About the Refuge
In the 1800's massive numbers of birds in the south were killed for their plumage, so that ladies might wear the latest hat fashion. Refuges were established to protect the courting birds during breeding and nesting. In 1929 Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge was established for the protection of the 200,000 birds that used the keys for raising their young. Today, 20,000 birds use the westernmost finger of Seahorse Key and Snake Key as rookeries.
Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge provides a safe haven for wildlife and terrific recreation opportunities for people in the Gulf of Mexico. The 13 islands of the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge began many thousands of years ago as fish camps of First Peoples on the peninsula of Florida. Their middens (heaps of discarded shellfish) built-up the islands, so that vegetation sprang from the rich soil. A 5-year archaeological survey by the University of Florida has proven this area to have been well populated with Archaic and Woodland cultures with the latter being mound builders. With all the marine life, shorebirds, alligators and manatees, these people didn't have to hunt and gather; they lived IN the grocery store.
In the 1800's, pioneers settled on some of the keys including the original village of Cedar Key, now named Atsena Otie, a native Muscogean word meaning cedar island. In those days before highways and bridges, it was the only port on the Gulf. Most of the islands were rookeries, but that didn't keep folks from settling in. Now, the area is a paddling mecca, home to great fishing, and a birder's paradise. Photography and wildlife observation are encouraged. When the Refuge hosts special events, the historic light station on Seahorse Key is accessible; don't forget your camera! (Seahorse Key, its beaches and a 100 yard perimeter are posted CLOSED from March 1 through June 30 to all public entry when the rookery is in full occupation).
Atsena Otie is open for visitors from dawn to dusk. Enter on the boardwalk that crosses the marsh. To the right about 20 yards is an information kiosk and restroom facility near the observation deck. Remnants of the old village can be seen on the main trail. Brick ruins of the Faber Mill remain on the west end of the island. The trail travels past a kiln for drying the cedar slats meant for pencils; a windmill remains adjacent to the trail. The most remarkable sign of civilization is the 19th century cemetery, the final resting place for victims of yellow fever and the hard life of the times.
Since 1952, the University of Florida has leased 3 acres of Seahorse Key for their marine research lab; the light station serves as the dorm. A copy of each research project is provided to the Refuge for possible use in management decisions.