Passage Key, a small island with a big history

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Photo courtesy of the Florida Memory Project.

Just off the northern coast of Anna Maria lies a small sand island with a big history.

Passage Key, once an island of more than 60 acres with a rich ecosystem, including a freshwater lake, was first identified by Spanish and British explorers as they entered Tampa Bay. The key has been documented under many names, including Isla de San Francisco y Leon, Burnaby Island, Pollux Key and finally Cayo del Pasaje, a name given by Spain after they regained control of Florida from Britain in 1783. Cayo del Pasaje was eventually translated into the current English name, Passage Key.

Besides being a shelter and a source of freshwater for sailors, Passage Key didn’t have a steady influx of people until it became Capt. William Bunce’s fishing camp in the early 1830s.

The next documented group of people came in 1836, a year after the Second Seminole War began. These were the men aboard the U.S. Schooners Grampus, Revenue Cutters Washington and Jefferson who used Passage Key to anchor while, accord

ing to the Florida Department of State, “their guns and shore parties protected settlers from the Indians.”

Throughout the years, Passage Key has also offered a unique environment for birds, such as Royal and Sandwich terns. In the early 20th century, it gave these species a place away from the maddening crowd of the “Feather Wars” that started in 1870. During this time, birds everywhere were under attack and species were being wiped out quickly to fill the demand for feathers in fashion.

“Plume feathers, which were used to adorn women’s hats, were worth more than gold,” notes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Florida, with a population of only 528,542 in 1900, was sparsely inhabited and a prime hunting ground for poachers. It didn’t take them long to realize that places like Passage Key could add substantial weight to their pockets.

In an effort led by conservationists, legislation was passed in 1901 that outlawed the hunting of non-game birds. Still, legislation wasn’t enough to protect the birds of Passage Key. In 1905, with the help of the Audubon Society, President Theodore Roosevelt established Passage Key as a Federal Bird Reservation.

Despite this legislation and designations of protected areas, poachers continued hunting native plumes. So in 1910, the Audubon Society hired a well-known resident of Manatee County, Asa Nettleton Pillsbury, to be a part-time warden and provide additional protection for the 102 species of birds on Passage Key.

The Feather Wars ended in 1920, but Pillsbury remained in the position until October 1921, when a tidal wave from a hurricane buried the island beneath the sea.

The Key has made temporary comebacks during long periods of calm weather. Its importance hasn’t just been limited to wildlife, nature and fashion; it also played an important role during World War II. From 1943 to 1945, the key was used as a gunnery range. According to local residents, bombs exploding were an everyday occurrence during that time. A WWII flash bomb, used for illuminating the sky when taking surveillance pictures, was found by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015 just to the west of Passage Key.

The island once again disappeared under the waves during Hurricane Barry in 2007. In 2014, it reemerged and became the nesting ground for least terns and black skimmers. Least terns are the smallest tern in North America and are listed as a threatened species in Florida. Black skimmers are a “species of special concern” in Florida. These birds continued to use Passage Key as their nesting ground in 2015.

If you asked someone about Passage Key today, they would likely say, “Oh, that place where boaters in skin-colored swimsuits hang out?” But there is a lot more to this little gem off the coast of Anna Maria Island than a lot of people know.

Kristin Sweeting, Visitor Services Coordinator for the Florida Maritime Museum, is passionate about anthropology and the environment.

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