Steinhatchee’s long history of human habitation includes prehistoric man da-ting from 12,000 BC, pirates from 15th through 18th centuries, loggers in the 1800s, sponge divers in the 1940s and 50s and commercial fishermen, shrimpers, and crabbers today.
Located at the mouth of the Steinhatchee River, Deadman Bay was on Spanish maps by the early 1500s. Timucuan Indians, Spanish explorers, Seminole Indians and Civil War troops passed through this area, crossing at Stein-hatchee Falls. Spanish Conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez came through the area in 1529 followed by Hernando de Soto ten years later. DeSoto crossed the Steinhatchee River at the “Falls.” In 1818 General Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) also crossed at the Falls on his way to dispatch the Seminoles who were raiding “white” settlements. In 1838 General Zachary Taylor (1784 -1850) was sent to put down the Seminoles during the Second Seminole War. Fort Frank Brook was established up the Steinhatchee River in the same year and abandoned in 1840.
In 1879 James Howard Stephens (1825-1906), a local pioneer, offered land for a post office changing the name from Deadman Bay to Stephensville. Stephen’s objective was to establish a timber procurement operation to feed sawmills in Cedar Key and their steamboat transport of logs and lumber to ports in the northeastern states. The cypress and cedar logs were configured into large rafts for transport down the coast to Cedar Key. In 1931 the community was renamed Steinhatchee after the river. The name Steinhatchee was derived from the Native American “esteen hatchee” meaning river (hatchee) of man (esteen). Early maps refer to the river as “Achenahattchee” or “Esteenhatchee” and “Esteen-E-Hatachre.
Steinhatchee’s most significant contribution to the Confederacy’s war efforts was the procurement of salt from seawater. The remains of these “salt works” are still evident along the mud flats and salt marshes. Aside from fishing and small plot farming, there were little ways to support the area settlers. Soon the collection, processing and marketing of marine stores began to thrive. Commercial fishing gradually increased. It is unclear when the first sponge fishermen came to the area but further south at Cedar Key and Tarpon Springs the industry was thriving. By the 1930’s sponge fishermen were well established in Steinhatchee. Local residents during that period say it was common to see anywhere from 50 to 100 sponge boats moored in the river. The industry declined and ended in the late 1950’s as a result of red tide along the gulf coast that killed the most sought after, sea wool sponges.
Commercial fishing was the mainstay for most residents. Many species of fish, particularly mullet and trout, blue and stone crab, scallops and sponges were harvested for markets around the country. In the 1940’s thru the 1960’s, mullet and their roe were salted and sold throughout the southeast.
Motors were uncommon for most resident’s boats until the 1960’s. A gradual boom developed into what had been an area of unknown sales potential, the marketing of mullet roe in the mid 1990’s. The Steinhatchee commercial fishermen not only met this demand locally, but also expanded by buying and selling from Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina. By late 1995, new regulations for commercial fishing and a net ban heavily impacted the economy of Steinhatchee. The hospitality industry in Steinhatchee continues to grow and expand. The fish camps, motor courts, motels and lodges are being replaced by rental apartments, condos and service industries such as boat rentals, storage and restaurants.