The Heritage Park and Cultural Center in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, displays relics made by people who lived in the area thousands of years ago.
By Bill Vossler
When J.C. and Inez Ware inspected the site for their new home in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, in 1971, they made an amazing discovery. They found a piece of prehistoric pottery resembling a human eye and nose. After a diligent search, more than 60 other fragments turned up. They all fit together to reconstruct a rare human effigy vessel, which had originally been made approximately A.D. 600 by what area people cumulatively described as the “Fort Walton culture.”
Perhaps discoveries of this kind should not be surprising, considering the 12,000 years of human history sprawled underfoot in this area. To commemorate the past, the Fort Walton Indian Temple Mound Museum, part of the Heritage Park and Cultural Center, displays a mixture of Florida Panhandle history, encompassing the earliest Indian settlements 12,000 years ago and continuing through the construction of an Indian temple mound, the presence of Spanish explorers and foreign pirates, and up to the Civil War.
12,000 Years Ago …
More than 6,000 artifacts of stone, bone, clay, and shell shed insight into the ancient cultures of the area during the five major time periods “” Paleo (12,000-6,500 B.C.), Archaic (6,500-1,000 B.C.), Woodland (1,000 B.C.-A.D. 900), Mississippian (A.D. 900-1,500), and Historic (A.D. 1500-present) “” and tell the story of these people and their lives.
Artifacts found in the area include stones used as game balls and for heating food; shell jewelry; sharpeners to abrade arrow and spear shafts; drills; chisels; flint-knapping tools; spear points; arrowheads; atlatls (arm-held throwers for spears and arrows), and much more, from all the cultures, ancient through modern.
More colorful and perhaps more important is the fine collection of ceramics and pottery made by these different cultures, including rare, one-of-a-kind pieces that are difficult to classify because they are variants of known types. The museum contains dozens of broken pieces that delineate certain types and eras.
Complete artifacts that have been put together piece by piece stand in their glory. Visitors see the aforementioned Ware effigy, and another effigy called “the finest ceramic vessel in the Southeast” “” a clay tetrapod vessel from A.D. 1170, one of the oldest found in northeast Florida. Also among the display are highly unusual plates with six corners, and much more “” enough to keep American Indian history buffs well occupied. A great deal about the daily life of these cultures can be determined through these artifacts.
The Big Attraction
The Temple Mound itself generates plenty of interest, and an adjunct museum building on the site contains displays and information about the mound. Situated approximately 100 feet from the museum building in the center of this bustling panhandle city, the Temple Mound stands 17 feet tall and 223 feet across its base. It is the most outstanding artifact left by early Indians here.
“It required 500,000 hand-carried basket loads of earth to finish it,” said Laura Bessinger-Morse, director of the Heritage Park and Cultural Center. “The Temple Mound was built between 1200 and 1500 A.D., but archaeologists believe the height of the ceremonial culture was in 1400 A.D. It served as the center of political, ceremonial, and spiritual leadership for the villages in the area.”
Mound Builders consisted of artisans, farmers, and traders, and military and religious people living in permanent villages. These elite groups supported and controlled huge numbers of people who depended heavily on fishing and farming for their food.
The Temple Mound dominated the landscape, and was the base for the Temple Building, which was the focal point of public activities. The group leader, or shaman, lived atop the mound. The Fort Walton Beach mound is one of hundreds that were built and still exist throughout the Southeast, reminders of the rich and varied culture.
“Each time a major cultural leader who lived on the mound died,” Ms. Bessinger-Morse said, “the temple would be razed, probably burned, and the leader buried inside the mound itself.” Afterward, villagers covered the remnants with more earth, built a new temple, and had a new leader. At least three progressive periods of major building were done, Ms. Bessinger-Morse said. “That doesn’t mean they just had three leaders during that time,” she added. Many details are unknown, and will probably remain unknown, for relics that might add information and clarity are buried beneath downtown Fort Walton Beach.
The Temple Mound, possibly the largest prehistoric earthwork on the Gulf Coast of the United States, is the largest ever built along salt water. By the time European settlers arrived in the Fort Walton Beach area in the 1500s, the Temple Mound had been abandoned, and its inhabitants had disappeared. What happened to them continues to be a mystery yet today.
