By Uzi Baram, Director of the New College Public Archaeology Lab
Professor of Anthropology, New College of Florida
Hurricanes leave destruction in their wake. But time erases the evidence, especially when measured in decades or centuries. The absence encourages a collective amnesia, a forgetting that haunts current discussions of climate change. The anthropologist turned novelist Amitav Ghosh in a recent series of essays titled the mismatch between observations and representations of climate change as The Great Derangement – the failure to recognize what is happening on our planet. The silences are particularly striking in Sarasota, where so many residents are relatively recent arrivals to Florida leading to amnesia regarding climate.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, the shock of felled trees, loss of power for days on end, and the luck of Sarasota escaping a much worse fate led to lots of residents imagining that the region will escape the intensity of climate change, a process that is creating stronger storms at a time when our coasts have high density of settlements. The amnesia is imagined via a myth about Sarasota. I have faced the story many times. First in 2007 by a Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter and more expansively in July 2014 when I received an email from a researcher from a television company in the United Kingdom called Wag TV. Wag TV was looking to produce a story on Sarasota. And, if you live or lived in Sarasota, you might have guessed the topic: the legend that the city is protected from hurricanes. As an inducement to contributing to the story, the researcher offered the insight that Sarasota was blessed by ancient peoples and the history of region’s Native past was the focal point for the story. I had nothing to say but the call got me thinking about hurricanes, folklore, and memories of place. And the concerns are timely: in the wake of Hurricane Irma, the Tampa Bay Times offered a story on September 12, 2017 titled “Did local Indian mounds save Tampa Bay from Irma’s worst? Some say yes” (http://www.tampabay.com/blogs/timesnews/did-local-indian-mounds-save-tampa-bay-from-irmasworst-some-say-yes/2337228). While some say yes, this archaeologist says no and it is a statement that seems to need to be repeated every few years to counter local amnesia.
The Folklore for Hurricanes
The National Hurricane Center sets hurricane season as between June 1st and November 30th. Those who remember 2004 – an annus horribilis with the four hurricanes that went through Florida – know that hurricanes can and do devastate communities in Florida. In September 2017, Hurricane Irma was projected to target Sarasota; but while the region suffered the loss of trees, roofs, and power, the storm moved to the west, sparing us from what seemed like a catastrophe. So it is easy to assume Sarasota is safe since there has been no direct hit in the lifetime of nearly all current inhabitants.
I am impressed with the continual reproduction of the legend. I was first asked about Sarasota and hurricanes in 2007 and was quoted in the June 18th Sarasota Herald-Tribune as saying: “The gap in knowledge is likely part of what keeps the myth in circulation.” said Uzi Baram, associate professor of anthropology at New College in Sarasota. “Folk tales give us comfort, so we use something we can’t disprove,” Baram said. “Native Americans to this particular region are a little past the shadow of history.” Baram first heard the story at a dinner party several years ago. “It’s like a lot of urban myths; there’s no origin, but somehow everyone knows it,” Baram said. “It really tells us two things. One, we are very worried about hurricanes. And two, we wonder why we’re lucky.”
After Hurricane Irma most residents are still, quite appropriately, worried about hurricanes. And hopefully that fear will not soon be forgotten. But hundreds, even thousands, will be moving into this region in the next several years, without memory of Irma. Some critique the increasing information available on the weather and the sensationalism of television news while many others (see Albert C. Hine, Don P. Chambers, Tonya D. Clayton, Mark R. Hafen, and Gary T. Mitchum 2016) are working to raise understanding of climate change.
