Digging Deep: Hontoon Island links pre-Columbian, Twitter worlds

By Gerri Bauer

The ferry ride that delivers visitors to Hontoon Island State Park is brief, but it bridges more than a narrow channel of the St. Johns River.  We approach the way the island’s pre-Columbian inhabitants did, by vessel, gazing at a scene that in many ways resembles the one seen by Native Americans thousands of years ago. Every time I make the short trip between parking lot and park, I ignore the boats in the marina, the buildings, picnic tables, garbage cans, and other manmade accoutrements that clutter the scene. I imagine life as it was 5,000 years ago, and dream up vignettes about the people who built the shell midden now accessed by visitors via a park trail. The hilly remnant of a vanished culture is a ghost of its former self, a sliver of its initial size. It has existed for so long it appears to be a natural part of the palm-oak hammock. Trees and shrubs are anchored in the ground.  Yet, to look at the midden is to wonder about the people who built it. There is much yet to learn about the aborigines whose footsteps I follow every time I near the midden. How much Florida’s geography can speak of them and their lost civilization, if only we stop destroying what little is left of their existence.

The pre-Columbians left behind clues that tantalize. Dr. Barbara Purdy, University of Florida professor emerita of Anthropology, once told me that the12-foot-tall owl totem found at Hontoon Island during a dredging operation in 1955 was the largest wooden carving found in an archaeological setting in the Western Hemisphere.  Smaller carvings, of an otter and pelican, were unearthed in the same area during a drought in 1977. A culture that creates art is beyond primitive. The aborigines who carved wooden figures at Hontoon Island were no longer just hunter-gatherers, but were stationary long enough to create art and form sizable shell piles from the refuse of their diet. Dr. Jerald T. Milanich, curator emeritus of Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, has written that he considers the early wetlands communities along the Volusia-Lake counties border to have been “the first true villages in Florida,” and that people were living in them 7,000 years ago during what is known archaeologically as the Middle Archaic Period.

Middens and burial mounds once lined the middle St. Johns River valley. There were two shell middens at Hontoon, one covering several acres, the other 600 feet long. One rose 14 feet in the air, the other, 25. They suffered the same fate as many other middens and mounds in the middle river valley.  Starting in the 1930s, shortsighted people dug into them with backhoes and excavators, and hauled off crushed shell and shards of past civilizations to use as road fill. Volusia County shell can be found under roads as far south as West Palm Beach. The late Deane Smith of DeLand, an avocational archaeologist, as a child in the 1930s rode his bicycle behind the shell-hauling trucks to grab whatever treasure might fall from them, and clambered over the ruined mounds to save whatever artifacts he could find. The people mining the middens congratulated themselves on a job well done, Smith once told me. They thought they were saving tax dollars, he said.

In the 1980s, Purdy excavated at Hontoon with scientific precision, in a series of wet-site archaeological digs.  Anaerobic conditions in wet sites are conducive to artifact preservation, as the wooden owl, otter and pelican totems attested. The stratiography of Purdy’s digs revealed layers of organic overgrowth; shell-free midden containing floral, faunal and cultural materials of European manufacture; mussel shell and floral, faunal and cultural remains; freshwater snail shells and abundant floral, faunal and cultural remains; and a sandy deposit believed to be culturally sterile. Upland stratiography indicated missing layers of overgrowth and shell-free midden, and truncated or missing shell layers.  Her excavations covered a period of slightly more than the past 1,000 years.

The last of Purdy’s Hontoon excavations, in 1988, yielded “a clear picture of what was available and used by Indians for 1,500 years,” the findings state.  Eleven faunal species were most abundant:  snail, mussel, gar, catfish, bass, mullet, slider turtle, gopher tortoise, duck, rabbit and deer. The river basin and hammock ecosystems were similar to what is found today, with hickory, oak, maypop, grape, saw palmetto and cabbage palm dominant. The earth also yielded seeds of bottle gourds, corn, and squash. Decorated pottery shards, a bird carving, a clay sculpture of a head, and bone tools and ornaments hinted at the lives of people who carved wooden animals, ate snails and mussels, and cultivated gourds at Hontoon Island at the same time Visigoths were invading the crumbling Roman Empire; it’s a period we consider ancient history. Yet the Floridians whose existence Purdy unearthed had a lineage dating back much further, to pre-Biblical eras, and their descendants evolved into the Timucua and Mayaca, the aborigines Europeans first encountered in central Florida in the sixteenth century.

