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The Real Walker's Key, a/k/a Indian Hill or Cockroach Key

The photo above shows an aerial view of Indian Hill looking north. (Source: The Tampa Tribune, 4/10/2014)

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This photograph, taken in 1900 by Clarence B. Moore or his crew (see below) shows Indian Hill and the home of my great-grandfather and his young family.  I believe that the view is towards the southeast.  The hills on Indian Hill are now essentially gone.



On the eastern shore of Tampa Bay, about three miles south of the Little Manatee River in Hillsborough County, there is a small island called Indian Hill, also known as “Big Cockroach Mound” or “Cockroach Key”. It is difficult to imagine a name less likely to attract visitors than these last two names. In my novel I call the island “Walker’s Key” because my great-grandfather Walker owned it, lived there for several years with his young family (including my grandfather), died there, and was buried there.  In addition, two Walker children were born there.


Indian Hill is near the western edge of a small bay called Cockroach Bay. It is behind some barrier islands and almost surrounded by several much smaller and much flatter mangrove islands. 


The website for Cockroach Bay Preserve State Park states: “Horseshoe crabs were once so abundant along the shores of Florida’s west coast that early Spanish explorers called them cockroaches, believing them to be seagoing cousins of insects. Many people believe that is how Cockroach Bay received its unlikely name.” 


Indian Hill is actually an ancient Indian shell mound, or midden, a very large collection of shells discarded by the local native American residents over nearly a thousand years. A newspaper article from 1936, describing Works Progress Administration (a New Deal agency of the U.S. government) research into the Indian mounds of Hillsborough County, says about the mound at Indian Hill:


This mound is known as the kitchen midden type, built up through generations of primitive life by refuse from a great eating place, perhaps the banqueting hall of a nation; perhaps it was a ceremonial gathering place. It was also a burial ground.[i]


A 2014 news article from the Tampa Tribune reports that scientists have found portions of some 224 human skeletons, primitive tools and pottery in the mound at Indian Hill.[ii]  Indian Hill is now considered a site of significant value for its Native American history and artifacts, and in 1973 it was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. In 1895, however, Indian Hill was just a tiny coastal island in the middle of nowhere, significant only because it was the highest point on the eastern shore of Tampa Bay and, possibly the highest point in all of Hillsborough County[iii]. It was also halfway up the bay between Egmont Key and Tampa. Somebody made the decision that it was a good location for a small light as an aid to navigation in Tampa Bay.


My great-grandfather purchased Indian Hill from the State of Florida on August 28, 1895 for the sum of ten dollars. I have the original deed. The deed estimates the land area, which was not actually surveyed, as approximately ten acres. A separate receipt dated August 28, 1895 confirms that the consideration paid was ten dollars.


A house was constructed on the island and then my great-grandfather relocated his family there. My great-grandfather’s family then consisted of his wife and three young sons. A daughter was born on Indian Hill in 1897, and a fourth son was born there in 1899.


Other than the fact that his parents were living across Tampa Bay on Egmont Key, one might wonder why my great-grandfather chose to move his family to Indian Hill, giving up everything the family knew on Cape Cod. Indian Hill was, and is, an isolated place, accessible only by boat and not near any real centers of civilization. The nearest village, Gulf City, was about three miles to the north near the mouth of the Little Manatee River, and it had a population of only 76 residents in 1895. This was in the days before radio and television, and there were no telephones anywhere nearby.


On the positive side, there was an endless supply of fish and oysters to be had at Indian Hill. Also, my great-grandfather did have some employment there. The 1900 census indicates that he was a lighthouse keeper. My great-grandfather was paid $550 per year by the U.S. Government to operate and maintain a lighthouse for the safety of mariners on Tampa Bay[iv]. 


I am not entirely sure where the light at Indian Hill was located.  I have been unable to find any images of the Indian Hill lighthouse, and no lighthouse can be seen in the two existing images of the Walker house on Indian Hill.  A 1900 news article indicates that the lighthouse was on Indian Hill, but I am inclined to believe that it was actually located on Beacon Key, a barrier island not far to the south and west of Indian Hill. A 2007 article in the Tampa Tribune says “Walker’s job was to maintain a shipping light on nearby Beacon Key.”[v] 


A report of the United States Light-House Board dated November 9, 1895, indicates that six “lens-lantern” lights were installed at different locations around Tampa Bay in January, 1895, one of the locations being Indian Hill. I suspect that Indian Hill was identified as the location because it was the only named island in the vicinity at that time and that Beacon Key did not acquire its name until after the light was installed on it. 




   

According to Wikipedia, “a lens lantern is a small, self-contained lamp structure which may sometimes be used to serve as a lighthouse. Unlike a regular fresnel lense, the lantern requires no housing to protect it from the weather; its glass sides would refract and magnify the light in the same fashion as would the lens. Lens lanterns were popular alternatives to lighthouses in the nineteenth century; they required less care, were cheaper to erect, and could be fairly easily placed.”