Remembering is important in order to confront the looming dangers that are coming with warmer temperatures in the oceans and the rising sea levels for coastal communities. Florida faces the challenge of climate change, particularly rising sea levels. When I arrived in Sarasota, to teach at New College, back in 1997, the weather was an inducement: the sunshine, the warmth, and the Gulf of Mexico’s waters. But weather and climate are different: the weather is short-term while climate is the cumulative picture of weather over the long term. Before Irma, many residents of Sarasota only had the experience of the weather; the climate includes hurricanes; the folktale uses the weather to mask the climate. Like many folktales there are different versions, with nuances that do not detract from the central meaning of the stories. One version of Sarasota’s perceived safety from hurricanes focuses on the Native peoples, the insight relayed by the Wag TV researcher and the Tampa Bay Times reporter. There are two version of the Native American folklore: either the knowledge that Sarasota was a safe haven was passed through generations of Native peoples or their burials places provided the protection from hurricanes. Since the Spanish did not record the identities of the peoples in the place known in the late 18th century as Sarazota, we do not have archival names, only the remains of their mounds and middens. We know they were not Tocobaga, the people of Tampa Bay, nor Calusa, people centered by Charlotte Harbor. As the people between the Tocobaga and Calusa, their mounds and the archaeological insights into their ways of life are their remnants. The lack of information between those previous inhabitants and today might be part of the allure of the legend.
The other version of the folktale concentrates on the Ringling Brothers of circus fame. Charles and John Ringling, brothers whose homes are Sarasota Bay, brought their circus and its members to Sarasota. Many from the circus retired to Sarasota. This version of the folktale has those special people protecting, and continuing to defend, Sarasota against hurricanes.
Whether due to Native Americans or 20th century Ringling Brothers Circus performers, the legend does not tell the whole story.
Archaeology of Hurricanes
Hurricanes have shaped Florida in many ways. Don Tristan de Luna entered Pensacola Bay in August of 1559 to establish a permanent European colony but a hurricane sunk the fleet and the settlement failed (http://www.flheritage.com/archaeology/projects/shipwrecks/emanuelpoint/history.cfm); Spanish attention went to St. Augustine. The 1928 hurricane that washed out Lake Okeechobee killed thousands of people; a simple monument and the Hoover Dike are the reminders of that terrible tragedy (http://www.srh.noaa.gov/mfl/?n=okeechobee). For Florida, Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was the “storm of the century.”
The 21st century has witnessed hurricane damage that Americans of the previous century did not wish to imagine. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina led to the flooding of New Orleans; in 2012, the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy (known as Superstorm Sandy) wreaked havoc in the New York metropolitan area. Houston faced flooding from Hurricane Harvey in 2017. With climate change and increased population, more deadly storms need to be imagined. In June 2013, Rolling Stone predicted Miami was next (http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/why-the-city-ofmiami-is-doomed-to-drown-20130620) and the Washington Post pointed to Tampa Bay in 2017 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/health/environment/tampa-bay-climatechange).
There are reasons for those on the coasts to worry. The destruction left by hurricanes gets cleaned up, even if very slowly. The piles of debris are a problem to be solved and land reclaimed. Yet archaeology has a role to play with hurricanes, even if that seems counter-intuitive. Many archaeologists realize the skill sets from excavations as well as the evidence from the past are useful for such planning. Richard A. Gould published Disaster Archaeology, to explain the use of archaeological techniques for recovery for families and others dislocated by disasters, including hurricanes.
Another approach is using the past as a caveat for the future. Eric Cline, based on his recent book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, wrote in the New York Times (May 2014) to remind us that “Climate Change Doomed the Ancients,” as the Op-Ed was titled. For that archaeologist, a “cascade of events” transformed the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age. There is a lesson for those who assume climate change can be managed. More directly, Jeff Altschul, President, Society for American Archaeology, spoke with the Union of Concerned Scientists (http://www.saa.org/Portals/0/SAA/GovernmentAffairs/ALTSCHUL_REMARKS.pdf) to highlight climate change as a concern for heritage management and the importance of archaeology in facing climate change. Archaeology, with insights from the full range of human history, illustrates a simple point: technology is not enough to confront the ecological changes we and future generations face; humans are social creatures so facing climate change requires sustained consideration of new relationships that will arise with our transformed world.
But even more than the caveats, the archaeology of hurricanes offers insights into transformed landscapes. Based on fieldwork in New Orleans after Katrina, archaeologist Shannon Lee Dawdy focused on the social life of ruins. In a 2006 academic article, she takes the archaeological terminology of taphonomy, which is the study of how the archaeological record is formed, and expands its meaning to explain what preserves and what is lost to time for the urban landscape. Contemporary ruins, Professor Dawdy recognizes, fascinate and are fascinating. That archaeological perspective on disasters and their aftermaths open up the anxieties regarding environmental changes and a way to look at landscapes to recover history.
