Under Egmont 2: Unearthing Egmont Key’s mysteries

Egmont Key cemetery
The Egmont Key cemetery. - Cindy Lane | Sun

EGMONT KEY – Underneath Egmont Key, there’s even more history than its century-and-a-half-old lighthouse, the ruins of its Spanish-American War fort and its 1905 red brick road, now used mostly by gopher tortoises.

Egmont Key brick road
A brick road on Egmont Key. – Cindy Lane | Sun

Underneath Egmont are real people who really made history in the 1800s.

From Anna Maria Island’s north end, you can see the key’s landmark lighthouse, which stood watch as Colonel Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders left for the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Just beyond the picket fence surrounding the lighthouse keeper’s home is one of two cemeteries on the island.

Egmont Key lighthouse
The Egmont Key Lighthouse. – Cindy Lane | Sun

Another, older one used from 1903-1912 near Fort Dade, on the western side of the island facing the Gulf of Mexico, has been reclaimed by the sea along with some of the ruins of the fort, with no known records of its location or occupants.

But the “new” one, used in the last half of the 19th century, is well kept. Covered in clean white sand, an American flag flies overhead, and white crosses approximate the locations of gravesites. The crosses bear no names, but two plaques list the dead whose names are known, and describes those who are not.

Among the 40 occupants – and former occupants – of the Egmont Key Lighthouse Cemetery is the descendant of one of the Mayflower Pilgrims, a Seminole Indian chief, a Rough Rider, a Southerner who was a Union sympathizer and many victims of yellow fever and typhoid fever who died on Egmont during the Civil War (1861-65).

More Civil War dead lie aboard the wreckage of the Naval vessel U.S.S. Narcissus, which sank offshore at the end of that war and was dedicated last month as an archeological preserve and recreational dive site.

The key has seen other wars. Fort Dade was built to defend Tampa Bay during the Spanish-American War. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was a hideout for bootleggers during the war against alcohol – Prohibition. During World War II in the 1940s, it was used as a training base.

Egmont Key jail
The Egmont Key jail. – Cindy Lane | Sun

But the first wars involving Egmont Key were the Seminole Wars.

The Seminoles

In the 1840s and 1850s, the U.S. Army detained Seminole Indian prisoners on Egmont Key, a natural fortress because of its limited accessibility.

One escaped, one committed suicide, and some died from disease and other causes.

Each of the two plaques at the cemetery lists the names of 20 people who are or were once buried there. On one plaque, five members of the Seminole tribe and their dates of death on Egmont Key are listed: Chief Tommy (Sept. 5, 1857); Seminole child, 12 months (April 24, 1852); Seminole child, 6 months (June 12, 1852); Seminole boy (July 27, 1852); and Seminole girl (1857).

In an ornate, but apparently hastily handwritten ledger at the St. Augustine National Cemetery, 12 of the 20 people whose names are on that plaque are listed as having been relocated from Egmont Key to St. Augustine and reburied on June 2, 1909.

One of them is referred to as “Indian (Unknown),” possibly Chief Tommy.

The Seminole Tribe does not discuss where its deceased tribe members are buried, spokesman Gary Bitner said. But the tribe’s Historic Preservation Office does not consider the Egmont plaques accurate records.

“Most of what exists was originally recorded by U.S. Army soldiers, who did not speak the language of the Seminoles and who were holding the Seminoles against their will – not a situation likely to foster the accurate transfer of information,” he said. “As a result, no one really knows who is buried there.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also vacillated on that point in a 2007 report on Egmont Key, writing that the cemetery was “the most likely location of any Seminole burials.”

Despite what the plaque says, Chief Tommy was a Muskogee Indian, not a Seminole, according to Don and Carol Thompson in their book, “Egmont Key: A History.”

But a Seminole leader imprisoned on Egmont, Tiger Tail, also may have been buried in the cemetery, according to the book, in which they repeat a legend that he ate ground glass and died rather than remain in jail.