 

In early 1900, Clarence B. Moore, a wealthy owner of a Philadelphia paper company who had by that time become a noteworthy archaeologist and expert on Indian mounds, visited Indian Hill. He wrote:


About 3 miles down Tampa Bay from the mouth of the Little Manatee river is an island known as Indian Hill, probably eight acres in extent, almost covered by an aboriginal deposit of shells, including oyster, clam, conch (Fulgur), cockle (Cardium), Pecten, Strombas gigas, Strombus pguilis, Fasciolaria gigantean, Fasciolaria tulipa. … The largest of these heaps has a height of 30 feet above the surrounding shell deposit and 36 feet 7 inches above water level. We believe, after personal inspection of the majority of Florida shell heaps and careful inquiry as to the rest, that the shell deposit at Indian Hill exceeds in height any in the State, though considerably greater altitudes for other sites have been given by writers who base their assertions upon estimate. In Fig. 4 we give a photograph showing the great deposit at Indian Hill, extending completely across the background of the picture, with the house of the owner of the island, Mr. F.B. Walker, occupying the westernmost extremity of the heap.[vi]


In 1908, the Walkers sold Indian Hill to Lewis Symmes and L.L. Buchanan, of Tampa, for the sum of one thousand dollars.[vii] According to a newspaper article from 2007[viii], Lewis and Symmes made the purchase as part of a failed get-rich-quick scheme. They planned to sell the mounds of shells at Indian Hill as material to build roads, but the plan failed. They never came up with a workable method to remove the shell material from the island. They built a pedestrian bridge to the island that proved to be inadequate to the task and was destroyed in a storm. To make matters worse for the new owners, asphalt soon replaced shells as the material of choice for roadways in Florida.


Sometime after the Walkers sold the island, it became a destination for seekers of Native American artifacts. Boat tours from St. Petersburg brought tourists across the bay to visit the shell mounds there and to see the view of St. Petersburg from across the water. Unfortunately, as the result of the shell removal operations of Symmes and Buchanan and of the many artifact hunters who visited the island and dug through it to their hearts’ content, the great shell mounds were essentially destroyed. From the water you can no longer tell that there were any shell mounds at Indian Hill, although if you set foot on the shore you will see immediately that you are standing on a huge collection of shells, not sand or earth.


In February, 1926, my grandfather returned to Indian Hill. My grandmother accompanied him. My grandmother wrote a letter to her mother-in-law, my great-grandfather’s widow, on February 8, 1926. The letter, which my grandmother gave to me, describes the visits they made to Egmont Key and Indian Hill. 


My grandmother wrote that at Indian Hill she and my grandfather met a man named Boone who, for the prior five years, had been living in the house in which the Walkers had lived. They were invited into the house, and my grandfather was very happy to find things “so much as he remembered them”. 


Soon some fishermen came in and we watched them net sheeps head and mullet in front of the house. We ate our lunch with Mr. Boone and Capt. Carpenter on the wharf from the house and then we went over and watched the fishermen prepare theirs by the fishing shack on the small island. They made biscuit and fried fish out doors around a small fire and then made coffee. It was fun to see them. Your son said it was just the way they used to do.


Mr. Boone told them that many people, including Henry Ford, had visited Indian Hill to see the Indian relics. The mound, my grandmother wrote, “has been dug down quite a little”.


In 2014, Hillsborough County purchased Indian Hill from the Symmes family for $100,000, ten thousand times the amount my great-grandfather paid the State of Florida for it in 1895. The island is now part of the 600-acre Cockroach Bay Preserve State Park, which, together with the 5,000 acres of the Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve which surrounds the islands, offers unlimited opportunities for fishing and exploration by canoe or kayak. 


There is no longer any physical evidence that the Walkers’ house ever stood on Indian Hill, or if there is any remaining evidence, it is well hidden. The island is now completely covered in vegetation and, according to the 2007 article referenced earlier, there is a thriving population of Eastern Indigo snakes and huge black and yellow spiders all over the island, a report that was more than sufficient to keep me from venturing beyond the shore when I visited in 2015. 

  

  

[i] Newspaper article mailed to my grandfather in April, 1936, from Carl W. Bahrt, of Tampa Florida entitled Bones From Mounds Near Here Indicate Massacre of Kids. Newspaper and date of publication not indicated. Carl W. Bahrt (“Willie”) had been a cabin boy at Egmont Key for my great-great-grandfather Walker, according to the notation by my grandmother on a photograph of Carl and his wife. Actually he worked for all of the pilots on Egmont Key as a child, and then from 1907 to 1937 he was himself a pilot. 

[ii] Hammett, Yvette C. (2014, April 10). Hillsborough adds Island Gem in Land Buy. The Tampa Tribune. Retrieved 6/15/14 from http://tbo.com/news/breaking-news/hillsborough-county-buys-big-cockroach-mound-20140410/

[iii] Hammett, supra.

[iv] Hurley, Neil E. (1990) Keepers of Florida Lighthouses 1820 – 1939, Third Edition. Historic Lighthouse Publishers. 

[v] Helgeson, Baird (2007, September 16). Brush Shrouds Burial Mounds. The Tampa Tribune. Retrieved 2/6/17 from http://www.tbo.com/ap/offbeat/brush-shrouds-burial-mounds-187277

[vi] Moore, Clarence B. (1900) Certain Antiquities of the Florida West-Coast. Reprint from the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Volume XI. Philadelphia: P.C. Stockhausen.

[vii] Affidavit dated September 26, 1908, Hillsborough County Deeds Book 90, page 551.

[viii] Helgeson, supra.  



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From the 1882 Map of Hillsborough County.  Indian Hill is indicated by the arrow.