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.
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.
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:
- Marco Island Historical Society – https://themihs.info/museum/
- Mound House in Fort Myers Beach – https://moundhouse.org/
- Randell Research Center on Pine Island – https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/rrc/