Sands of Time: A Walk through Estero Island History

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Part One:
Pre-history to 1900

Walk with us through the sands of time and get a glimpse of mementos from the fascinating history of Estero Island, now called Fort Myers Beach: a place many love to visit and some are fortunate to call “home”.

Every second week this column will explore periods or features of Estero Island’s past, for the information and (we hope) amusement of readers.

Some columns will draw from the book Coconuts & Coquinas: Island Life on Fort Myers Beach 1920 – 1970, with the permission of the author, Jean S. Gottlieb. Other historic information is gleaned from the website of the Estero Island Historic Society at www.esteroislandhistoricsociety.org and from the book History of Forty Myers Beach Florida by the late Rolfe F. Schell.

To learn more about the Estero Island of the past, visit the Historic Cottage and Nature Center from 10 a.m. – 12 noon on Wednesdays and Saturdays, at 161 Bay Road (free admission) – due east of the Fort Myers Beach Public Library. Members of the Estero Island Historic Society will be on hand and happy to share their knowledge.

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 and its only remaining Calusa shell mound at The Mound House, 451 Connecticut Street (admission fees apply), Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. Details at http://www.moundhouse.org

Native Land

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. The seas gradually rose, land subsided and by 3,000 years ago, Estero Island had assumed roughly its current shape and shoreline.

The first humans 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.

The Calusa established fishing stations and villages all around southwest Florida, including on Estero Island. Calusa middens and mounds were found in several locations on this island, including at the north end and south of the 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, was likely the site of the Calusa capital, Calos. Originally a large oyster bar, the Calusa built it up to a maximum elevation of 65 feet over several centuries by building up middens. Now occupied by Mound Key Archaeological State Park, the island likely served as the ceremonial center for the Calusa kingdom, which extended from Tampa Bay south to the Ten Thousand Islands and east to Lake Okeechobee.

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 opine 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 had 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 pair 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 had given way to American pioneers’ exploration of the tropical wilderness.

Estero Island was surveyed and platted in 1876. Robert Gilbert filed the first homestead claim in 1898, totaling 172 acres, and farmed it for 5 years as he lived in a small, cabbage palm-thatched dwelling on the bay.

By 1898 the Koreshans – a strange and sophisticated utopian cult (to be explored in the next Sands of Time column) – owned the entire south end of the island, and in 1910 bought the northern tip, now called Bowditch Point, where they built a boat landing.

The only access to these fair shores was by boat until the completion of a wooden drawbridge off the north end in 1921. That easy connection to the mainland opened the way for another invasion. First commercial anglers and their families, then tourists and merchants, found sleepy Estero Island and began to transform it, first into Crescent Beach and then into today’s Fort Myers Beach.

 

Janet Sailian

Coming up in the January 27, 2017 issue of The Island Sand Paper, read about the Koreshans and other early settlers who battled storms and rampant mosquitos to carve out a life on these shores.