Above — Panti's battle saber is my reproduction of one of the Calusa sabers that were collected from the mud-buried cache of Calusa artifacts on Marco Island, in 1896. The 27-inch long weapon is made from unstained, mature Sanibel Island sea grape (Coccoloba uvifera). The teeth are those of a tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier). These are held tightly in place by twisted cords of artificial deer sinew and the handle is wrapped with deer hide. The feathers represent those of the bald eagle (turkey) and scarlet ibis (tail feathers from an African grey parrot). Note: For those of you who have read The Calusan, there are five strands of genuine human hair hanging from the handle of this saber.
Above — My replications of Calusa artifacts and weapons on display at the Sanibel Public Library in 2013.
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The Calusa Indians, an incompletely understood group of Native Americans, once populated and controlled Southwest Florida. They were non-agrarian, hunter-gatherers who harvested most of their food from the waters of the productive estuaries where they lived. We know little of the origins of the Calusa. Some archaeologists believe that they originated somewhere north of Florida and migrated to the lower section of the prehistoric peninsular. Others insist they moved to Florida from islands in the Caribbean basin. In my novel, The Calusan, I offer another viewpoint of the genesis of the Calusa. My interpretation of their origins is based on their weaponry. The fierce warriors of the Calusa utilized what is considered by some students to be an archaic weapon — the deadly atlatl. The pre-European contact (<1492) Native Americans of the "Indies" did not use these dart-casters, nor did the native peoples of North America who have been ethnologically folded into the group known as "Eastern Woodland Indians." However, the native people of Mexico — among them the Aztecs — did, and during the same time period when their homelands were also being invaded by the Conquistadors. In my opinion, because of the commonality of this specialized weapon's use, the Calusa had Central American roots.
The Calusa have been dubbed "The Shell People" and huge mounded waste piles of seashells, known as middens, mark the scattered sites they inhabited throughout the coastal zone of Southwest Florida. The seashells were utilized as food, tools, and weapons. Among the best known of these in Lee County, Florida, are Mound Key in Estero Bay, and Useppa, Cabbage Key, and the Pineland Site on Pine Island, all in Pine Island Sound. Some students of their culture believe that the Mound Key site may have been their social and religious capital. Ruled by a king-like leader during their heyday, circa 1500, the Calusa society contained a population of about 10,000 individuals. In 1513, 1517, and 1521, the Calusa collided with probing expansionist Castilian/Spanish forces under the leadership of Juan Ponce de León and Francisco Hernández de Córdova. Juan Ponce did not learn easily in 1513, and paid dearly as a result of his second ill-fated altercation with the shell people, in 1521. Francisco Hernández had perished earlier as a result of his contact with the fierce Calusa, in 1517.
Over the century following Juan Ponce's demise, infectious European and African diseases wreaked havoc on the Calusa population. A loss in population meant a reduction in war-making strength. Weaker tribes to the north, who once held great animosity for the oppressive Calusa, began to invade the former domain of the Calusa. During the 250 years following their first recorded contact with the Spanish (1513) they were almost annihilated. By 1763, their numbers had dwindled to about 80 families who had been forced south into the lower Florida Keys. These survivors, who had not inbred with the Spanish, and had finally been Christianized, made the decision to abandon Florida and relocate to Cuba. Since, their bloodline has been assimilated into the general population of Cuba and the Calusa are extinct.
We really know very little about the fiercely independent Calusa. A few official Spanish historical documents and narrative accounts from the 16th and 17th centuries give us a fuzzy interpretation of their lives and times. Discovery of Calusa artifacts during agricultural practices in the late 19th century, followed by formal archaeological surveys at those sites, have opened windows that provide a limited understanding of the Calusa culture. One of the most famous of these discoveries occurred on Marco Island, now in Collier County, Florida, in early 1895. While muddy soil was being excavated for use as a cultivation medium, on the north end of Marco Island, near Smokehouse Bay*, Captain W. D. Collier, uncovered some unusual wooden artifacts. In time, these were reported to the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Later in 1895, ethnologist Frank Cushing from that institution visited the "Key Marco" site and conducted a preliminary survey. In 1896, he returned with a team and they uncovered a unique collection of well-preserved Calusa artifacts. These were made from wood and seashell and bone. The mask pictured above was among them. The collection even included cordage — all were preserved because of the anaerobic environment of the mud. Many of the objects were weapons but among the collection were carved tablets and masks and an uniquely carved statuette that has since become known as the "Key Marco Cat." This beautifully rendered, six-inch tall figurine now rests in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
Since 1953, because of a major event in my life, I have had a serious interest in the Calusa culture. In 1999, I began to finalize the story of Panti,** the Calusa hero in my historical novel, The Calusan. To get myself into his character and mind-set I created a collection of Calusa artifacts that he would have skillfully made in his role as the greatest Calusa artisan. His detailed, balanced carvings would have been created with shark tooth knives, stone, and bone edged tools and without the aid of eyeglasses. As a woodcarver the latter astounds me. My replicas were made with modern tools and I wore glasses. Some of these handmade objects I created and their descriptions are represented on this page. The images shown are from my personal collection but many of their counterparts which I created now reside in private collections. My renditions of the "Key Marco Cat," in various woods and finishes, remain popular items for discriminating buyers — many fine homes on Marco Island, Sanibel Island, Shell Point Village, and in Nebraska and Toronto now display them as part of their unique decor.