Without acknowledging the existence of any burial sites on Egmont, Seminole tribe members visited there in 2013 in commemoration of a successful escape. In 1858, a year after the death of Chief Tommy and one Seminole child on Egmont, Seminole Polly Parker was taken from Egmont to join the Trail of Tears, the U.S. government’s deportation of Native Americans to Oklahoma and elsewhere. She escaped in north Florida.

That same year, Seminole leader Billy Bowlegs, who led the last Indian uprising against federal troops, also was briefly detained on Egmont after he surrendered.

The St. Augustine twelve

The 12 people who were buried at Egmont Key and reburied at St. Augustine National Cemetery lie in the same cemetery as Major Francis L. Dade, who was killed in an ambush in Florida with most of his regiment in the Second Seminole War in 1835. He is memorialized with a pyramid monument at the St. Augustine cemetery, and at the fort named for him on Egmont Key.

Ten of the 12 Egmont dead who were relocated were soldiers, sailors, a hospital worker, a Seminole Indian, and family members of the lighthouse keeper. The handwritten St. Augustine ledger lists them as:

  • Indian (Unknown), which corresponds with the only adult Seminole listed on the Egmont plaque, Chief Tommy
  • William Rull, a so-called “colored” hospital attendant, who is listed as Rull or Ruth in the St. Augustine ledger
  • Infantryman Joseph Shannon, listed as James Shannon on the St. Augustine ledger
  • Seaman Robert Bentson of the U.S. Lighthouse Tender “Laurel,” list as Benton on the St. Augustine ledger
  • Charles Williams, who is listed as a “colored” soldier on the Egmont plaque, but not on the St. Augustine ledger, where his name is directly above the following entry
  • Colored Soldier (Unknown)
  • Private J.A. Brainerd, Company A, 26th Michigan Infantry
  • Child of Azaline M. Bahrt, listed on the Egmont plaque as Marie Bahrt, of the lighthouse keeper’s family
  • Azaline M. Bahrt
  • Infant, listed on the Egmont plaque as Carlotte Bahrt

The Rough Rider

One of two remaining names on the St. Augustine ledger is listed only as O’Neil.

According to the Egmont plaque, that’s Private John O’Neil, 1st U.S. Volunteers, Cavalry – Teddy Roosevelt’s regiment. O’Neil was a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War.

O’Neil was transported by ship from Cuba to Egmont Key for medical treatment, but due to a lack of medical facilities on the island, he and other wounded and sick soldiers were sent back to the ship, where he died, according to “Egmont Key: A History.”

The Tampa-based Rough Riders charitable organization placed a grave marker on O’Neil’s grave in St. Augustine in 2004.

The Union sympathizer

The last of the 12 on the St. Augustine ledger is, simply, Whitehurst.

On the Egmont plaque that lists Civil War burials, his name is set apart from the other 19, who served in Union forces in the Civil War.

John E. Whitehurst is prominently labeled a “Civilian and Union Sympathizer.”

That does not sit well with the descendants of the Whitehursts, who were mostly Southern sympathizers during the Civil War, said his great-great-grandson, Rob Whitehurst, 63, a retired production sound mixer from Tampa who has worked on Christian films including Courageous, Fireproof and Facing the Giants.

Rob Whitehurst

His ancestor died of gunshot wounds in 1862, according to the plaque.

Here’s the rest of the story, compiled from Rob Whitehurst’s family history search and other sources.

John Whitehurst, whose middle initial actually was A. for Alexander, was a Union sympathizer who occasionally served as a civilian scout for the Union Army. Before the war, he was a farmer, according to the 1860 U. S. Census for Hillsborough County, Florida.

He and his family were among 200 or so Union sympathizers living on Egmont Key, which was under the protection of the Union Navy that occupied the island with the Union Army as part of the blockade of the South.

The island had first been held by Confederate forces, which hid the lighthouse lens so the Union forces couldn’t find Southern blockade runners approaching the coast, leaving the Union to use the lighthouse only as a watchtower, according to the Thompsons’ book.

