Early Settlers in CREW

Europeans & Early American Settlers, the history of land use and its effect on our water resources and wildlife in CREW
Lakes of Flint Pen Strand

Water management in Florida today has evolved from the lessons of the past, as well as from changing philosophies about natural resources and the environment. Early Native Americans in Florida altered the land by building settlements, cultivating fields, building mounds, establishing transportation routes, and digging canals and fish ponds. European explorers and settlers arrived in the 1500s, but much of Florida, particularly the central and southern regions, remained relatively undeveloped until the last decades of the 19th century. Significant increases in population and tourism were contemporaneous with new development and developers directly and indirectly caused significant changes to the natural landscape and resources of the state (Purdum et al.).

Europeans & early American settlers:

The history of Florida’s human settlement for most of the past 14,000 years has been shaped by water. When Spanish explorers arrived in Florida in the 1500s, an estimated 350,000 Native Americans were living throughout the state almost exclusively near water filled regions (Bureau of Archaeological Research). At the time of the European contact in the late 16th century, the Spaniards identified the people of Southwest Florida as the Calusa. The Calusa occupied the coastal zone, however their political influence and trade network extended inland to the Lake Okeechobee basin.

Settlement of Lee County really began in the years following the Civil War. Government land surveys seeking out areas for settlement were also completed during this period, although CREW area surveys were left incomplete due to the “impracticable” nature of the swamp. Ultimately, even though people had lived in Florida for thousands of years prior to 1900, their overall impact had been minimal.

Lakes of Flint Pen Strand where majority of research was conducted. Photo by John Lane

Historical & archaeological research at CREW:

Archaeological research on the CREW lands, which includes approximately 60,000 acres, have uncovered no prehistoric or historic artifacts (Halperin et al.). However, archaeologically significant sites were identified adjacent to the CREW lands near Lake Trafford and several potential sites with historical resources were identified within the CREW project. Even though archaeological research uncovered no diagnostic artifacts and given the limited excavation done, it is reasonable to assume CREW would have been used for hunting and gathering activity by prehistoric peoples. Feel free to contact the CREW Trust or the Bureau of Archaeological Research if you discover a possible historical/archaeological site.

The early 1940s aerial photographs show limited cultural activity within the CREW project and by the 1970s, only a partial ditch system was in place. The Flint Pen Strand canals were more recently constructed, as evidenced by the dirt and rubble leftover from excavation. Some time after 1970, 12 to 15 homesteads were established in the slightly higher eastern part of the CREW project. The sites appear to have been selected based on slight elevations and access via the dirt trails. Almost nothing remains of these homesteads except abandoned power poles and a thin scatter of debris (Halperin et al.). 

In 2010, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) began steps to restore hydrologic functions within the CREW Flint Pen Strand area (Blog: History of  Flint Pen Strand: Part Two), just another example of Floridians actively seeking ways to preserve, protect and restore water resources in more recent years.

Environmental choices & change:

Since 1900, Florida has seen substantial changes in land and water use. General consensus viewed Florida as having too much water and as a result, many Floridians were focused on drainage, flood control and navigation (Purdum et al.). Historically, water resources were seen primarily for human use and therefore were controlled and modified to suit our needs. Now, the value and sustainability of our finite water resources are clear. Land managers (SFWMD) today are concerned with water quality protection, water supply and ensuring natural places like the CREW watershed are under protection and preserved for future generations (Purdum et al.). 


Halperin, Christina, et al. “Cultural Resources Survey of the Corkscrew Marsh Tract of the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed, Collier County, Florida.” C.A.R.L. Archaeological Survey, vol. Bureau of Archaeological Research, no. June, 2002, p. 42.

Purdum, Elizabeth D., et al. “Florida Waters.” A Water Resources Manual from Florida’s Water Management Districts, vol. Florida Water Management District, no. 1, 2002, p. 120.


By Jayne Johnston

CREW Trust Education Coordinator

Today’s users of CREW – hikers, bicyclists, equestrians, dog walkers, campers, hunters, nature lovers, photographers and bird watchers – are not the original users. About 300 – 1000 years ago the original users were the Calusa, the indigenous peoples of southwest Florida.

Here’s the little we know – they were fierce defenders of their territory, spiritual by practice and belief, and one of the few peoples that relied on marine resources like fish, crabs, and mollusks. Their civilization spanned south from Marco Island, north to Punta Gorda and east to Immokalee. Much of what we’ve learned about the Calusa are written accounts by the Spanish during their 100-year effort to subdue the Calusa (they finally succeeded through disease transmission for which the Calusa had no immunity) and by meticulous archeological digs on Key Marco, Mound Key, and Pine Island that continue to this day. 

The Calusa’s hierarchy included a king, an army and abundant laborers. It was their organized army that defended their territory for so long against the Spanish. The death of Ponce De Leon is attributed to a Calusa soldier’s arrow. The king had a large temple-like structure erected where about 2,000 of the estimated 20,000 Calusa would gather for special occasions. They were spiritual believing in 3 gods. Their environmental reverence came from their belief the environment controlled them. Evidence of this belief is further confirmed given the discovery of their masks, carvings, and statues. Many of them were of wildlife found in southwest Florida – panthers, birds, and perhaps even a bobcat mask with ears. These preserved items were recovered in the oxygen-free muck, but quickly disintegrated once exposed to air. Rather than farming to supply food, they took advantage of their coastal roots by harvesting gifts from the gulf by net fishing, harvesting mollusks, and collecting crabs – and supplemented their diet with small native plant gardens.

Canoe found in Lake Trafford when water levels went down due to drought in 2007, photo by Andrew West/The News-Press

There is evidence inland of the Calusa. Unearthed posts from their structures were made of pine, which is not abundant in coastal areas. There was also the discovery of submerged cypress canoes in Lake Trafford, constructed and aged back to the Calusa period, when they became exposed by a severe drought in the 1980s (the same drought that likely led to the formation of CREW). While inland, they may have supplemented their freshwater diet of shrimp, fish, and mollusks with deer.

Canoes sites, like all archaeological sites, are recorded in the Florida Master Site File. To date over 235 canoe sites have been recorded constituting well over 400 individual canoes.

It is likely the Calusa used the lands of CREW to transport canoe and structure builders up river to the interior of Collier and Lee counties then using the rainy season’s sheet flow to float back to the coast. 

Although the Calusa civilization is extinct, I hope you’ll keep their spirit alive by learning more at: 

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