A History of the Calusa

Pat O'Connor

A Tribute to the people and nation also known as

the Caloosa or Caloosahatchee.

A Bit About Pat O'Connor

Originally, a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, I moved to Oregon in 1967 and lived in Portland until 1989. I attended Portland Community College, where I served a year as president of the Associated Student Body. Subsequently, I also attended Portland State University, where I served two terms/years as student body president as well and graduated with degrees in history and social sciences.

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Perhaps as early as 1450 B.C along the southwest Gulf coast lived the Calusa (Caloosa) Indians, a tribe that entered Florida either from the islands or the north at the start of the Christian Era and dominated South Florida with their stature, skills, and brutality. These powerfully built men, often four inches taller than their European counterparts, had hip-length hair and wore only tanned breech clouts of deerskin fastened with intricate belts to show their position in the tribe. Women dressed in woven Spanish moss and palmetto leaf garments.

Great sailors, they used large canoes of hallowed out cypress logs capable of reaching Cuba, perhaps Mexico. Their language indicated they may have traveled to Florida from the islands. Outstanding hunters and fishermen, they did little farming. As warriors they also gained tributes of food from smaller tribes.

Mound Key near the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River was the largest village; about forty coastal villages spread along the Florida Gulf Coast. They built huge mounds of shell and deep moats to protect their villages of raised huts although they lacked domesticated animals and heavy tools. Burial mounds and a temple mound for ceremonies encircled the village.

Early Spanish accounts indicated that the Calusa had a complex social and political organization. In charge were the hereditary chief and the dolman or priest. They demanded obedience from all villagers. Because of their closed society they were not interested in Spanish missionary activity.

The Caloosahatchee River ("River of the Calusa") teaming with small game and fish as well as shellfish was their main highway into the interior. They could go around Lake Okeechobee and travel up the Kissimmee River into other tribal areas.

In 1896, on Marco Island in southwest Florida, archeologist Frank Hamilton Cushing discovered a well-preserved six-inch high wooden statuette of a panther. It had probably been frequently anointed with the fat of slain animals or victims. To this, doubtless, its remarkable preservation was due.

He found many tools, weapons, utensils, masks and wood carvings preserved in a layer of organic mud within a Calusa Indian shell mound on Key Marco (next to Marco Island).

Although he found more than 100 wooden ceremonial masks, statuettes, batons, and heads of animals such as a wolf, sea turtle, pelican, and alligator, Cushing was most fascinated by a wooden deer head .

The Calusa Indians, say archeologists, were hunters and gatherers. Under normal circumstances, hunters and gatherers lead a more primitive, nomadic lifestyle than societies which have developed stable agriculture. Yet early Spanish accounts indicated that the Calusa had a complex social and political organization, an idea reinforced by Cushing's discovery of sophisticated artifacts.

How did the Calusa have time to create intricate works of art and develop their complex political system? They inhabited the coastal regions of southwest Florida as well as the freshwater wetlands of the Okeechobee Basin. These two rich and diverse environments provided a surplus of food, meaning the Calusa could live in permanent settlements and also hunt seasonally in different areas. As a consequence they had much greater social and political complexity and a larger population density than is typical of hunters and gatherers.

The coastal mangrove and estuary environments provided abundant food and their main building material, shells. They built the islands from oyster and whelk shells, some of which may have been discarded after eating the contents and some of which they brought to those sites specifically for building purposes. They piled empty shells to create dry mounds in this swampy, flat environment. Bare shell mounds probably gave the Calusa relief from insects and the daily inundation of the tides, and provided the only ground above storm surge during hurricanes. Over 100 such shell mounds mark the Calusa territory from Tampa Bay south to the Ten Thousand Islands.

They built shell mounds in various shapes and sizes ranging from small middens (refuse heaps) to large islands up to 150 acres in size. They laid them out in circular, linear parallel row, horseshoe, or donut shape. Based on these varying forms, sizes, and artifacts found on them, the mounds served different purposes, supporting both permanent and seasonal villages and serving as locations for sacred temples and gathering places.

At 150 acres in size and approximately 20 feet above sea level at its highest point, Chokoloskee Island is the largest shell mound in the southeastern United States. It is now the site of the town of Chokoloskee, three miles south of Everglades City on S.R. 29.

Sandfly Island about one mile offshore from the Gulf Coast ranger station in Everglades City is a 75 acre shell mound built in a donut shape with a narrow opening which allows water to flood the interior at high tide. It is believed that when the tide receded the Calusa stretched nets across the opening to catch fish and other marine animals.

What was the Calusa Indians' fate? They were weakened and killed by diseases like smallpox tobrought in by European explorers to which they had no resistance. By the late 1700s they had vanished from this area. Only their shell mounds remain.


NPS Government Archives               

The Calusa by Pat O'Connor

The Calusa: "The Shell Indians"

Calusa Indian Art, Artifacts and Anecedotes

Calusa Artifacts Remnants of a Vanished Culture

Calusa Indians On The Islands     

The Calusa on the Pine Island Sound

Calusa Indian History 

Calusa "Fierce ones" turn up in 1711 in Cuba