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Small island – long history

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By TONI C. COLLINS

Levy County Historian
Atsena Otie – the island you see from the restaurants and the Big Dock on the waterfront in Cedar Key has a long history. The cemetery located on the island is the final resting place for a cross section of the early pioneer families of Levy County.
Atsena Otie, or Depot Key, was the headquarters of U.S. troops during the Second Seminole Indian War (1835-1842). The quartermaster built a number of buildings on the island which included a hospital, blacksmith shop, and officers quarters. When the military pulled out of the area, the buildings which were not destroyed in the hurricane of Oct. 4, 1842, were purchased at public auction by Augustus Steele.
Steele also gained ownership of the 163-acre island by securing a land grant through the Armed Occupation Act of 1842, even though the Federal Government had reserved all of the islands in the Cedar Keys for government purposes several years earlier.
Steele asked for help from his friend, US Senator David Levy Yulee, who influenced a change in the law to permit Steele to not only retain ownership but also passed legislation directing the development of the island.
To encourage development of the island, Steele surveyed and platted the Town of Atsena Otie and the cemetery. The town lots sold slowly at first but by the invasion of the Cedar Keys by Union troops in January 1862, the island had a population of more than 30 men, women and children.
The Civil War interrupted Steele’s plans for further development of the island and he died in 1864 never returning to the Cedar Keys. Following the war, Steele’s widow, Elizabeth reclaimed the property and growth returned to the area. When the Steele’s daughter, Augusta Florida, married James D. Matheson in 1867, her new husband was not in favor of burials on the island. However, on the advice of a local attorney, Matheson relented and cemetery lots were sold for $10.00.
Many of the tombstones in the Atsena Otie cemetery bear interesting gravestone art typical of the Victorian era. A hand pointing heavenward, a broken lily or rose, a sleeping lamb, the hand of God holding a broken chain and one with an anchor above stormy waves.
The years of death recorded on the legible headstones span the years 1877 to 1916. The average age at death of the 26 occupants of the cemetery is 31, with only seven of these passing the age of 50. The oldest person buried in the cemetery is Margaret Corrigen who was 74 and the youngest was Gilbert G. Gerock who was two months old. The cemetery also is the final resting place of a Seminole Indian who was found on the beach of the island.
A listing of the names of those buried in the cemetery is posted at the entrance.