Indians Around Pine Island Florida....
"Solitude," by Dean Quigley, reproduced with
permission by Alton Martin
I've passed a sign for The
Caloosahatchee River more times than I can
count. One day it occurred to me that
Caloosahatchee had to be an Indian word. So I
researched it's origin and discovered a world
whose remains still exist under the very feet of
residents and visitors to the Southwestern coast
"River of the Calusa". It served as the main
highway inland to the Calusa Indians. It's
waters were filled with fish and shellfish. It's
shorelines were home to an abundance of game.
Calusas could canoe the Caloosahatchee River
into Lake Okeechobee and access other tribal
areas by way of the Kissimmee River.
The Calusa Indians were originally called the "Calos"
which means "Fierce People". They were
descendants of Paleo-Indians who inhabited
Southwest Florida approximately 12,000 years
ago. During the Calusa's reign the Florida
coastline extended roughly 60 miles further into
the Gulf of Mexico. Hardwood forests covered the
land and the climate was much colder than it is
today. The Calusas inhabited a region abundant
with bears, woolly mammoths, sloths, tortoises,
and saber-toothed tigers. Hunting these animals
and gathering roots and fruit that grew on trees
was a mainstay until they discovered the waters
contained a wealth of fish. This new food source
required significantly less time than hunting
and gathering their food, and allowed the
Calusas time to establish their own system of
government. It was quite a complex structure
involving nobility, commoners, and slaves.
Following this formation of a centralized
government were the construction of a canal
system, the beginnings of organized religion,
and the creating of many art forms.
Also known as the "Shell People" the later
Calusas, from approximately the 1500's to their
demise in the early 1800's, used seashells as
foundations. They built their cities on them.
The remainder of their cities can be seen today
as several small islands off the coast of
Southwest Florida. One such island is called
Mound Key. Mound Key is believed to have been
the Calusa's military stronghold as well as
their ceremonial center. The 125-acre island
sits deep in Estero Bay and is open to visitors.
Guests are treated to views of Calusa Indian
canals and fish traps. Replicas of their tools
are available as well.
Mound Key is, in fact, completely artificial.
Built with shells by the Calusas from the sea
bottom, the first layer consisted of shells
driven spiral down into sandy or muddy surfaces.
Marl, a material much like clay, was packed
around this bottom layer. This became the
island's foundation. Soil combined with
additional marl raised the land level. Likewise,
seawalls were constructed of shells and marl.
These were followed by the development of canals
by Dean Quigley, reproduced with permission
by Alton Martin depicts a scene of life in
remains of another shell mound are located on
Connecticut Street on Fort Myers Beach. The
Mound House, built in 1906, sits on the mound
and provides a beautiful view that overlooks
Estero Bay. Tours are available here as well.
The greatest abundance of Calusa artifacts is
found in the remaining mounds. The Calusas
utilized shells as tools, weapons, art, and
jewelry. Archeologists have uncovered tools like
hammers and picks made from shells. Anvils,
scrapers, weights for fishing nets, awls,
choppers, and knives created from various shells
have been unearthed as well. Decorative pieces
like pendants and necklaces have been
discovered. These "Shell People" took advantage
of most of this region's various species of
My research led to my amazement of how
creatively the Calusas capitalized on these
shells. Today we display them in collections and
some clever folks make beautiful jewelry and
crafts with them. The area between Fort Myers
and Sanibel Island boasts numerous
establishments bearing wares derived from
shells. There are shell museums, shell craft
shops, and even one enormous property known as
Shell World. However, in my visits to these
businesses I have yet to find anyone who use
seashells as a means of survival.
The Calusas also made good use of the local
hardwood that grew in their forests.
Archeologists have unearthed many wooden
carvings and masks. Among the most famous
artifacts discovered was a statue of a panther
or cat discovered in 1896 by archeologist Frank
Hamilton Cushing. It was excavated on Marco
Island and a replica may be seen today at the
Key Marco Museum on the island. Standing a mere
six inches high it was carved from dark brown
wood. It appeared to have been varnished.
Archeologists today speculate it may have been
repeatedly dipped or washed in the fat of slain
victims, animal or human. Their belief is that
this process enhanced the preservation of the
carving. Other animal head carvings were found
as well including wolves, pelicans, alligators,
and sea turtles.
Frank Cushing also unearthed a wooden carving
depicting the head of a doe. He believed the
details in the carvings revealed spiritual
elements of the Calusas. He also speculated that
the Calusas had the opportunity to delve into
such intricate work due to the abundance of
fish, and thus less time was spent in the search
My next efforts were to identify more intimate
characteristics of the Calusas, not as hunters
or builders, but simply as people. This proved
to be a bit more of a challenge. Their villages
were governed by the chief and the priest.
Sacrificial worship was commonly practiced. The
chief and the priest demanded complete obedience
from the villagers. Their society was somewhat
closed to other cultures. When the Spanish
explorers arrived in the area in the 1500's,
they learned the Calusas had almost no interest
in missionary activity. They weren't a friendly
tribe. Many battles between them ensued. They
were responsible for the death of the Spanish
explorer Ponce de Leon who traveled with
Christopher Columbus on his second trip to
The Calusas were sometimes up to four inches
taller than most Europeans. They wore their hair
long. Tanned deerskin clouts with belts were
worn by the men, indicating their positions
within the tribe. The women's clothing often
consisted of a woven garment of moss and leaves.
Calusa's language indicated possible travel to
Florida from the outlying islands. They had
great sailing abilities. Intricately designed
canoes were carved from hollowed-out cypress
logs. They were believed to have reached Cuba
and maybe even Mexico in these vessels.
Alton Martin, a noted artifacts collector from
Tyrone, Georgia, owns several prints of
paintings depicting the lives of Calusa Indians
done by artist Dean Quigley. Quigley, a native
Floridian, used Calusa artifacts and based his
painting of a Calusa village layout on the
results of actual archeological investigations.
Entitled "Calusa", the print is one of a limited
edition of just 350 signed and numbered prints.
It shows the re-creation of the Calusa
settlement on Pine Island. Two other photos of
Quigley's paintings "Solitude" and another
unnamed show the Calusa's actively engaged in
hunting and fishing.
As I stand on the beautiful gulf shores of Fort
Myers Beach I can't help but wonder how an
entire heritage can simply disappear. However,
that was the fate of the Calusa Indians.
Europeans attempted fighting them beginning in
the 1500's, but the Calusas proved to be mighty
warriors. Unfortunately by the 1700's the
Europeans had brought with them diseases like
smallpox, and a great number of the Calusa
Indian population was wiped out. When the
Spanish arrived in Florida it was estimated that
there were 20,000 Calusa's in South Florida. By
the time the English gained control in 1763,
their numbers had been reduced to a few hundred.
It is reported that the few survivors followed
the Spanish to Cuba.
Despite the physical absence of the Calusas,
their heritage lives on in the remains of the
mound cities they created and in the artifacts
archeologists have discovered along
Florida's Southwestern coastline. Every few
years more significant pieces in the link to
these lost Native Americans are unearthed. As
interest in local and Native American history
peaks and wanes, in Florida's southwestern
coastal communities it remains strong.
From Caloosahatchee to Calusa, my knowledge of
Southwestern Florida's earliest settlers has
vastly increased. On my next visit to Fort Myers
Beach, where I hope to one day settle with my
own tribe, I will wander along the shores of the
Gulf of Mexico, collect a handful of shells, and
cast them into the crashing waves. I will do
this in honor of the civilization that built
their lives with shells, and in honor of the
shell mounds that remain today as beautiful
natural reminders of the lives of Calusa
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