okeechobee. Her descendants today credit her for ensuring the Tribe's continued existence through her bloodline.

Quenton Cypress, Community Engagement Manager for the Seminole Tribe Heritage and Environment Resources Office (HERO) says that without oral histories about Polly Parker, history of Seminole internment at Egmont might likely be lost completely. 

"Each generation has been told about [Polly Parker] time and time again ... now, we're digging more into the island and we're talking more about it," Cypress says.

Seminole Elders first visited Egmont Key in 2012. In 2016, when a lightning strike wildfire cleared approximately 90 acres of underbrush, archaeologists with the THPO attempted to locate the exact location where Seminoles were imprisoned, but it proves difficult to trace: Spanish-American War (1898) era razing and rebuilding, combined with natural erosion, obscure earlier history. According to the Egmont Key Alliance, the island lost more than two-thirds of its size to rising sea levels since the 1850s. 

Archaeologists approximate the camp location near the center of the island, likely at its highest point, where the broken ruins of a Coast Guard helipad built in the 1950s sits today. Nearby, symbolic white crosses scattered throughout the Lighthouse Cemetery mark grave sites for Union and Confederate soldiers who died on the island and were later re-interred at the St. Augustine National Cemetery. Handwritten records indicate at least six Seminoles were buried on Egmont.

Bringing understanding, empathy to what happened at Egmont Key

Historical archaeologist Dave Scheidecker has worked as Research Coordinator for the Seminole Tribe since 2015.

"The Egmont story has been so important. It's a visceral thing that's right there; people can go see it and understand this happened. It's Seminole history, but it's also American history, because the Seminole did not imprison themselves on this island. That was the United States of America -- but it's a part of our history that we have tried to sweep away; to not talk about. It's why we still have to let people know, today, that there are Native Americans living in this country -- because there's been an active effort to erase the parts of our history that don't make us look good," Scheidecker says.

In recent years, excluding a pandemic-cautious 2020, Cypress organized trips to Egmont Key for Tribe members to connect with their ancestral history that was hidden on the island for over a century. Trips will resume later this year.

Quenton Cypress, Community Engagement Manager for the Seminole Tribe Heritage and Environment Resources Office (HERO), aims to ensure that even when Egmont Key disappears entirely (a fate most climate experts deem not "if" but “when?"), its somber lessons will live on in the memories of those who visited. 

"This is a way I can preserve our history … Everything I learn with the [Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole] Museum and Tribal Historic Preservation Office, I'm going to take to my community and teach them -- and not just teach them, but take them there so they can see and experience it in person. The island is eroding away. It's not going to be there much longer, so we want to take as many trips out there as we can. Pretty soon, it's only going to be in the books we write and stories we speak," Cypress says.

Read part 2 of this 2-part series: USF Sustainable Tourism team reframes visitor experience to help save Egmont Key.
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Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

Jessi Smith (she/they) is a freelance writer who is passionate about sustainability, community building, and the power of the arts and transformative storytelling. A fourth-generation Floridian, Jessi received her B.A. in Art History and English from Florida International University and began reporting for 83 Degrees in 2009. When she isn't writing, Jessi enjoys taking her deaf rescue dog on outdoors adventures, unearthing treasures in backroads antiques and thrift shops, D.I.Y. upcycling projects, and Florida-friendly gardening.