The Silences of Sarasota
The folklore on Sarasota is captivating and, maybe reassuring. But wrong. Contemporary Sarasota, seen through taphonomy, is a product of hurricanes and their erasure. On an archaeological scale of time, it has not been that long since a hurricane crossed Sarasota. But the archives record several in the 19th century. In 1846, the Manatee River was sucked out into the bay. Canter Brown published the history of that storm as ‘The Most Terrible Gale Ever Known.” The water did return to the Manatee River. A 2007 underwater survey of the Manatee River conducted by Dr. J. Coz Cozzi for Looking for Angola found a remarkably clean river bottom except for early 20th century remains. Today, sitting at the Old Salty Dog restaurant on City Key, one looks out at New Pass. The name came from William Whitaker when he noticed a stretch of beach was missing after the 1848 hurricane. Dredging in the 1920s expanded the pass. No longer new and its origin seemingly forgotten, the pass is a reminder of how the coastline has been shaped by storms.
But more recently is the 1921 hurricane. Newspaper accounts tell of the rains coming on Saturday, October the 22nd and lasting until Tuesday, days and days of rain and wind. Before the storm there were several fish houses on the bayfront; after the hurricane those businesses were not rebuilt. Today the open fields of the Bayfront park is the hurricane’s legacy.
Another hurricane came in 1926. In an exhibit for the Newtown Centennial, the history for Payne Chapel Methodist Episcopal Church included the devastation of the building; while it was rebuilt the next year, later the congregation moved from what is today the Rosemary District and reformed in Newtown.
In 1944, a hurricane came up to the Gulf of Mexico with winds in excess of 100 mph and damaged both the Sarasota and Venice Army Air bases. Hurricane Donna made landfall in Naples and created destruction in Sarasota. And while the world was focused on New York City in September 2001, Tropical Storm Gabrielle crossed over this region on September 14th. In 2004, Hurricane Charley made landfall in Punta Gorda, and impacted North Port in southern Sarasota County. And Tropical Storm Emily formed quickly by Sarasota and moved across the region in July 2017. Tropical storms and hurricanes have not spared Sarasota.
We can tell folktales but they will not protect the coastline or its peoples. Sarasota has seen hurricanes, and could see them again. Archaeology provides reminders of the previous layers of history and those archaeological memories can anticipate what might come. The past has important lessons even if the folklore makes for better stories.
Origins of the Myth
While it is difficult to be confident on the origins of a myth, most likely the source of the legend of Native American protection of Sarasota comes from The Legend of Sara de Soto, a story created by George F. Chapline around 1900 (for the full poem, see http://www.allaboutsarasota.com/legend.htm) and enacted for annual Sara de Sota Pageants. The key lines come at the end: “The elders of the Seminoles repeat the legend of the children, and say that the spirits of Chichi-Okcobee and his warriors are in eternal combat with the spirits of evil and the children of the storm god, holding the pass to the gulf and protecting the resting place of Sara De Soto.” But the next time Sarasota is in the cone of probability for a hurricane track, better to have worked on community resilience (van de Noort 2013) than trust in early 20th century performances.
References and Further Readings
Canter Brown 1998 The Most Terrible Gale Ever Known. Sunland Tribune 24(1)39-48.
Eric Cline 2014 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Princeton University Press.
Shannon Lee Dawdy 2006 The Taphonomy of Disaster and the (Re)Formation of New Orleans. American Anthropologist 108(4): 719–730.
Amitav Ghosh 2016 The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. University of Chicago Press.
Richard A. Gould 2007 Disaster Archaeology. The University of Utah Press.
Albert C. Hine, Don P. Chambers, Tonya D. Clayton, Mark R. Hafen, and Gary T. Mitchum 2016 Sea Level Rise in Florida: Science, Impacts, and Options. University Press of Florida.
Janet Matthews Snyder 1983 Edge of Wilderness: A Settlement History of Manatee River and Sarasota Bay 1528-1885. Coastal Press.
Robert van de Noort 2013 Climate Change Archaeology: Building Resilience from Research in the World’s Coastal Wetlands. Oxford University Press.