DHI is working with Kenneth E. Sassaman and the Laboratory of Southeastern Archaeology from the University of Florida to reconstruct the environmental and social history of Atsena Otie Key, Florida. This island was once home to a prosperous town boasting two large industrial facilities, the Faber Pencil Company's cedar mill and a large sawmill complete with worker housing.
This portion of an 1884 bird’s eye view shows the cedar mill, saw mill, worker housing, and other residences and structures. These bird’s eye views were not only popular in the 19th century, but were also based on accurate measurements.
Our first step centers collecting, organizing, and digitizing historical data such as property deeds and census data, and transferring that into GIS formats. Although locating dozens of property deeds was straightforward in the county archives, relating them to physical space was challenging. The deeds rarely included metes and bounds descriptions, instead referencing lot and block locations (e.g., Lot 1 in Block 1). This referenced plat map is missing from the country archives. Census records pointed to a connection between the original owner of Atsena Otie, Augustus Steele, and the Matheson family in Gainesville. Steele’s daughter, Augusta married James D. Matheson and handled property sales from Gainesville, where our research located a plat map in the Matheson House Museum.
This information is useful for referencing other historical data like an 1890 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map. Accurately situating this map on the current landscape shows how much of the factory remains are no longer present due to erosion. A combination of deed research and census records reveals where specific families lived. This is useful for not only reconstructing the social landscape, but also for placing oral testimony. For instance, accounts of the 1896 hurricane recorded in the mid-1900s includes a statement by Velma Crevasse about her family abandoning their home as the storm surge approached and seeking refuge in a neighbor’s three-story building at higher elevation.
Additional historical records include coastal charts and maps for the area dating to the mid-1800s. Although they include accurate coordinate data, they did not to line up with the modern coastline suggesting the historical data was inaccurate or flawed in some way. However, historical coastlines did match up suggesting something else.
That something else is likely a combination of dredging and anthropogenic climate change (aka global warming). Comparing aerial images from the 1960s, 1970s, and 2010s demonstrates how much of Atsena Otie has dissappeared in the past 50 years. Indeed, several acres of the island has disappeared during this time. Part of the erosion is from dredging to the west, but that had minor impacts as evidenced by the majority of erosion taking place in the past 40 or so years.
Our work also includes working with LiDAR data collected by the University of Florida’s GatorEye folks. Our processing of this high-quality, low-altitude data utilizes the freely available Relief Visualization Toolbox (RVT). This processing points to several interesting features lining up with other data for future ground truthing efforts.
We look forward to continuing this project, including plans to virtually reconstruct the island as it appeared in the 1890s.