New year brings back history of Perico, Egmont
Someday, possibly in 2009, visitors to the Neal Preserve on the southwest shore of Perico Island will tread in the sandy footprints of Native Americans of more than 1,000 years ago.
But the primitive high-rise vista of Anna Maria Island across Anna Maria Sound enjoyed by ancient Calusa and Timuccan residents will be missing, thanks to the Florida Department of Transportation and the Tamiami Trail.
Call it ancient history erased for modern change.
Dr. Marshall Newman was charged in 1933-34 with the task of employing men to locate and excavate archeological sites in Florida. His task led him to the mangrove island across the sound from what would later be Holmes Beach.
Newman unearthed four linked prehistoric sites in an area roughly 300 feet from the bay. The largest of the sites was a huge mound of shell archeologists call a midden. It was 900 feet long, 120 feet high and about 5 feet high.
A shell ridge led south from the midden to a 60-foot diameter burial mound.
Near the ridge was what Newman called a cemetery area.
Another midden, about a third the size of the larger one, was even farther south.
Middens are “areas of accumulated refuse, mainly shellfish, but also containing animal bones,” a later archeologist, Dr. J. Raymond Williams, wrote about the area.
Middens are fairly common in this part of the state — the huge refuse sites of Calusa and Timuccan Indians, circa 1500.
But what set Perico Island apart from the more common middens were the burial mound and cemetery, and what Newman unearthed there:
A total of 185 skeletons from the burial mound, and 43 skeletons from the cemetery area.
Later dating of the artifacts from the area revealed that ancient man used Perico Island much earlier than even before believed — circa 100 to 1000 A.D., although some archeologists believe it may have even been earlier than that.
A find of that magnitude should have received greater attention and care. But in the rush of finding work during the Depression, most of the find was boxed and shipped to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
Later studies of the site cautiously called Perico Island one of the more important finds in this part of Florida. The skeleton remains indicated prehistoric men were found there much earlier than researchers believed. The elaboration of the site, with its shell “walkways,” was uncommon as well.
In fact, Newman said that the skeleton remains and the pottery shards in the area appeared to be the most northernmost of any of the Glades Indians found.
Also, according to Williams, the middens and the burial sites were important from a national perspective.
“Throughout most of prehistoric times in Florida, these coastal midden sites represented one type of existence, which included the majority of the population … they are representative of a sedentary or semi-sedentary way of life occurring much earlier that in most portions of the nation. Thus, the relative scarcity of the remaining ones should be viewed by local and state agencies as an important national resource.”
So why wasn’t more made of the site?
In the 1960s, the Florida Department of Transportation used most of the shell from the middens to create the roadbed for Palma Sola Causeway as it led to the Anna Maria Island Bridge. In fact, midden debris was commonly used as a base for roads throughout South Florida, especially the Tamiami Trail.
Farming and erosion also took its toll on the ancient sites. By June 1970, Dewey Dye, Jr. wrote that the northern midden “… now is almost totally destroyed.”
Four additional midden sites were found at the southern edge of Perico Island in 1985. Smaller in size, they were excavated by B.W. Burger prior to the development of the Island by then-Florida Sen. Pat Neal. Neal later sold the shoreside property on southwest Perico to Manatee County for the nature preserve that bears his name.
Ironically, if Newman had left the area more intact, and if the DOT had been convinced by archeologists to change the alignment of the road to protect the site, there is a good chance that much of the development of Perico Island would have been halted due to the historic significance of the region.
As it was, George Percy, the then Florida Historical Preservation Officer, wrote Nov. 1, 1985, that “… no archeological or historical sites are recorded for the projected area” of development, clearing the way for new homes, marina and restaurants.
Talk about building on the bones of your ancestors.
Egmont Key changes proposed
Not as historically relevant as Perico Island is Egmont Key. And, like time, changes blown by the winds of politics are licking at the island just north of Anna Maria in the mouth of Tampa Bay.
Egmont is partly U.S. National Wildlife Refuge, part Florida State Park. Due to state budget cuts, there has been some talk by state officials to divest Florida from the federal equation. In light of federal budget constraints, it appears unlikely that federal dollars would be diverted to help protect the wildlife on Egmont.
The little key is home to myriad nesting birds as well has holding a huge population of gopher tortoises.
Erosion has struck Egmont Key in a major way. What once was about 600 acres of real estate when the forts were under construction in the late 1890s is now eroded down to about 290 acres. Most of the forts are tumbling into the water or are already unwilling artificial reefs. Fort Dade, the main artillery battery, is now hundreds of feet out in the Gulf of Mexico.
Egmont Key was something of a city in its heyday during the early 1900s. Tennis courts. Bowling alley. Shops. Garrisons for the 300-or-so troops stationed there, as well as civilians who catered to the troops. In all, there were something like 2,000 people on the key at one point, about three times the population of Anna Maria Island at the time.
Besides holding remnants of the 70-plus structures, with redbrick roads leading from place to place, the key has housing for the pilots who guide tankers and other big vessels into and out of Port Manatee and the Port of Tampa.
There is also a lighthouse and U.S. Coast Guard facilities at the north end of the key.
Just what the fate of any state decision to divest assets on Egmont Key is unclear. There is all of one park ranger there at all times, after all, to control the estimated 160,000 visitors who annually come to the island by boat. Hillsborough County commissioners have suggested picking up the budget slack, but no decisions are expected until spring.
As with the winds and waves that have struck Egmont Key across the years, the winds that could bring change coming from Tallahassee are yet to reach full strength.
Egmont Key houses the first lighthouse constructed between the Florida Panhandle and the Florida Keys. Built in 1846, it was quickly destroyed by a hurricane and rebuilt.