It is easy to focus on the obvious parts of life in Southwest Florida that attract visitors. Our local waterways, beaches, sunsets, fishing, and climate are all factors that those in tourism and real estate showcase in order to sell life in this region. Something that gets far less attention is Southwest Florida’s history. After all, before the arrival of mass air conditioning and mosquito spraying in the 1950s, not too many people wanted to live here.
One group that did enjoy the harsher life in Southwest Florida was the Calusa Indians. Known as the “Shell Indians”, these indigenous peoples inhabited the coastal region from Charlotte Harbor to the Keys for thousands of years. They lived by the water, ate a diet primarily based on seafood, and had an estimated tribal population of 10,000 at the time of first contact with Spanish explorers in the 16th century. Sadly by the time of Florida’s acquistion by England in the late 18th century, the tribe had become extinct from disease and migration. The last of the Calusa Indians are thought to have left Florida for Cuba with the departing Spanish.
Due to their reliance on the sea, the Calusa Indians are somewhat unique among native peoples in that there is no evidence of them farming. However, a side effect of that marine diet has made their culture an archaeological treasure. The Calusa constructed shell mounds in various places along the coast where they resided. As residents of Southwest Florida well know, it is pretty difficult to find a hill around town. One needs to go inland to the center part of the state to find anything even resembling a natural change in altitude. Many of us live within flood plains barely above sea level.
However, constructed shell mounds built centuries ago by the Calusa Indians throughout their former territory offer a few spots where the land now rises. These mounds also offered the indigenous people an opportunity for elevation, which certainly helped in the event of past storm surges and rough weather. However, their main purpose to the Calusa was much more functional. Such mounds generally served as garbage dumps. Residents would use them to deposit discarded fish bones from meals, pieces of domestic tools and pottery, shells used as weapons and jewelry, waste products, and anything else gathered or built that was no longer needed.
As a result, sifting through the layers of the shell mounds now provides modern researchers with a glimpse into the life of the Calusa Indians. Thankfully, this opportunity is not limited to students of archaeology. There are many great local spots where visitors can walk these shell mounds and sometimes even observe their composition.
One such location is the Mound House on Fort Myers Beach. This shell mound was previously used by modern residents as the ideal elevated plot on which to build and have a scenic view of Estero Bay. The William H. Case house, constructed upon the mound in 1921, is now owned by the City of Fort Myers Beach and open to the public. Visitors can actually walk inside a shell mound. A former in-ground swimming pool has been converted into an exhibit to observe the vestiges of centuries of surrouding Calusa life. Tours of the Mound House and its shell mound are offered every Wednesday and Saturday. This site is believed to have been where the chief of the entire Calusa tribe would reside.
Other locations where visitors can experience the rising elevation on the waterfront shell mounds of the Calusa Indians include the Randell Research Center on Pine Island, Mound Key Archaeological State Park on Estero Island, Shell Mound Trail on Sanibel Island, Chokoloskee Island in south Collier County, and Indian Mound Park in Englewood.
Perhaps the most helpful of these sites for research purposes is the University of Florida’s 500 acre Randell Research Center in the tiny village of Pineland, Florida. Here visitors can hike a 1/2 mile trail and observe the majestic mounds rising over nearby Pine Island Sound. Archaelogical dating has determined this mound to have been home to a Calusa village for over 1500 years. For a state whose residents and history often do not go back further than a generation, these historic sites are timeless treasures right here amidst our daily lives.
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