By Dotti Hydue, Levy Living Contributing Author and Editing Consultant. Photos by Sheri McLeroy.
Be sure to also view a video of this area here.
SHELL MOUNDS, or middens, are heaps of debris formed by ancient cultures who lived or spent significant amounts of time along the shorelines coastal areas. The mounds may contain artifacts of daily living such as pottery shards and broken tools mixed in with the bones of deer, fish, and birds, and discarded oyster, clam, and whelk (large sea snails) shells. Some mounds may be burial sites while others may have been used for ceremonies. Numerous mounds, rings, and ridges are found along Levy County’s Gulf Coast, and scientists think some of them were constructed as protection against storms or to provide altitude as a landmark for boaters returning to their villages.
One of the largest prehistoric shell mounds on the central Gulf Coast is located about nine miles north of Cedar Key. Tucked between the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge (LSNWR) and the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge sits LSNWR’s Shell Mound Unit and its five-acre, 28-foot-tall Shell Mound. This crescent-shaped mound, initially created as a kitchen midden during the Archaic period over 4,000 years ago, continued to be used as a shell dump by later native groups of the Eastern Woodland cultures. Archaeological research has turned up shell tools and pottery shards, including one from the Deptford Period (800 BC–700 AD), and artifacts dating to 500 BC. Continued research by archaeologists and graduate students from the University of Florida hopes to create a clearer history of the mounds along the Levy County Gulf Coast and the people who erected them.
AS WITH any area inhabited for thousands of years, stories and folklore about the Shell Mound area abound. Its marshlands, winding creeks, and coastal islands provided a haven for Native Americans, conquering Conquistadors, and pirates seeking refuge from storms. On any given night, dim figures can be seen moving through the misty hammocks and swamplands while eerie shadows cast by Spanish moss-draped trees morph into vague shapes as the night winds blow. Are ghosts real, or are they figments of the imagination of those wanting to believe in their existence?
Legend has it that in the late 1800s an area resident, Annie Simpson, and her wolfhound disappeared one night after she witnessed pirates burying a treasure chest near Shell Mound. Years later treasure hunters uncovered a chest of coins and the skeleton of a dog in the area. Although Annie’s body was never found, there have been numerous sightings of her spirit. One morning a hiker was startled by a ghostly young girl with long dark hair sitting in a boat at the water’s edge. A young child followed Annie’s beckoning image into the woods until the child’s mother intervened. Annie’s benevolent spirit often appears in a white dress or as a light floating through the trees. Is poor Annie searching for her long lost wolfhound or merely for companionship as she wanders this prehistoric site?
DON’T LET the prospect of ghosts and pirates keep you from visiting this recreational paradise. Located off C347 at the end of C326, fishermen, wildlife lovers, and bird watchers can explore the area via land and sea. Launch canoes, kayaks or small motorized craft from the boat ramp and travel the shallow Gulf waters to nearby tidal creeks and barrier islands. Fishermen can look forward to catching redfish, black drum, catfish, sheepshead, and trout. The handicapped-accessible fishing boardwalk and observation pier provides access to tidal creek fishing. You can also fish from the bank or wade into the serene Gulf of Mexico for your dinner. Be sure and check state fishing regulations before wetting your line.
Hikers can view wildlife, birds, and plants on two developed trails. Dennis Creek Trail (1.0-mile loop) takes you through a coastal island habitat where you might be surprised by great white egrets feeding in a creek or a scurry of fiddler crabs retreating from your footsteps. You will journey through the woods, into the salt marsh, and along the edges of small lakes before returning to your starting point. Boardwalks take you over any wet ground and a bench or two offer a place to relax along this trail.
The Shell Mound Trail (0.3-mile loop) crosses over the 28-foot-tall prehistoric shell midden now overgrown with ancient oaks and plants that flourish in the calcium-rich ground. See if you can identify snowberry, wild coffee, and coontie just to name a few. Spectacular views of the Gulf of Mexico and the winding creeks and marshlands of this coastal estuary reward hikers from top of Shell Mound. Drink in the fresh salty air as you listen to the sounds of this prehistoric site–the wind softly blowing, the waters lapping onto shore, and sea birds calling to each other. Treat your eyes to the play of colors as the blue sky and fluffy white clouds contrast with the lime green of glasswort and the brown hues of cord grasses.
Come and explore the peaceful, natural environment at Shell Mound. Whether you paddle, hike, boat, camp or just sit and observe the wildlife and ever-changing vistas, you will truly appreciate this slice of Old Florida.