The Feral Children of Terra Ceia Island

Robert Fogarty was born Robert Guerro and adopted after his parents died of yellow fever.

TERRA CEIA – According to local legend, he had to catch the Guerro children in a castnet. Famished and in a state of confusion, the children were roaming around the Terra Ceia wilderness completely disillusioned. Mumblings of an indiscernible language confused their captor, who wanted nothing more than to help the lost youths. But there were many questions unbeknown to the rescuer. Were the children stricken with yellow fever, did they speak English and how long had their mother’s body been rotting in the house?

This heart-wrenching tale first started as a love story.

Joe and Julia Atzeroth were a Bavarian couple that settled on Terra Ceia Island in 1843 after staying in New York and New Orleans for a short while. Julia is commonly known as “Madam Joe” because she often referred to her husband as “Mister Joe.”  The two are considered Terra Ceia’s very first permanent settlers.

On the island, they acquired 160 acres under the Armed Occupation Act and built a profitable farm. In 1851 they moved to Palmetto, opening the first store there while continuing their farming endeavors on the island and overseeing their cattle on the open range north and east of Palmetto. Mr. Joe fought in the Seminole Wars of the 1850s, and the Civil War of the 1860s, while Madam Joe attended to their home affairs.  According to many texts, Madam Joe frequently wrote home to Germany asking relatives to visit and help her with her countless responsibilities. Frederica Kramer, a niece, came from Bavaria, Germany circa 1855 -1856 for a visit that would change the course of her life.

During this period of time, fisherman populated the coastline along the Manatee River and the Gulf. Often housed in temporary fishing rancheros made of palm fronds, they would fish during the season and sell their catch in the Havana market.

Miguel Guerro was a descendent from the Spanish Island of Minorca. (A colony of Minorcans immigrated to Florida during the British rule of the East Cost around 1767.) Like many before him, Miguel had founded his livelihood on the abundance of fish in the area and settled on Terra Ceia.

It was love at first sight when Miguel and Frederica first met; the only means of communication was body language since she spoke only German and he only Spanish. They moved from his modest shed to a small home on the long shell mound facng a bay (Miguel Bay) which was named after the Guerro patriarch. Their family grew at a rapid pace. They had five children. Michael was born in 1857, followed by Fredrick, (born 1859) then Christopher (born June 1, 1864), Robert (1866) and finally Mary born in 1868. It has been said that the children spoke neither language fluently, but instead uttered sounds that were only understood by one another, in that way, the family was like Manatee County’s version of Nell.

Sometime after the birth of Mary, yellow fever struck the family. The two eldest children, Michael and Fredrick died tragically at age 11 and nine. Miguel and Frederica buried their small bodies in the shell mound.

Following the solemn service, Miguel had to leave on an extended fishing trip.  When he returned, he found his wife dead; she was lying in bed next to her new baby. Miguel was not well himself. He too had been stricken with the fever. The two young boys were running around outside disoriented and hungry. They were confused; they didn’t understand why their mother wasn’t responding to them or where the two oldest children had gone. Miguel couldn’t communicate with them. The extended fishing trip had left him weak. He was too faint to bury Frederica, or take a rowboat to the mainland and get help. He laid down next to his beloved wife, waiting to join her in the afterlife.

Asa Bishop, of Bishop’s Point in Palma Sola, eventually came sailing by. He was in a neighborly mood when he stopped in to discover the dire situation.  He helped Miguel bury Frederica in the shell mound. According to an interview conducted by the Manatee County Historic Society, his son claimed he eventually caught the two boys in a castnet. He then loaded Miguel and the three children in his boat and carried them to his home. Miguel and the baby eventually died.

Reverend Edmund Lee and his wife Electa of the Village of Manatee adopted Christopher, changing his name to Edmund Miguel Guerro Lee, or E.M. Lee as he was called. Mary and John Fogarty adopted Robert. Robert was renamed Robert Guerro Fogarty. Both children quickly learned to speak English in their new homes.

After extensive searching as an adult, Robert Guerro Fogarty found his biological mother’s grave on a creek embankment near the original home. He moved her remains to Palmetto Cemetery.

Edmund M. Lee lived with his adopted family until he returned to Terra Ceia in 1892 to claim his portion of the Guerro homestead. He was a farmer and considered to be an expert in the art of making castnets. He lived in the Terra Ceia/Rubonia area until his death in 1940. He is buried in the Gillett Cemetery.

Sources:

The Lures of Manatee by Lillie b. McDuffee

The Gillette Cemetary: A Pioneer Cemetay in the Gillette Community by Marvis R. Snell and Jacob Randolph Snell

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