EGMONT KEY — To many, the scenic isolation of this island at the mouth of Tampa Bay evokes thoughts of paradise.
To members of the Seminole Tribe, Egmont Key has been nothing but a place of oppression and death.
During the Third Seminole War of the mid-1800s, members of the tribe were imprisoned by U.S. soldiers, brought here by boat and herded into pens.
Those who survived the harsh conditions were moved to reservations. Those who died were tossed into holes in the ground without markings. Their remains are still scattered across the island.
Now, for the first time since the last of those prisoners sailed away from Egmont Key, a large group of Seminoles will return — as many as 75 of them — to see that their ancestors are never forgotten.
The group will dock at Egmont Key on Nov. 3 for a history tour of the island, joining an annual event sponsored by the Egmont Key Alliance, then reboard for a journey tracing a portion of the path their ancestors took to banishment on the reservations.
They're calling it a “Trail of Tears,” the name used by other native Americans — the Cherokee — to describe their own relocation.
The Seminoles' final stop will be the Panhandle village of St. Marks, south of Tallahassee, where buses will take them to the state capital for a twofold presentation to state leaders — one about their history and one about the disintegration of the island where they hope to see their heritage restored.
Egmont Key is rapidly sliding into the Gulf of Mexico.
In the days of the internment camp, the island spanned more than 580 acres. Five years ago it was measured at about 250 acres. Today it is closer to 200 acres.
A single hurricane or a series of strong storms could wipe it from the map. Time certainly will.
There are a few theories on what is causing the accelerated erosion — global warming, a change in currents caused by construction of the Sunshine Skyway, wake from increased boat activity. No one knows for sure.
When Seminole leaders learned of the dire circumstances, they began lobbying for preservation of the island. Though the Seminoles have long known about the Egmont Key internment camps, that chapter in their history took a back seat to other tribal research.
The rapid erosion changed the tribe's priorities, and leaders toured the island in August.
“The history of the island is a matter of cultural memory for our people,” James Billie, chairman of the Seminole Tribal Leaders, says in a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell sent after the August tour. “And we wish that it be preserved so that the youth of our Tribe can visit this place and learn how far we have come together.”
“We cannot allow the unmarked graves to wash away,” said Willie Johns, a Seminole Tribe historian and member.
No one sees the erosion problem as clearly as Tom Watson, who has worked for the Florida Department of Environmental Services as an assistant park ranger at Egmont Key for 16 years. On a recent tour, he pointed out a 4-foot sand cliff with about 20 yards of beach stretching beneath it to the Gulf of Mexico.
Just a few weeks earlier, the cliff wasn't there and the beach tapered evenly all the way to the surf.
“And in a few more weeks, it could be further back,” Watson said.
In 2000, to slow the erosion, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dropped 300,000 cubic yards of sand dredged from the surrounding waterways onto the edge of the island. An additional 700,000 cubic yards were added in 2006, and 1.4 million cubic yards will be placed in 2014.
“It's just a Band-Aid,” Watson said. “They add the sand, and the water takes it away. All it does is slow the inevitable.”
Batteries of guns from the time of the Spanish American War once were located on the southwestern side of the island. They were a popular stop on a walking history tour for many of Egmont Key's visitors.
Today the guns are included in snorkeling excursions — 100 yards offshore, under the Gulf.
In 2009, the Corps of Engineers developed a plan to install metal sheet piling below the sand to stem the erosion more efficiently, said Richard Sanchez, president of the Egmont Key Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring, preserving and protecting the natural and historical resources on Egmont Key.
The cost, though, was estimated at $8 million to $10 million and never moved beyond the planning phase.
The Seminoles hope that by spreading the word about their history on the island, they will add to the voices calling for preservation and garner public sentiment.
“We're hoping the Seminoles are the tipping point,” Sanchez said. “We have knocked on a lot of doors and reached out to a lot of congressional leaders. They all agree the island needs to be saved, but no one can find the money.
“Hopefully, the Seminoles and their history is what helps gets something like the sheet piling done. It would be such a shame to lose Egmont. So many people treasure it.”
Egmont Key has long been a popular place to visit for tourists and residents. It has been home to a wildlife preserve since 1974.
Despite its ugly past as a prison, few places in Florida can match its beauty.
More than 200,000 people a year visit to hike its lush green foliage, lie on its picturesque beaches, soak in the swarms of rainbow-colored butterflies and flocks of tropical birds, snap photos of its estimated 2,000 gopher tortoises, and learn its history.
Much has been written about the military's Fort Dade, which along with the lighthouse landed Egmont Key a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
The U.S. military made the fort its home from the late 1800s through early 1900s in order to protect Tampa Bay against the threat of a Spanish invasion that never came.
An estimated 300 members of the military made the island home. Brick roads and a railroad connected 70 buildings, including ammunition storage, suburban-style homes, a general store and even a bowling alley.
The island is dotted with crumbling concrete remnants of the past and historical markers featuring photos of buildings long gone.
Little was ever displayed or even written about the Seminole chapter, even by the Seminoles.
“It has not been a focal point of our own research until now,” said Paul Backhouse, tribal historic preservation officer and museum director for the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Backhouse said Egmont Key's island locale made it a perfect spot for a holding pen until boats could take the Seminoles to permanent reservations.
“It had to be like Alcatraz,” he said. “They could look off the shore and see land but could not get to it.”
Boats were not allowed near the island. And the threat of riptides and sharks made the swim daunting.
Historians have estimated that 300 Seminoles were held on the island.
Among them was famed Seminole Chief Billy Bowlegs, who was later taken to Oklahoma, and the legendary Polly Parker, who escaped the boat taking her to the reservation after it stopped in St. Marks, leading up to a dozen others to safety.
“That is why our boat trip stops in St. Marks,” Backhouse said. “It honors her heroism.”
Some did not live to see the ships arrive. They died of malnutrition, dehydration, heat exhaustion, disease and infection from ill-treated war wounds.
Through old military records and journal entries, five Seminole gravesites were identified a few years ago by researchers.
A cemetery near the lighthouse is home to 19 graves for an eclectic group — lighthouse tenders, U.S. armed forces, and five Seminoles, only one of whom is given a name: “Chief Tommy.”
Johns said perhaps one day someone will discover archives pinpointing the location of the remaining unmarked graves. Or perhaps ground-penetrating radar could find them, he mused.
But first the island must be saved.
The Seminoles next step in that journey will be taken Nov. 3.
“The trip is an exciting adventure,” Backhouse said. “Hopefully a successful one.”