By their very nature, barrier islands are dynamic places, always changing shape and surprising their owners. Eroding away here, expanding outwards towards the sea there. Beach front becomes water front, mangrove forests fall away into the current. Storms take away the sand and storms bring it back. The strong currents of a full moon erode and undercut the shoreline, which becomes a mud flat, which becomes an oyster bar, and it all starts over again.
So, it only makes sense that over 2,000 years ago the people that lived here back then, the Calusa, chose this location on which to build their homes, here at the end of Connecticut Street and overlooking Estero Bay. This was the oldest and most stable portion of what turns out to be a barrier island that is only a few thousand years old itself. Here in the heart of the island and on the bayside, over time the Calusa, a mound-building culture, constructed an expansive mound complex in a relatively stable location, on the rich shallow waters of Estero Bay. And they lived on this particular site for over a thousand years. Can you imagine?
The Calusa society was a complex social organization which included social stratification into nobility, commoners and slaves, symbols of noble rank; royal sibling marriage; complex ceremonialism; tributes sent to the king by chiefs from towns under Calusa control; the accumulation and redistribution of wealth; sophisticated political alliances and a military. They built temple mounds, burial mounds, living mounds, plazas and canals. They practiced aquaculture and grew gardens, but they weren’t farmers. They went fishing.
And to do that, the indigenous people of South Florida utilized dugout canoes. Long and narrow shallow draft boats, crafted from the trunks of pine or cypress in which fire was used to burn into the trunk, sculpting out the hollow interior of the canoe which would then be finished to a smooth surface with shell tools. As a sophisticated maritime culture with a network of over fifty villages up and down the coast of Southwest Florida, the ability to travel and fish the rivers, creeks and estuaries meant life itself.
Known by their neighbors as the “fierce people,” the Calusa maintained a large and powerful warrior class that employed war canoes, enabling them to reign over a vast area and collect tribute from numerous other tribes while effectively defending their realm for over 2,000 years. At the time of the first Spanish contact in 1513, the Calusa were at the height of their power. However, Spanish records show us that by the late 1700s, their kingdom had ceased to exist. The last of the Calusa had fled to Cuba. But, as people will do, they had changed the landscape and the old mounds remained. Silent and abandoned until the arrival of the next Floridians.
The archaeological record at Mound House shows us that long after the last Calusa had lived here, the site was utilized by 18th and early 19th century Cuban fishermen as a “fishing rancho”, one of many common to the bays and coastal estuaries of Southwest Florida and, as was so often the case, located on old Calusa mounds- the perfect location. Think of these Cubans, clearing the vegetation to expose the mound, building their own thatch structures and homes. Up high on the mound, catching the breeze and looking out over the rich waters of Estero Bay. Cuban skiffs bumping into the shore at the end of a long day and onto the same mound where Calusa canoes bumped ashore more than a thousand years before. The same shells crunching under their feet as they made their way up the mound to their homes. Did they know about the people who had built these mounds? Were they fishing with the descendants of the Calusa, the scattered Indians who had remained, or whose families had fled to Cuba and now returned to the old places? Can you imagine?
In contrast to the difficult and less productive deep water fishing off the coast of northern Cuba, the productive shallow water fishing found here made it worth the 200 mile sail to the busy port city of Havana where dried and salted fish were sold. These fishing ranchos were seasonal base camps and in general, the fishing season ran from September till March with some fishermen and their families staying on all year. Many of these fisherfolk were of Spanish descent, while others were of Indian or Spanish-Indian descent and were known as “Spanish Indians.” When Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1819, life changed irrevocably for these fishermen. During the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), the United States military, believing that these ranchos were supplying and arming the Seminoles, forcibly ended these fishing operations.
As with so many things, the reality down here on the wild frontier may have been somewhat different.
One of the best clues as to the background of the Cuban fisherfolk in Southwest Florida and their relationship to the United States were discovered in the records of the Office of Indian Affairs at the National Archives in Washington D.C. This is an excerpt from an 1838 petition to the United States Secretary of War from the Havana businessmen who owned the companies that employed these fisherfolk on our shores:
“…Your memorialists further state that at the change of flags they became lawful citizens of the United States by virtue of the provisions of the treaty and have since that period exercised the right of suffrage and all other privileges and immunities of American citizens…
…This order by which a single blow has severed from their families and blasted at once their happiness and all their prospects in life, your memorialists solemnly believe has been the result of deep and malignant misrepresentations and falsehood contrived by their enemies to wreak their vengeance upon those who refused to join them in the atrocities which they have perpetuated.”
Caught in the middle of a war they wanted no part of, enemy of the Seminole, and treated with hostility and suspicion by the United States, the age of the Cuban fishing rancho on our island came to an end.
Over one hundred years later, Fort Myers Beach was a quiet and small community in 1947 when a Cuban offshore fishing boat pulled into Matanzas Pass to seek shelter and get out of the path of a hurricane that was rolling up the Gulf of Mexico. They went onto the island to purchase supplies and ride out the storm, but these Cubans could not find anyone on the island who could speak Spanish and translate for them. It was summer and school was out, so someone at the grocery called Bonita Lewis, the Spanish teacher at Fort Myers High School and she came out to translate for the Cubans and brought her young son so he could see the wooden fishing vessel with its giant live well built into the center of the hold. Sea water passing through grates built into the hull, keeping alive the grouper and snapper inside who would be sold fresh to the hotels and casinos in Havana. The little boy was fascinated by the colorful fish, but not so much the grownups, talking and laughing in a language he didn’t understand. Years later, the little boy studying the fish in the hold of that old fishing boat would grow up to have his own son, and he would tell him the story of the time he met the Cuban fishermen “back before frozen fish and communists” he would laugh.
Can you imagine?
To learn more about our areas rich history, 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. For more information and a full schedule visit Moundhouse.org or call 239-765-0865.
by Parke Lewis
Parke Lewis is a former “beach kid” who now lives in Fort Myers. He is a biologist with DexBender.
SIDEBAR: Mound House Tours
Learn more about the Mound House and those who lived on the site through a variety of guided tours. The Shell Mound Tour is offered at 11am and 2pm every Tuesday – Saturday. Walk into a 2,000 year old Calusa shell mound and explore the archeology of the site. The Guided Mound House Tour, offered at 1pm every Tuesday – Saturday, explores the unique history of the site, including an exploration of the grounds and the story behind the Mound House. Cost is $15/adult: $10/student ages 6-12 for either tour. The Mound Key Boat Tour offers a three-hour tour that includes the Mound House and Mound Key, Capital of the Calusa. Hike the trails of Mound Key and explore sites used by the Calusa and early settlers. Cost is $55/person. Reservations required. Offered February 27, March 9 & 27 and April 11 & 27. Visit www.moundhouse.org to make reservations or find more information. 239-765-0865