For over two thousand years, Calusa Indians dominated Southwest Florida. This was their home.
Built by amassing millions of shells, carried in woven baskets on the backs of untold numbers of people in their thousands and over generations. Collected and piled high. Moved and manipulated, reshaped, re-formed and added to, all beginning 2,000 years ago.
The shells, the building blocks of this mound, are what remains from scallops and oysters, clams and conchs, whelks and pen shells that thrived in the vast estuary of Estero Bay. Mixed among the earth and shells brought to build this mound are the scattered charred bones of fish and birds, turtles and crabs, deer and ducks. In their time, alive and making a living filter feeding or crawling along seagrass and mud flats. Perhaps swimming by or flying above the people that made their living from the estuary as well.
Accessible only by boat, which may have been the whole point of this ancient construction project, 125 acre Mound Key rises over 30 feet at its plateau above a horizontal topography of mangrove forests and calm shallow bays, making this incredible manmade location the high point on the horizon for all of Estero Bay. Visitors today will find the shoreline of Mound Key guarded by the tangled roots of mangroves which inland give way to a tropical hardwood hammock where buttonwoods, gumbo limbos and sea grapes shade the wild coffee and wax myrtle thickets below. Mound Key was the thriving and populous epicenter of the Calusa kingdom, at the height of their power and influence, the Caluus, King of the Calusa, lived atop this island in an enormous thatch structure with stilt homes along the waterfront and the lower portions of the mound down below. The island was bisected by a canal and water court system. Thousands of people in over 50 towns and villages extending along the coast from Charlotte Harbor to the Keys and inland to the Everglades defined the Calusa kingdom.
The Spanish explorer Ponce’ de Leon, first made contact with the Calusa sailing our shores back in 1513. It was not a friendly meeting, and the Calusa attacked in force with over 80 war canoes. The Spanish withdrew. Well, he came back in 1521 in an effort to colonize the region, the Calusa got him that time, Ponce was wounded with an arrow to the thigh and died several months later.
Decades later, in February of 1566, Caluus, monarch of the Calusa, was on his throne at the top of Mound Key, when he received the Spanish admiral Pedro Men’endez de Aviles and 200 of his men with a formal reception complete with music and a feast in a royal house that could fit 2,000 individuals. For a short period of time, there was even a substantial Spanish fort built there. Located on the second highest peak and near the King’s residence, this garrison also contained mission San Anto’n de Carlos, the first Jesuit mission in what is now the United States.
As was happening throughout the Americas, the arrival of Europeans brought tremendous change, and a collapse of the old civilizations. Although never conquered by the Spanish, European diseases, warfare and slavery raids from neighboring tribes to the north devastated the population. By the late 1700s, the Calusa had ceased to exist as a people.
THE CUBAN FISHERMEN
Without the Calusa, Mound Key sat desolate and unoccupied until the arrival of the Cuban fishermen in the seventeenth century. This was their home.
During the seventeenth, eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries, there was an extensive and lucrative fishing industry between Cuba and the coast of Southwest Florida which included the waters of Estero Bay and Mound Key. Semi-permanent seasonal fishing camps or “ranchos” were established along the coast, many of which occupied the abandoned shell mounds of the Calusa. The abundance and accessibility of this tremendous shallow water fishery that had enabled the Calusa to establish a vast and sophisticated kingdom, now supported a new group of people, the Cuban fisherfolk. The protected back bays and expansive sea grass flats of our area lent themselves to the simple fishing technology of the day. Using handmade woven nets and shallow draft sailboats, these Cuban fishermen harvested up to two million pounds of fish a year from our waters. Smoked or dried and salted fish was packed and shipped back to market in Havana.
For centuries, South Florida was more closely tied to Havana than any other port of capital in North America. As a Spanish possession, “La Florida” had no gold or silver for the conquistadores, but in the long run, provided many rich natural resources and colonial benefits to Spain. Many Cuban fishermen ended up marrying local Indian women. These families often joined the Catholic church and sent their children back to Cuba for education.
Ultimately, Spain ceded control of Florida to the United States in 1821 and in 1835 the Second Seminole War ended the era of Cuban fishing ranchos in Florida as the United States sought to end foreign settlement of its new territory.
Many Cubans left, others remained becoming part of the patchwork of early Floridians that settled here. Pioneer families and early settlers lived on Mound Key, fishing and farming for more than a hundred years. Their legacy is a rich part of Mound Key history as well.
Ashes on Ashes
A few months ago, some old friends camped on the last remaining piece of private land on Mound Key. With the County purchase of the McGee property, and the State of Florida owning the rest, the entire island is now protected from development, and that’s a good thing. But, as protected public land, strict rules and regulations for visitors are observed as they should be. I like to think that we probably enjoyed the last legal campfire and whiskey that island will ever see. The ashes of our fire atop the ashes of some other camp fire of a long gone mullet fishermen, the home fire of a pioneer farmer, a Cuban fishing family, perhaps even a Calusa father keeping warm on a chilly February morning and watching a Spanish ship pull into the pass and weigh anchor.
To learn more about our area’s rich history, or schedule a trip to Mound Key, visit the Mound House museum at 451 Connecticut Street, Fort Myers Beach. The Mound House offers a unique view of Calusa history, Early Settlers and the natural environment of Estero Island through cultural and environmental programs, including guided tours, beach walks and kayak eco-tours. A Shell Mound Tour, offered daily Tuesday – Saturday at 11am and 2pm offer a look inside a 2,000 year old Calusa Shell Mound. For a full schedule visit Moundhouse.org or call 239-765-0865. Be sure to ask for Alison.
By Parke Lewis
Parke Lewis is a former “beach kid” who now lives in Fort Myers. He is a biologist with DexBender.
SIDEBAR: Mound Key Boat Tours
The Mound House offers Boat Tours to Mound Key twice a month February – April. The approximately three hour tours begin at Fish Tale Marina and include a stop at the Mound House and a trip to Mound Key, Capital of the Calusa, in Estero Bay. Participants hike the trails of Mound Key, exploring sites used by the Calusa and early settlers on the undeveloped island. Reservations can be made at moundhouse.org.