Accessible by private boat or the electric ferry, Hontoon Island State Park offers a quiet retreat on the St. Johns River in Volusia County. This 1,650-acre park has pine flatwoods, palm and oak hammocks, bald cypress swamps and marshes. Hontoon Island is surrounded by the St. Johns River, the Hontoon Dead River, and Snake Creek.
Spanish Franciscan friars first visited the Mayaca late in the 16th century. The chief of the Mayaca had been converted to Christianity by 1597, but a mission, San Salvador de Mayaca, was not established until later. It is not proven whether it was located on the island or along the river, and it not mentioned in Spanish records for most of the 17th century. Missionary activity resumed again by 1680, at Anacape (San Antonio de Anacape) and Mayaca. By this time, Chachises (or Salchiches), Malaos (or Malicas) had become part of the population in Mayaca province, while refugee Yamassee Indians had become the majority of the population. By the 1690s missions had been established at Concepción de Atoyquime, San Joseph de Jororo and in Atisimmi, in what had become the Mayaca-Jororo Province, and some Spanish ranches operated in the area.*
No matter the name they used for themselves, the Native American Indians gathered shellfish from the St. Johns River more than 2,000 years ago. The discarded shells accumulated over the years and can be seen from the hiking trail at the southwest corner of the island. Artifacts found on the island are displayed at the Visitor Center. Replicas of totems, carved from logs, stand in the picnic area, paying tribute to the history of the island. The island has also been a pioneer homestead, a boat yard, a center for commercial fishing and a cattle ranch.
Wildlife on or near the island is plentiful. West Indian manatees may be spotted during the winter months. Wading birds such as great blue herons, ibis and egrets can be seen foraging in the shallows along the shore. Ospreys can be seen soaring overhead searching for a meal of fish or carrying their catch to the tree tops at feeding time. Explore the park on a bicycle or hike the 3-mile round trip self-guided trail that begins at the Ranger Station and follows the Hontoon Dead River to the large Indian mound at the southwest corner of the island.
Similar effigies of an otter and a pelican were also found on and near the island. What they represent is unknown, however owls were prominent figures in the myths and religion of pre-Columbian Florida peoples. Some explanations claim it’s a clan emblem, religious object, or territorial boundary marker.
In an article by By Ronald Williamson in 2004, Craig Morris, a ranger at Fort Caroline, said, "It's probably the most talked about piece in the visitors center. The mural incorporates the carving into a charnel house scene because it's believed to have been a supernatural creature watching over generations of ancestral bones at Hontoon Island. This is not a totem. It has human eyes, as well as round bird eyes. It has five claws; owls have four. It's a symbol of a human turning itself into an owl. Or an owl turning into a human."
LEARN MORE ABOUT IT IN THIS VIDEO
Walk through the impressive visitor center to learn more about the many inhabitants and uses of Hontoon Island over the years. Boating, canoeing, and fishing are popular activities and canoe rentals are available. Picnic areas include tables, grills, and a playground. Overnight boat slip rentals are also available. The park's ferry operates daily from 8:00 a.m. to one hour before sunset.
page information credit: Florida State Parks, * Hann, John H. (2003). Indians of Central and South Florida: 1513-1763. University Press of Florida. ISBN 0-8130-2645-8, floridahistorynetwork.com
photos from the sources listed above, as well as publicly posted online sites with thanks to the contributors