They Lived Here Before We Did
Updated: Jun 9, 2022
As stewards of the land here in Charlotte County, we would like to honor and celebrate the primary civilization that lived in our area of Southwest Florida, the Calusa. They were already living in Florida well over a millennium before European explorers "discovered" Florida, and we feel especially called to educate about them because the property that Cedar Point exists on today was inhabited by the Calusa.
The Calusa were a powerful tribe with a large range along the coast of Southwest Florida from Tampa Bay all the way throughout the Keys. They dominated the region, and held power over many tribes as far away as Cape Canaveral on the Atlantic coast. Their culture was believed to be centered around Charlotte Harbor, and their main capital was believed the be the site that we know today as Mound Key in Estero Bay.
Living along the coastline, the Calusa utilized the bountiful waters for survival. They were adept sea-farers, travelling as far as Cuba in their dug-out canoes. These canoes allowed them to venture offshore for large species to eat like sharks, rays, and sea turtle, but they would often fish in the nearshore estuaries, utilizing nets created with palm fibers to maximize their catches. They would also harvest the bountiful amounts of crustaceans, snails, and shellfish.
Their reliance on these shelled animals is perhaps what the Calusa are most famous for. Once the animal inside was eaten, the shells could be used to make just about any tool needed. Large conch and whelk shells could be used to make hammers and shovels, sharpened clam shells could be fashioned into axes, and smaller shells could be fragmented to create objects like arrowheads, net weights, fish hooks, or even jewelry.
In fact, they used so many shells, that even after crafting tools from these shells, they would still be left with literally tons upon tons of shells. These excess shells were piled up to create large mounds (called middens) that eventually would get so large that they could build their homes on top of them. Building on top of these elevated structures allowed their homes to stay high and dry during the rainy summers, be more protected from storm surge from hurricanes, access more of the cooling breezes, and even reduce the amount of mosquitoes they'd be in contact with. Many mounds were also sacred sites where the Calusa would bury their dead.
Many of these mounds were unfortunately excavated and destroyed to build roads in the early 20th century (i.e. the stretch of U.S. 41 in downtown Sarasota that is named Mound Street), but there are plenty of parks and preserves that protect the remaining shell mounds. Both Cedar Point and Alligator Creek have shell mounds on our properties.
So what happened to the Calusa, where are they today? Unfortunately, this culture and people is now completely extinct. In 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon encountered the Calusa on his voyage to colonize Florida and claim it for Spain. The Calusa, already aware of these exotic men bringing warfare, were ready for a fight, and actually drove the Spanish away by swarming their ships in their war canoes. The Spanish were persistent though and returned in 1521 and again engaged with the Calusa. Ponce de Leon was killed in these battles after being shot in the hip by a Calusa arrow with poison from the manchineel tree, but the Spanish eventually killed many of the Calusa and took many as slaves back to their plantations in Cuba. In the following centuries, the Calusa were decimated by European diseases, and many smaller tribes were able to seize parts of their territory. While it is possible that some Calusa assimilated into the Seminole tribe, the last known members of the Calusa fled to Cuba when Florida was ceded to British control in 1763, and died out in Cuba soon after.
While it is a tragedy that the Calusa civilization was lost to history, the Seminole tribe of Florida still persists to this day in Florida. They persevered through disease and three different wars launched by the U.S. government trying to eradicate them, and have the distinction of being the only tribe to never sign a peace treaty with the U.S. government. They have persevered through it all to still survive today, primarily living in and around Big Cypress National Preserve and the Everglades. However, they still have to fight to preserve their way of life today, and we recommend everyone visit www.semtribe.com to educate yourself from their own words about their history and culture, the struggles they still face today, and how you can support them.