Calusa Indians, a poorly understood group of bygone 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
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 Le๓n and Francisco Hernแndez de C๓rdova.
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 Hernแndez 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, 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 artist. His detailed,
balanced carvings would have been created with shark tooth, stone, and
bone edged tools and without the aid of eyeglasses. My replicas
were made with modern tools and I wore glasses. Some of these
handmade objects I made 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
fine homes on Marco and Sanibel Islands and at Shell Point
Village now display them as part of their unique decor.
*My wife, Jean, grew up on Marco Island. From
1939 through 1953, she lived in a house within a stone's throw of
site. It is appropriate she wears Calusa-inspired jewelry.
the Calusa Indian character known as Panti for an English class assignment at
Fort Myers High School, in
One of my
many reproductions of
the famous "Key Marco Cat." This six-inch tall
replication is now in the personal collection of Jim and Jean Harlow of
Ontario, Canada. This cat was carved from native, mature Sanibel Island buttonwood, Conocarpus
erectus, and is unstained. This beautifully grained hardwood carves nicely when
properly cured. The wood from which the original "Key
Marco Cat" carving was made has
never been identified for certain, but there have been some recent
references that it was made from "mahogany." Buttonwood is a
better candidate. (Available in Honduran
Another of my "Key Marco Cats," also part of my personal
collection. I carved the totem effigy from old growth Sanibel Island
buttonwood. This is the knife pictured on the cover of The
Calusan. This carving is hafted to a blade of lace obsidian and
represents Panti's special knife. I made the stand from Honduran
mahogany. (Not for sale.)
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.
Close-up of one end of the bow. The bowstring is twisted artificial
deer sinew and the feathers are imitation eagle feathers. The
hair-like object to the right is a beard from a wild turkey gobbler.
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
shark (Carcharhinus leucas). The arrow is fletched with tail
feathers from a black vulture (Coragyps atratus).
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 Le๓n, in
1521. In my novel,The Calusan, the scenario of the infliction of Juan Ponce's mortal
wound unfolds differently.
reproduction of one of the Calusa sabers that were collected from the mud-buried
cache of Calusa artifacts on Marco Island, in 1895.
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 my 25-year old African grey parrot).
For those of you who have read The Calusan, there are five strands of
genuine human hair hanging from the handle of this saber.
The club end of the Calusa saber. It is noted in the literature that
the Marco Island sabers of this design may have had dual
use. When necessary they could have been utilized as a makeshift
spear-thrower an atlatl.
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
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
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.
(Left) The white mangrove rear shaft of the dart has been carved
with a concave terminus. 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.
. . . and ruined . . . in America
my historical novel, The Calusan, Alice Johnson's uncle
lives on Johnson's Mound, an island located not too far from Punta Rassa.
In actuality a family by the name of Johnson did homestead most of what
we now call Mound Key, sometime in the 1870s. This is where my
book's hero, Panti
the Calusan, and Olta were married by Turlto, the primary Calusa
priest. This unique 125-acre island is near the mouth of the
Estero River and has been a prominent feature of Estero Bay for
centuries. Mound Key has had a long history of human
occupation. The Calusa Indians developed this island over a 1,500
year period and it is generally considered by historians to have been
their religious and social capital. Its large, Calusa-made shell
mounds reach an altitude of over 30 feet and they represent one of the
highest elevations in Lee County. Today, most of Mound Key is
owned by the State of Florida and is managed as the Mound Key
Archaeological State Park, a unit of the Koreshan State Historic Site
with offices on the nearby mainland.
hand aerial photograph (above) was taken in 1944 at a time after agricultural
operations had resulted in clearing of much of the island. By the
time this photo was taken, farming was waning on Mound Key. At the
end of the 19th Century about 20 people lived on Mound Key. The
photo to the right was taken in 1958, and clearly shows that vegetation
was slowly recovering. However, it would take many more years
before plants, mostly undesirable exotic pest species, blanketed the
higher, arid shell mounds.
This interesting book chronicles the
Fernandez Family of Mound Key and Estero, Florida.
Find more information at:
Beside The Still Waters
black arrow points to a large, elongated, and completely undisturbed Calusa shell mound
in this aerial photograph from 1944. This mound was located on
the eastern shore of Estero Bay and a few miles south of the community
known as Coconut. In The Calusan I used this
specific mound to locate and describe Turlto's burial site.
Shortly after my arrival in Southwest Florida, while exploring this
unfamiliar ecosystem with family members and friends in February 1953,
and after hearing about an eagle's nest we wished to photograph, we hiked along a rough,
rutted road that led us south from Coconut Road to the bald eagle
nest. Following the road further, we discovered the mound nearby. The shell from the mound was being excavated
with a dragline and loaded
into trucks for subdivision road base. Over time, all of the shell
and any artifacts hidden in it were hauled away to be covered with
asphalt. The white arrow in the right image points to the spoil
pond that marks the site where "Turlto's mound" had once
been. The right-hand photograph was taken in 1999.
The demise of Turlto's
mound is representative of what happened to many such sites during the
20th Century. I remember a similar
situation that ended up only half as bad.
Twenty-acre Island Bay National Wildlife Refuge is located on the
northern border of Charlotte Harbor, in Charlotte County. This
refuge was established in 1908 and consists of the upland parts of a
series of small islands or tracts of land around Turtle Bay, to the west
of Cape Haze. Two Calusa mounds are located in the refuge on the
shore of Turtle Bay. These are John Quiet Mound and Cash
Mound. During a routine aerial inspection in 1960, Refuge Managers
Tommy Wood and Bill Julian discovered a barge tightly anchored against
Cash Mound. An onboard dragline was excavating the mound and
loading the shell onto the barge. Wood landed the seaplane and the
crew on the barge were cited for violations and told to stop and desist
their mining operations. Over the next few years, this case meandered through the
Federal Court system. Finally, when the case reached the desk of
then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the charges were inexplicably
dropped and the shell company from Punta Gorda was never
prosecuted. Cash Mound remains forever pitted and damaged and much
of its archaeological value has been ruined.
Place names used in The Calusan
I have received several emails
and letters asking that I
translate the Calusa Indian place names that I coined and used in Part
Two of The Calusan. I also coined the word Calusan used in
the book's title as a noun to identify an individual Calusa
Indian. It seems that readers want to relate to these places, or
at least know where they are. I should develop a quiz to see
just how many readers are successful in recognizing those real places,
in relationship to their knowledge of today's geography and the
wonderful natural systems in Florida.
Tarpon Bay, Sanibel
Mound Key, Estero Bay
Land of the Big Trees
Strand, Collier County
Land of the High Hills
Bay of Dolphins
Bay of Danger
River of the Stone
The Real Deal . . .
The following images represent artifacts
discovered at the above referenced Calusa site that was being destroyed on the eastern
shore of Estero Bay, south of Coconut in Lee County, Florida, in February
1953. These artifacts remain in my collection.
artifacts were found strewn throughout the site of the mound. There
was no way to determine at what depth below the original surface of the
shell mound they had originally been placed or dropped. Therefore, some of
these artifacts could be pre-contact (<1513). Above
whelk tool (7-inches long). Two holes were cut, or drilled, through
the shell for insertion of a handle. (Center) A chert atlatl point
(3.375-inches long). (Right) A multi-faceted, post-contact Spanish
trade bead (.625-inch in diameter).
Two clay pottery shards found at the site. The artifact on the left shows
the outer surface, and the piece on the right the inner surface, of a
container, but not necessarily the same one. These are .25-inch
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