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Atsena Otie Key, the original site for the town of Cedar Key, Florida.
In the early 16th century, Spanish explorers reached the Gulf coast of Florida and left their mark in many ways. By the early 17th century, the native population had died off severely due to diseases brought by Europeans. By the 19th century most of the island's indigenous people had been forced to move to reservations out West.
From 1818 to the early 1820s the island was used as a trading post, and was important during the First Seminole War. It remained as such until Florida was made a U.S. Territory in 1821. in 1835 the U.S. Army built a hospital and stockade on the island. During the Second Seminole War (1835 to 1842) the island served as a military outpost. It was here on August 14, 1842 that Col. William J. Worth declared the Second Seminole War to be over.
In October 1842 Atsena Otie Key was hit by a massive hurricane that destroyed almost all of the island's buildings. This was soon followed by boom in civilian homesteading. In 1843 Augustus Steele began work on a resort hotel for wealthy Florida and Georgia planters. The island had its name changed in 1852 to Cedar Key because people had thought the Juniper trees on the island were Cedar trees. It was later changed back to Atsena Otie Key.
During the 1850s trade grew on the island. A rail terminal for the Florida Railroad (which ran across Florida from Fernandina to Atsena Otie Key) was constructed and named Station No. 4. In time several warehouses and wharves were also built on nearby Depot Key, and soon Atsena Otie Key had become an important harbor for shipping in the Gulf of Mexico. Soon cotton, tobacco, turpentine, and rosin were being sent out of the state in large quantities through Atsena Otie Key.
In 1855 A.W. Faber bought large tracts of land in Levy County to be cut for timber. A small amount of land was bought on the island in 1856, which would later become the site for a lumber mill.
Then in January 1858 the town of Atsena Otie was officially chartered by the Florida State legislature. By the time of the 1860 Census there were 215 men, women, and children living in 30 households on the island.
The American Civil War brought both hardship and conflict to Atsena Otie Key. The harbor was blockaded by the Union Navy's Gulf Blockade Squadron out of Key West. Very soon shipping and fishing were brought to a halt.
On 7 January 1862 the USS Hatteras landed U.S. Navy sailors and Marines and attacked the rail head at Station No. 4. They were at first repulsed by a company of Florida state cavalry and local civilian workers, but succeeded in destroying the tracks, engines, and buildings before they retreated to the ship. Then the Hatteras boarded and either sank or burned seven blockade runners in the harbor at Depot Key, and landed a small force to burn the harbor facilities. This small but important event has become known as the Battle of Cedar Key.
The USS Somerset captured the blockade runner Curlew off Atsena Otie Key in June 1862; and later she destroyed the salt works on James Island near Depot Key in October. This was very disastrous as the Union sailors accounted for some two thousand bushels of salt destroyed, with all the works. They also captured many civilian workers, slaves and horses.
The Eberhard Faber Pencil Company built a lumber mill in 1868 on Atsena Otie Key to supply wood for its pencil factory in New Jersey. The area revived as a shipping port and much lumber was milled.
By the 1870s the oyster, green turtle, and fishing industries had also grown on the island. By the 1890s lumber production was making a profit of almost $900,000, and the Farber Mill alone produced more than a third of a million pencils. The town grew as well, and by 1895 there were more than 50 households back living on the island.
A powerful hurricane and a 10 foot tidal wave crossed the island on September 29, 1896. The Faber mill was destroyed and the island was wrecked except for a few houses. Eventually, by 1897 all inhabitants had left the town and Atsena Otie was abandoned. Soon the present town of Cedar Key was built on a nearby island.
In 1923 Atsena Otie Key was purchased for $500, and in 1929 the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge established on nearby Snake, Bird, and North Keys. In 1950 the last remaining house on the island was destroyed by Hurricane Easy (1950).
In 1997 Atsena Otie Key was sold to the Suwannee River Water Management District who entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have the island managed as part of the Cedar Keys NWR. The island is open for public use.
Atsena Otie Key is mentioned in the second act of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, an opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill: the characters are waiting for a hurricane and they receive news that Pensacola and Atsena have just been destroyed by it. Mahagonny is a fictional town set during a Gold Rush era.
All information is from the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge.
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