Approximately 90 prehistoric archaeological sites have been identified
near Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve, and approximately 60 of these are presently under state ownership. Developed
sites adjacent to the aquatic preserve include Madira Bickel Mound State Archaeological Site on Terra
Ceia Island and the Portevant Indian Mound at Emerson Point Park.
Terra Ceia includes sites dating back to 8,000 B.C., mostly small hunting and camping sites. Larger
shell middens have been found dating to around 1200 B.C. Most of these middens are now underwater,
reflecting sea-level rise. More permanent settlements - including temple and burial mounds still
present on site - were established by Indians between 800 and 1200 A.D., long before Europeans landed
on our shores. By the 17th century, Cuban fishermen were harvesting redfish, sea trout and pompano
from the estuary, and shipping catches back to their homeland.
But it wasn't until the 1840s, when the Atzeroth family settled land on the west end of Terra Ceia,
that the first European settlement was documented. Julia Atzeroth - or "Madame Joe" as she was known -
ran a riverfront boarding house and store in Palmetto where she sold vegetables grown on Terra Ceia
Island. The industrious matriarch later purchased a coastal sloop and hired one Samuel Bishop, after
whom Bishop Harbor is thought to be named, to captain the vessel. During the Civil War, Madame Joe's
sloop was used for blockade running, ferrying mail from Fort Brooke in Tampa to Bradenton.
The tiny farming community grew in the late 1880s, with vegetables and citrus transported by steamship
from wharfs on Terra Ceia Bay to Tampa. With the extension of a railroad line to the island in the
early 1900s, the community flourished. During Prohibition, whisky runners shuttled liquid contraband
through Terra Ceia Bay. Critical Creek, which bisects Rattlesnake Key, got its name from smugglers who
used the tiny shortcut to Miguel Bay to escape the U.S. Coast Guard.
"The death knell of Terra Ceia's booming economy," says Bill Burger, a local archaeologist, "was a
massive storm locals called the tidal wave, which flooded the island in the early 1930s." The railroad
line was discontinued, and while farming continued, the area has become increasingly residential.