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Calusa Indian History

Southwest Florida is rich in history and the Calusa (prononuced: kah LOOS ah) Indians are the key to understanding how important water and the surrounding lands were to our heritage. Photo Credit: AccessGenealogy.com rendition of the Calusa Nation birdseye view. This site is an excellent source to look into Florida's rich past.

It is believed that Calusa translated to mean "Fierce People". This tribe of indians controlled most of Southwest Florida and created an elaborate network of canals, homes, and government. These indians were so unfriendly that this was one of the first tribes that Spanish explorers wrote home about in 1513. Unlike most Florida indian tribes, the Calusa didn't farm the land, but instead they fished the abundant waterways and Gulf of Mexico. They used palmetto branches to weave intricate fishing nets to catch Mullet, Catfish and many other types of fish. It is believed that they could get away without farming because the surrounding waters were so abundant with fish.

The Calusa Indians were also known as the first "Shell Collectors". They did not create pottery, but instead used shells for most tools in everyday life. Spears, jewelry and decorative adornments were all made from shells. In fact, their shell use was so prolific that evidence of the Calusa can be found throughout Southwest Florida in the Shell Mounds that scatter the islands and Southwest Florida today.

According to the University of Florida research, the Calusa population reached several thousand and their construction talents were so well developed that an eyewitness account in the year 1566 reported that 4,000 indians attended the Calusa King ceremony when the alliance was made with the Spanish governor Menéndez de Avilés. It is reported that the Calusa King entertained the Spanish governor in a structure so big that 2 thousand indians could stand inside.

Evidence of the Calusa Nation can be seen throughout SWFL. Their main center of government and fortification was located on Estero Island at the Mound House. Their prolific use of abundant shells for food, weapons, tools and adornments were cast off when used to create elevated mounds that were their shelters were built. The University of Florida has an active dig going on at the Shell Indian Mounds located on Pine Island near Tarpon Lodge. Mounds are also the foundation for Useppa Island and Cabbage Key. The Otter Mound Preserve Trail in Marco Island is another area where you can explore the Calusa Shell Mounds in person.

By the late 1700s the Calusa nation was totally wiped out from many factors including diseases brought by Spanish explorers, and raids by indian tribes coming from Georgia and South Carolina.

Calusa Indian Mounds still visible today include:

  • Calusa Heritage Trail at the Randell Research Center Pineland Archaeological Site
  • Mound Key Archaeological State Park, Fort Myers Beach Estero Island
  • Mound House Estero Island
  • Otter Mound Marco Island

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