Hontoon is such a dense archaeological site that Purdy has written that “it would take the lifetime of an investigator to examine all the remains from a single 1 meter of a wet site as prolific as Hontoon Island.”  Modern humanity’s ignorance has interrupted the knowledge flow, however, making it all the more imperative to shelter what remains. Two human burial mounds at Hontoon were destroyed in the 1930s. Harvard-affiliated Clarence Bloomfield Moore leveled a large, related mound in the 1890s. To his credit, Moore kept detailed field notes and illustrations of the places he excavated. He also leveled the sites. Thursby Mound, opposite what Moore called Hontoon’s shell bluff, yielded 48 animal effigies when he excavated it. “Some were of spirited design, giving evidence of considerable artistic feeling,” he wrote.  He also found human burials, one skeleton laid to rest with an axe, another with a golden ornament, and another with a silver ornament. By the time he completed his final dig at the site, in 1894, the mound was completely destroyed.  Moore itched to get his hands on the “great shell bluff, mounds and ridges of Hontoon Island,” but the land’s then-owner, early DeLand businessman G.A. Dreka, refused permission.  I like to think Dreka considered the mounds sacred spaces, and not a future source of cheap road fill.

Improper excavations and shell mining were not the only causes of site loss. Development also played its part. It’s painful to consider the lost history of places leveled so long ago we no longer remember they existed. Dr. John W. Griffin, who grew up in Daytona Beach, was the elder statesman of Florida archaeology when he shared with me, shortly before his death, memories of salvaging artifacts from a Ponce Inlet site just before bulldozers moved in to flatten the ground in the 1940s. “It was kind of sickening,” he said.

The midden at Hontoon Island is a good reminder of the importance of preservation, a cautionary tale of what has been lost, and a useful tool for education. Milanich has cited Purdy’s Hontoon Island excavations as providing “an unprecedented view” of past Indian life. The Florida earth, terrestrial and waterlogged, holds countless other secrets that can yield information about our past fellow residents. But only if we make a concerted effort to continue preserving and protecting the sites, educating the public, and proceeding, step-by-step, with scientific excavation and analysis of the evidence locked in the soil. The clues are there, but they are in danger. Many archaeological sites in Volusia County are pitted with holes dug by pothunters, despite preservation laws. Tick Island, perhaps the most valuable archaeological asset in the middle river valley, and mere miles from Hontoon, suffered serious indignities before being shuttered and gated.  Moore dug into a large mound there with abandon in 1894, and his party of 22 diggers completely leveled it in five days. Both Purdy and Milanich’s writings cite the 175 bodies found in a Tick Island mound by now-deceased archaeologist Ripley P. Bullen in the 1960s, when he conducted a hurried archaeological study before bulldozers tore into the property. Boxes of Tick Island artifacts collected by a private owner of the island were sold, piecemeal, in the 1980s. Despite all that, the island is believed to still contain tremendous archaeological wealth. It awaits a scientist with enough funding to research, study and piece together whatever remains of the puzzle of Florida life as it was lived 5,000 to 7,000 years ago.

The hands that hauled shell to the Hontoon Island midden long ago were stilled. An ecological bridge spans the chasm between those pre-Columbians and those of us walking the same trail today. We owe it to the past, to protect what remains in the present, so that someone in the future can dig deeper and uncover the developmental history locked in the sandy and saturated soils.

Reference List

Bauer, Gerri. “Volusia Is Squandering Treasures of Its Past.” Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal. 22 March 1992. 1A, 11A.

“Hontoon Island State Park.” Florida State Parks Cultural Resource Sites: Central Region: District 3. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Parks and Recreation, Bureau of Natural and Cultural Resources, Cultural Resource Management. 9 Violet Court, DeLand, FL. 5 April 2009. http://www.dep.state.fl.us/parks/bncr/cultural.htm

Hunt, Lynn; Martin, Thomas R.; Rosenwein, Barbara H.; et al. The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures, A Concise History, Volume I: To 1740. 2nd Ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 238

Milanich, Jerald T.  Florida’s Indians From Ancient Times to the Present. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998. 20-42.

Mitchem, Jeffrey M., Ed. The East Florida Expeditions of Clarence Bloomfield Moore. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999. 187-204, 258, 268.

Purdy, Barbara A. The Art and Archaeology of Florida’s Wetlands. Boca Raton: CRC Press, 1991. 102-135

“Welcome to Hontoon Island.” Planet DeLand. 9 Violet Court, DeLand, FL. 5 April 2009. www.planetdeland.org/hontoon

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