Sara Ayers-Rigsby and Mallory Fenn specialize in cultural resources management and historic preservation. They love visiting state parks, historical sites, and house museums in south Florida and are always thrilled to talk to others about them.

Public Outreach in South Florida – We do have archaeology here!

“No State in the Union has a more historic background than Florida. […] It has played its part in all the major events which shaped the course of our country. Few people realize this and few people know the location of the spots where Florida’s part in these events was played.”

Historic Florida WPA Site Survey report, published in 1933

One of the most important, and difficult, parts of public outreach and archaeology is convincing people that local archaeological sites are just as significant as exotic destinations.  Here in South Florida, we are always fighting the stereotype that the area sprang fully formed from a coke-dealer’s brain sometime in the 1980s.  Accordingly, we wanted to highlight some of the area as part of our day of archaeology.  Southeast Florida’s history is unique, not widely-understood, and often at risk for irreparable damage by the encroachment of development and effects of climate change. Many preservationists have turned to heritage tourism in order to promote a better understanding of historic sites by the public and support local economies.

For many people, the landscape of South Florida is flat and mostly empty where it isn’t dotted with strip malls; however, when viewed through the lens of history, it becomes complex and ever-changing in many ways. For the Day of Archaeology, this past week we were able to visit Indian Key in the Upper Florida Keys, in the southern portion of our region, and Belle Glade, in the northern part of our region, to learn about local historic and precontact archaeological sites, many of which are no longer visible.

Upper Florida Keys

FPAN SE got the opportunity to host a kayak and walking tour of Indian Key led by Brad Bertelli, one of the foremost experts on the history of the Florida Keys. After a short kayak ride across open water, we strolled around the island, hearing stories which had taken place in the buildings of Indian Key’s settlement. While he never officially owned the town, Indian Key was effectively the homestead of the notorious John Jacob Housman, “King of the Wreckers.” As such, Indian Key often served as a home base for many Wreckers of the Upper Keys—first responders to shipwrecks (for a percentage of the ships’ cargo).

View of shoreline of Indian Key

View of shoreline of Indian Key

While the original layout of the town is still known, many structures have been reduced to their foundations; one house was completely reclaimed by the sea during the devastating 1926 Hurricane. Some other interesting highlights from the tour include one of the oldest Freemason temples in America, abandoned cisterns rising out of the trees (residents of the island needed to collect rainwater to survive), demonstrations of how Indian Key’s residents used its native plants and animals, and the (mysteriously empty) grave of John Jacob Housman.

Foundations on Indian Key

Foundations on Indian Key

Belle Glade

After visiting the southern part of our region, we went north around the southeast shore of Lake Okeechobee with Palm Beach County archaeologist Chris Davenport, learning about the vanishing historic landscape within its neighboring communities of Canal Point, Pahokee and Belle Glade, as well as its pre-contact population in the Belle Glade cultural area.

We drove around Canal Point, originaly laid out by John Nolan, America’s first urban planner, and explored the locks on the canals dug to cross the Everglades, which revolutionized settlement in Florida by draining swampland. Some of the original locks are still in place.

Canal with lock

Canal with lock

The area is also home to the dawn of the big sugar industry in Florida, although many of the original company towns are no longer in place, having been destroyed by neglect or by natural disaster.

Bryant Sugar Mill

Bryant Sugar Mill

For our day of archaeology, we enjoyed having the opportunity to explore south Florida’s past, and ruminate on the preservation issues rapid development of the area presents to archaeologists and lovers of history.

(FPAN SE-Mallory Fenn and Sara Ayers-Rigsby)