— Charles LeBuff
My wife, Jean, grew up on Marco Island. From 1939 through 1953, she lived in a house within a stone's throw of this site.
**I created the Calusa Indian character known as Panti for an English class assignment at Fort Myers High School, in 1953.
Below — A "Key Marco Cat" which is part of my personal collection. I carved this totem effigy from old growth Sanibel Island buttonwood. This carving is hafted to a blade of lace obsidian and represents Panti's special knife as described in The Calusan. I made the stand from Honduran mahogany. (Not for sale.)
Above — A reproduction of a Calusa bow. This bow was patterned after an "Eastern Woodland Indian" style bow, known as the Sudbury (MA) bow, circa 1620. There are no known examples of the Calusa bowyer's craft. This non-functional exhibition bow is 55.5-inches in length and is made from Captiva Island black mangrove (Avicennia nitida). The handgrip is wrapped with deer hide.
Above — A Calusa style arrow, 31-inches in length. This type of arrow sports fore and rear shafts made from lightweight saplings of Sanibel Island white mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa). In this reproduction the center shaft is Collier County maidencane (Panicum hemitomon). The arrow point is a tooth from the top jaw of a mature bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas). The arrow is fletched with tail feathers from a black vulture (Coragyps atratus).
Above — The business-end of the arrow close-up. The arrow's white mangrove foreshaft is tipped with a bull shark tooth. If sketchy historical accounts are correct, a similar arrow may have been responsible for the death of Florida's "discoverer of record," Juan Ponce de León, in 1521. In my novel,The Calusan, the scenario of the infliction of Juan Ponce's mortal wound unfolds differently.
Above — A Calusa atlatl. This weapon is also known as a "spear-thrower." The Calusa used atlatls to propel long, lightweight darts with remarkable, deadly accuracy. An atlatl was capable of increasing a dart's release force six times greater than a dart cast by arm force alone. Note the finger hole just left of center. This 26.5-inch long atlatl is similar to those uncovered on "Key Marco." This example was crafted from mature Sanibel Island sea grape (Coccoloba uvifera) and is unstained.
Below — An atlatl dart. This example is 66.5-inches in total length. It has a maidencane main shaft and a fore and rear shaft of white mangrove. The feathers are from black vulture tail feathers. The point is chert.
Above — The chert point of the atlatl dart. Chert is common in limestone deposits in North Florida. These "heavy" darts, when cast from an atlatl, were capable of piercing steel Spanish breast plate armor. I have thrown this very dart hundreds of feet with the atlatl pictured above.
Above — (Left) The white mangrove rear shaft of the dart has been carved with a concave end. This is done to accommodate the fit of the atlatl spur. (Right) The cat-like carving on the atlatl. The cat's "tail" is the spur which is fitted into the dart's concave end. The dart shaft is held in place by the thrower's thumb and index finger (the latter fits through the midpoint hole in the atlatl) and the atlatl is thrust forward with a catapulting arm action. Experience in launching a dart cues the caster when to release the finger-hold on the dart shaft. After release, the dart wobbles in flight for an instant but as energy is absorbed by the flexible shaft, it straightens, and strikes the target with remarkable accuracy. For an outstanding demonstration of the atlatl in use see Mel Gibson's film, Apocalypto.
Above — My reproduction of a Calusa shell pick.*** The white mangrove handle is 22.25-inches in length. The shell is a mature Sanibel Island left-handed whelk (aka a lightning whelk), (Busycon sinistrum). The handle is jammed through the undersized holes, then tied firmly in place with deer hide.
***I have adopted the name used for similar artifacts from Marco Island.
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