Little bones on Fakahatchee Island
THE SMALL, HAND-SCRAWLED, CONCRETE HEADSTONE IS DECORATED with two crosses on either side of a tiny ceramic yellow duck, stuck in while the mix was still wet. According to family records, the boy drowned. The little bones lie tucked in the warm, salty earth near those of his father and mother in the ancient Calusa shell mound of Fakahatchee Island.
What would it have been like a century ago in Collier County’s watery wilderness, to live, love, bear children, raise them, bury loved ones and eventually follow them into the shell and mangrove isle? It’s impossible to stand in the island’s tiny, weed-choked cemetery and not have that question crawl up you like a vine.
You would never just happen upon Fakahatchee Island or its burial ground. As the seagull flies, it’s situated in a bewildering maze of keys somewhere between Everglades City and Goodland. It’s Peter Matthiessen’s “Shadow Country,” and his characters lurk in the shadows of your mind when you’re out there. It’s accessible only by boat, and on certain tides maybe not even then.
Should you manage to study charts, time tides and navigate oyster-bar waters well enough to land on the island, finding the cemetery requires a confusing trek inward and upward through clingy under- and over-growth, like gumbo-limbo trees with peeling red “skin” that creeps you right out.
Such an adventure is best undertaken in winter. Afternoon lightning storms are rare, temps are milder, weeds and biting insects are not as enthusiastic. We were not that wise. There are reasons it’s called “dead” of summer, but we ignored those reasons and set out in search of the Fakahatchee cemetery smack in the midst of summer “death.”
Our boat’s GPS made locating the island and navigating the waters to get there easier. There was one minor skirmish between boats as to the best route, but we overcame. Upon reaching the island, consensus briefly floundered again as to the best place to land and where to go from there.
It took an hour of wandering through spiky trees, cactus, miserably jagged ground and use-your-imagination trails before we finally stumbled into a wild mass of domestic plants: lantana, mother in-law tongue and bright pink clusters of blooming sweet pea vines. There among the sea of unruly plants stood the tombstones, silent sentinels of lives passed. It took wading through brush and buzzing bees and yellow jackets to locate about 10 graves, the oldest marked 1898, the newest, 1966. “Daniels” was the most common surname, but others included Knowles, Sands, Anderson and Hart.
Who were these people? Where did they come from and why, of all the fat and fine early 1900s Florida places available for homesteading, did these folks choose a location as hostile and harsh as Fakahatchee Island?
The area is one of stunning natural beauty, to be sure, situated among the ancient, winding, people-less Ten Thousand Islands. Food gathering, at least of the seafood sort, must have been easy and plentiful: oysters, fish, crabs, conch and clams. But the island is extremely isolated, a far boat-row or sail from even the very nearest possible settlement at the time.
By the time my sweaty, bedraggled kin and I made it back to our boats, we were fighting exhaustion and dehydration. Locating the tiny graveyard had done nothing to quell curiosity, however; it only conjured a new brew of mysteries: How did the Fakahatchee people endure sand gnats, mosquitoes, heat, sickness, loneliness and storms? What did they do to stay in drinking and bathing water? How did they go about delivering babies and keeping them alive?
Sleuthing through local history, genealogy, census and newspaper records answered many questions, though not all. Some things are mysteries for the ages, like WHY Fakahatchee Island and not Naples, with its bays and beaches? Perhaps some of every generation are drawn to whatever frontier borderlands exist for them to reach.
Turns out, a colorful slew of different people lived on Fakahatchee and many other islands scattered along the lower coast of what is now Collier County from at least the 1870s and through the christening of Everglades National Park in December 1947. (Until 1923, the area belonged to Monroe County, whose county seat was Key West, a good day’s sail away from the infamously lawless saltwater outback.)
At one time or another, Fakahatchee Island was home to different groups of fishing and farming families. Newcomers quickly discovered the old Indian shell mounds held pockets of fertile soil that would easily grow winter vegetables they could grow and haul by sailboat to bustling Key West, and later to Fort Myers and Punta Gorda. Tomatoes, citrus, bananas and sugar cane, along with fresh and salted fish, were life-saving cash crops island pioneers depended on to buy staples such as flour, meal, coffee and medicine they could not produce.
The island never had a store or post office, but in 1912 Mrs. Claude Storter was a teacher in a school there of 13 children. In 1930 a divorced female teacher from far-away Wisconsin, Edna Kellog, was living on the island with her 10-year-old son, Frederick. Fakahatchee boasted five households and 26 fulltime residents that boom year. By 1940 the school and Ms. Kellog were gone, though, replaced by a dozen Seminoles who shared the island with several generations of Daniels.
The island served as temporary home to many, but over the decades became the primary domain of the Daniels family. John Henry Daniels (1860-1940) and his wife, Phylema Myers Daniels (1867- 1945), were the first permanent Daniels setters. They were living on the island by the late 1800s, and it was where she birthed most of their 11 children.
Phylema must have been a good and resourceful mother, because most of her offspring survived into their 80s. The family did suffer tragedy in 1924, however, on the day after Christmas, when son Harvey, age 24, was severely wounded while coon hunting with his brother. Harvey’s gun was somehow clogged and when he fired, it exploded, sending a piece of metal breech through his forehead. The young man was taken to the nearest hospital, all the way in Arcadia, where a surgeon removed the piece of metal. Harvey died a month later.
Most Daniels family members were buried in cemeteries scattered around Southwest Florida, from Chokoloskee to Fort Myers, and it’s probable that numerous unmarked, unremembered graves exist on Fakahatchee. But resting together on the island today with visible headstones are James Phineas Daniels and his wife, Mary Ann, near the drowned baby, James Jr. Another of their children, daughter Vernell, is nearby, as is Mary Ann’s father, Uriah Sands, native of the Bahamas. A Knowles aunt and uncle are there and a son-in-law, Edward Clifton Anderson.
Everyone in the cemetery can be accounted for by Daniels-family relationship except one, a J.S. Hart, whose stone reads simply: 1892- unknown. It’s curious that a person’s birth would be known, yet not their death. Could he have been lost at sea? Did he disappear until someone on the island chose to mark the loss of him with a stone and the word unknown? Perhaps someone out there yet knows, perhaps not.
J.S. Hart may have died decades before the infamous Edgar Watson was shot down on the shores of nearby Chokoloskee in 1910, or perhaps decades after.
It seems fitting that the overgrown and isolated, wild and mostly forgotten Fakahatchee Island cemetery hold tight to at least a few of its mysteries. ¦
— Cynthia Mott descends from a long line of South Florida pioneer settlers. She earned a master’s degree in Florida history to better understand and write about the people she loves and the land she calls home.