Archaeologists remark on the unusual nature of a highly complex civilization NOT agriculturally based, but in South Florida, home of the Calusa, the estuary was a powerful life force. Even 100 years ago, fishermen and sportsmen reported bountiful hauls with little effort. Back in 100 BC, the earliest dated record of the Calusa on Mound Key, fish and shellfish – a good source of protein – were plentiful. So abundant was the take that the Indians were able to build colossal shell mounds as tribute to honored leaders. Today, their legacy, 30-foot mounds on Mound Key, are the tallest land elevations in Lee County.
You cannot talk about the Calusa without talking about estuaries.
Estero’s estuarine ecosystem – the partially enclosed body of water where fresh water from rivers and streams pours into the salty water of the Gulf of Mexico – sustained the Calusa for thousands of years. Protected from the full force of the Gulf, from winds and storms, the industrious Indians developed a chiefdom that extended from Marco Island past the north end of Pine Island. Indian tribes from Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Keys paid homage with gifts.
Mound Key, situated on 125 acres in Estero Bay, was the home base of the kingdom of the Calusa. Known as “Calos” by the Calusa, the island was the center of an extensive network of mounds, water courts and canals throughout the area. Calusa mounds were not trash piles of fish bones but shows of power. Much like our churches and castles, the bigger the structure, the more important the ruler. A great deal of information exists about the Calusa, both from archaeological excavations and from Spanish documents dating to the 1500s, many of which have only recently been located and transcribed.
Because of the belief in one soul remaining with the body, the Indians revered burial sites – some were on Mound Key – and visited them for support and guidance. Calusa also believed in gods, the most important being one that controlled the movements of the stars and the heavens, the changing of the seasons and the bounty of the earth.
The Calusa, “the fierce people,” were revered. They fought off the Spanish for 200 years, sometimes taking Spanish slaves in the process. Letters and manuscripts written by the soldiers and the liberated slaves yield valuable information about Calusa customs and beliefs. Mound Key was the site of Florida’s first Jesuit mission. Known in 1566 as San Antonio de Carlos, the short-lived venture was always associated with tension, which escalated into the killing of the standing Calusa chief, subsequent killing of his replacement, and eventual overthrow by the Calusa. A second Franciscan mission over 100 years later did not fare much better.
Because Mound Key is protected as a state park, archaeological work at the site is not a top priority at this time. With all of the land development all over the area and sites impacted by highway projects, there is not a lot of work going on at Mound Key now. Higher priority is given to try to study areas in danger. A number of sites around Charlotte Harbor, Pine Island Sound and Estero Bay are starting to erode. Mound Key is not considered a danger zone, so digs are random, if any.
By the early 1700s the once powerful Calusa were on the run, driven out of their mound communities by other Indians brandishing guns. There is evidence that they mixed with Creek and Yamassee, Indians from Georgia that were recruited by the British into slave rading, first in missions. These Indians gradually left the British and took their own captives all over Florida. Eventually, all three groups assimilated into what became the Seminole nation. Other Calusa ended up in Cuba. Current evidence suggests that Mound Key was continuously inhabited by Calusa until sometime around 1700 and even after 1700 there were probably other Indians living there.
Following the Indian era, Mound Key was adopted by fishermen and pioneering families, people who also made their livelihood off of Estero Bay’s bounty. To Florida’s early pioneers, Indian mound sites, where the land was already cleared, water courts established and paths laid, were great locations for home sites. In November of 1891, the island was homesteaded by Frank and Molly Johnson. Certificate #9353, signed by President Benjamin Harrison, notes the transaction. Molly was a mid-wife and healer and people ventured out to her home for treatment.
Back then, life was still very Calusa-oriented, and lots of fisher folk and early settlers traveled everywhere by boat. Just like when the Calusa were here, the waterways were their highways.
Within 25 years, 17 families were living on Mound Key and the small community had a school. Many of the settlers were members of Koreshan Unity, a communal society led by Dr. Cyrus Teed.
The Koreshans grew crops out there,” says Bill Grace, a native of Fort Myers and president of Koreshan Unity Alliance, a citizen’s support organization for Koreshan State Historic Site. They sort of used the island as a jumping off point, because they couldn’t get their bigger boats up the Estero River to their settlement so they’d take a smaller boat from Mound Key.
Grace’s great grandparents were Koreshans that lived in The Mound House, the oldest surviving structure on Fort Myers Beach, a home built in 1906 on top of a Calusa mound. Today, The Mound House is a cultural and environmental learning center owned by the city of Fort Myers Beach.
Koreshan Unity Alliance has financed archaeological surveys of Mound Key and participates in historic restoration of Koreshan State Historic Site. Visits to the area can be invigorating. Before the first European ever stepped on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, we had European priests living on Mound Key – in the 1500s. More than a few have said that Mound Key is Florida’s Plymouth Rock.
A series of hurricanes in the 1920s finally drove settlers back to the mainland. The Johnsons, who had sold their stake to the Koreshans for $1,000, moved across the bay to Coconut Point. Descendants of many of the Mound Key pioneer families still live in the area and share stories. In 1961, when their numbers were dwindling, the Koreshans donated all of their settlement ground and their land on Mound Key to the state of Florida.
Jerry Hessler has been a sales associate at Estero River Outfitters since the business opened 29 years ago. She’s been on the river almost every day since moving here more than 45 years ago, and knows Mound Key.
“I raised my five children and two grandchildren on the river, and so we are all familiar with Mound Key,” she says. “There are two ways to get in there and there are trails. During the months of the year when it’s not buggy, it’s so nice to hike to the top with a picnic. Looking all over Estero Bay, now that’s a wonderful sight.”
For a trip out to Mound Key:
The key can be accessed only by boat. There are no facilities. Markers and signs are found along a trail that spans the width of the island. Mound Key is managed by Koreshan State Historic Site.
Koreshan State Historic Site
Canoes can be rented at the park. Mound Key is approximately 3.5 miles from the state park’s boat ramp.
Estero River Outfitters
Rent kayaks and canoes and have tours of Mound Key