Part Two: The Koreshans and other homesteaders
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.
From the 1700s on a few settlers and wanderers set up dwellings on this strip of sand, and on larger mangrove islands in Estero Bay including Coon Key and Mound Key. But no legal habitations were registered until the 1890s.
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.
Robert Gilbert filed the first homestead claim on Estero Island and set up his home on the rare high ground at the current Mound House site (Connecticut Street). The mound had previously been occupied by the Ellis family, who decamped to Sanibel.
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) and the southern tip owned by the Koreshan Unity. 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. 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 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 Read 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.
Teed had “La Parita” built on the south end of Estero Island for himself and his guests. This grand two-story complex was the site of beach parties, picnics and outings. Visitors arrived in shallow-draft “run boats.” The island became a popular recreation site where the Koreshans picnicked and swam.
Industrious builders, bakers, cement makers, generators of electricity, gardeners, and proponents of 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, 200 people lived at the Koreshan Unity on the mainland.
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 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 last of the Koreshans died in 1984. To read more about this unique group, check out the Koreshan Virtual Archive at mwweb.org/koreshan/blog/ and view archived photos at bit.ly/KoreshanPhotos
Visit the Koreshan State Historic Site in Estero to walk through what remains of the fascinating world of these early settlers.
In the February 10 issue of The Island Sand Paper, read about early houses, the first hotel and a purported bawdy house on Estero Island that is now a popular restaurant.