Part 1 – Early Settlers
Are you new to Fort Myers Beach? Perhaps a returning visitor or a resident who wants to know more about this 7.5-mile-long glorified sandbar? Let’s gallop across the sands of time to capture moments from the fascinating early history of Estero Island, now called Fort Myers Beach: a place many love to visit and some are fortunate to call home.
Estero Island began to form after the last Ice Age ended around 12,000 years ago, in a very different Florida. The peninsula’s coastline then extended 40 miles further west than it does today. Seas gradually rose, land subsided, and by 3,000 years ago, Estero Island had assumed roughly its current shape and shoreline.
Humans first set foot on these sands over 2,000 years in the past. Their name, Calusa, means fierce and brave. They may have been related to early Mayans who reached Cuba and this area by dugout canoes or rafts from the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico; or to the Arawak of the West Indies. At its peak, the Calusa kingdom extended from Tampa Bay south to the Ten Thousand Islands and east to Lake Okeechobee.
The Calusa established fishing stations and villages all around southwest Florida, including on Estero Island. Calusa middens and mounds – formed by heaps of seashells, fishbones and other remnants of daily life – were found in several locations on this island, including at the north end and south of Church of the Ascension. The only remaining mound is at the Mound House property on Connecticut Street.
Mound Key, southeast of Estero Island in Estero Bay (now Mound Key Archaeological State Park), was the probable site of the Calusa capital, Calos. The Calusa built up and expanded this large oyster bar over several centuries to a top elevation of 65 feet. They also carved canals for easy transit in dugout canoes.
European (and American) Invasion
The Calusas’ dominance was doomed as soon as Spanish feet hit local sand. Ponce de Leon explored southwest Florida in 1513, and Spain soon claimed the peninsula as its own. Some historians think that Hernando de Soto landed on Estero Island in 1539, in his insatiable (and futile) search for gold. Without definitive written accounts or artifacts, those traces have long since vanished into the sands of time.
What’s certain is that diseases the Spaniards brought, skirmishes and attempted enslavement of the Calusa ended the natives’ 2,000-year dynasty by the mid-1700’s.
Pirates sailed our local waters in the 1700’s and 1800’s, including infamous Black Augustus (said to have died with his treasure) and the couple Calico Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny, for whom Lovers’ Key is named. There are still whispers about buried pirate bounty somewhere among Estero Bay’s mangrove islands.
In the 1700’s Spanish, Cuban and Portuguese fishermen built shacks on Estero Island – and above Estero Bay on pilings – to dwell here seasonally as they fished the area’s rich waters. But there’s no record of permanent habitation on this spit of sand until the late 1800’s, when the European invasion gave way to American pioneers’ exploration of southwest Florida’s tropical wilderness.
Early settlement on Estero island required fortitude, creativity, and a tolerance for heat, mosquitoes and other critters. Also a fondness for boating and walking; the island had no bridges or roads. It featured a wide, white-sand beach and a jungle-like tropical interior, with swamp and mangroves on the bay side.
The federal Homestead Act of 1862 allowed any head of family or person of age 21 to state their intent to claim up to 160 acres of public land. After living on and cultivating the land for 5 years, the homesteader could acquire title. Estero Island was surveyed and platted in 1876.
Robert Gilbert filed the first homestead claim on Estero Island in 1898 and set up his home on rare high ground at the current Mound House site (Connecticut Street).
By 1918, Estero Island held 9 registered homesteads in addition to a tract claimed by the U.S. Government (from Crescent Street to the north end). Homesteads ranged in size from 24.5 acres to 160 acres – all eventually subdivided into lots. Many settlers grew vegetables, including tomatoes, along with coconut palms, papayas, mangoes and pineapples.
The first documented community on Estero Island was established by the Koreshans, a utopian/communal religious group that arrived in 1893 by train from Chicago. From a local squatter, the Koreshans purchased a large tract on the bay side of the southern point for $20. They set up a sawmill to cut pine and mahogany into logs for their own use and for sale.
By 1898 the Koreshans had purchased the entire south end of Estero island, and in 1910 they bought the northern tip, now called Bowditch Point, where they built a boat landing. These island properties became a satellite to the main Koreshan compound on the shores of the Estero River (now the Koreshan State Historic Site).
The Koreshans’ charismatic leader, physician Cyrus Reed Teed, was born in 1839 near Trout Creek, New York. In 1869 Teed had a vision of God in the form of a beautiful woman who told him the secret of the universe and his place in it.
Perhaps it was just coincidence that on the night of Teed’s “divine illumination” he suffered such a severe electrical shock that he was rendered unconscious. Whatever the origins of his “illumination,” in 1888 Cyrus Teed founded the Koreshan Unity in Chicago with a membership of 100 – 83 of whom were women.
Derided as the “crazies from Chicago,” Koreshans believed in Cellular Cosmogony, which proclaimed that humans live inside a hollow sphere – a kind of inside-out planet Earth, surrounded by other planets. They advocated communal living, equality for men and women and celibacy.
The Koreshans built “La Parita” on the south end of Estero Island as a beach retreat. This grand two-story complex was the site of parties, picnics and outings. Visitors arrived in shallow-draft “run boats”.
Industrious builders, bakers, cement makers, generators of electricity, gardeners and proponents of the fine arts, the Koreshans aimed to build a New Jerusalem in the wilds of southwest Florida. They flourished from 1893 to 1910. By early 1904, the population of the Koreshan Unity on the Estero River site was 200 people.
But this cult community clashed with its rural neighbors. Cyrus Teed was injured in a fight with Estero townsfolk in 1906. His death on December 22, 1908, was attributed to lingering effects from those injuries.
Teed (aka Koresh) had assured his followers he would be resurrected. His body was placed in a concrete tomb with an eternal flame at the southern tip of Fort Myers Beach. Devout members of the Koreshan Unity stood watch for his resurrection. But the hurricane of 1921 washed away the entire south end of the island, along with the tomb. The only item recovered was the headstone reading, “Cyrus, Shepherd, Stone of Israel.”
Visit the Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero to walk through what remains of the fascinating world of these early settlers.
To learn more about Estero Island’s past, visit the Historic Cottage and Nature Center from 10 a.m. – 12 noon on Wednesdays and Saturdays, at 161 Bay Road (free admission; donations welcomed) – due east of the Fort Myers Beach Public Library. Members of the Estero Island Historic Society will be happy to share their knowledge. Visit the website of the Estero Island Historic Society at www.esteroislandhistoricsociety.org
Then take a stroll through Matanzas Pass Preserve, right outside the cottage door, for a taste of this island’s true nature.
Explore the island’s oldest building, built atop the only remaining Calusa shell mound: The Mound House, 451 Connecticut Street (admission fees apply), Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Details at www.moundhouse.org