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Historic Site Was Heart Of Miami

The recent excitement at the mouth of the Miami River over a new and thus far unique archaeological site is understandable. But, as interesting as the find may be, it's only one of a number of sites on the historic river's banks that have stimulated generations of South Floridians.

And, the information that has been gathered from these locations has been responsible for restructuring the thinking of scientists and the writing of Florida archaeology about the earliest inhabitants of this area.

Thus it would seem that after over 100 years of brief glimpses of archaeologically and historically important discoveries at the mouth of the Miami River, we should stand tough on the preservation or at least the thorough analysis (unconstricted by developers' time demands and financial concerns) of the river's riches and the legacy of its past residents.

William Brickell's two-story wooden home and Seminole trading post was built on Brickell Point in 1871, in a dense grove of coconut trees. It was very near the location of the newly discovered site. By 1900 the family had accumulated wealth from the Seminole fur trade and successful real estate sales, and built a 22 room mansion nearby on the Point.

Surely many unrecorded archaeological sites must have been obliterated at the mouth of the river, over time. But, others might still be extant, deep under the layers of sand and shell, like the recent discovery.

A major site was demolished around 1894 as Henry Flagler's Florida East Coast Railroad began to move southward toward its terminus at Miami. Men from Miami's Bahamian Black work force were hired by Flagler concerns to shovel up and wheelbarrow off a very large mound at the mouth of the river where the luxurious Royal Palm Hotel would be built.

In the 1920s development boom, other buildings were constructed on top of centuries of human endeavor. Hotels and apartment buildings named the Patricia, the Granada, and the Boehmer were prominent structures on both sides of the river.

Fortunately, construction methods were different then and their foundations disturbed the sites under them very little. In the 1960s the ultra modern Dupont Plaza Hotel commanded a magnificent view of the river as it was built on the former site of the Royal Palm.

While few of today's Miamians even know of the river's existence, since it is overshadowed by the expressway system and lined with major construction, this region was historically the heart of Miami.

Those early inhabitants knew it when they constructed that huge mound of shell at the mouth of the Miami River, 500 to 800 years ago. The shell middens fronting the river have been found to have been occupied through many generations. An important benchmark site, the Granada (named for the apartment building razed in 1972) has put archaeology in the Miami area literally "on the map."

The Granada site was significant in that it contained large amounts of animal and plant remains eaten and deposited on the site for many years by the early inhabitants. This material was gathered and analyzed and shows the dependence of the Glades people on the wetland resources.

Further, this site was analyzed for its archaeo-botanical data which showed the site was seasonal, utilized only in the fall and maybe winter months. This information may seem subtle but, it proved so valuable that it has revolutionized data on subsistence and settlement patterns.

Because of this significant site, we now know more about the people that lived so long ago on that piece of real estate that is downtown Miami. Yet, today only a few artifacts and the valuable statistical data represent the Granada site. The prestigious Knight Center rises over the obliterated Granada middens.

History on the river continued being unveiled in literature as the Curator of North American Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institute, William C. Sturtevant, analyzed Spanish documents in 1978, which discussed a short lived Jesuit mission at the river mouth in 1743. Called Santa Maria de Lareto, the mission served area Indians which were identified as Calusa, Cayos, and the Boca Ratones.

The recent excavation is located southeast from the Granada site and directly across the river from the former location of the huge mound eradicated in the 1890s. It presents yet another piece of the puzzle (while creating a puzzle itself) of the varied life of the peoples who have populated the mouth of the Miami River.

Robert S. Carr, Director of Miami-Dade's Historic Preservation Division, and a native Miamian who has a lifetime of interest in Miami archaeology, is enthused about the new excavation found under the demolished Brickell Apartment complex. The site is atypical enough that laymen have some rather wild speculations on its purpose and message.

Even Carr commented for the Miami Herald, "Something unusual is going on here." However, whatever its purpose, it appears unique enough to warrant special attention and that does not include destruction. Further, who is to say that other such puzzling sites do not exist nearby?

The major feature of the site is a circular formation formed by 24 basins cut irregularly in the oolitic limestone bedrock. Surrounding this circle is another with 300 postholes cut into the rock. There were two axes carved of volcanic basalt found on the site, and the remains of a five-foot long shark, purposefully interred in the circle.

Because analysis takes so much money and man power, it will be at least a year before some of the pertinent questions about the site might be answered. At present, it is believed the site represents the dwelling of a chief or priest. Carr, whose very profession denies him speculation, noted of the site, "If nothing else, this shows that the indigenous people of Florida had the intellect and the capacity to create this feature."

The developer, Brickell Pointe, Ltd., has been "generous in time and money thus far, and might shoulder the cost of cutting out the formation in huge chunks and moving it elsewhere for further study, if that proves feasible."

Well we might hope that this site receives the special consideration it obviously deserves. We might all benefit from this nonrenewable resource and in the process get to know these people so much better. Unrealistic as some wishes are, think how much we would now know about Miami's early inhabitants had Flagler and the City Fathers preserved the mouth of the Miami River as a general green space! - Reflections, Number 159.

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