Hontoon Island in Florida’s St. Johns River has yielded many Native American artifacts, including an owl-shaped totem pole that is the only one of its kind found east of the Mississippi, thought to be 700 to 800 years old.
Victor Roepke, who owned a mile stretch of land on St. Johns, was dragging the river in 1955 when he stumbled on the totem. The 10-foot owl, carved from a single piece of southern hard pine. It once guarded the shore of the 1,600-acre island, which is now a state park. Hontoon Island has a long history of indigenous habitation going back thousands of years. Similar effigies of an otter and a pelican were also found there.
A fiberglass replica of the owl still stands on the shore of Hontoon Island where it was first discovered. (The original is kept at Fort Caroline National Memorial in Jacksonville.) According to signs at the site, the owl totem was created by Timaquan people. But not all researchers agree. New evidence attributes the carving to a tribe called the Mayaca, a little-known inland people who spoke a different language than the Timaquan. As Jerald Milanch, a former professor at the University of Florida, notes: “No one ever really heard of the Mayaca before the 1990s.”
The owl totem’s original purpose is unknown, but there are several theories. Some plausible explanations claim it’s a clan emblem, religious object, or territorial boundary marker. The carving is quite detailed, especially considering it was carved using primitive tools of shell, shark’s teeth, and bone. It features two sets of eyes—one human and one owl—as well as five claws (owls have four) leading some to believe the owl was significant in shamanic rituals. In some Native American mythologies, the owl is seen as the messenger of the night spirit and protector of shaman priests.
The replica owl at the site now stands as a silent remembrance of the Mayacan people, and an acknowledgement of the complex civilization that existed in Florida for thousands of years before European contact.
Know Before You Go
Hontoon Island State Park is accessible by boat only. A free ferry is available from just across the river at the Hontoon Landing Marina. Service runs every day from 8:00 am until one hour before sunset. The replica owl carving is easily visible from the ferry dock. There is no admission fee to Hontoon Island State Park. For more information call (386) 736-5309. The original wooden Hontoon owl artifact is on display at the Fort Caroline National Memorial at 12713 Fort Caroline Road in Jacksonville, Florida. For more information call (904) 641-7155.