The mound, however, remains a sacred burial ground. Visitors can walk inside a reconstructed temple building and learn about burials, death, fire rituals, and more.
Other Cultures, Other Times
The museum also includes artifacts from other people and eras, including local pirates, European explorers, early settlers, and Civil War soldiers.
A stretch of local sand-dune-covered beach formerly called Pirate’s Cove is haunted by stories of pirate love, hate, betrayal, and treachery, as well as the Legend of the Lady’s Walk. Several versions of the tale exist, the most common one about a Spanish woman forbidden to see her pirate lover because her father had betrothed her to another man, whom she did not want to marry. She fled to her pirate, but before she got there, the other man caught her and hugged her. The pirate thought she was being unfaithful to him, so he killed her, and now her ghost walks these dunes. It used to be a local teenage pastime to come to the area to try to see the ghost lady walk.
European settler artifacts include Spanish coins from the 1500s; an exhibit called “Gold, Glory and God: Explorations in Florida”; drawings and parts of a cannon; and the story of Billy Bowlegs. In fact, several early-1800s men claimed this name “” settler Jesse Rogers, Seminole Chief Holato Micco, and Augustus Bowles. To this day, the area celebrates a Billy Bowlegs Pirate Festival in early June each year.
His Excellency, William Augustus Bowles
Speaking of Bowles, he was a British adventurer who married two wives, one of whom was the daughter of a local Creek Indian. Thereby, in his estimation, he became heir to the Creek chiefdom. Under those auspices, he wangled an audience with King George III of England and, with British backing, returned to the Bahamas to train Creek braves as pirates to attack Spanish ships. Spain offered a huge reward for his capture, and after his betrayal in 1794, Bowles was brought before the King of Spain, who tried to convince him to conduct some counterespionage.
Undaunted, Bowles escaped, declared himself the first president of the State of Muskogee in the Fort Walton Beach area, and in 1800 declared war on Spain. He was captured by the Spanish, imprisoned in Havana, and died there on a hunger strike, leaving behind a curious legacy. The museum contains Bowles’ official declaration of war against Spain.
Digging, Yesterday And Today
Civil War soldiers excavated the mound site in 1861-62 with axes and pickaxes, and displayed the artifacts they discovered in a tent, which was unfortunately destroyed by enemy fire. Not only that, but these Civil War diggers were not trained archaeologists, so they destroyed much of the evidence on the north side of the mound.
The Smithsonian Institution first examined this site in 1883, and it has been excavated nine times since. The mound is designated a National Historic Landmark.
The Indian Temple Mound Museum is one of three important aspects of the Heritage Park and Cultural Center. The facility also includes the Garnier Post Office Museum, in a building that from 1918 until 1953 operated as a rural post office. The first Fort Walton Beach schoolhouse, built in 1912 and used until 1936, also can be explored. Together the three museums reflect Fort Walton Beach from prehistoric times to the 1950s.
Heritage Park and Cultural Center also enlightens visitors by way of educational programs, publications, and special events. The past is a puzzle, and through museums like this, some understanding of it can be recovered, and those lessons applied to life today.
A sign in the museum sums it up: “This place is an archaeological site. It is a place where human beings lived, worked, died, and were buried. It is a place worthy of our interest, but also of our respect.”
If You Go
The City of Fort Walton Beach Heritage Park and Cultural Center, including the Indian Temple Mound Museum, is open year-round Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It also is open on Sundays in June and July from noon to 4:30 p.m.
Admission for all areas is $5 plus tax for adults 18 and up, $4.50 plus tax for seniors 55 and older and for active military personnel with ID. Children ages 4 to 17 get in for $3 plus tax, and kids 3 and under are admitted free. For more information, contact the following:
City of Fort Walton Beach Heritage Park and Cultural Center
139 Miracle Strip Parkway S.E.
Fort Walton Beach, FL 32548
This is not a complete list, so please check your campground directory or the FMCA Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com.
Playground RV Park
777 Beal Parkway
Fort Walton Beach, FL 32547
Camping on the Gulf Holiday Travel Park
10005 Emerald Coast Parkway
Destin, FL 32550
Destin RV Beach Resort
362 Miramar Beach Drive
Destin, FL 32541