Mound Key Archaeological State Park is a destination for both locals and vacationers in Southwest Florida. The Florida State Park website describes the small island as “Framed in forests of mangrove trees, the shell mounds and ridges of Mound Key rise more than 30 feet above the waters of Estero Bay. Mound Key is rich in early Florida history. The island was developed over 2,000 years of the Calusa Indian civilization. The site likely began as a flat, mangrove-lined oyster bar that barely rose above the shallow waters of the Estero Bay.”
Only accessible by boat, Mound Key is believed to be the ceremonial center of the Calusa Indians. The Spanish colonized the island in 1566, but left three years later after a clash with the Indians. By 1750 diseases brought by the Spanish for which the Indians had no immunity, left the island almost vacant of human presence. That changed in 1891 when the Johnson family took up residency on Mound Key.
Frank Johnson and his wife inhabited the island in the 1890s, farming and fishing. During this time numerous pirates also made their way to the island, as did other families including Luettich, Hawkins, Hanson, and Fernandez. It was not long before most families relocated further north to Estero Island while the Johnson family remained on Mound Key.
The Johnson’s eventually sold their land to the Koreshans in 1905. Not long after the death of Cyrus Reed Teed, who founded the Koreshans, their population dwindled and in 1961 the last of the Koreshans sold the property to the State of Florida to be used as a State Park. In 1970, Mound Key Site was placed on the U. S. National Register of Historic Places.
Jack Beater Forgot His Water
In the spring of 1920, Jack Beater decided to spend an afternoon fishing at Big Carlos Pass. As his appetite grew, he unpacked a sandwich his wife had made for him, only to realize he had no water to wash it down. Debating whether to go to Estero or to Matanzas Pass, he remembered that there were people living on Mound Key. So, he cranked up his boat engine and made his way to the small island.
It was there he met with a lady that Beater described as “brown skinned and wrinkled – 70 or 80 years.” When he politely asked for a glass of water, she offered him instead some lime juice. According to Beater “She pulled a couple limes from a low limb and went into the cabin. Next she went to a small cave dug into the side of the mound, and came out with a jug of limeade. The slightly greenish drink had been sugared, and it tasted better than any soda fountain drink I’d ever downed.”
As Beater ate his sandwich and enjoyed his drink, widow Johnson told him about her years on Mound Key. President Benjamin Harrison granted the land to the Johnsons in 1891. Her husband, Frank, could neither read nor write, but was “considered the best fisherman and egret hunter in all the island region.” She also shared the story of Black Augustus, the Portuguese pirate and his ball of gold.
Beater began to regularly visit Johnson and with each visit she shared more stories of life on Mound Key. On one visit Beater had the pleasure of meeting one of the Johnson boys, Hub. “In the first few minutes,” wrote Beater in his book “Tales of South Florida and the Ten Thousand Islands,” “he called me ‘friend’ at least a dozen times, so that I felt I really was his friend.”
Hub and Beater would run into each a few times over the years.
Not The Works of Old Mexico
Beater also wrote that he disagreed with many about the theory of the mounds on the island being the work of Maya Indians of Yucatan and resembling the temples at Chichen Itza. “As a boy,” he wrote, “in my teens I climbed over the ruins of Aztec and Toltec Mexico, and there is nothing at Mound Key that resembles the great stone works of Old Mexico.”
He concluded that the “Florida mounds are composed of oyster, clam and conch shell fragments for the most part, with bones, broken crockery and other trash.” It was his belief that the mounds were “kitchen middens” of the Calusa Indians or perhaps an even older race.
Whether the mounds are simply piles of shells or in fact some Old Mexico work to resemble the mounds of the Maya Indians, Mound Key is still a destination in Southwest Florida for a day to enjoy with family and friends away from the mainland.
Southwest Florida historian Timothy Jacobs serves as an advisor to the Southwest Florida Historical Society and is a regular contributor of articles about early life on the beach.