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The 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 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 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 CalusanTo 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 — many fine homes on Marco and Sanibel Islands and at Shell Point Village 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.  It  is  appropriate she wears Calusa-inspired jewelry.

**I created  the Calusa Indian character known as Panti for an English class assignment at Fort Myers High School, in 1953.


Left — 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 mahogany only.)


Below — 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.)


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.

Left — 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.





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 Le๓n, in 1521.  In my novel,The Calusan, the scenario of the infliction of Juan Ponce's mortal wound unfolds differently.

Right — My 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).  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.

Right — 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.



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 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.

Made . . . and ruined . . . in America

    In 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.

 The left 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


    Above — (Left) The 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.

Grassy Bottom — Tarpon Bay, Sanibel

Great River — Caloosahatchee

Johnson's Mound — Mound Key, Estero Bay

Land of the Big Trees — Fakahatchee Strand, Collier County

Land of the High Hills — Caxambas, Marco Island

Bay of Dolphins — Charlotte Harbor

Bay of Danger — Tampa Bay

River of the Stone — Suwannee River

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.

    These 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 — (Left) A 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).

Above — 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 thick. 

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