Before the first explorers landed in Fort Myers, the area was largely occupied by the Calusa Indians – a Native American people that populated the Southwest coast of Florida. In fact, they controlled a large portion of South Florida, and were often described as a fierce war-like people feared by their neighboring tribes.
The Calusa were a unique people for their time, from the way they lived to their culture and traditions. Instead of farming, they lived off of the spoils of the sea. The men and boys of the tribe would make nets from palm tree webbing to catch mullet, pinfish, pigfish, and catfish, and would use spears to catch eels and turtles. Fish bone arrowheads were used to hunt large game animals, like deer, and the women and children learned how to catch various species of shellfish.
And, rather than the traditional tent-like shelters many Native American tribes adopted, the Calusa chose to live in stilted huts with no walls and a roof made of Palmetto leaves on the coast along the inner waterways. They were also considered the first “shell collectors,” discarding shells in huge mounds that can still be seen today. The Calusa used them to construct tools, utensils, and to create jewelry and ornaments for shrines. They also made shell spears for fishing and hunting.
The Calusa were also rather fierce sailors. They traveled in canoes made from hallowed Cypress trees, and used the Calooshahatchee River (“River of the Calusa”) as their main water way, traveling as far as Cuba. Explorers also reported that the Calusa attacked their ships that were anchored just off shore, in an attempt to protect their land. They were also known to sail up and down the Coast of Florida, collecting treasures from shipwrecks.
Sadly, as their land was taken over by European settlers, the Calusa tribe died out in the late 1700’s. In addition to their exposure to foreign pathogens, enemy tribes from Georgia and South Carolina began raiding their territory. Many of the Calusa people were also taken as slaves.
Picture Credit: Ancient Origins