Whitehurst and his family had been transported to Egmont aboard the sloop, Mary Nevis, which made mail, freight and passenger runs from the Manatee River to Fort Brooke in Tampa.

The family was safer on Union-occupied Egmont because they did not want to secede from the Union and were opposed to slavery, a dangerous political position to have in the South, said Richard Sanchez, president of the Egmont Key Alliance, a non-profit citizen support organization dedicated to protecting, restoring and preserving the key.

But it wasn’t totally safe.

One night in 1862, Whitehurst and his cousin, Daniel Scott Whitehurst, and a third man named Arnold left Egmont in a boat to get provisions at John’s Pass in Madeira Beach. Confederate forces opened fire on the men, and Daniel fell dead while John managed to get to their boat and into open water. But he had been shot and was mortally wounded, and “laid two days in the boat exposed to the rays of an August sun,” according to a report of Lieutenant J.C. Howell, the commander of the U.S.S. Tahoma.

He was rescued “by a refugee named Clay,” and brought to Egmont, where he died at age 46 in early September. Howell ordered the burials of both Whitehurst men, Arnold being unaccounted for, but did not specify where they were laid to rest.

His report on John Whitehurst continues: “His dying request was that his three little sons should be received into the United States naval service.” The muster rolls of the U.S.S. Tahoma show that two of his sons, Christopher Columbus Whitehurst, 12, and Winfield Scott Whitehurst, 8, lied about their ages and enlisted on Oct. 4, 1862. The former was lost at sea; the latter was discharged from the ship Ino, which was the ship of Coxswain Michael J. Sullivan, 19, the last Civil War sailor to be buried in the Egmont cemetery. He had been in pursuit of Confederates when his musket accidentally discharged, fatally wounding him.

The youngest son, Harney Butler Whitehurst, who at about 6 had no hope of joining the Navy, is the great-grandfather of Rob Whitehurst, who said that he had heard that the remains of a family member had been unearthed and buried elsewhere, but did not know for sure whose remains they were, or where they were relocated.

Now, with the name Whitehurst appearing on the St. Augustine ledger above the other 11 names from the Egmont plaque, he does.

“This is awesome, and I thank you for contacting me concerning John,” he said. “He was right. He was right about slavery, and he gave his life in those beliefs.”

The pilgrim’s progress

On the same Egmont plaque as Whitehurst is William H. Bradford, listed as an Acting Master’s Mate, who died on July 29, 1864 at age 22 of yellow fever, along with 14 others on Egmont in July and August of that year.

He was unmarried and had no children, said his sixth cousin twice removed, Brice Bradford, of Alexandria, Va., a self-described “geek” who fortuitously left his trail on www.ancestry.com.

He and William H. (Hopkins) Bradford both descended from William Bradford VI (1718-1781), the great-grandson of William Bradford, who came to America from England on the Mayflower in 1620 and became governor of the Plymouth colony the following year.

“Gov. William Bradford had but one son, Maj. William Bradford IV (1624-1703), who fathered four sons, all of whom saw military service. It is no surprise, then, that even several generations later, William Hopkins Bradford chose to serve in the Navy. Even my own grandfather, Gilbert Lee Bradford (1922-2010), chose to serve in the U.S. Coast Guard based on his inherited love of the open sea and the spirit of discovery instilled from his Bradford pedigree,” Bradford said.

Gov. William Bradford kept a journal that is preserved at the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Mass. A passage about the pilgrims who died in the New World could almost speak for those buried on Egmont Key.

“But their condition was not ordinarie; their ends were good & honourable; their calling lawfull, & urgente; and therfore they might expecte ye blessing of God in their proceding. Yea, though they should loose their lives in this action, yet might they have comforte in the same, and their endeavors would be honourable. They lived hear but as men in exile, & in a poore condition; and as great miseries might possibly befale them in this place… ther was nothing but beating of drumes, and preparing for warr, the events wherof are allway uncertaine.”

According to a family Bible, the writer’s family is descended from Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who surveyed Egmont Key in 1849.