DHI is working with archaeologists 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 these and other structures. These bird’s eye views were not only popular in the 19th century, but were also based on accurate measurements.

1884 Bird’s Eye View of Cedar Keys, including Atsena Otie Key.

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.

Georeferencing Atsena Otie’s plat map allows for the reconstruction of past parcel boundaries.

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, oral histories of the 1896 hurricane collected by the Cedar Key Historical Society in the mid-1900s include statements by survivors of the 1896 hurricane that describe how several families sought refuge in the Crevasse home.

Various historical records provide clues to the island’s social history while indicating what heritage resources are already lost.

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.

Atsena Otie’s modern coastline (in black) over surveys from 1852 & 1905. Past coastlines don’t match the present, but do match one another.

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.

Atsena Otie’s rapidly eroding coastline continues to threaten heritage resources.

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.

Processing LiDAR data with RVT to identify potential historical resources on Atsena Otie.

We look forward to continuing this project, including plans to virtually reconstruct the island as it appeared in the 1890s.

A 3D model of Atsena Otie Key based on LiDAR data.

Interested in partnering on a similar project? Email us at (info[at]digital-heritage.net).