skip to content
Four headstones in the woods
Information icon Cemetery on Atsena Otie. Credit: Justin Warner

Rising Seas threaten history, culture of Florida wildlife refuge

Cedar Key, Florida – Hurricane Sally’s outer winds were blowing hard, churning two-foot waves as Larry Woodward beached the skiff on Atsena Otie Key. The island, rich in history and wildlife, is disappearing, succumbing steadily to rising seas and hellacious storms that pummel the historic mills, cemetery and bird-loving habitats.

The race was on. To get on and off the key before the Gulf became unnavigable. And, to preserve what remains of the Native American, colonial, military and industrial histories. Atsena Otie – “Cedar Island” in the language of the Muscogee – is part of the Lower Suwannee and Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuges.

“It’s important to protect this island as best we can, at least the cultural aspects of it,” says Woodward, the deputy refuge manager, while following the oak-, pine- and saw palmetto-lined path to the cemetery. “It’s got a lot of history to it and we need to protect those resources. It all ties into our mission.”

Its history will inform Florida’s future too, especially the coastal communities like Cedar Key sitting in the climactic crosshairs of sea level rise and evermore damaging storms.

“Atsena Otie is showing us the future of what Cedar Key will look like,” says Ken Sassaman, an archaeologist at the University of Florida who’s spearheading an ambitious virtual reality project to reconstruct island life. “It’s time is not infinite. There’ll be a time when it’s inhospitable because of sea level rise and storms. If it’s not abandoned, they’ll have to re-engineer the place.”

“Breaks my heart”

Woodward reached the cemetery perched on the key’s highest ground and encircled by oaks, palms and red bay swaying in the occasional breeze. The infamously voracious mosquitoes had disappeared. A lagoon, favored by fishers and kayakers, sat just below.

“This is the one that just breaks my heart,” Woodward says standing over Georgia Lewis’ 1894 tombstone. “She was just twenty-six years old. She died at childbirth. Her child died three months later.”

William Lewis’ smaller headstone sat alongside his mother’s.

Life was never easy in the malarial, storm-wracked keys and coves where the mighty Suwannee River empties into the Gulf, about an hour west of Gainesville. (Atsena Otie is owned by the local water management district, yet managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.) Native Americans first inhabited the island more than 2,000 years ago only to succumb to European diseases and U.S. Army muskets.

Trail through the forest
Trail through maritime forest on Atsena Otie. Credit: Larry Woodward, USFWS

A trading post in the early 1820s, so-called “Depot Key” was transformed into a military stockade a decade later during the Second Seminole War. A hurricane leveled the island in 1842.

Eberhard Faber bought thousands of acres of land filled with red cedar along the Suwannee River in Levy County in the 1850s. Cedar, once cut and dried, was prized by pencil makers because it didn’t warp or splinter. The Fabers opened a lumber mill in 1868 on the island – the original Cedar Key – and shipped cedar slats to Germany and New York where graphite, rubber and metal bands were added to make pencils.

It was truly a global hub for business. A bustling port, and rail line to the Atlantic Ocean, fueled the town’s economic boom. Oyster, green turtle, sponge and fishing industries flourished. By the 1890s, the Faber mill produced enough wood for hundreds of thousands of pencils, according to Sassaman.

“I didn’t think pencils could be so interesting,” the archaeologist says.

The 1896 hurricane, though, destroyed the island and the mills, washing away the rail lines and downing miles of cedar trees. Thirty-one locals died in the unnamed storm. A year later the island was abandoned as the few, remaining residents moved to the mainland, congregating mostly in present-day Cedar Key.

“Atsena Otie is mostly famous for being the site of the original town of Cedar Key and the major role it played in the local economy, mainly because of the factories there,” says Rick Kanaski, the Service’s archeologist in the Southeast. “It’s an important complex of buildings and a variety of archeological sites that span more than a thousand years of human occupation and we should do what we can to preserve its history.”

“It’s all washing away”

Woodward, the refuge biologist, leaves the cemetery for the remains of the old Faber mill. He passes the concrete cistern and the iron-framed windmill, both defunct. He names the butterflies – Gulf fritillaries, zebra longwings, long-tailed skippers – flitting about the lantana and verbena. He keeps an eye out for the tell-tale signs of artifact hunters who illegally dig for coins, jewelry, Native American tools and bones.

Woodward reaches the shoreline and the remains of the wood and brick pencil factory. Its foundation sits half-submerged in the roiling Gulf, surrounded by downed palms and leaning cedars. The storm-battered, and condemned, dock bobs nearby. Deadman’s Key shimmers in the distance.

“There’s not much left here,” Woodward says. “It’s all washing away.”

Kanaski and Sassaman are charged with preserving Atsena Otie’s history. It’s more a retrospective than a restoration effort. Because they know the island can’t be saved.

“Quite frankly with sea level rise and the increasing intensity of storms we can anticipate increasing erosion and shoreline loss,” Kanaski, based in Savannah, says. “You’re not going to be able to turn back the sea. We need to continue our documentation and mapping efforts and then pick and choose the areas where we want to do more intensive investigations to highlight the various occupational periods and economic pursuits and life within this community, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries.”

He’s working up a mitigation plan for the refuge, and the water management district, while documenting the Faber mill and Native American shell middens. Sassaman has already mapped and modeled the island’s old residential and industrial areas, as well as the cemetery. He’s partnering with a “digital reconstruction” company in Orlando to virtually recreate the key, circa 1890s. Digital Heritage Interactive uses archival research, geospatial analysis, remote sensing and virtual reality to bring “the past to life.” One day you’ll be able to click on a grave and, voila, the deceased’s biographical and genealogical information pops up.

Aerial photo of two land masses separated by water. Arrows label lands as modern town of Cedar Key and former town of Atsena Otie
Aerial of Atsena Otie and town of Cedar Key. Credit: Ken Sassaman, University of Florida

Sassaman also plans more traditional archaeological endeavors, like excavating the Faber mill and a few home sites. An exhibit at the Cedar Key Historical Society and Museum – photos, maps, artifacts and 3D models – is planned for people unable to reach the island. Or once the island disappears beneath the waves.

“It’s a story about life on the coast, dealing with the ups and downs of hurricanes and economic troubles,” Sassaman says. “It’s a story that hasn’t been told because it’s largely invisible to us. But it’s a story, too, of resilience. How did they find a way to bounce back from so much adversity?”

Contact Us:

Looking for a media contact? Reach out to a regional spokesperson.

Share this page

Tweet this page on Twitter or follow @USFWSsoutheast

Share this page on Facebook or follow USFWSsoutheast.


Share this page on LinkedIn